Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.11 Durham and Union

What had the rebellions accomplished? On the face of it, not much. The old order seemed as powerful as ever, reformism had been shown to have neither the guts nor the guile to effect change, and popular support for the rebels failed to materialize. Within a decade, however, the reformers would see the tide of history pull in their direction.

Britain’s response to Lower Canada’s Ninety-Two Resolutions had been a perfunctory, 10-point refusal. Parliament’s reply to the 1837 rebellions was a little more ambiguous. It took the form of John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham (1792-1840). Nicknamed “Radical Jack” for his support of the British Reform movement, Lord Durham was nonetheless an aristocrat and an ostentatious one at that. When he came ashore at Quebec City to take up his new responsibilities as governor general of all of British North America, it was in full regalia and on the back of a white horse. Durham’s remit was to explore the causes of the rebellions and recommend solutions. He spent almost all of his time in Lower Canada and only briefly visited Upper Canada. He met with some of the leaders of the moderate reform movements, specifically Robert Baldwin in Upper Canada and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (1807-1864) in Lower Canada. His two aids, Charles Buller and Edward Gibbon Wakefield, played a significant role in writing Durham’s final report to Parliament, and Wakefield would go on to become a leading figure in colonization theory.

Buller, Wakefield, and Durham shared the same response to Lower Canada, and it was a negative one. They saw the Canadiens as a backward people, opposed to economic progress, and blinded by their Catholic faith. Durham distilled the rebellion in Lower Canada into a simple English versus French dichotomy. In a famous line from the Durham Report, he claimed, “I found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” Baldwin’s brand of reformism he found acceptable, but that of Papineau and Lafontaine he did not. He was not persuaded by the oligarchical claims of the Château Clique, but he gave them something for which they had been clamouring: union of the two colonies. With the other hand, he recommended responsible government.

Union would settle Upper Canada’s crushing debts and, with an equal number of seats from what would thereafter be Canada West and Canada East, the balance in the assembly would be tipped definitively toward the anglophone side. The endgame was to put an end to French-Catholic culture in North America by means of an anglophone-dominated regime and to double-up on that by increasing immigration from the British Isles. Swamped and politically marginalized, the institutions that sustained Canadien culture (which Durham described as one without history and thus no legitimate claim on survival) would be erased. And that, he thought, would put an end once and for all to unrest in the Canadas.

Then Durham blotted his own copybook by sending into exile in Bermuda eight Lower Canadian rebels just released from prison. Also, he put a sentence of death on any of the rebels in exile in the United States (including Papineau) should they return to Canada. This was a move calculated to inflame opinion in Lower Canada, and, perhaps surprisingly, it was accepted by the locals. But it was regarded in London as stepping beyond his powers and Durham’s enemies closed on him. He resigned his commission in the autumn of 1838, only months after reaching Canada and before the battles at Prescott and Beauharnois.


The British Parliament agreed to reunite the colonies and made it official in 1840 with the Act of Union. But it demurred on responsible government. Looked at from the position of the Château Clique, this was decidedly two points in the win column: the western frontier had been restored and, with it, a far stronger English presence in the united colony, one that could take real steps toward eliminating the French fact. The Family Compact was less happy because they had lost their pre-eminent position or, at least, would have to share it with the Tories of Montreal. What’s more, Durham’s call for responsible government was interpreted by the Upper Canadian elite as a criticism of their regime. The fact that London refused to allow it must have comforted them somewhat, as did the fact that Lower Canada (with a better treasury) was obliged to absorb the debts that the Family Compact had run up in building their canal system.[1]

In Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe read the Durham Report with interest and corresponded with the minister for the colonies on the subject. Howe enthusiastically supported the idea of responsible government and hoped that it would be extended to the Maritimes. The British cabinet, however, feared that responsible government would lead to imperial disintegration, whether in tumultuous Canada or placid Nova Scotia.

Key Points

  • Lord Durham was dispatched to the Canadas to act as governor and to investigate the causes of the rebellions, for which he was to prepare a report.
  • His two principal recommendations — union of the two colonies and the introduction of responsible government — aimed to advance attempts to assimilate the French-Catholic population into the growing Anglo-Protestant culture.
  • Britain agreed to union but not to responsible government.

  1. Janet Ajzenstat, The Political Thought of Lord Durham (Montreal & Kingston: McGill–Queen's University Press, 1988), 13-15.


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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