Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.12 Responsible Government

Durham’s perspective on the goal of eradicating the Canadien culture was presented very clearly in his report. There was nothing subtle about it. But to what were they to be assimilated? As a liberal parliamentarian, what Durham saw in the Canadas was an anglophone middle class in Quebec City and Montreal that was being held back from a natural economic leadership role by a peasant sub-stratum. The three pillars of la survivance — Catholicism, language, and an agrarian tradition that included seigneurialism — had to be swept away to put Canadiens on the path to a liberal democratic society.

The principal mechanism of this strategy was to be government. The executive for the united Province of Canada was, as before, drawn from the colonial elite although now its members could be dismissed by the governor. The same was true of the legislative council, which now had two dozen members. The assembly, of course, increased substantially to include elected representatives from what was referred to as Canada West and Canada East. Each received 42 seats in the assembly. Given the presence of a sizable propertied anglophone electorate in Canada East (especially in Montreal), anglophones would instantly dominate the elected body.

At first this seemed to work as planned. Charles Poulett Thomson (later Lord Sydenham) replaced Durham as governor general and moved quickly to achieve assimilationist goals. He relocated the seat of government from Quebec to Kingston, an anglophone town with strong Loyalist roots, safe from Canadien agitation. English was decreed the only language of debate and government business. He created additional safe seats for English-speaking candidates and encouraged immigration from Britain. He didn’t flinch at the use of violence against French voters and candidates where needed to secure a favourable (i.e., English-speaking) outcome. The assembly seemed destined to function along English versus French, Protestant versus Catholic lines with the Anglo-Protestants in the metaphorical driver’s seat.

Fractures and Alliances

This arrangement began to fracture quickly under the weight of ideologies. Toryism had always been present in the assemblies of the Canadas and its power under the new constitution appeared to be growing. It was, however, changing. Conservatives like John A. Macdonald were different. His conservativism borrowed elements of liberalism and he regarded the Tory element as “old fogeys.” The Anglican core of the party reciprocated by viewing the marginally successful Kingston lawyer as a Presbyterian outsider and unwelcome social climber. It is for these reasons that one of Macdonald’s biographers has said that he had to “gatecrash [the] local elite.”[1] Fissures like these — cracks that ran along the lines of ideological, sectarian, and social class difference — were opening up on the Tory side of the assembly.

On the Reformer side, matters were hardly better. For every pro-parliamentary moderate Reformer like Robert Baldwin, there seemed to be a pro-American-republicanism Radical. Recognizing these divisions, astute Canadien politicians like Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine agreed to build bridges across the linguistic divide to shore up Reform numbers and to obtain the support needed to acheive responsible government. More conservative elements on the Canada East side of the assembly of course objected, although they found it hard to find in their ideological cousins — the anglophone Tories — much that would work to their advantage.

In 1842 Francis Hincks (another leading Reformer in Toronto) achieved his goal of building an alliance between French and English Reformers. With Lafontaine and Baldwin he was appointed to the executive council. This was a pivotal moment in the political history of Canada: English and French politicians collaborating to achieve a greater degree of democratic accountability. Durham had been unimpressed by Lafontaine, which was clearly an error on his part. Faced with Westminster’s assimilationist policy and its refusal of responsible government, the Canadien reformer found the means to subvert plans for the former and to advance the cause for the latter. Lafontaine was bringing responsible government within reach.

The governor at the time, Sir Charles Bagot (1781-1843), was in some respects acting as though responsible government was a done deal. He and his Conservative advisors feared that the assembly’s increasingly Reform-oriented membership would censure his administration. Bowing to pressure from Lafontaine and Baldwin he appointed an executive that was dominated by Reformers from Canada East and Canada West but in which no single political party held a majority. The Colonial Office was shocked by what it regarded as too great a concession to the colonials and especially by Bagot’s admission that “whether the doctrine of responsible government is openly acknowledged, or is only tacitly acquiesced in, virtually it exists.”[2] The new administration, led by Baldwin and LaFontaine but consisting of a mix of moderates, French, English, and Tories, continued in office under Bagot’s successor.

These events constituted a turning point because they indicate how far the project of isolating and assimilating the French had failed, the extent to which political parties governed by ideologies were emerging (something the British had also wanted to avoid), and the effective arrival in fact if not in law of responsible government. There would be attempts in the 1840s to roll back these changes, none of which had any lasting impact.

In the winter of 1848, formal and official responsible government finally arrived — in Nova Scotia. In the spring it was proclaimed in New Brunswick. In the following year it was no longer deniable: the Province of Canada had responsible government. Prince Edward Island followed in 1851 and Newfoundland in 1855. Manitoba and British Columbia would only achieve this benchmark when they joined Confederation.

And what makes responsible government a benchmark? The prospect of an executive that is responsible to the assembly rather than the governor reversed the natural flow of power in a colonial regime. Authority no longer derived from the Crown, but from the voters (however small or large the electorate might be). It was a model with roots in the British parliamentary system and so it might be considered an obvious outcome (as it was by Lord Elgin at the time), but imperial power was weakened once colonies claimed to be self-governing. Under responsible government, the empire might retain its power over international negotiations and defence issues and the appointment of governors, but suddenly the rest was up for grabs.

Historical Explanations

It might be argued that Britain could not resist the increasing pressure to allow responsible government, in which case it becomes an achievement of Canadian politicians. But Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had the same privileges sooner, and the pressure there was not nearly so intense. The case has been made that Britain grew fearful that it would lose what remained of its North American empire if concessions were not made: Britain, in this scenario, blinked first.

Some historians take a more economic approach. They argue that Britain’s willingness to grant a significantly greater degree of colonial authority — and to perform an about-face on the imperial position announced after Durham — arose not in the colonial legislatures but in British trade policy. The move to laissez-faire capitalism and the end of the Navigation Acts together signalled a change in attitudes about the colonies. In this interpretation, colonial demands worked to the advantage of the empire and events in Canada were merely allowed to unfold. Certainly the Colonial Office was displeased with Bagot for conceding a share of authority to the partisan Baldwin-Lafontaine Reform administration, but they didn’t recall him. Nor was his successor instructed to reverse the situation and apply a firm hand to the opposition. It was, in fact, the Colonial Office that had introduced, as early as 1841, the principle that the executive council be subject to the approval of a majority of the assembly. For all intents and purposes, this was the no-frills model of responsible government. The further refinements of a cabinet composed entirely of elected officials drawn from the assembly is really all that was added in 1848-49.

Read in any of these ways, responsible government — the principle that the executive serves at the pleasure of the majority of the elected assembly — had serious implications in a colonial setting. Were they self-governing colonies secure within the embrace of the world’s largest empire or had they been cut adrift? Was British North America finding its feet or about to fall on its face? The 1850s suggested the latter.

Historians on Video

The events of the 1840s did much to transform Canadian life. As historian Jack Little (Simon Fraser University) argues, government structures appeared not only at the level of the new, united ‘Province of Canada,’ but also at the municipal and county level. These developments led to changes in economic infrastructure and the means to build a democratic society.  Here’s a link to the transcript [PDF].


Key Points

  • Union was meant to pit a larger number of Anglo-Protestant members of the assembly against a smaller number of Franco-Catholic Members. The ideological fractures in the Anglo-Protestant side undermined that alignment.
  • Reformers from Canada West and Canada East found they had goals in common and built effective alliances.
  • Conservative elements in French Canada knew how to work with Anglophones from Montreal, but the Anglo-Tories from Canada West were a different matter.

  1. Ged Martin, John A. Macdonald: Canada’s First Prime Minister (Toronto: Dundurn, 2013), 21, 30.
  2. Jacques Monet, “BAGOT, Sir CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed February 15, 2015, .


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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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