Responsible Government | Canadian History Hall (2023)

Gallery 2: Colonial Canada ⟶ Making a Country ⟶ Responsible Government

Every British North American settler colony achieved self-government within the British Empire.

Long struggles by radicals and reformers made colonial governments answerable, or responsible, to their voters rather than the British Parliament. These victories brought far-reaching changes to the lives of ordinary British North Americans. They also set an important precedent for all other British settler colonies around the world.

A Changing Empire

From her accession in 1837, Queen Victoria reigned over a rapidly changing empire. Industrialization and commercial growth were eroding the economic links between Britain and its colonies.

Under the old imperial commercial system, British colonies had been essential sources of raw materials and privileged markets for manufactured goods. By the 1840s, Britain was dismantling this system in favour of freer trade. This loosening of ties allowed the settler colonies of British North America to pursue greater autonomy within the empire.

  • British coat of armsOriginally from the Vieux Palais de Justice, Montréal, Lower Canada
    Mid-1800s
    Gift of the Hon. Serge Joyal, C.P.
    CMH, 2011.21.671
  • Portrait of Queen VictoriaArtist unknown, 1837
    Library and Archives Canada, C-003900

Rebellions in the Canadas

Before responsible government, Crown-appointed members of conservative local elites— known as Tories— monopolized political power in each of the settler colonies. Reform movements sought greater power for elected representatives of the people.

In the Maritime colonies, power passed quietly from appointed officials to elected politicians. In Upper and Lower Canada, the failure of peaceful attempts to reform the system led to armed rebellions in 1837 and 1838. Government forces crushed these risings and inflicted harsh reprisals: 1,500 people were arrested, 250 deported and 50 hanged.

  • Front view of the Saint-Eustache church occupied by the PatriotesNathaniel Hartnell, after a drawing by Lord Charles Beauclerk, 1840
    Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, 06M_P318S4P008
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From the Battlefield

These items recall the defence of Saint-Eustache by Lower Canada rebels in 1837 and the defeat of an invasion by American rebel sympathizers at the Battle of the Windmill in Upper Canada in 1838.

  • Door handle from the Saint-Eustache churchLate 1700s
    Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec, 1974.17.1-2
  • Wallet taken from a rebelBattle of the Windmill, Windmill Point, Upper Canada
    1838
    CMH, 1999.137.5

Awaiting Trial

Imprisoned rebels Luther Elton and William Reid carved these souvenir boxes while awaiting trial in Upper Canada. Inscriptions on the boxes denounce tyranny and injustice.

  • Prisoner boxMade by Luther Elton
    1838
    CWM, 19840124-001
  • Prisoner boxMade by William Reid
    1838
    CMH, 986.28.1 a-b
  • HandcuffsFirst half of 1800s
    CMH, A-1036

Lord Durham and Union

In 1838, the British government sent Lord Durham to investigate the causes of the rebellions and to recommend reforms. 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.”

The Crown rejected the first recommendation but accepted the second. Under the 1840 Act of Union, Upper and Lower Canada were united under a single assembly and government. English became the sole official language.

  • The United Canadas with Capitals by YearCanadian Geographic
  • Portrait of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of DurhamSir Thomas Lawrence, early 1800s
    Library and Archives Canada, 1995-134-2
  • Inkwell belonging to Lord DurhamProbably made in London, United Kingdom, about 1830 to 1840
    CMH, 2013.79.1.2 a-b
  • Inkwell case belonging to Lord DurhamProbably made in London, United Kingdom, about 1830 to 1840
    CMH, 2013.79.1.1
  • Stained-glass window from the Kingston General Hospital, where the first parliament building of the United Canadas convenedKingston, Ontario, 1841 or earlier
    CMH, D-3267

Boundary Marker

Separate Upper and Lower Canadian identities persisted long after the union of the Canadas— a fact reflected by this boundary marker, inscribed with the old names “Upper Canada” and “Lower Canada”, and erected around 1860.

  • Boundary markerAbout 1860
    CMH, 2011.34.1
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“No permanent or efficient remedy can be devised for the disorders of Lower Canada, except a fusion of the Government in that of one or more of the surrounding Provinces.”
Lord Durham, Governor General of British North America, 1839

Toward Responsible Government

Two failed rebellions discredited radicals who had tried to change the political system by force. Canadian reformers continued to work within the parliamentary system to achieve responsible government. This term refers to a government which depends upon the support of the elected assembly.

Many Tories condemned responsible government as disloyal and anti-British. Reformers noted that it had long been practised in Britain itself. Toronto reformers John Henry Dunn and Isaac Buchanan emphasized this point with banners featuring the imperial crown and a pro-British motto.

  • BannerInscription: British Rule and British Institutions, 1842, Dunn & Buchanan
    Used in Toronto, 1841 to 1842
    CMH, 2003.45.1

“I’m in favour of this English idea of responsible government… The colonists should have control over their own affairs. They should direct all their efforts toward this end; and to bring it about, we need the colonial administration to be formed and directed by and with the majority of representatives of the people.”
Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, political reformer, 1840

A Strategic Alliance

The Act of Union brought together French- and English-speaking reformers in a single elected assembly. Despite their linguistic and cultural differences, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin joined forces to achieve responsible government. Their Reform Party won a solid majority in the 1848 election.

Due to new priorities, British attitudes had softened toward reform in the colonies. Acting on instructions from Britain, Governor General Lord Elgin called upon La Fontaine and Baldwin to form a government: the first responsible government in the United Canadas.

  • Portrait of Robert BaldwinPhotographer unknown, about 1855
    Library and Archives Canada, C-031493
  • Portrait of Sir Louis-Hippolyte La FontainePhotographer unknown, about 1850
    Library and Archives Canada, C-005961
  • Sir Charles Metcalfe Opening Parliament in MontrealAndrew Morris, 1845
    Library and Archives Canada, 1990-481-1
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Responsible Government Tested

Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin put responsible government to immediate use, restoring French as an official language. In 1849, their government passed a bill compensating anyone, loyalist or rebel, who had suffered property losses during the rebellions.

Tories attacked the bill as a reward for treason and demanded that Governor General Lord Elgin veto it. But Elgin supported it, in accordance with the principle of responsible government. In response, a furious Tory mob pelted his carriage with paving stones, ransacked the parliament building in Montréal, and burned it to the ground.

  • The Burning of the Parliament Building in MontrealAttributed to Joseph Légaré, about 1849
    McCord Museum, M11588
  • Stones thrown at Lord Elgin, April 30, 1849, collected and labelled by Lady ElginMontréal, United Canadas
    CMH, 2008.118.3-4
  • Burned inkstand from the Montréal parliament buildingEarly 1800s
    Bytown Museum, 081

Opposing Change

As this cartoon attests, many Tories believed that the achievement of responsible government had empowered a reckless and immature electorate.

  • Political cartoonCaption: Young Canada Delighted with Responsible Government
    Frederick W. Lock
    Punch in Canada, February 3, 1849
    Library and Archives Canada, C-092201

Spared from the Flames

Legislative councillor Joseph Bourret used this dispatch box to carry documents into the Upper House of Parliament in the 1840s and 1850s.

  • Joseph Bourret’s dispatch boxMade by Wickwar
    London, United Kingdom, 1840s
    Donated by Christopher McCreery, MVO, in memory of Michael Bliss, OC, FRSC
    CMH, 2018.8.1 a-c

Responsible Government on the Ground

Newly empowered elected politicians formed governments that played an increasingly important role in the daily lives of ordinary people. Colonial legislatures passed laws that established public school systems, reorganized municipal governments, expanded prisons and asylums, created professional police forces and broadened voting rights. Greater numbers of men, including African-Canadian property owners, could now vote. But many other groups, including women, poor men and Indigenous people, could not.

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  • Sketch of a policeman with a drunken man leaning against a lamppostArtist unknown, about 1870
    McCord Museum, M986.7.1.11
  • Political cartoonLegend: The Montreal city taxes. The two sides of the question
    Henri Julien, September 2, 1876
    McCord Museum, M982.530.5320

Responsible Government Across British North America

Responsible Government | Canadian History Hall (26)

Year of achieving responsible government
Canadian Geographic

First premiers

Responsible Government | Canadian History Hall (27)

1) Portrait of James Boyle Uniacke, Premier of Nova Scotia
Artist unknown, 1848
With the permission of the Nova Scotia Legislative Library

2) Portrait of George Coles, Premier of Prince Edward Island
Artist unknown, 1851
Prince Edward Island Public Archives and Records Office, 2755/120

3) Portrait of Charles Fisher, Premier of New Brunswick
William James Topley, May 1868
Library and Archives Canada, PA-025342

4) Portrait of Philip Little, Premier of Newfoundland
Artist unknown, about 1855
Library and Archives Canada, AMICUS 14756335

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Photo at top of page:
Stones thrown at Lord Elgin, April 30, 1849, collected and labelled by Lady Elgin
Montréal, United Canadas
CMH, 2008.118.3-4

FAQs

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.

When did Canada get responsible government? ›

A responsible government first appeared in Canada in the 1830s. It became an important part of Confederation. It is the method by which Canada achieved independence from Britain without revolution.

What type of government did Lord Durham want? ›

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.” The Crown rejected the first recommendation but accepted the second.

Who introduced responsible government to 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 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).

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.

Who originally owned Canada? ›

Royal New France

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.

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.

Was Canada truly independent when created? ›

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.

When was a responsible government established? ›

After elections in January 1848, he asked the reformers to form a government. Responsible Government was finally achieved in 1848 after a decade of struggle.

What 2 Things did Lord Durham recommend in his report? ›

1. Upper and Lower Canada should be united in one province. 2. There should be responsible government in the province, with less British interference.

How did the Durham Report influence responsible government? ›

The "Report" led to major reforms and democratic advances. The two Canadas were subsequently merged into a single colony, the Province of Canada, in the 1840 Act of Union. It moved Canada slowly on the path to "responsible government" (that is, self-government), which took a decade.

Why did the Reformers want a responsible government? ›

Plans for things like canals and railways were continually being held up. With responsible government, the. Reformers thought, government could be more efficient and power would rest with local people rather than a British governor, especially the key power to issue. patronage.

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

What is an example of responsible government? ›

Some examples of countries that have responsible government are the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. In countries that do not have responsible government, the cabinet and the legislature are each elected separately. This system has more separation of powers than a system with responsible government.

What are the 3 levels of government responsible for? ›

Almost everywhere you live in Australia you will have three elected governments – Federal, State (or Territory) and Local.

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.

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 is a responsible government answer 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.

What was Canada called before it was called 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.

Was there slavery in Canada? ›

The colony of New France, founded in the early 1600s, was the first major settlement in what is now Canada. Slavery was a common practice in the territory. When New France was conquered by the British in 1759, records revealed that approximately 3,600 enslaved people had lived in the settlement since its beginnings.

What country owns most of Canada? ›

So, Who Owns Canada? The land of Canada is solely owned by Queen Elizabeth II who is also the head of state. Only 9.7% of the total land is privately owned while the rest is Crown Land. The land is administered on behalf of the Crown by various agencies or departments of the government of Canada.

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 was the first leader of a responsible government in 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.

Who came to Canada first British or French? ›

Frenchman Jacques Cartier was the first European to navigate the great entrance to Canada, the Saint Lawrence River. In 1534, in a voyage conducted with great competence, Cartier explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence and claimed its shores for the French crown.

Why did Canada stay loyal to Britain? ›

Forced from their homes and persecuted at the end of the American Revolution, United Empire Loyalists sought refuge in British Canada. When war broke out in 1812, Loyalist families committed themselves to defending the British Crown and their lands for a second time.

When did Canada abolish slavery? ›

The Slavery Abolition Act came into effect on 1 August 1834, abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire, including British North America. The Act made enslavement officially illegal in every province and freed the last remaining enslaved people in Canada.

When did Ontario get responsible government? ›

Responsible Government was realized in 1848-1849 under the administration of Premiers Robert Baldwin (representing Canada West) and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (representing Canada East).

Where did Representative Govt first originate? ›

The Roman Republic was the first known state in the Western world to have a representative government, despite taking the form of a direct government in the Roman assemblies.

What did the Quebec Act of 1774 do? ›

A few years later Parliament passed the Quebec Act of 1774, granting emancipation for the Catholic, French-speaking settlers of the province. The act repealed the loyalty oath and reinstated French civil law in combination with British criminal law.

How did Durham's Report affect French speaking Canadians? ›

Significance. The Durham Report was controversial for recommending the assimilation of the French Canadians through a union of Upper and Lower Canada. Because of this, Durham became a loathed figure among French Canadians.

Why did Durham want to assimilate French? ›

Durham believed the main reason for the rebellions was ethnic differences (religion being a large portion of ethnic identity) so he proposed the cultural assimilation of Quebec to the rest of Canada as a way to unify the colony (Mills, 2006).

What did Durham Think of the family compact? ›

The phrase was not only inept as applied to Canadian party politics; but, as Lord Durham pointed out in his Report on the affairs of British North America in 1839, it was even less appropriate than party names usually are. "There is, in truth," he wrote, "very little of family connection among the persons thus united".

Who sent Lord Durham to Canada? ›

Primarily to appease the radicals, Prime Minister Lord Melbourne persuaded Lord Durham to become Governor General and High Commissioner to British North America with responsibility for preparing a report on the Canadian Rebellions of 1837-38. On 29 May 1838 Durham landed in Lower Canada.

How long was Durham in Canada? ›

Lord Durham spent only five months in the Canadas and less than two weeks in Upper Canada. His Report contained many inaccuracies about Upper Canada and was bitterly resented in Lower Canada for its unsympathetic view of French Canadians.

Who created responsible government Canada? ›

Acting on instructions from Britain, Governor General Lord Elgin called upon La Fontaine and Baldwin to form a government: the first responsible government in the United Canadas.

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 was the father of Canada? ›

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

Who are the 3 founding fathers? ›

Fact #1: These seven men are the principle Founding Fathers: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay and James Madison. While there were many others who contributed to the founding of the United States, these seven are considered by most as the Founding Fathers.

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.

Does Canada have a responsible and representative government? ›

What is Responsible Government? In a representative democracy such as Canada, voters elect MPs to represent them in the House of Commons. The political party that wins the most seats in a federal election is usually given the opportunity to form the government.

What is a responsible government class 8? ›

Answer 1: The Prime Minister and the Council of Ministers is responsible to the legislature for all their actions and policies. It means that the Council of Ministers has to work with the legislature. It is for this reason that the parliamentary system is known as a 'responsible system of government'.

What are the 3 levels of government responsible for in Canada? ›

​​In Canada's system of parliamentary democracy, there are three branches of government that guide the governance of both Canada and its provinces: the executive, legislative​, and judicial branches.

What are 5 examples of citizens responsibilities? ›

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.

What are the two types of governance? ›

Types Of Governance
  • Democratic Governance.
  • Economic And Financial Governance.
  • e-Governance Services.
  • Corporate Governance.
  • Environmental Governance and Natural Resources.
21 Apr 2022

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.

What are 5 responsibilities of the provincial government? ›

Provinces are responsible for social services like education, health and social development; economic functions like agriculture and roads; and provincial governance and administration which include the legislature, provincial treasury, local government and human settlements.

What are the 3 types of government? ›

To ensure a separation of powers, the U.S. Federal Government is made up of three branches: legislative, executive and judicial. To ensure the government is effective and citizens' rights are protected, each branch has its own powers and responsibilities, including working with the other branches.

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