Upper Canada

From the Constitutional Act (1791) to the Act of Union (1841)

Upper Canada, the precursor of modern-day Ontario, was created by the Constitutional Act of 1791, which divided the former Province of Quebec into two parts: Upper Canada and Lower Canada. These two provinces were joined once again to form the Province of Canada in 1840 and were then referred to as Canada West (Upper Canada, or Ontario) and Canada East (Lower Canada, or Quebec). The terms "Upper Canada" and "Lower Canada," in the Canadian historical context, therefore refer to the period between 1791 and 1841. Much of the heritage of the Ontario we know today can be traced to this Upper Canada period.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 was London's answer to the American Revolution with regard to the administration of its North American colonies. A lieutenant-governor, assisted by an executive council, a legislative council and a house of assembly, was appointed in every province. Until 1848, when London agreed to grant responsible government to the Province of Canada, the Executive Council was answerable to London rather than to the House of Assembly.

In 1791, Upper Canada had a population of about 10 000 people. Most inhabitants were United Empire Loyalists who profited substantially from London's generosity. During the War of Independence (1776-1783), subjects who wished to remain loyal to England left what would later become the United States to settle in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Quebec (modern-day Quebec and Ontario). At that time, Upper Canada also had significant Francophone and Aboriginal populations.

The first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, played an important role in establishing Upper Canadian society. He wanted to model the new territory on his native England and institute Anglicanism as the state religion. The American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812 was also crucial to defining the Upper Canadian identity. By taking up arms against the new republic, the former American settlers  --  who made up a large part of Upper Canada's population  --  strengthened their existing ties to England.

The Family Compact that had governed the province since the early 19th century became a point of growing dissension in the 1820s. The contention culminated in the 1837 rebellions, led by William Lyon Mackenzie. Although they failed, the rebellions proved that the general population did not share the Family Compact's vision of society. Influential men such as Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine --  who led a coalition government on two separate occasions (1841-43 and 1848-51) in the decade following the Act of Union of 1841  --  introduced a number of important reforms. The main changes, however, would be imposed by the London authorities when they adopted many of the recommendations in the report drafted by Lord Durham after the rebellions of 1837 and 1838 in Upper and Lower Canada. One such recommendation led to the Act of Union of 1841, which marked the end of Upper Canada and the beginning of a new political era, that of United Canada.

The 1837 rebellions

In Upper Canada (as in Lower Canada), part of the population was critical of how the political elite governed the colony. Matters of contention included political patronage, policies on education, the economy and land grants (particularly clergy reserves) and the favouritism shown to the Anglican Church.

The reformers took control of the House of Assembly in 1828 and in 1834, but were unable to effect the desired changes. The arrival of Lieutenant-Governor Francis Bond Head, meant to win over the reformers, did not achieve the expected outcome. Head adopted a confrontational attitude and helped elect Conservatives. Moderate reformers like Robert Baldwin were defeated as a result. This played in favour of William Lyon Mackenzie and his more radical approach.

Initially, W. L. Mackenzie wanted to pressure the colonial authorities and government by urging a boycott of imported goods, encouraging political unions and associating with reformers from Lower Canada. In late summer 1837, however, he abandoned non-violent tactics and turned increasingly toward armed revolt. In early December 1837, W. L. Mackenzie and nearly 1,000 men met at Montgomery's Tavern in Toronto to attempt to overthrow the government. Between 200 and 300 volunteers and militiamen, whom the government had won over to its cause, drove back the rebels. Three days later, between 1,000 and 1,500 Loyalists marched on the tavern and forced the rebels to flee. The rebellion was almost over. A few skirmishes broke out in 1838, but none posed much threat to the government.

The Durham report and the Act of Union

Lord Durham was sent to Canada to report on the reasons for the rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada.

His report contained three main recommendations: that responsible government be granted to the British North American colonies; that Upper and Lower Canada be amalgamated to form a united Province of Canada; and that French Canadians be assimilated. He also openly criticized the political cliques that controlled government power in both colonies.

The implications of the Durham Report were much different for Upper Canada than for Lower Canada. Lord Durham wanted to re-establish peace in the colonies, and so recommended a political union. He believed this peace could best be achieved by ensuring a loyal English majority in British North America, by anglicizing French Canadians, and by granting responsible government. By making English the only official language of the Parliament of United Canada, the Act of Union afforded protection to Upper Canadian culture. By giving Upper Canada as many parliamentary representatives as the more populous Lower Canada, the Act of Union favoured Upper Canadian political life. By recommending the assimilation of French Canadians, the Durham Report bolstered the presence of English-speaking Canadians in America. The Durham Report was therefore not a threat to Upper Canada, quite the contrary. It was thus not surprising that Upper Canada should welcome the report, while it met with an angry outcry by the French-speaking population, primarily in Lower Canada.

The people of Lower Canada protested against the Durham Report's drastic measures so loudly that in 1848, seven years after the Act of Union came into effect, London was forced to recognize and accept the use of French. The Durham Report also created a new political class -- moderate reformers who believed in co-operation between Canada's two main groups at the time. In Canada West, there would be Robert Baldwin; in Canada East, there would be Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine.

The Baldwin-La Fontaine Governments

In the election of 1841, the first under the Union, London did what it could to favour Conservative candidates. In Canada West, 26 reformist members were elected under Robert Baldwin; in Canada East, only seven true reform members were elected under Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine. Both politicians understood that they would have to join forces to counter London's attempts to dictate the colony's affairs. The arrangement offered advantages to both parties. Baldwin wanted real power for the House of Assembly. La Fontaine believed he must abandon the concept of a French state in America and play British politics to ensure the survival of French Canadians in British North America.

Baldwin and La Fontaine worked together to make sure both became members of the House of Assembly and the Executive Council. Favoured by the presence of Governor Charles Bagot, who broke with former Governor General Lord Sydenham's policy of blocking Executive Council access to Francophones, Baldwin and La Fontaine formed the country's first coalition government. This brief period of relative independence in United Canada ended when Governor Bagot died in 1843 and was replaced by Charles Metcalfe. Governor Metcalfe firmly intended to put the reformers in their place, making co-operation between the two halves of the colony more difficult.

But Baldwin and La Fontaine were again called to form a coalition government from 1848 to 1851. The "Great Ministry," as it was called, would contribute substantially to the legal and municipal system in United Canada. The coalition government also adopted a number of important reforms that would change the colony's political and social landscape.

Ministerial responsibility

The evolution of the political system introduced by the Act of Union culminated in the granting of responsible government to the North American colonies in 1848. From then on, ministers would need the confidence of the House of Assembly or would have to resign. This concession by London, a great step toward parliamentary democracy, was partly responsible for the instability that marked Canadian political history in the ten years before Confederation in 1867.


  • Charland, Jean-Pierre, et al. Le Canada, un pays en evolution : manuel d'apprentissage, Montreal : Lidec, 1994, 555 p.
  • Hall, Roger. "Upper Canada", The 1999 Canadian encyclopedia : world edition, Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
  • Mills, David. "Durham Report", The 1999 Canadian encyclopedia : world edition, Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
  • Wilson, Bruce G. "Loyalists", The 1999 Canadian encyclopedia : world edition, Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
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