We can all name the provinces of Canada, but did you know there was once just a province of Canada?
It was a long time ago, and it was a direct response to a rebellion that nearly altered the entire future of Canada forever.
In today’s episode, we will dive into that province, its history and its lasting impact on our country.
During the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions in 1837 and 1838, which were motivated by frustrations related to political reform, the goal of the rebels was a responsible government. This type of government is a system that embodies the principle of parliamentary accountability, in which the democracy is responsible to the parliament not to the monarch, or imperial government.
Following the rebellions, Lord Durham, Governor General, drafted a report on the Affairs of British North America. Also known as the Durham Report, it would prove to be one of the most important documents in Canadian history.
The report was highly controversial because it suggested that Upper and Lower Canada should be granted responsible government. This was suggested because as he drafted the report, he saw that while the rebellions were over, peace and unity was still not achieved within Canada. The economy of Upper and Lower Canada had collapsed, farming conditions were poor and there was a high level of poverty among farmers. Add all this together and the environment in Upper and Lower Canada was one of distress.
The main recommendation, as was stated before, was the union of Upper and Lower Canada into one province with equal representation. Upper Canada had existed as a province since 1791 and comprised southern Ontario along the great lakes to what would one day be the Manitoba border. At the time, the province had a population of 358,187 people. As for Lower Canada, it too had existed since 1791 and comprised all southern Quebec all along the St. Lawrence River, up to Labrador. At the time of the report, it had a population of 700,000 people. This is important to note because equal representation meant that while Upper Canada had half the population of Lower Canada, both would receive equal representation. The fact that Lord Durham was English should not be discounted. He activated encouraged immigration to Canada from Britain to overwhelm the French Canadians, with the goal of assimilating the French into British culture. In addition, he recommended that the freedoms that had been granted to the French Canadians in the Royal Proclamation of 1763 should be rescinded to mitigate the worry of future rebellions. Lord Durham did not state that the French should lose their right to practice their religion or speak their language, but they would not be allowed to hinder the progress of British culture.
Another benefit for Upper Canada in this report was that if the two provinces merged, then the financial surplus of Lower Canada would erase the debt from building canals in Lower Canada.
The report stated that the Governor General would be a figurehead and the legislative assembly would hold the power elected by the people. The party with the majority would hold the power as long as they held support and would keep power in that regard.
Unfortunately for Lord Durham, he would not be in Canada to watch the union of the provinces thanks to his report. He resigned amid controversy regarding penal questions and he was replaced by Charles Thomson, who would take on the responsibility of the Union of the Canadas.
As for the report from Durham, that was put before the British Parliament on Feb. 11, 1839.
This would lead to the British North American Act of 1840, also known as the Act of Union 1840. It was approved by Parliament in July 1840 and proclaimed in Montreal on Feb. 10, 1841.
With that, Upper and Lower Canada merged into one province with two houses and a single Legislative Council as the upper chamber and the Legislative Assembly of the lower chamber.
Not all the recommendations were implemented in this union. In fact, from 1841 to 1848, the government was led by the Governor General, appointed by the British Crown. The responsible government that had been recommended would be implemented in 1849 when James Bruce, the Governor General, agreed to a request from cabinet that it be formed on the basis of a party, making the elected premier the head of the government. This would push the Governor General into a symbolic role.
Today, we take the fact that Ottawa is the capital of Canada for granted. It was the capital when Canada was formed in 1867, and it is still the capital today. One capital over the course of 153 years.
That was not the case for the Province of Canada.
From 1841 to 1867, the province would have six capitals.
The first capital was Kingston from 1841 to 1844. At this point, the capital moved to Montreal from 1844 to 1849. The capital would move again in 1849 when rioters began to protest the Rebellion Losses Bill and burned down the Montreal parliament buildings.
From 1849 to 1852, the capital was Toronto, and then in 1852 it moved to Quebec City until 1856, at which point it moved back to Toronto in 1858, before once again moving back to Quebec City from 1859 to 1866.
In 1857, Queen Victoria would choose Ottawa as the permanent capital of the Province of Canada, mainly because it was halfway between Toronto and Quebec City. Construction began on Canada’s first parliament buildings, which were completed in 1866.
While Upper Canada and Lower Canada were merged into the Province of Canada, there were two districts called Canada West and Canada East.
Canada West would have 42 seats, the same as the much more populated Canada East. There were also two men who led the assembly, elected from each half of the province, with the titles of Premier and Deputy.
As I stated before, the structure of the Province of Canada under the Act of Union in 1840 had the crown at the top, with the Governor General below, overseeing eight members of the Executive Council and 24 members of the Legislative Council. Below all that was the Legislative Assembly, elected by the population of Canada.
I bring this up because of the fact that the Governor General had a lot of power initially and I want to look at the Governor Generals who served over the province, since it provides an excellent yearly blow-by-blow of the troubles that impacted the province.
The first was the Charles Poulett Thomson, who had served with the English Board of Trade. He was promised a barony if he could implement the union of Canada and introduce a new form of municipal government, the District Council. The goal of doing both these tasks, was as I stated, limiting the power of the more numerous French, and increasing the power of the Governor General. Thomson believed in rational government, not responsible government and he would use the Orange Order, a prominent English group, to implement electoral violence.
Thomson also attempted to prevent the election of Louis LaFontaine, the leader of the French reformers, but he was foiled in these attempts.
Thomson would die suddenly in 1841 and be replaced by Charles Bagot and was told that he had to resist calls for a responsible government. Upon arriving in Kingston, Bagot found the government in chaos and he was informed that a cabinet could not be formed without including LaFontaine and the French Party. LaFontaine demanded four cabinet seats, including one for Robert Baldwin. This would result in Baldwin and LaFontaine becoming the first real premiers of the province.
Six months into the ministry of Baldwin and LaFontaine, Bagot would die suddenly and be replaced by Charles Metcalfe. Metcalfe quickly began to cement control over the government by appointing his supporters into prominent positions without getting approval from either premier. Out of protest, they resigned in November of 1843, which would create a serious constitutional crisis. For the next year, the legislature was prorogued, and Metcalfe refused to recall the legislature, choosing to rule without it.
An election was eventually called, but the Reformers did not form a majority and were not called to form a ministry.
In 1845, Charles Cathcart became Governor General. He had served during the Napoleonic Wars and rose through the ranks in the British forces. He was ignorant of constitutional practices and many felt he was an unusual choice for Governor General, but he had been chosen for his military experience because of the heightened tensions with the United States over the Oregon boundary dispute. After signing the Oregon Boundary Treaty in 1846, he became dispensable and James Bruce, who was married to the daughter of Lord Durham, became Governor General. A believer in responsible government, he would invite LaFontaine to form a new government after the Reform Party was victory at the polls. This would be the first time a Governor General requested a cabinet formation on the basis of party. This would be a major change and would result in the premier being the head of the government, not the Governor General.
With the new responsible government in place, it did not take long before it suffered its first crisis when the Baldwin-LaFontaine government passed the Rebellion Losses Bill, which I mentioned before. This bill compensated French Canadians for losses during the rebellions a decade earlier. Bruce was against the bill, but he granted it royal assent. The English-speaking opposition was very much against this and it sparked the riots in Montreal that would eventually move the Parliament buildings out of the city.
Bruce would continue to serve until 1854, the longest of any Governor General during the Province of Canada’s history. He was replaced by Edmund Walker Head. Under him, true political party government was introduced with the Liberal-Conservative Party of John A. Macdonald and George Etienne Cartier in 1856. Also, under Head, the first organized movement towards creating the country of Canada began.
The last Governor General of the Province of Canada would be Charles Monck, who served from 1861 until 1868. Under him, the Confederation of Canada would progress and happen one year prior to his leaving of the position.
I could go on about the premiers of the Province over the course of the existence of the Province of Canada, but I want to focus only on Louis-Hippolytus LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin. I have brought the up before, but they are the fathers of responsible government in Canada and as important as the Fathers of Confederation in the history of the formation of Canada. One of the most important aspects of these two men were that one was from Upper Canada and one was from Lower Canada, and they would work together in cooperation for the greater good of the province.
La Fontaine was born in Boucherville, Lower Canada in 1807 and would fine himself elected to the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada at the age of 23 in 1830. Following the 1837 Rebellion, he advocated for reforms within the new Province of Canada. He worked closely with Robert Baldwin in formation of a party of Lower and Upper Canada liberal reformers. The two, as was stated, would form a government in 1842 until they both resigned in 1843. In 1848, they were asked again to form the first responsible government, which they did on March 11, 1848. They would battle for the official reinstatement of French as an official language after it had been removed by the Union Act, and for the principles of responsible government.
He would retire from politics in 1851 and then be appointed the Chief Justice of Canada East in 1853. In 1854, Queen Victoria made him a baron and he would be knighted in 1855.
Robert Baldwin was born in York, Upper Canada in 1804 and was first elected in the same year that LaFontaine was. He would soon lose in a general election but due to his strong principles and his bravery in the face of the Orange Order who kept trying to intimidate his supporters, he would win strong loyalty among his voters.
In 1851, he would resign from politics and would sadly die in 1858. Upon his death, even those who opposed him admitted his purity and unselfishness in his motives. Today, he is respected just as much in French Canada and English Canada.
With the end of the Province of Canada in 1867, what were the effects of it and its policies?
There were several accomplishments by the legislature following the various crises of the 1840s that would shape Canada in many ways.
The Baldwin Act of 1849 would replace local government systems based on district councils in Canada West, giving more autonomy to townships, villages, towns, and cities.
In 1849, the government passed a bill that would rename King’s College as the University of Toronto, and all ties with the Church of England were severed.
In 1854, the Elgin-Marcy Treaty was passed between the Province of Canada and the United States. This treaty would cover raw materials between the provinces and would eventually move the two countries towards free trade.
During the time of the Province of Canada, the Grand Trunk Railway would be built, and French would be re-established as an official language in the legislature and the Civil Code of Lower Canada would be established in 1866.
Another important development during the existence of the Province of Canada was the exploration of western Canada with the goal of creating settlements out there. The Palliser Expedition was sent out in the 1850s to explore the west and determine its possibility for settlement.
One of the biggest effects was the rapid expansion of the population of Canada West. As was stated, in 1841 the district had 455,688 people. By 1861, that had risen to 1.3 million. As for Canada East, which had twice the population of Canada West in 1841, would be smaller in population with 1.1 million people in 1861.
Ironically, while the French Canadians wanted representation by population size when the Province of Canada was formed, English Canadians refused. When English Canadians outnumbered the French Canadians, the English then wanted to have representation by population.
With both Canada West and Canada East having 42 seats in the assembly, this created a deadlock and would lead to the movement towards a federal union, which would result in the Confederation of Canada in 1867.
From rebellion, through corruption and shady tactics, to outright burning down of government buildings, to the formation of Canada itself. The Province of Canada is a little known, but incredibly important part, of our country’s history.