Upper and Lower Canada Unite

After the Canadian rebellions of 1837, the British government recognized that reforms were needed in its North American colonies and unified Upper and Lower Canada as the first step toward responsible government.

Summary of Event

After the Canadian rebellions of 1837, it became clear to the British government that some form of self-government should be granted to its North American colonies. The British colonial secretary, Lord John Russell, was determined to act upon the recommendations of the 1839 report of Lord Durham, who had been commissioned to assess conditions in Canada. Russell and Durham shared a common reformist vision for the colonies. They certainly wanted Canada to remain under British control; however, as liberals, they also wanted Canada to emulate Great Britain and possess some form of responsible government, a term peculiarly associated with the British parliamentary system. In responsible government, ministers are entirely responsible to a parliamentary majority that has been elected by the people. Responsible government requires government ministers always to be accountable to the much broader parliament. Any time that a government loses its parliament’s confidence, the parliament is dissolved and a new government must be formed. Canada;unification of
Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada]
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
Canada;and Great Britain[Great Britain]
Canada;responsible government
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
Responsible government, Canadian
[kw]Upper and Lower Canada Unite (Feb. 10, 1841)
[kw]Lower Canada Unite, Upper and (Feb. 10, 1841)
[kw]Canada Unite, Upper and Lower (Feb. 10, 1841)
[kw]Unite, Upper and Lower Canada (Feb. 10, 1841)
Canada;unification of
Russell, John
[p]Russell, John;and Canada[Canada]
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
Canada;and Great Britain[Great Britain]
Canada;responsible government
British Empire;and Canada[Canada]
Responsible government, Canadian
[g]Canada;Feb. 10, 1841: Upper and Lower Canada Unite[2200]
[c]Government and politics;Feb. 10, 1841: Upper and Lower Canada Unite[2200]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Feb. 10, 1841: Upper and Lower Canada Unite[2200]
Baldwin, Robert
[p]Baldwin, Robert;and Canada[Canada]
Hincks, Francis
Durham, first earl of
Lafontaine, Louis Hippolyte
Sydenham, First Baron

Russell and Durham believed that responsible government would eliminate most of the corruption and self-interest that was rampant in Canadian politics. More important, they hoped it would quell the stirrings of national self-assertiveness that had been manifested in the rebellions of 1837. What they did not want was full independence for Canada. They wanted a responsible government in Canada to exercise control only over certain fiscal and administrative matters and leave other matters to Great Britain.

To carry out their plan, Russell turned to a wealthy Manchester industrialist, Charles Poulett Thompson, a self-made man who embodied many of the liberal virtues of individualism and self-reliance. Before embarking to Montreal Montreal in 1839, where he was to assume the position of governor of a united province of Canada, Thompson was granted the title of Baron Sydenham—the name by which he is best known in Canadian history. Sydenham was a talented businessman who, by temperament, was more of an administrator than a politician. His talents were formidable, but they faced a strenuous challenge in a restive Canada.

Sydenham’s principal achievement was to preside over Canada’s becoming a united province. Before unification was achieved on February 10, 1841, Canada was divided into two provinces: Upper and Lower Canada—names alluding to their positions on the St. Lawrence River St. Lawrence River[Saint Lawrence River];and Upper and Lower Canada[Upper and Lower Canada] . The region now known as Quebec Quebec;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] was called Lower Canada because it was close to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River. The part that later became known as Ontario Ontario;and unification of Canada[Unification of Canada] was Upper Canada because it was farther upstream. Sydenham’s mandate was to reconfigure these two huge regions into two divisions of a single province. They were renamed Canada East and Canada West and made subordinate to a provincial government in Montreal. Canada West and Canada East had equal numbers of seats in the legislature, largely so that the more populous, French-speaking Canada East did not dominate the political process.

It was hoped that these steps would foster Canadian national unity. Behind this hope was the assumption that the division between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians could be overcome. Durham’s Durham, first earl of report had recommended the maintenance of the traditional British policy of allowing French Canadians to speak their own language and practice their religion as they wished. However, there was also a tacit supposition that, as Canadian national unity accelerated, the French element would slowly become subordinate to the English. Sydenham had closer contacts with English-speaking Montreal merchants who dominated the business life of Quebec Quebec;English-speaking settlers[English speaking settlers] than with the French inhabitants who constituted the vast majority of Quebec’s inhabitants. He thus had little opportunity to hear the grievances and hopes of the latter.

The Province of Canada in 1841

Like most colonial governors entering countries they had never even visited, Sydenham experience a rocky initiation into his office. In dealing with the Canadian legislature, he had to contend with a number of determined personalities representing entrenched and vested interests in the Canadas. Like Sydenham, most of these people were self-made merchants, but they lacked the governor’s theoretical commitment to liberalism and free markets. They were mainly concerned with protecting their own stakes in the Canadian economy. On one hand, these Canadian political leaders helped to make up the body politic that Sydenham was supposed to galvanize into fully responsible government. On the other hand, they often frustrated Sydenham’s goals, which were to help unify the country. Regional interests often undermined Sydenham’s policies.

The most prominent French-speaking politician of the era was Louis Lafontaine. Lafontaine, Louis Hippolyte Along with his colleagues Robert Baldwin Baldwin, Robert
[p]Baldwin, Robert;and Canada[Canada] and Francis Hincks Hincks, Francis , who were both from Ontario, Lafontaine consistently labored to ensure that their constituencies and their economic interests would not be subjected to Sydenham’s jurisdiction and sway.

Sydenham found himself in an anomalous position. As governor, he was theoretically responsible both to the Colonial Office in London and to the Canadian legislature in Montreal Montreal . Thus he constantly was pulled between two often opposed interests. Moreover, neither the basis of his authority nor any privileges or limits attached to it were ever fully or satisfactorily defined. Sydenham’s government could not be fully responsible because it was never clear precisely to what body it was supposed to exercise its responsibility. The insufficiencies of this model were apparent even to Russell and Sydenham, but they held onto it because it appeared to be the only way they could bridge all their competing goals. They wanted simultaneously to prepare Canada for self-government and to prevent it from doing anything contrary to the interests of Great Britain.

Another problem with the operation of Sydenham’s government was his own ambiguous status. As governor, he was theoretically the representative of the Crown. However, in the British constitutional system, kings and queens reign but do not rule, as Parliament exercises actual authority. Thus, as the representative of the Crown, Sydenham in theory merely should have presided over the political process, while leaving the actual governing to ministers.

In practice—and in a manner certainly endorsed by Russell—Sydenham essentially acted as his own prime minister. He believed he had to act in that way or the competing Canadian political interests would not have permitted his program of reform to succeed. Sydenham usually managed to assemble a group within the legislature to support a particular bill he had sponsored, but each group of supporters was different. Lacking a permanent power base, he had to take whatever votes he could and hope that somehow he would continue to find a way to scrape together a coalition. Even were he able to do this as a matter of course, it would not have provided a stable or consistent form of government. Moreover, Sydenham’s greatest political asset—his impartiality and his representation of the state itself and not just a particular political interest—was compromised by the petty lobbying he had to do among members of the legislature to advance his reform program.


The untenability of Sydenham’s reform program was clear in the fall of 1841. Sydenham did not live to realize his failure fully. He died during the autumn of that year in a riding accident, ending his life at the relatively young age of forty-two. His successor, Sir Charles Bagot, attempted to carry on in his stead, but the problems that had overtaken his predecessor remained. Russell’s vision of a government that was responsible but not totally so was unstable and self-contradictory. It also stood against the rising currents of Canadian nationalism that were to swell in the next two decades. Sydenham’s government did, however, provide the first vision of a united self-ruling Canada, and for that he is an important figure in Canadian political history.

Further Reading

  • Ajzenstat, Janet. The Political Thought of Lord Durham. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1988. Explores the theoretical program for colonial government laid out by Lord Durham upon which Sydenham attempted to act.
  • Baskerville, Peter A. Ontario: Image, Identity, and Power. Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 2002. Illustrated survey of Ontario history that includes useful information about the era during which Upper and Lower Canada were united.
  • Careless, J. M. S. The Union of the Canadas. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967. History of the unification era by a famed Canadian historian. Provides a general overview of the major currents of political life.
  • Craig, Gerald. Upper Canada: The Formative Years. New York: Oxford University Press, 1963. Centers on the English-speaking population and its rising national consciousness.
  • Durham, John George Lambton. The Durham Report. Edited by Sir Reginald Coupland. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1945. The first abridgment, aimed at acquainting post-World War II generations about to embark on a new phase of Commonwealth with Durham’s ideas. Excellent brief introduction elucidating the report’s main features.
  • Greer, Alan, and Ian Radforth. Colonial Leviathan. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992. A systematic study of the rise of Canadian nationhood, taking a largely sociohistorical approach.
  • McNairn, Jeffrey L. The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada, 1791-1854. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Study of the debate over responsible government that was central to the unification of Upper and Lower Canada.
  • Scherer, Paul. Lord John Russell: A Biography. Selinsgrove, Pa.: Susquehanna University Press, 1999. Scholarly biography of the British colonial secretary who sent Sydenham to Canada.
  • Sewell, John. Mackenzie: A Political Biography of William Lyon Mackenzie. Toronto: J. Lorimer, 2002. Biography of a major Ontario politician who played an important role in the achievement of responsible government in Canada.

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