Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.3 Upper and Lower Canada

The Constitutional Act of 1791 created two colonies — Upper and Lower Canada — that were intimately linked. Notwithstanding American canals and, later, railways, the reality was that almost everything that was shipped out of Upper Canada had to pass through Lower Canada. Likewise everything coming into Upper Canada from Britain — including a great many immigrants — did so by sailing up the St. Lawrence first. Much of the investment capital available to Upper Canadians came from banks in Montreal, and much of the wealth of the Lower Canadian merchant elite was derived from activities in Upper Canada or even farther west. In terms of government, the two Canadas were separate and autonomous; in practical terms their relationship was close and complicated.

British-American immigrants who came to Canada after the Conquest advocated for the kind of representative institutions they had left behind in the Thirteen Colonies. But an elected assembly of any kind would have been an entirely new experience for the Canadiens, and Governor Carleton delayed. Whether the British thought this was a bad idea in 1765 or not hardly mattered: within a decade they were fighting revolutionaries whose elected institutions were calling for an end to British rule in the Americas. In that context they were loath to extend the right to representative institutions. In 1791 the British changed their mind. Revolutions continued to ring around them, but they nevertheless decided that it was time to introduce representative bodies to Canada.

The new administrations in each of the two newly separated colonies reflected practices developed in Nova Scotia. There was an elected assembly, an appointed legislative council comprising property owners (who were, in practice, men of wealth), and an appointed executive council to advise the governor. The governor general occupied this top tier in Lower Canada, while the lieutenant-governor performed the same task in Upper Canada. While the assemblies were permitted to introduce money bills, nothing could be enacted without the agreement of the governor.

The assemblies soon found themselves in a difficult situation: if they were ineffective they could be voted out by the electorate, but they lacked access to the levers of power to become effective. By contrast, both the councils were populated by men appointed for life. They could not be dismissed by anyone other than the governor himself. The executive council, which advised the governor directly, was for all intents and purposes the real local authority.

Opposition to this arrangement was not slow in coming but it was for many years easily repressed.

Key Point

  • Despite being separate colonies, Upper and Lower Canada were closely linked economically and politically.

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11.3 Upper and Lower Canada by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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