Canada West, previously known as Upper Canada, formed one-half of the British colony of the Province of Canada. The region was governed jointly along with Canada East (formerly Lower Canada) from 1841 to 1867, when Canada West became the province of Ontario 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 West, reached from the Ottawa River to Lake Superior in the west and to Lake Erie in the south. To the north lay the wilderness of Rupert's Land, chartered to the Hudson's Bay Company.
Canada West had a population of about 480,000, including Aboriginal people, Loyalist migrants from the United States and British settlers. Although its population was smaller than the largely French-speaking population of Canada East, the two regions each had an equal number of seats in the colonial legislature that was located first in Kingston, then Montréal, and later Toronto and Québec City. Canada West, therefore, had greater political representation in the legislature, as measured by population. However, real political power resided in the British governor who ruled the two provinces through an appointed executive council.
Canada West grew rapidly thanks to steady immigration from England, Scotland, Ireland and the United States. Many newcomers cleared the forests, cut lumber and worked the rich farmland of the area until settlement was pushing up against the boundaries of the rocky Precambrian Shield. As the best farmland was claimed, ongoing population expansion and continuous demands for land forced people to look further west — to the young Red River colony, the Prairies and beyond — for migration and settlement.
Meanwhile, industrial development came quickly. Railways were built between Montréal, Toronto and Sarnia, and south into the United States. Shipping canals were expanded (see Canals and Inland Waterways). And despite economic hard times and the worldwide depression of the late 1840s, Canada West developed and generally prospered due to rising population, increasing transportation links and, as of 1854, Reciprocity (or free trade) with the US, which opened up huge, nearby markets for Canadian grain, lumber, fruit, textiles and machinery.
By 1852 Canada West had become larger than Canada East, with about 950,000 people versus 890,000 in the East.
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, the co-premiers 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.
After achieving responsible government, however, politicians in Canada West began agitating for true representation by population. In the 1840s, Canada West benefitted from having a disproportionately large number of seats in the legislature, thanks to a smaller population than Canada East. 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 in Canada West of unchecked French Catholic power. By 1859 the rift between English and French, as well as a growing divide between conservatives and reformers within Canada West, created years of unstable government and political deadlock, which made solving the colony's needs and problems nearly impossible. Structural change was required to break the political paralysis.
Creation of Ontario
In 1864, an unlikely Great Coalition between reformers led by George Brown, and conservatives led in the West by John A. Macdonald and in the 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 East became the province of Québec, and Canada West became the province of Ontario, with its own legislature and its provincial capital in Toronto. Macdonald, one-time premier of the Province of Canada, became the new Dominion of Canada's first prime minister.