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Province of Canada

United Province of Canada
British colony


Flag Coat of Arms
Map of Canada East and West
Capital Kingston 1841–1844
Montreal 1844–1849
Toronto 1849–1852
Quebec 1852–1856
Toronto 1856–1858
Quebec 1859–1866
Ottawa 1866–1867
Languages English, French
Government Constitutional monarchy
Responsible government
Queen Victoria
Governor General See list of Governors General
Premier and the Executive Council of the Province of Canada See list of Premiers
Legislature Legislative Council and Assembly of the Province of Canada
Historical era Pre-Confederation Era
 -  Act of Union February 10, 1841
 -  Democratization 11 March 1848
 -  Canadian Confederation July 1, 1867
 -  1860–61 est. 2,507,657 
Currency Canadian pound 1841–1858
Canadian dollar 1858–1867 (fixed to US dollar)

The United Province of Canada, or Province of Canada, or the United Canadas was a British colony in North America from 1841 to 1867. Its formation reflected recommendations made by John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham in the Report on the Affairs of British North America following the Rebellions of 1837–1838.

The Act of Union 1840, passed July 23, 1840, by the British Parliament and proclaimed by the Crown on February 10, 1841, merged the two Colonies by abolishing the Parliaments of Upper and Lower Canada and replacing them with a single one with two houses, a Legislative Council as the upper chamber and the Legislative Assembly as the lower chamber. In the aftermath of the Rebellions of 1837–1838, unification of the two Canadas was driven by two factors. Firstly, Upper Canada was near bankruptcy due to a lack of stable tax revenues, and needed the resources of the more populous Lower Canada to fund its internal transportation improvements. And secondly, unification was an attempt to swamp the French vote by giving each of the former provinces the same number of parliamentary seats, despite the larger population of Lower Canada. Although Durham's report had called for both the Union of the Canadas and Responsible Government (i.e., an independent local legislature), only the first was implemented. The new government was to be led by an appointed Governor General accountable only to the British Crown and the King's Ministers. Responsible Government was not to be achieved until the second LaFontaine-Baldwin ministry in 1849.

The Province of Canada ceased to exist at Canadian Confederation on July 1, 1867, when it was redivided into the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Quebec. From 1791 to 1841, the territory roughly corresponding to modern-day Southern Ontario in Canada belonged to the British colony of the Upper Canada, while Labrador and the southern portion of modern-day Quebec belonged to the colony of the Province of Lower Canada (until 1809, when Labrador was transferred to the Colony of Newfoundland).[1] Upper Canada was primarily "Anglophone" (English-speaking), whereas Lower Canada was primarily "Francophone" (French-speaking).


  • Geography 1
    • Canada East 1.1
    • Canada West 1.2
  • Parliamentary system 2
    • Capitals 2.1
    • Governors General 2.2
      • Charles Poulett Thomson, 1st Baron Sydenham (1839–41) 2.2.1
      • Sir Charles Bagot (1841–43) 2.2.2
      • Charles Metcalfe, 1st Baron Metcalfe (1843–45) 2.2.3
      • Charles Cathcart, 2nd Earl Cathcart and Baron Greenock (1845–47) 2.2.4
      • James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin (1847-54) 2.2.5
      • Edmund Walker Head, 8th Baronet (1854–61) 2.2.6
      • Charles Monck, 4th Viscount Monck (1861–68) 2.2.7
    • Executive Council of the Province of Canada 2.3
    • Legislative Council 2.4
    • Legislative Assembly 2.5
    • District councils 2.6
  • Political parties 3
    • Reform Association of Canada 3.1
    • Parti rouge 3.2
    • Clear Grits 3.3
    • Parti bleu 3.4
    • Liberal-Conservative Party 3.5
  • Impact of responsible government 4
    • Liberal order 4.1
  • Legislative accomplishments 5
    • Baldwin Act 1849 (Municipal government reform) 5.1
    • Rebellion Losses Bill 1849 5.2
    • Secularizing King's College 1849 5.3
    • Reciprocity Treaty of 1854 5.4
  • Population 6
  • See also 7
  • References 8
  • Further reading 9


The Province of Canada was divided into two parts: Canada East and Canada West.

Canada East

Canada East was what became of the former colony of Lower Canada after being united into the Province of Canada. It became the province of Quebec after confederation.

Canada West

Canada West was what became of the former colony of Upper Canada after being united into the Province of Canada. It became the province of Ontario after confederation.

Parliamentary system


The location of the capital city of the Province of Canada changed six times in its 26-year history. The first capital was in Kingston (1841–1844). The capital moved to Montreal (1844–1849) until rioters, spurred by a series of incendiary articles published in The Gazette, protested the Rebellion Losses Bill and burned down Montreal's parliament buildings. It then moved to Toronto (1849–1852). It moved to Quebec City from 1852 to 1856, then Toronto for one year (1858)[2] before returning to Quebec City from 1859-1866. In 1857, Queen Victoria chose Ottawa as the permanent capital of the Province of Canada, initiating construction of Canada's first parliament buildings, on Parliament Hill. The first stage of this construction was completed in 1865, just in time to host the final session of the last parliament of the Province of Canada before Confederation.

Governors General

Political organization under the Act of Union, 1840

The Governor General remained the head of the civil administration of the colony, appointed by the British state, and responsible to them, not the local legislature. He was aided by the Executive Council and the Legislative Council. The Executive Council aided in administration, and the Legislative Council (now the Senate) reviewed legislation produced by the elected Legislative Assembly.

Charles Poulett Thomson, 1st Baron Sydenham (1839–41)

Charles Poulett Thomson

Thomson came from a wealthy family of timber merchants, and was an expert in finance, having served on the English Board of Trade which regulated banking (including the colony). He was promised a baronacy if he could successfully implement the union of the Canadas, and introduce a new form of municipal government, the District Council. The aim of both exercises in state-building was to strengthen the power of the Governor General, to minimize the impact of the numerically superior French vote, and to build a "middle party" that answered to him, rather than the Family Compact or the Reformers. Thomson was a Whig who believed in rational government, not "responsible government." In order to implement his plan, he utilized widespread electoral violence through the Orange Order. His efforts to prevent the election of Louis LaFontaine, the leader of the French reformers, was foiled by David Willson, the leader of the Children of Peace, who convinced the electors of the 4th Riding of York to transcend linguistic prejudice and elect LaFontaine in an English-speaking riding in Canada West.[3]

Sir Charles Bagot (1841–43)

Sir Charles Bagot (1825)

Bagot was appointed after the unexpected death of Thomson, with the explicit instructions to resist calls for Responsible Government. He arrived in the capital, Kingston, to find that Thomson's "middle party" had become polarized and he therefore could not form an executive. Even the Tories informed Bagot he could not form a cabinet without including LaFontaine and the French Party. LaFontaine demanded 4 cabinet seats, including one for Robert Baldwin. Bagot became severely ill thereafter, and Baldwin and Lafontaine became the first real premiers of the Province of Canada.[4] However, in order to take office as ministers, the two had to run for re-election. While LaFontaine was easily re-elected in 4th York, Baldwin lost his seat in Hastings as a result of Orange Order violence. It was now that the pact between the two men was completely solidified, as LaFontaine arranged for Baldwin to run in Rimouski, Canada East. This was the union of the Canadas they sought, where LaFontaine overcame linguistic prejudice to gain a seat in English Canada, and Baldwin obtained his seat in French Canada.[5][6]

Charles Metcalfe, 1st Baron Metcalfe (1843–45)

Charles Metcalfe

The Baldwin-LaFontaine ministry barely lasted six months before Governor Bagot also died in March 1843. He was replaced with Sir Charles Metcalfe, whose instructions were to check the "radical" reform government. Metcalfe reverted to the Thomson system of strong central autocratic rule. Metcalfe began appointing his own supporters to patronage positions without Baldwin and LaFontaine's approval, as joint premiers. They resigned in November 1843, beginning a constitutional crisis that would last a year. Metcalfe refused to recall the legislature to demonstrate its irrelevance; he could rule without it. This year-long crisis, in which the legislature was prorogued, "was the final signpost on Upper Canada's conceptual road to democracy. Lacking the scale of the American Revolution, it nonetheless forced a comparable articulation and rethinking of the basics of political dialogue in the province."[7] In the ensuing election, however, the Reformers did not win a majority and thus were not called to form another ministry. Responsible Government would be delayed until after 1848.[8]

Charles Cathcart, 2nd Earl Cathcart and Baron Greenock (1845–47)

Cathcart had been a staff officer with Wellington in the Napoleonic Wars, and rose in rank to become commander of British forces in North America from June 1845 to May 1847. He was also appointed as Administrator then Governor General for the same period, uniting for the first time the highest Civil and military offices. The appointment of this military officer as Governor General was due to heightened tensions with the United States over the Oregon boundary dispute. Cathcart was deeply interested in the natural sciences, but ignorant of constitutional practice, and hence an unusual choice for Governor General. He refused to become involved in the day-to-day government of the conservative ministry of William Draper, thereby indirectly emphasizing the need for Responsible Government. His primary focus was on redrafting the Militia Act of 1846. The signing of the Oregon Boundary Treaty in 1846 made him instantly dispensable.[9]

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin (1847-54)

James Bruce, Lord Elgin

Bruce's second wife, Lady Mary Louisa Lambton, was the daughter of Lord Durham and niece of Lord Grey, making him an ideal compromise figure to introduce Responsible Government. On his arrival, the Reform Party won a decisive victory at the polls. Elgin invited LaFontaine to form the new government, the first time a Governor General requested cabinet formation on the basis of party. The party character of the ministry meant that the elected premier and not the governor would no longer be head of the government. The Governor General would become a more symbolic figure. The elected Premier in the Legislative Assembly would now become responsible local administration and legislation. It also deprived the Governor of patronage appointments to the civil service, which had been the basis of Metcalfe's policy.[10] The test of Responsible Government came in 1849, when the Baldwin-Lafontaine government passed the Rebellion Losses Bill, compensating French Canadians for losses suffered during the Rebellions of 1837. Lord Elgin granted royal assent to the bill despite heated Tory opposition and his own personal misgivings, sparking riots in Montreal, during which Elgin himself was assaulted by an English-speaking Orange Order mob and the Parliament buildings were burned down.[10]

Edmund Walker Head, 8th Baronet (1854–61)

Sir Edmund Walker Head

The appointment of Walker Head (cousin of Sir Francis Bond Head whose inept governship of Upper Canada led to the Rebellion of 1837) is ironic. Some have argued that the Colonial Office meant to appoint Walker Head to be Lt. Governor of Upper Canada in 1836. The difference would have meant little. Both men were Assistant Poor Law Commissioners at the time. Walker Head's appointment in Wales led to the Chartist Newport Rising there in 1839. It was under Head, that true political party government was introduced with the Canadian Confederation took place.[11]

Charles Monck, 4th Viscount Monck (1861–68)

It was under Monck's governorship that the Great Coalition of all the political parties of the two Canadas in 1864. The Great Coalition was formed to end the political deadlock between predominantly French-speaking Canada East and predominantly English-speaking Canada West. The deadlock resulted from the requirement of a "double majority" to pass laws in the Legislative Assembly (I.e. a majority in both the Canada East and Canada West sections of the assembly). The removal of the deadlock resulted in three conferences that led to confederation.[12]

Executive Council of the Province of Canada

Thomson reformed the Executive Councils of Upper and Lower Canada by introducing a "President of the Committees of Council" to act as a chief executive officer for the Council and chair of the various committees. The first was Robert Baldwin Sullivan. Thomson also systematically organized the civil service into departments, the heads of which sat on the Executive Council. A further innovation was to demand that every Head of Department seek election in the Legislative Assembly.

Legislative Council

The Legislative Council of the Province of Canada was the upper house. The 24 legislative councillors were originally appointed. In 1856, a bill was passed to replace the appointed members by election. Members were to be elected from 24 divisions in each of Canada East and Canada West. 12 members were elected every two years from 1856 to 1862.

Legislative Assembly

Elections to the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada (1841-1863) - seats won by party
Year 1841 1844 1848 1851 1854 1858 1861 1863
CW CE Total CW CE Total CW CE Total CW CE Total CW CE Total CW CE Total CW CE Total CW CE Total
    Reform 29 29 12 12 23 23 20 20 19 19
    Clear Grits 14 14
    Radical Reform 6 6
    Moderate Reform 5 5 6 6 2 2
    Patriote 21 21 23 23 23 23
    Rouges 4 4 19 19 10 10
    Liberal 5 5 9 9 9 9 34 5 39 29 29 58 39 25 64
    Family Compact 10 10
    Tory 17 17 28 13 41 18 6 24 20 3 23
    Ministerialist 23 23 35 35
    Bleus 33 33 27 27 25 25
    Liberal-Conservative 25 9 34 24 15 39 29 8 37 24 11 35
    Independent 3 4 8 2 1 3 1 4 3 1 4 5 1 2 3 2 2 4 2 1 3 4 4
Total 42 42 84 42 42 84 42 42 84 42 42 84 65 65 130 65 65 130 65 65 130 65 65 130

Canada West, with its 450,000 inhabitants, was represented by 42 seats in the Legislative Assembly, the same number as the more-populated Canada East, with 650,000 inhabitants. With both of the former colonies having an equal number of seats, the democratic nature of Canada East's legislative representation was thus fundamentally flawed. Despite the Francophone majority in Lower Canada, most of the power was concentrated on the Anglophone minority, who exploited the lack of a secret ballot to intimidate the electorate.

The Legislature's effectiveness was further hampered by the requirement of a "double majority" where a majority of votes for the passage of a bill had to be obtained from the members of both Canada East and West.

Each administration was led by two men, one from each half of the province. Officially, one of them at any given time had the title of Premier, while the other had the title of Deputy.

District councils

Municipal government in Upper Canada was under the control of appointed magistrates who sat in Courts of Quarter Sessions to administer the law within a District. A few cities, such as Toronto, were incorporated by special acts of the legislature. Governor Thomson, 1st Baron Sydenham, spearheaded the passage of the District Councils Act which transferred municipal government to District Councils. His bill allowed for two elected councilors from each township, but the warden, clerk and treasurer were to be appointed by the government. This thus allowed for strong administrative control and continued government patronage appointments. Sydenham's bill reflected his larger concerns to limit popular participation under the tutelage of a strong executive.[13] the Councils were reformed by the Baldwin Act in 1849 which made municipal government truly democratic rather than an extension of central control of the Crown. It delegated authority to municipal governments so they could raise taxes and enact by-laws. It also established a hierarchy of types of municipal governments, starting at the top with cities and continued down past towns, villages and finally townships. This system was to prevail for the next 150 years.[14]

Political parties

Reform Association of Canada

The Second Meeting House, Sharon, where the Reform Association met June 1844.

During the year-long constitutional crisis in 1843–44, when Metcalfe prorogued Parliament to demonstrate its irrelevance, Baldwin established a "Reform Association" in February 1844, to unite the Reform movement in Canada West and to explain their understanding of responsible government. Twenty-two branches were established. A grand meeting of all branches of the Reform Association was held in the Second Meeting House of the Children of Peace in Sharon. Over three thousand people attended this rally for Baldwin.[15] the Association was not, however, a true political party and individual members voted independently.

Parti rouge

The Parti rouge (alternatively known as the Parti démocratique) was formed in the Province of Quebec around 1848 by radical French Canadians inspired by the ideas of Louis-Joseph Papineau, the Institut canadien de Montréal, and the reformist movement led by the Parti patriote of the 1830s. The reformist rouges did not believe that the 1840 Act of Union had truly granted a responsible government to former Upper and Lower Canada. They advocated important democratic reforms, republicanism, separation of the state and the church. In 1858, the elected rouges allied with the Clear Grits. This resulted in the shortest-lived government in Canadian history, falling in less than a day.

Clear Grits

The Clear Grits were the inheritors of William Lyon Mackenzie's Reform movement of the 1830s. Their support was concentrated among southwestern Ontario farmers, who were frustrated and disillusioned by the 1849 Reform government of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine's lack of democratic enthusiasm. The Clear Grits advocated universal male suffrage, representation by population, democratic institutions, reductions in government expenditure, abolition of the Clergy Reserves, voluntarism, and free trade with the United States. Their platform was similar to that of the British Chartists. The Clear Grits and the Parti rouge evolved into the Liberal Party of Canada.[16]

Parti bleu

The Parti bleu was a moderate political group in Canada East that emerged in 1854. It was based on the moderate reformist views of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine.

Liberal-Conservative Party

The Liberal-Conservative Party emerged from a coalition government in 1854 in which moderate Reformers and Conservatives from Canada West joined with bleus from Canada East under the dual prime-ministership of Sir Allan MacNab and A.-N. Morin. The new ministry were committed to secularize the Clergy reserves in Canada West and to abolish seigneurial tenure in Canada East.[17] Over time, the Liberal-Conservatives evolved into the Conservative party.[16]

Impact of responsible government

No formal provision for responsible government was included in the Act of Union 1840. Early Governors of the province were closely involved in political affairs, maintaining a right to make Executive Council and other appointments without the input of the legislative assembly.

Political organisation under the Union Act (1848)

However, in 1848 the Earl of Elgin, the then Governor General, appointed a Cabinet nominated by the majority party of the Legislative Assembly, the Baldwin-Lafontaine coalition that had won elections in January. Lord Elgin upheld the principles of responsible government by not repealing the Rebellion Losses Bill, which was highly unpopular with some English-speaking Loyalists who favoured imperial over majority rule.

As Canada East and Canada West each held 42 seats in the Legislative Assembly, there was legislative deadlock between English (mainly from Canada West) and French (mainly from Canada East). Initially, the majority of the province was French, which demanded "rep-by-pop" (representation by population), which the Anglophones opposed.

The granting of responsible government to the colony is typically attributed to reforms in 1848 (principally the effective transfer of control over patronage from the Governor to the elected ministry). These reforms resulted in the appointment of the second Baldwin-Lafontaine government that quickly removed many of the disabilities on French-Canadian political participation in the colony.

Once the English population, rapidly growing through immigration, exceeded the French, the English demanded rep-by-pop. In the end, the legislative deadlock between English and French led to a movement for a federal union which resulted in the broader Canadian Confederation in 1867.

Liberal order

In "The liberal order framework: A prospectus for a reconnaissance of Canadian history" McKay argues that "the category 'Canada' should henceforth denote a historically specific project of rule, rather than either an essence we must defend or an empty homogeneous space we must possess. Canada-as-project can be analyzed as the implantation and expansion over a heterogeneous terrain of a certain politico-economic logic—to wit, liberalism." The liberalism of which McKay writes is not that of a specific political party, but of certain practices of state building which prioritize property, first of all, and the individual.

Legislative accomplishments

Burning of the Parliament Buildings, Montreal, 1849

Baldwin Act 1849 (Municipal government reform)

The Baldwin Act, also known as the Municipal Corporations Act, replaced the local government system based on district councils in Canada West by government at the county level. It also granted more autonomy to townships, villages, towns and cities.

Rebellion Losses Bill 1849

Secularizing King's College 1849

In 1849, King's College was renamed as the University of Toronto and the school's ties with the Church of England severed.[18]

Reciprocity Treaty of 1854

The Canadian–American Reciprocity Treaty of 1854, also known as the Elgin-Marcy Treaty, was a trade treaty between the United Province of Canada and the United States. It covered raw materials and was in effect from 1854 to 1865. It represented a move toward free trade.

Education in Canada West was regulated by the province through the General Board of Education, in 1846, until 1850, when it was replaced by the Department of Public Instruction, until 1876.[19]

Among its accomplishments, the United Province of Canada built the Grand Trunk Railway, improved the educational system in Canada West under Egerton Ryerson, reinstated French as an official language of the legislature and the courts, codified the Civil Code of Lower Canada in 1866, and abolished the seigneurial system in Canada East.

Exploration of Simon James Dawson.


Year Population (Upper) Canada West Population (Lower) Canada East
1841 455,688 n/a
1844 n/a 697,084
1848 725,879 765,797–786,693 estimates
1851–52 952,004 890,261
1860–61 1,396,091 1,111,566

(broken link 9/2013)

See also

Political history
Political structure


  1. ^ "LABRADOR-CANADA BOUNDARY". marianopolis. 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-20. Labrador Act, 1809. - An imperial act (49 Geo. III, cap. 27), 1809, provided for the re-annexation to Newfoundland of 'such parts of the coast of Labrador from the River St John to Hudson's Streights, and the said Island of Anticosti, and all other smaller islands so annexed to the Government of Newfoundland by the said Proclamation of the seventh day of October one thousand seven hundred and sixty-three (except the said Islands of Madelaine) shall be separated from the said Government of Lower Canada, and be again re-annexed to the Government of Newfoundland." 
  2. ^ Head, Francis Bond (1858). Toronto, the Grounds Upon which are Based Her Claims to be the Seat of Government. Thompson & Co. 
  3. ^ "Dictionary of Canadian Biography online". 
  4. ^ Saul, John Ralston (2010). Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin. Toronto: Penguin Books. pp. 130–3. 
  5. ^ Saul, John Ralston (2010). Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin. Toronto: Penguin Books. pp. 134–5. 
  6. ^ "Dictionary of Canadian Biography online". 
  7. ^ McNairn, Jeffrey (2000). The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada 1791-1854. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 237. 
  8. ^ "Dictionary of Canadian Biography online". 
  9. ^ "Dictionary of Canadian Biography online". 
  10. ^ a b "Dictionary of Canadian Biography online". 
  11. ^ "Dictionary of Canadian Biography online". 
  12. ^ "Dictionary of Canadian Biography online". 
  13. ^ Whebell, C.F.J. (1989). "The Upper Canada District Councils Act of 1841 and British Colonial Policy". The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History XVII (2): 194.  
  14. ^ White, Graham (1997). Government and Politics of Ontario. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. p. 134. 
  15. ^ Schrauwers, Albert (2009). Union is Strength: W.L. Mackenzie, the Children of Peace, and the Emergence of Joint Stock Democracy in Upper Canada. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp. 239–40. 
  16. ^ a b Joseph Wearing, "Finding our parties' roots" in Canadian Parties in Transition, 2nd ed., Toronto: Nelson Canada, 1996, pp. 19-20
  17. ^ J.M.S. Careless, The Union of the Canadas 1841-1857, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1967, pp. 192-197.
  18. ^ Friedland, Martin L. (2002). The University of Toronto: A History. University of Toronto Press. pp. 4, 31, 143, 156, 313, 376, 593–6.  
  19. ^ "The Evolution of Education in Ontario – The Ministries and Ministers".  

Further reading

  • Careless, J. M. S. The union of the Canadas : the growth of Canadian institutions, 1841-1857. (Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, c1967.) ISBN 0-7710-1912-2.
  • Cornell, Paul G. The great coalition, June 1864. (Ottawa : Canadian Historical Association, 1966.)
  • Dent, John Charles, 1841-1888. The last forty years : the Union of 1841 to Confederation ; abridged and with an introduction by Donald Swainson. (Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, c1972.)
  • Knight, David B. Choosing Canada's capital : conflict resolution in a parliamentary system. 2nd ed. (Ottawa : Carleton University Press, 1991). xix, 398 p. ISBN 0-88629-148-8.
  • Messamore, Barbara Jane. Canada's governors general, 1847-1878 : biography and constitutional evolution. (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c2006.)
  • Morton, W. L. (William Lewis). The critical years : the union of British North America, 1857-1873. (Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, c1964.)
  • The Pre-Confederation premiers : Ontario government leaders, 1841–1867; edited by J. M. S. Careless. (Toronto : University of Toronto Press, c1980.)
  • Ryerson, Stanley B. Unequal union : roots of crisis in the Canadas, 1815-1873. (Toronto : Progress Books, 1975, c1973.) A Marxist assessment.
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