During these 50 years, government in the Canadas (Upper and Lower) was multi-layered and elitist. The British crown would generally appoint a governor and lieutenant governor, the former ruling Lower Canada and the latter Upper Canada.


In these early years of Canada, being appointed as a governor there would be equivalent to an Dane being appointed governor of Greenland- Canada was then considered a very remote, backwoods-ish place, which was not so far from the truth, and many of the governors had little love for Canada. They were usually appointed for two-year terms.

Executive and Legislative Councils

When the governors arrived, they usually knew little if anything about Canada, its citizens or its needs, so the governor appointed two councils - a Legislative (reviewed legislation from the Assembly and had veto power) and an Executive (acted as advisors to the governor). However, in most cases the people holding these positions held them for life so that the governor would have their assistance from the moment they arrived in Canada. As well, the people appointed to the councils were the elite of the colony, former United Empire Loyalists who had gone on to make money in business, trade or manufacturing. This tightly-knit group of elites formed their own political oligarchies, the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Chateau clique in Lower Canada. For more than 50 years, these oligarchies practically ruled the colonies in their own interests, building canals instead of the much-needed roads and restricting immigration to the underpopulated colonies.

Reflecting population, there was a 15-member Legislative council in Lower Canada and a 7-member one in Upper Canada.

Legislative Assemblies

Although most of the decisions made in the colonies were done by the councils and governor, there were still token legislatures in Upper and Lower Canada, elected using open ballot by relatively wealthy, land-owning males. In the Canadas there were two political parties, the Conservatives (who were more elitist), and the Reformers (who wanted to achieve governmental change, like responsible government, through legislative means). Although this arrangement worked out fairly well at first, over time the governors (who were supposed to be non-partisan) actively campaigned for the status-quo Conservatives, and sent out hired toughs to intimidate people at the polls, who might want to vote Reform.

Sir Francis Bond-Head, Lieutenant-Governor of the Canadas and governor of Upper Canada , was governor from 1836-1838, and under his rule the Reformers suffered drastic setbacks. He actively campaigned for the Conservatives, and roughed up some Reform supporters. He had a nasty habit of labelling any uncooperative legislators as “traitors”, and if any of these were foreign they would be deported instantly. He was of the belief (much like Alexander Hamilton) that it was the elite’s divine right to rule over the rest, and without them society would crumble. Well, as it turned out, under them society did crumble, resulting in the Rebellions of 1837-8.


By 1837, many Reformers had become frustrated to the point of militancy. Bond Head’s policies practically marginalized them as a party, and some, like William Lyon Mackenzie, were driven to revolt. In Lower Canada, the majority of the population was French but the majority of government was English, which led to a powderkeg waiting to explode:

Lower Canada: For the first real time since 1760, the French were expressing a desire to separate from the British crown, through such organizations as the Fils de Liberte and the Doric club, dedicated to instituting American-style government. Louis Joseph Papineau, the leader of these reformers, originally wanted a parliamentary solution to the problem through his 92 resolutions, but these were defeated resoundingly by English legislators. Within months the movement became more radical and Papineau was losing control of them. The armed conflict which took place in November 1838 at Quebec and Montreal never really amounted to anything, however, and the hopes of the Patriotes were dashed. Papineau had to flee to America.

Upper Canada: In Upper Canada, the revolt was purely political in nature. The Family Compact, which for years had ruled Upper Canada with an iron fist, was the subject of vicious attacks by Reformers and William Lyon Mackenzie. Mackenzie, suffering for years under the yoke of the Family Compact, wanted an armed revolution to take over the government, and institute a fairer, more equitable one, with Jacksonian democratic reforms but still under the British crown. Like in Lower Canada, however, Mackenzie’s rebellion never amounted to much, mainly due to the apathy of Upper Canadians, and he too had to flee to the United States.

In the short term, the Rebellions seemed to fail, but they prompted the arrival in 1838 of Lord Durham, considered a radical in England, who was sent with the task to find out why the people of the Canadas were so discontent. He only stayed for a few months, but during that time he visited commoners, mostly in Lower Canada, to find out their grievances. He also took a trip to Washington to convince Americans to stop interfering with the colonies. (In the late 1830's, many “generous” Americans tried to invade Canada to “rescue” the people there from oppression.)

Upon return to England, Durham drafted three proposals, which he thought would settle the situation in the Canadas and make things better in general:

1. Remove the veto of the Governor and Legislative Council: Durham thought that if the government worked to promote the interests of everybody, there would be less strife.

2. Unite the Colonies - Durham thought that uniting the Colonies under one government would help things work smoother and remove the interests of the political oligarchies.

3. Introduce Representation by Population - this would ensure that everybody would get represented equally in the legislature.

Britain reviewed Durham’s proposals, and met him halfway. They agreed to remove the veto power of the Legislative Council (but not the governor), to unite the colonies but give each 42 seats in the new legislature. These changes were implemented in 1841, changing the 50-year old form of Canadian government.

Sources: -Canada, History of a Nation


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