Province of Canada 1841-67

The united Province of Canada — a response to the problems and violence that plagued Lower and Upper Canada in the 1830s — was a 26-year experiment in anglophone-francophone political co-operation. During this time responsible government came to British North America, trade and commerce expanded bringing wealth to the region, and Confederation was ultimately born.

Montréal Riots
Rioters infuriated by the passing of a law to compensate the victims of the 1837 Rebellions. Painting by Joseph Légaré (courtesy McCord Museum).
Lord Durham, politcian
Two nations warring in the bosom of a single state was Lord Durham's assessment of the relationship between Lower Canada's two linguistic communities (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-121846).
From the Custom House, Montréal
William Notman, circa 1875-78, albumen print showing Montréal at the end of the age of sail, when it was the hub of the Province of Canada's economy (courtesy NGC).
Macdonald, John Sandfield
Sandfield Macdonald opposed both the concept of federalism and the notion of union with the Maritimes (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-10896).
Baldwin, Robert
Baldwin was the first popularizer of responsible government and one of the first proponents of a bicultural nation (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library).
Nomination Meeting, 1858
Nominating of final candidates at meeting in Longueuil, Québec, 18 October 1858 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-149346).
Sherbrooke Mills
Sherbrooke was one of the milltowns in which early industry developed. Eventually these water-powered mills would be replaced by steam (courtesy John Ross Robertson Coll, Metropolitan Toronto Public Library).
George-Étienne Cartier, politician
Sir George-Étienne Cartier was the key person in persuading French Canadians to accept Confederation (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-8007).

The united Province of Canada — a response to the problems and violence that plagued Lower and Upper Canada in the 1830s — was a 26-year experiment in anglophone-francophone political co-operation. During this time responsible government came to British North America, trade and commerce expanded bringing wealth to the region, and Confederation was ultimately born.

Durham Report

The union of the former provinces of Upper Canada and Lower Canada stemmed from the Durham Report of 1839, after an imperial mission to investigate rebellions in both colonies in 1837. Lord Durham proposed a united province to develop a common commercial system. A combined Canada would also have an overall English-speaking majority, to control the divisive forces Durham saw in French Lower Canada, making it safe to grant the responsible government he also advocated. Britain agreed to union, though not to responsible government.

Act of Union

In 1840 the British Parliament passed the Act of Union, which went into effect on 10 February 1841, establishing a single government and Legislature in a united Province of Canada. (The capital was initially located in Kingston and moved between Montréal, Toronto and Québec City before being permanently established in Ottawa in 1866.) But whereas Durham advocated basing representation on population — counting on British immigration to increase an existing Anglo-Canadian majority — the Act of Union provided equal representation for each of the Canadas in the new Legislature. This occurred even though English-speaking Upper Canada then had a considerably smaller population: some 480,000 compared to 670,000 in Lower Canada, of whom about 510,000 were French Canadians. The French element would be under-represented, and safely submerged from the start.

Yet the device of equal representation had an unforeseen result. The old Canadas, each with its separate history, society and culture, virtually remained equal, distinct sections inside one political framework. They were now Canada West and Canada East geographically, but even the names Upper and Lower Canada survived in popular and some official use. The Union Act had embedded dualism in the very constitution, resulting in dual parties, double ministries and sectional politics.

Push for Responsible Government

As the Union began, French Canadians realized its purpose was to submerge them. But a rising liberal leader, Louis LaFontaine, saw the advantage of an alliance with Canada West Reformers to seek responsible government. LaFontaine believed that with responsible government, French Canadians would share in ruling the United Province, and in maintaining themselves as a people while co-operating with Anglo-Canadian allies. Hence LaFontaine readily responded to overtures from leading Canada West Reformers Francis Hincks and Robert Baldwin.

Hincks, a Toronto journalist and shrewd strategist, was already backing Baldwin's campaign for responsible rule, centered on the British principle of responsible government. Its adoption in Canada would mean that governments would depend on elected parliamentary majorities. Baldwin and LaFontaine built up a powerful Reform alliance behind this principle.

In September 1842 they won admission to the government, essentially compelling Governor General Sir Charles Bagot to reconstruct his ministry because of the weight of parliamentary support behind them. (At that time, governors controlled the executive branch of the colonial government and formed cabinets.)

A shift in imperial policy finally brought full acceptance of responsible government — in the colonies of both Canada and Nova Scotia. In 1846, Britain's repeal of the corn laws signalled a movement towards free trade, ending a centuries-old pattern of imperial trade controls and protective duties. Britain likewise no longer saw much need to withhold internal self-government from its more politically advanced colonies. Lord Elgin came to Canada as governor general in 1847, instructed to implement responsible rule.

Early in 1848, after Reformers swept elections in both Canadas, Henry Sherwood's Tory-Conservative ministry resigned, and Elgin at once called on Reformers to form a government. Responsible rule was plainly confirmed when in March an all-Reform Cabinet took office under LaFontaine as premier (he had the larger following) with Baldwin as co-premier.

1840s: Tough Times

There was still a severe testing to come. Trade was at a low ebb, and the newly completed St Lawrence River canals were half used. Tory English merchants in Montréal blamed the problem on the loss of imperial tariff protection, although the spread of worldwide economic depression since 1847 was a deeper cause. In the thriving early 1840s, expanding farm and lumber frontiers, canal building, and rising towns had readily absorbed a surge in British immigration; but now, when times were hard and frontier expansion was halting against the margins of the rugged Precambrian Shield, a new tide of Irish immigrants poured into Canada — destitute and typhus-infected, fleeing famine in their homeland.

Amid these strains, the Reform ministry brought in the 1849 Rebellion Losses Bill. Meant to compensate damages suffered in the Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837 (Upper Canadians had already settled their claims), the bill seemed vital social justice to French Canadians — proof also that responsible government could work for them. Canada East's English-speaking Tories, however, saw it as a blatant rewarding of rebels. The Reform-dominated legislature, meeting in Montréal, passed the bill over heated protests; but Tory-Conservatives still looked to a British governor to refuse his assent. Elgin did not: the measure had been recommended by a responsible ministry with support of the parliamentary majority.

All the strains in Montréal burst forth in the Montreal Riots. Elgin and his ministers rode out the storm, which subsided after a few wild days in April. Then in October the Annexation Manifesto appeared in the city, urging union with the United States. It proved only a bitter, passing gesture. Most French Canadians saw colonial self-rule to be working; eastern Tories drew back. Meanwhile in Canada West, apart from a few radicals, Reformers and Conservatives held firm to British connections. Responsible government survived its first test.

Railway and Trade Booms

By 1850, depression had given way to an era of rapidly expanding world trade. Grain and timber production rose. The St Lawrence canals were bustling; Montréal merchants soon forgot ideas of annexationism. And with increasing British and American capital available, Canadian entrepreneurs took eagerly to railway building. Tracks linked Montréal to ice-free Portland, Maine, on the Atlantic, and Toronto to the Upper Great Lakes at Collingwood. A line from Niagara Falls to Windsor, via Hamilton, tied in with rails to New York at one end and Chicago at the other, and soon extended to Toronto as well.

Above all, the Grand Trunk, incorporated in 1852, built a trans-provincial route connecting the lower St Lawrence by way of Québec, Montréal and Toronto to Sarnia, Ontario. This first great railway boom subsided after 1857 in another world depression. The Grand Trunk in particular, over-promoted and extravagantly built, was left deep in debt, blighted with political deals and scandals. Nevertheless, rail lines had remade Canada, breaking inland winter isolation, vastly improving long-range transport, and focusing development on major towns. Railway-connected factory industries grew, notably in Montréal, Toronto and Hamilton, which rapidly advanced in urban size, wealth and complexity.

The 1854 Reciprocity Treaty with the US stimulated growth by giving Canadian grain and lumber free access to American markets. It also tied Canada far more closely to the American economy; the US Congress decision in 1865 not to renew reciprocity would thus spur Canadian efforts to seek economic integration with other British North American provinces. Yet the 1850s also brought a Canadian protective tariff, promoted by the very rise in provincial industry. In 1858 and 1859 duties were raised enough to shelter manufacturers effectively, though this was "incidental" protection — incidental to needs for revenue made pressing by the heavy public debt incurred from lavish railway grants. Duties were lowered again in 1866. Still, the tariff of 1858–59 was a foretaste of the later high-tariff National Policy, and signified the increasingly close ties between government and business in an era of advancing capitalism.

Growing East- West Rift

Meanwhile, since the early 1850s, other factors had been steadily disrupting the union's political life. Around 1850, left-wing Reform elements had emerged — the Parti Rouge in Canada East and the Clear Grits in Canada West — advocating fully elective democracy and an American-style written constitution. In 1851 Baldwin and LaFontaine gave up combatting radicalism in their own ranks and left politics. Their chief lieutenants, Francis Hincks and Augustin Morin, took over the ministry, which at first looked more secure as radical ardour waned in an atmosphere of widespread enthusiasm for railway promotion.

But soon freshly divisive issues loomed, chiefly concerning public education and church-and-state relations. Predominantly Protestant Canada West widely believed in non-denominational public schools and rejected state-connected and state-supported religion. Largely Catholic Canada East, where mainstream French Liberals had made increasing links with the Catholic hierarchy, widely upheld denominational schools and church-state ties. More specifically, French Canadian votes backed bills in Parliament to enlarge the rights of state-aided Catholic schools in Canada West.

Many Upper Canadians came to feel that their own interests were being thwarted by unchecked French Catholic power. The census of 1851–52 also revealed that Canada West now had the greater population, and so was underrepresented, while paying the larger share of taxes.

The strenuous editor of the powerful Toronto Globe, George Brown, entered the Legislative Assembly as a Reform independent to battle for "justice" for Canada West. In 1853 he proposed representation by population to give the western section its full weight in seats. His initial attempt got nowhere, but it began a sectional struggle over Representation by Population ; sought by those in Canada West to overcome "French domination," fought by French Canadians to prevent their being submerged in the Union anew.

Macdonald and Cartier Emerge

On 22 June 1854 the Hincks-Morin ministry fell. The old Reform alliance had crumbled under sectional strains. In its stead, a new ruling Liberal-Conservative coalition appeared, which combined the moderate Liberals of Hincks and Morin with Tory-Conservative forces, among whom a Canada West politician from Kingston, John A. Macdonald was rapidly gaining stature. This broad coalition managed to abolish both the old Clergy Reserves and the Seigneurial System. Clear Grits and Rouges, left in the cold, called the Conservative-oriented combination "unprincipled."

Actually, the coalition rested on essential agreement between the major parties: on railway and business development, maintenance of the Union, and defence of the French Canadian place within it. Furthermore, the coalition shortly came under the command of another outstanding Canadian partnership: that of John A. Macdonald, easygoing but brilliantly resourceful, and George-Etienne Cartier, a formidable party manager and Montréal Grand Trunk lawyer. Under them, the Conservative Party of the future gradually took shape.

On the other side, Brown and the Clear Grits, earlier adversaries, moved together. On 8 January 1857 a party convention at Toronto hailed a rebirth of Upper Canadian Reform, as Brownites, Grits and some returning moderate Liberals adopted a platform calling for rep by pop, non-sectarian education and acquisition of Rupert's Land, which had lately attracted attention both from Toronto's businessmen, keen to expand their city's trade domain westward, and from agrarians eager for new land frontiers. The resulting Brownite-Grit party powerfully consolidated Canada West sectionalism, while its stress on farmers' rights and its hostility to big railway interests and expensive government also had a long political future.

Wider BNA Union Urged

There followed an incessant struggle between Macdonald-Cartier conservatism and Brownite liberalism, loosely allied with the limited Rouge eastern group under A.A. Dorion, and in August 1858 a Brown-Dorion government lasted just two days (see Double Shuffle). The returning Conservatives now took up BNA federal union to answer Canada's troubles, urged on by Alexander Galt, a leading Montréal financier, who joined the ministry. Yet the other provinces proved uninterested, and general federation was soon laid aside. In Nov 1859 at another Reform convention, Brown moved his Grits behind a dual federation of the Canadas (already suggested by Dorion), which quickly failed in the Legislature. While both sides had now adopted the federal principle as a way out of sectional disruption, neither was actually ready for it, and rows over rep by pop returned.

In May 1862, the Macdonald-Cartier forces were defeated on a costly Militia Bill, a response to border tensions roused by the American Civil War. A moderate Reformer, Sandfield Macdonald, tried to keep the union running by double majority, requiring majorities for government measures from both halves of the province. Sandfield's principle failed, though he hung on until early 1864, when John A. Macdonald returned, to be defeated in three months. Elections and government shifts had achieved nothing in the equal balance of sectional forces. By June 1864, with the United Province plainly deadlocked, Brown made a crucial offer to back a government willing to remake the Union.

Quebec and Ontario Created

Negotiations between Sir John A. Macdonald, Cartier, Galt and Brown led quickly to an agreement to seek general federation and include the North-West, or a federation of the Canadas if that failed. The first aim did not fail. Brown and two Liberal colleagues joined the ministry, and the Great Coalition took up the federation cause with the other BNA colonies. The outcome was the scheme for Confederation and the British North America Act of 1867.

Throughout the shaping of the Confederation plan, Canadian representatives had played commanding roles, especially John A. Macdonald. When it went into force on 1 July 1867, the day of the old Canadian union was over, scarcely mourned amid bright aspirations for the future. Before the union ended, its Legislature endorsed the federal scheme with both English and French majorities in 1865, and in 1866 drafted constitutions for the successor provinces of Québec and Ontario. The United Province had gone through much and achieved much. But its final achievement lay in Confederation itself.

Further Reading

  • J.M.S. Careless, The Union of the Canadas (1967) and Brown of the Globe (1959); D.G. Creighton, John A. Macdonald: the Young Politician (1952); W.L. Morton, The Critical Years (1964).

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