11.12 Responsible Government – Canadian History: Pre-Confederation (2023)

Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

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.

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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 metaphoricaldriver’s seat.

Fracturesand 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.

(Video) Unit 6: Rebellion, Reform and Confederation, 1821 1867

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.

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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). Itwas 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 allowresponsible government, in which caseit becomes anachievement 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.

(Video) Brief Political History of Canada

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.

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.
(Video) Discover Canada Study Guide Audio (Timestamped Chapters, Official Citizenship Test, Captions)
  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, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/bagot_charles_7E.html .


What is pre Confederation Canada? ›

Provinces and territories that became part of Canada after 1867 are also said to have joined, or entered into, confederation (but not the Confederation). The term is also used to divide Canadian history into pre-Confederation (i.e. pre-1867) and post-Confederation (i.e. post-1867) periods.

Who was involved in the responsible government is established in Canada? ›

In 1847 Lord Elgin was appointed as Governor General of Canada. He introduced responsible government in 1848-49. This is the system we have today. If the government loses a confidence vote in the assembly, the government must resign.

What is a responsible government Canada? ›

Responsible government is a conception of a system of government that embodies the principle of parliamentary accountability, the foundation of the Westminster system of parliamentary democracy.

What factors led to Confederation for Canada? ›

The idea of uniting the BNA colonies into a single country was fueled by several key factors: a protectionist US trade policy; fears of American aggression and expansion; and Britain's increasing reluctance to pay for the defence of British North America.

What are the 5 reasons for Confederation in Canada? ›

There were five main factors of confederation. They are "the railways, changing British attitudes, threat of American invasion, political deadlock and cancellation of the reciprocity treaty.

Who was in charge of Canada before Confederation? ›

In the mid-1800s, the British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada achieved and implemented responsible government, paving the way for Confederation.

What is pre Confederation? ›

Canadian History: Pre-Confederation is a survey text that introduces undergraduate students to important themes in North American history to 1867.

Who were the 4 Fathers of Confederation? ›

Table of participation
ParticipantProvince (Current)Charlottetown
George BrownOntarioYes
Sir Alexander CampbellOntarioYes
Sir Frederick CarterNewfoundlandNo
Sir George-Étienne CartierQuebecYes
32 more rows

Who was the first leader of responsible government? ›

Sir Louis-Hippolyte Ménard dit La Fontaine, 1st Baronet, KCMG (October 4, 1807 – February 26, 1864) was a Canadian politician who served as the first Premier of the United Province of Canada and the first head of a responsible government in Canada.

What is the importance of responsible government? ›

Responsible government

To remain in government, a party or coalition must maintain the support of the majority of members in the House of Representatives. This is part of the principle of responsible government. It ensures the government is accountable to the Parliament.

What are two characteristics of responsible government? ›

Responsible government is known to be the commencement of a system of government which embodies the principle of parliamentary accountability. It is the principle of some democratic governments. There is a basic concept of bicameralism. It describes the degree of accountability towards the parliament.

What does responsible government refer to? ›

Responsible government, based on British constitutional practice, was adopted in Western Australia in 1890 and is a political system in which, to have power, a government must have the confidence of a majority of members of the Legislative Assembly (the lower house of Parliament).

Which government called responsible government? ›

In Canada, the government must have the support of a majority of members of Parliament (MPs) to stay in power. This is called responsible government, and it is a cornerstone of Canada's democratic parliamentary system.

Which form of government is responsible government? ›

The parliamentary government is also known as 'responsible government,' because the cabinet (the real executive) is accountable to Parliament and remains in office as long as it has the confidence of the latter.

Who were 3 Fathers of Confederation of Canada? ›

Sir Adams George Archibald. Sir Hector-Louis Langevin. Sir John Alexander Macdonald. Sir George-Etienne Cartier.

What was Canada called before Canada? ›

Prior to 1870, it was known as the North-Western Territory. The name has always been a description of the location of the territory.

How did Confederation benefit Canada? ›

Confederation would create new markets, make the railway companies more profitable and help people enter the territory to settle land in the West. Confederation would allow better military protection against the Americans and others.

What was the main purpose of the Confederation? ›

What was the purpose of the Articles of Confederation? The primary purpose of the Articles of Confederation was to establish a national government and to establish the United States as a sovereign nation. The Articles of Confederation were the founding constitution of the new nation.

What was the biggest problem of Confederation? ›

One of the biggest problems was that the national government had no power to impose taxes. To avoid any perception of “taxation without representation,” the Articles of Confederation allowed only state governments to levy taxes. To pay for its expenses, the national government had to request money from the states.

Who were Canada's 3 founding peoples? ›

The founding peoples of Canada include: Aboriginal peoples. French Canadians.

Who are the three founding peoples of Canada? ›

To understand what it means to be Canadian, it is important to know about our three founding peoples—Aboriginal, French and British.

Who controlled Canada during 1812? ›

The War of 1812 (which lasted from 1812 to 1814) was a military conflict between the United States and Great Britain. As a colony of Great Britain, Canada was swept up in the War of 1812 and was invaded several times by the Americans.

When did confederation start in Canada? ›

​​​​​​​​A federation of colonies in British North America - New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario - joined together to become the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867.

What are the 3 Articles of Confederation? ›

Article 1: Created the name of the combined 13 states as The United States of America. Article 2: State governments still had their own powers that were not listed in the Articles of Confederation. Article 3: The combined states were responsible for helping to protect each other from attacks.

What was the first confederation? ›

The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. This document served as the United States' first constitution. It was in force from March 1, 1781, until 1789 when the present-day Constitution went into effect.

Who were the 2 founders of Canada? ›

The traditional narrative of Canadian history is that there were two founding peoples, the British and French, a legacy that goes back to the time when New France, founded in 1534, was handed over to the United Kingdom in 1763.

Who founded Canada? ›

In 1604, the first European settlement north of Florida was established by French explorers Pierre de Monts and Samuel de Champlain, first on St. Croix Island (in present-day Maine), then at Port-Royal, in Acadia (present-day Nova Scotia). In 1608 Champlain built a fortress at what is now Québec City.

Who led the Confederation? ›

Sir John Macdonald. Sir John Macdonald, in full Sir John Alexander Macdonald, (born January 11, 1815, Glasgow, Scotland—died June 6, 1891, Ottawa, Ontario, Dominion of Canada), the first prime minister of the Dominion of Canada (1867–73, 1878–91), who led Canada through its period of early growth.

When did Canada East achieve responsible government? ›

Responsible Government was finally achieved in 1848 after a decade of struggle. LaFontaine became the first true Prime Minister of the Canadas, with Baldwin his deputy premier in the “Great Ministry.” But Responsible Government was not universally popular, and riots broke out in many places.

What is a responsible government in 25 to 30 words? ›

responsible government is answerable to parliament as it has members who are always directly elected. Moreover, it is the principle of any democratic government. A responsible government cannot carry out functions as per its whims and fancies as it is directly responsible to the Parliament.

Who created the 1st democracy? ›

The ancient Greeks were the first to create a democracy. The word “democracy” comes from two Greek words that mean people (demos) and rule (kratos).

What are the 4 major responsibilities of the government? ›

A government is responsible for creating and enforcing the rules of a society, defense, foreign affairs, the economy, and public services.

What are the 6 responsibilities of the government? ›

A government's basic functions are providing leadership, maintaining order, providing public services, providing national security, providing economic security, and providing economic assistance.

What are the 3 main responsibilities of the local government? ›

Planning and zoning bylaws. Taxation. Local business support. Collaborating between communities and in the larger region.

What are the 3 types of responsibility? ›

3 Types Of Responsibilities All Business Owners Must Meet
  • Environmental responsibilities. ...
  • Compliance responsibilities. ...
  • Customer responsibilities.
1 May 2019

What is difference between accountable and responsible government? ›

In ethics and governance, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. Responsibility may refer to: being in charge, being the owner of a task or event.

What are the five duties of responsible citizens? ›

U.S. citizens are encouraged to exercise certain responsibilities and privileges, including:
  • Voting. While voting is a right and privilege of citizenship, it is also a duty or responsibility. ...
  • Staying informed. ...
  • Community involvement. ...
  • Practicing tolerance. ...
  • Passing it on.

WHO recommended responsible government? ›

Lord Durham and Union

Durham made two recommendations: first, grant greater self-government; second, amalgamate the two colonies in order to engulf and assimilate francophone Lower Canadians, whom Durham considered “a people with no history and no literature.”

Who was responsible for Confederation? ›

Sir Adams George Archibald. Sir Hector-Louis Langevin. Sir John Alexander Macdonald. Sir George-Etienne Cartier.

How did the US begin as Confederation? ›

The Articles of Confederation were adopted by the Continental Congress on November 15, 1777. This document served as the United States' first constitution. It was in force from March 1, 1781, until 1789 when the present-day Constitution went into effect.

What started the Confederation period? ›

In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which set an important precedent by establishing the first organized territory under the control of the national government. After Congressional efforts to amend the Articles failed, numerous national leaders met in Philadelphia in 1787 to establish a new constitution.

Which was a main reason for creating the Articles of Confederation? ›

A guiding principle of the Articles was to establish and preserve the independence and sovereignty of the states. The weak central government established by the Articles received only those powers which the former colonies had recognized as belonging to king and parliament.

Who was the first leader of a responsible government in the Canada in 1849? ›

Sir Louis-Hippolyte Ménard dit La Fontaine, 1st Baronet, KCMG (October 4, 1807 – February 26, 1864) was a Canadian politician who served as the first Premier of the United Province of Canada and the first head of a responsible government in Canada.

When did Confederation start in Canada? ›

​​​​​​​​A federation of colonies in British North America - New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Quebec, and Ontario - joined together to become the Dominion of Canada on July 1, 1867.

Who were the most important people of the Confederation? ›

Sir John A. Macdonald is commonly viewed as the chief architect of Confederation. But academics, journalists and heritage groups have argued for the prominence of other figures, such as George Brown and Sir George-Étienne Cartier.

Why was Confederation so important? ›

Confederation could offer the colonies strength through unity, an idea that gained steady support, especially in the wake of the US abrogation of the Reciprocity Treaty in 1866. In the face of dwindling external markets, Confederation could provide the colonies with the ability to sell goods to each other more easily.

What were the 4 major problems of the Articles of Confederation? ›

The citizens of small states had proportionally more political power than the citizens of large states. The national government had no executive branch. The national government had no way of implementing or enforcing its legislative decisions. The national government had no judicial branch.

What were 3 achievements of the Articles of Confederation? ›

Strengths & Accomplishments

Government signed a treaty of alliance with France in 1778. Government successfully waged a war for independence against the British. Government negotiated an end to the American Revolution in the Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783.

Why did the Confederation fail? ›

The US government had both failed to pay its veterans and failed to raise a militia in order to put down a rebellion. It had become clear the US government's inability to impose taxes, regulate commerce, or raise an army hindered its ability to defend the nation or pay its debts.

When did Canada leave the Confederation? ›

Canada Act, also called Constitution Act of 1982, Canada's constitution approved by the British Parliament on March 25, 1982, and proclaimed by Queen Elizabeth II on April 17, 1982, making Canada wholly independent.

What are 3 reasons why the Articles of Confederation failed? ›

10 reasons why America's first constitution failed
  • The states didn't act immediately. ...
  • The central government was designed to be very, very weak. ...
  • The Articles Congress only had one chamber and each state had one vote. ...
  • Congress needed 9 of 13 states to pass any laws. ...
  • The document was practically impossible to amend.

What were 3 reasons the Articles of Confederation was so weak? ›

Reasons Why the Articles of Confederation Failed 🚫

There was no power to enforce laws. No judicial branch or national courts. Amendments needed to have a unanimous vote.

What was wrong with the Articles of Confederation? ›

With the passage of time, weaknesses in the Articles of Confederation became apparent; Congress commanded little respect and no support from state governments anxious to maintain their power. Congress could not raise funds, regulate trade, or conduct foreign policy without the voluntary agreement of the states.


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