Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.4 The Tory Oligarchy

The Château Clique

In Lower Canada the political elite that controlled the executive and legislative councils met at the governor’s château and were known as the Château Clique. Their other label, the “British Party,” reveals a second distinguishing feature. In a colony dominated demographically by French-speaking Catholics, the Tory leadership was drawn with few exceptions from the anglophone and Anglican population. A few francophone seigneurs rounded out the councils, but otherwise the voice of the Canadien majority was heard only in the assembly. As well, the councils controlled appointments to the judiciary and the civil service so they were in a good position to reward friends and punish opponents.

The most prominent members of the Clique were John Molson and James McGill, although McGill (a key player in the NWC) died in 1813. Their influence was powerful and typical of the Tory leadership. Even when Britain seemed likely to make concessions to the assembly, the Clique stood in its way. As merchants based mainly in Montreal, this tight network of friends and relations sought to perpetuate and expand their influence in the colony. They regarded the Catholic Church with suspicion (as did perhaps most Protestants), and they were continually concerned that the French culture represented a weakness, the soft underbelly of British North America. Keeping in mind that these Tories came of age in the years when France was supporting the American Revolution and throughout the Napoleonic Wars, it is easy to see how they might fear a reassertion of French power in Lower Canada. Their ongoing attempts after 1791 to undermine French and Catholic culture must be viewed in that context.

Supported by the governors,the Clique was able to deflect opposition from the assembly. Delay tactics by the elected members could only hold things up so long, and Britain’s interests were best served by the Clique. While the reformers were building momentum in the 1820s and 1830s, it was the Clique that would emerge intact and its assimilationist plans evidently realized in the Act of Union (1841).

The Family Compact

The situation was different in Upper Canada. There, the same instruments of government were in place: assembly, two councils, and (reporting to the governor general) a lieutenant-governor. The newness of Upper Canada ensured that there was nothing like a seigneurial class that might act as a lightening rod in opposition to the councils. Nor, of course, was there a linguistic/cultural divide across the colony to match the gulf between the anglophone Protestant elites and the francophone Catholics in Lower Canada. There were, however, important class, denominational, and geographic divisions.

The political elite in Upper Canada was strong on loyalism and fearful of change. Governor John Graves Simcoe brought together a group of leaders made up of Loyalists whom he knew were solidly Church of England men of wealth and aristocratic aspirations if not actual breeding. With these individuals he populated the executive and legislative councils. Simcoe’s successors went one step further: they used bullying and fear tactics to ensure that the assembly, as well, was dominated by their people. All four levels of the Upper Canadian government, then, was part of what would come to be called the Family Compact. They weren’t concerned about a return of French power, but they shared a collective dread of American republicanism and expansionism. This anxiety was matched by a fierce loyalty to the Crown and the ideals of a hierarchical society.

The institutions they built in these years were mainly geared to perpetuating their privilege while strengthening the colonial economy. The Bank of Upper Canada, the canal companies, King’s College (later the University of Toronto), and Upper Canada College were instruments for economic growth and the preservation of the Anglican ethos of the Family Compact. Under Bishop Strachan of Toronto, the Family Compact consolidated its authority through the Church, the judiciary, the government, and the support of those Upper Canadians for whom loyalism became a watchword after the War of 1812. These initiatives were part of a strategy and were not incremental or coincidental. An education system that perpetuated Tory values among an elite of young men, a patronage system that rewarded loyalism, and an economic strategy that reinforced consistently the central authority of Toronto and Kingston met the needs of the Family Compact first and foremost. Consider where their budgets and initiatives did not go: they avoided investment in education for the general public, there were no educational institutions for women, and they purposefully neglected the road system so as to force wheat traffic into the Great Lakes and canals corridor. These strategies were clearly meant to reinforce the status and authority of the colony’s elite and simultaneously stifle opposition.[1] On this latter point, vandalism and assaults on critics of the regime were further instruments of Tory power.

In some respects both the Château Clique and the Compact could not resist the liberal trends of the day. These were men who might like to see themselves as part of a Canadian aristocracy, but they were mostly merchants and investors – capitalists and entrepreneurs – who mostly made their fortunes through commerce, finance, and shipping.[2] Few belonged to the emergent professional classes and fewer still were Methodists or Presbyterians. Their Tory ideals attracted sufficient support because of their commitment to a hierarchy that was meant to look after the weak (noblesse oblige) while expecting deference in return. These leading families were, after all, at the forefront of philanthropy. And yet there was a “best-before date” on Toryism. Larger towns and a more complex judiciary necessitated the creation of a professional class of lawyers, surveyors, engineers, journalists, etc. However indebted to Toryism these professionals might have been for their income, they would come to represent an alternative voice, even for conservatism in Upper Canada.

Key Points

  • The Family Compact and the Château Clique were cabals of the most powerful figures in the colonies outside of imperial administrators.
  • Governors might come and go but the oligarchs were an element of continuity in the colonies.
  • The Tory elites depended on and developed a class of liberal professionals whose services they needed and whose loyalty they often commanded, but this middle-class cohort was also the most vocal source of criticism of the oligarchies.

  1. G. M. Craig, “STRACHAN, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed March 25, 2015,
  2. Jane Errington, The Lion, the Eagle, and Upper Canada: A Developing Colonial Ideology, 2nd edition (Montreal & Kingston: McGill–Queens University Press, 2012), 220-21.


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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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