Responsible Government

Responsible government refers to a government that is responsible to the people. In Canada, responsible government is an executive or Cabinet that depends on the support of an elected assembly, rather than a monarch or their representatives. A responsible government first appeared in Canada in the 1830s. It became an important part of Confederation. It is the method by which Canada achieved independence from Britain without revolution.

Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine
Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine by Walter Seymour Allward, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 25 April 2010.

Representative Government

The origins of democracy in Canada can be traced to the development of representative government. In this form of government, laws are made and taxes are levied by a body that answers to its citizens.

The first elected assembly in what is now Canada was held in Halifax in 1758. (See also: Nova Scotia: The Cradle of Parliamentary Democracy.) Prince Edward Island had an elected assembly in 1773, New Brunswick in 1784 and Newfoundland in 1832. Upper and Lower Canada received assemblies in 1791.

Confidence of Parliament

A responsible government is held accountable by the people, and not by a monarch or their representatives. In Canada, it means a government that answers to the representatives of the people. An executive or Cabinet depends on the votes of a majority in the legislature or Parliament.

Before the arrival of responsible government in North America, colonial governors followed the advice and policies of colonial ministers in Britain. The key principle of a responsible government is that it needs the confidence of Parliament to create laws and taxation. This originated in British practice. Its adoption in British North America (BNA) gave the colonists control of their own affairs. (See also: Constitution Act, 1867.)

Joseph Howe
The Nova Scotian patriot par excellence, Howe could use his oratorical powers to influence his compatriots as no other man has ever done.

Democratic Reform

The idea of responsible government in British North America was taken up in the 1830s. It was championed by admirers of the British model. Their goal was to keep the colonies securely within the British empire. They also wanted to reduce the power and influence of the small groups of local elites that controlled the colonial governments. (See also: Family Compact; Château Clique.) Their abuse of power was causing unrest among many of the colonists.

Radical reformers preferred American-style political systems. This included William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada and Louis-Joseph Papineau in Lower Canada. More moderate reformers, such as Joseph Howe in Nova ScotiaRobert Baldwin in Upper Canada and Lord Durham, argued for the British model. They, and later Lord Elgin, believed that an organized party system was vital to good governance. This required leaders to hold elected seats in the legislature and answer directly to it.

Howe in Nova Scotia, along with Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine in the Province of Canada, built strong, moderate reform parties to gain responsible government. It was achieved first in Nova Scotia in January 1848, and later that year in the Province of Canada. It was then granted to PEI (in 1851), New Brunswick (in 1854) and Newfoundland (in 1855). The western provinces developed responsible governments as they were created and joined Canada after Confederation.

This control of government was increased by degrees. Canadians gradually gained control of their own political concerns. They achieved self-direction without revolution.


Originally, only a small group of privileged men and property owners could vote for the elected assemblies. The franchise, or right to vote, was expanded slowly. In 1918, women received the right to vote in federal elections. (See also: Women’s Suffrage in Canada.) It wasn't until 1940 that all Canadian women had the right to vote provincially. In 1960, Indigenous peoples in Canada won the right to vote in federal elections without giving up their treaty rights. (See also: Indigenous Suffrage.)

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Further Reading

  • Patrick Malcolmson and Richard Myers, The Canadian Regime: An Introduction to Parliamentary Government in Canada, 4th ed. (2009).
  • J.M.S. Careless, ed., The Pre-Confederation Premiers (1980).
  • P.A. Buckner, The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America 1815-1850 (1985).
  • J.M.S. CarelessThe Union of the Canadas (1967).
  • M.S. Cross and R.L. Fraser, “’The Waste that Lies Before Me’: The Public and the Private Worlds of Robert Baldwin,” Historical Papers (1983).
  • Rosa W. Langstone, Responsible Government in Canada (1931).