Photographic book

The Act of Union


John Alexander Macdonald
John Alexander Macdonald

Defeat shattered the radical cause in both Lower and Upper Canada, but the outbreak of rebellion also discredited the office-holding cliques and the constitutions of 1791. The beneficiary was the moderate approach of the reformers, which had been overshadowed during the rebellions. John George Lambton, Lord Durham, a British reformer sent as governor-general in 1838, condemned the ruling elites of the Canadas and urged that responsible government be implemented. Durham was alarmed by ethnic conflict in Lower Canada, where he said he found “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” He concluded that assimilation of the French Canadians was the only solution to ethnic strife.

The British government soon acted on Durham’s report. In 1841 the Act of Union (1840) created the province of Canada, which had two sections—Canada West (which had been Upper Canada) and Canada East (Lower Canada). French Canadians protested because English-speaking Canada West was given as many legislative seats as French-speaking Canada East, which had a larger population. In addition, English was to be the only official language. The arrangement was designed to advance Durham’s goal of assimilation, but his recommendation for responsible government was not implemented. Governors-general sent from Britain were expected to seek the support of the elected assembly but did not depend on it.

As it turned out, however, assimilation failed and responsible government triumphed. Reformers from Canada West and East, led respectively by Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, joined forces in a coalition that overrode ethnic divisions and showed that success in Union politics depended on bicultural support. Baldwin and LaFontaine repeatedly insisted that the governors-general take the assembly’s advice in making official appointments. When one governor-general refused, in 1843, the two men resigned and dissolved the administration.

Finally, in 1847, Britain sent out a new governor-general, Durham’s nephew Lord Elgin, with instructions to appoint a Canadian government supported by the majority party in the assembly and to approve its policies whether he liked them or not. Responsible government was achieved when Baldwin and LaFontaine returned to office in 1848.

Joseph Howe’s reform party had already won the same victory in Nova Scotia earlier in the year. Responsible government soon followed in New Brunswick in 1854, in Prince Edward Island in 1851, and in Newfoundland in 1855. Britain retained authority for foreign affairs, defense, and other matters and still appointed the governors, but British North America had full local self-government with one of the broadest electoral franchises in the world. All men could vote provided they held property worth a certain amount, and most of them qualified. However, the secret ballot was rare until the 1870s, the universal vote for adult males came only gradually, and women had no vote until 1917.

Although there were many political factions, two broad party coalitions developed throughout the colonies. Reformers or liberals, nicknamed Grits in Canada West and Rouges in Canada East, promoted universal education, individual rights, and the interests of farmers and small-business owners. Conservatives, called Tories in Canada West and Bleus in Canada East, built a coalition that combined loyalty to Britain and respect for tradition with a willingness to use state power to support capitalist enterprise. Conservative allies John Alexander Macdonald, who later became the first prime minister of Canada, and George-Étienne Cartier, a Patriote rebel turned railroad lawyer, were the most successful politicians of the period. "Canada" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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