Lord Durham, a British politician, was sent to North America in 1838 to investigate the causes of the twin rebellions the previous year in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. Durham's famous Report led to a series of reforms and changes including the union of the two Canada's into a single colony. It also paved the way for responsible government — a critical step in the evolution of Canadian democracy.

A Reformer's Progressive Ideas

John George Lambton, the earl of Durham, was a British political reformer. He was appointed governor general of British North America by the imperial Prime Minister Lord Melbourne, to investigate colonial grievances after the Rebellions of 1837 in Upper and Lower Canada. Durham arrived in Canada in May 1838, but resigned his appointment four months later, following a dispute with the government in London. Durham returned to Britain and in 1839 completed his Report on the Affairs of British North America.

The Report was controversial, and its recommendations progressive for their time. Durham proposed the creation of municipal governments and also a supreme court in the BNA colonies, as well as a resolution of the land question in Prince Edward Island. His long-held plan for the union of all the British North American colonies was dropped because Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were uninterested. (It would take three more decades before Durham's vision of a grand BNA union would be finally achieved through Confederation.)

However, the main recommendation in Durham's Report, the union of Upper and Lower Canada into a single colony, was accepted. Both it, and his call for the granting of responsible government in the BNA colonies, emerged from his analysis of the causes of the two rebellions.

Two Warring Nations

In Lower Canada, with its francophone majority population, Durham described the problems as racially rather than politically based. He found "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state." He was a cultural chauvinist and recommended assimilating the French Canadians — whom he called "a people with no literature and no history" — through a legislative union of the Canadas, in which an English-speaking majority would in his view dominate. Thus the French Canadians could not pursue ethnic aims, and the largely anglophone merchants could pursue a strong St. Lawrence economy to ensure future prosperity.

Durham believed the triumph of capitalism would bring harmony and tranquility, if there were also political reforms. In Upper Canada he saw a defective constitutional system, where power was monopolized by "a petty, corrupt, insolent Tory clique." This Family Compact blocked economic and social development in a potentially wealthy colony, thereby causing the discontent which led to the rebellion. Durham's solution was a system in which colonial governments, at least in domestic matters, were made responsible to the electorate rather than to the governor and the Crown. This would be possible if the executive (or in modern terms, the Cabinet) was drawn from and held the support of the majority in the elected assembly. Such a reform would reduce the power of the Family Compact, stimulate colonial development, strengthen the imperial connection with Britain, and minimize American influences in the colony.

Responsible Government

Durham's Report was condemned by Upper Canada's Tory elite, but Reformers there and in Nova Scotia hailed the idea of responsible government. In Lower Canada, Montréal's anglophone Tories supported the union largely because they saw it as a way to overcome French Canadian opposition to their plans for economic development. French Canadians were opposed to the union and reaffirmed their determination to defend their nationality. In the end, the British government accepted the recommendation for a union of the Canadas (see Act of Union), and the unified Province of Canada came into being in 1841.

Responsible government, however, was too much for the imperial government, whose leaders believed tight administrative control in the colonies was necessary to maintain allegiance to Britain. It wasn't until 1847, with the election of a new government in London seeking to cut colonial expenditures, that Britain granted local self-government to the colonies. In 1848, the Reformers in Nova Scotia, including Joseph Howe, established the first responsible government in the British Empire. Later in the same year, the Reformers, led by Robert Baldwin and Louis H. LaFontaine, formed a responsible ministry in the Canadas. It was later granted in New Brunswick, PEI and Newfoundland and Labrador.

The Durham Report was controversial for recommending the assimilation of the French Canadians through a union of Upper and Lower Canada; Durham became a loathed figure among French Canadians. However, his Report is generally regarded to have played an important role in the development of Canadian democracy and political autonomy from Britain, through its support for responsible government.