Canada East, previously known as Lower Canada, formed one-half of the British colony of the Province of Canada. The region was governed jointly along with Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) from 1841 to 1867, when Canada East became the province of Québec under Confederation.

Province of Canada

In 1841, as a response to the violent rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada, the British government united the two colonies into the Province of Canada. The new colony was created by the Act of Union, following recommendations in the Durham Report. One half, Canada East, reached from Montréal and the Eastern Townships in the south, along both sides of the St. Lawrence River to the Gaspé peninsula in the northeast. To the northwest lay the wilderness of Rupert's Land, chartered to the Hudson's Bay Company.

Canada East's population in 1840 is estimated to be 670,000. About 510,000 were French Canadians, whose families had lived in the region for more than 200 years. The rest were Aboriginal people whose ancestors had lived there since the beginning of memory, as well as Loyalist settlers from the American Revolution of the late 1700s — the core of an English-speaking community whose numbers expanded rapidly through waves of English and Scottish immigration. The result was a minority Anglophone merchant class that largely controlled the economy through the timber, canal and railway companies, banks, trading houses and other businesses of Montréal.

British imperial policy makers had hoped that uniting Upper and Lower Canada into a single political unit would submerge or even assimilate the French Canadian population into an overall English-speaking majority of the Province of Canada. And because both Canada East and West were given equal numbers of seats in the colonial legislature — even though the East's population was at first significantly larger — the East was therefore underrepresented on the political stage. Real political power, however, resided in a British governor, who ruled the two provinces through an appointed executive council.

Society and Economy

French-speaking society in Canada East was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church and clergy, who largely controlled matters of education. The majority of French habitants were farmers, woodcutters and labourers. The French civil legal code was maintained, along with the seigneurial land system of tenant farming, although that was abolished, in law if not in practice, by 1854.

In the 1840s, a worldwide economic depression brought hard times to Canada East, which was also coping with the decline of the fur trade, its economic foundation for centuries. By the 1850s, however, the economy was growing again, spurred on by the arrival of the industrial revolution, the expansion of canals on the St. Lawrence, and the construction of railways between Québec, Montréal, Toronto and the United States. The 1854 Reciprocity Treaty (or free trade) with the U.S. also opened access to American markets for Canadian timber, grain, fish and textiles.

Montréal Riots

In 1848, a political reform movement led by Robert Baldwin in Canada West and his ally Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in Canada East replaced the conservative forces that had long controlled the elected Canadian assembly. Along with reformers in Nova Scotia, they convinced imperial leaders in Britain to grant responsible government to the more politically-advanced British North American colonies. As a result, LaFontaine and Baldwin led the Province of Canada's first executive council, or Cabinet, that was responsible not to the colonial governor for its power, but to the elected legislature.

One of the new government's first measures was the 1849 Rebellion Losses Bill, meant to compensate those in Canada East who had lost property or suffered damages in the Rebellion of 1837. French Canadians viewed the Bill as social justice; English-speaking conservatives saw it the unconscionable rewarding of rebels. Despite the anger, the British governor, Lord Elgin, signed the Bill into law – it had been approved, after all, by the legislature then sitting in Montréal, under the new system of responsible government.

Protests over the matter culminated in the Montréal Riots in the winter of 1849. Elgin himself was attacked and the parliament building was burned down, prompting the government to relocate the seat of government to Toronto. Never again would Montréal be a political capital.

Political Deadlock

The riots helped fuel sentiments among English Canadians that Canada East was now over-represented in the legislature, prompting calls for true representation by population. In the 1840s, Canada West benefitted from having a disproportionately large number of seats, thanks to a smaller population. By the 1850s its population was the bigger of the two, and reformers such as George Brown, Reform Party Leader and editor of Toronto's Globe newspaper, vigorously supported the campaign for representation by population – in other words, more seats for the West.

This and other divisive issues — such as government funding for Catholic schools throughout the colony — created suspicions among English-Protestants of unchecked French Catholic power. Many French Canadians, on the other hand, viewed such matters as a struggle for cultural survival. By 1859 the rift between English and French, and between conservatives and reformers in both regions, was contributing to unstable government and years of political deadlock, which made solving the colony's needs and problems nearly impossible. Structural change was required to break the political paralysis.

Creation of Québec

In 1864, an unlikely Great Coalition between reformers led by George Brown, and conservatives led in Canada West by John A. Macdonald and in Canada East by George-Etienne Cartier, sought to solve Canada's problems through the creation of a new federation of all British North America colonies. Negotiations began at the Charlottetown Conference with the Maritime colonies, and by 1867 Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had agreed to enter Confederation with the two Canadas, whose 1841 union would be dissolved.

Canada West became the province of Ontario and Canada East became the province of Québec, with its own legislature and its provincial capital at Québec City.