British Rule to 1867

Canada was governed from 1774 to 1791 under the terms of the Quebec Act. As the number of British settlers increased, however, it became clear to Britain that this act was no longer adequate. British institutions needed to be transplanted to British North America. This was accomplished by the Constitutional Act of 1791. The Constitutional Act divided the colony into the provinces of Upper Canada (now southern Ontario) and Lower Canada (now southern Quebec). It provided each province with an appointed lieutenant governor, appointed executive and legislative councils, and an elected legislative assembly.

Sir Alexander MackenzieSir Alexander Mackenzie led a small expedition from Fort Chipewyan in 1789. The group discovered the Mackenzie River, the longest river in Canada, and followed it to the Arctic.

Upper Canada, which was English-speaking, had a population of about 20,000; Lower Canada, mostly French-speaking, had approximately six times that number. Not a part of the colony of Canada, and developing separately, were British settlements along the Atlantic coast—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland—and Rupert's Land, the territory to the west owned by the Hudson's Bay Company.

The total population of British North America—the collective name for all British possessions in what is now Canada—was approximately 250,000 in 1791. About 140,000 were of French origin and 110,000 of British origin. In addition, there were about 200,000 Indians.

For decades the survival of British North America was not certain. The wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were threats to British rule, as they stirred the hopes of French Canadians for renewed ties to France and also posed the threat of French invasion or economic blockade.

Also a threat to the security of British North America were the designs of expansionists in the United States, who viewed their less-populated northern neighbor as a possible source of cheap land and large profits. At the outbreak of the War of 1812, between the United States and Britain, the United States had a population of about 6,000,000; British North America, about 500,000.

During the war, United States troops invaded both Upper and Lower Canada and several battles were fought. In 1812 American forces were repulsed by troops under the command of General Sir Isaac Brock at Queenston Heights. In 1813 the Americans attacked and burned York (now Toronto), the capital of Upper Canada. An inconclusive and bloody battle was fought at Lundy's Lane on the Niagara Peninsula in July, 1814. Although the war ended in December, 1814, fear of the United States continued for some time.

In 1818 the first United States—Canadian boundary agreement was made. It was agreed that the Great Lakes would be an unarmed zone and that the 49th parallel would be the Anglo-American boundary from the Lake of the Woods to the Rocky Mountains. The border question, however, was not finally settled until 1846, when the Oregon Treaty was signed. It extended the United States—Canadian border along the 49th parallel to Puget Sound.

In the decades immediately following the War of 1812, the British North American colonies grew rapidly. Population increased to more than 2 million in 1850, with the vast majority of the new settlers coming from the British Isles. Most went to Upper Canada. Others settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and some moved to the north-western territory owned by the Hudson's Bay Company, especially to the Red River Colony founded by Lord Selkirk.

Also during the first half of the 19th century, trade and industry expanded. Lumbering and farming became the mainstays of the economy. Fishing and shipbuilding also assumed importance. All fur-trade activities had moved westward to the territory where the Hudson's Bay Company and the North West Company were active. These two companies were fierce competitors for the fur trade until they merged in 1821.

Politically, there were increasing demands in Upper and Lower Canada for constitutional reform to change the structure of government. Many colonists wanted “responsible government”—that is, government whose authority came from the people and could be renewed or withdrawn in periodic elections. The structure established by the Constitutional Act had power being held by officials appointed by the British monarch, with the elected legislature subordinate to the appointees. In Lower Canada, the situation was aggravated by the fact that the appointed officials were British and the assembly was mainly French-speaking.

There were also reform movements in the Atlantic settlements during 1820–40, led by Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia and William Cooper in Prince Edward Island.

The struggle for responsible government in Upper and Lower Canada became so bitter that it resulted in open rebellion in 1837. Radicals, led by Louis Joseph Papineau in Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada, took up arms in ill-organized, bloody revolts against the government. The rebellions failed and the fighting came to an end in 1838. However, Britain took note of the critical state of affairs in Canada brought about by the first stirrings of Canadian democracy and the continuing problem of French nationalism. This led to the Earl of Durham being sent to investigate the causes of the unrest and to recommend a new form of government for Canada.

Durham arrived in Quebec in May, 1838, as governor general and high commissioner of British North America. As a result of a report he issued in 1839, Upper and Lower Canada were reunited by the Act of Union of 1840, which became effective February 10, 1841. This act was an important step toward a consolidated British North America. It created the Province of Canada, with the administrative districts of Canada West (for merly Upper Canada) and Canada East (Lower Canada). The province had an appointed governor general, an appointed legislative council, and an elected assembly with some control over local affairs. Reformers, however, felt the act did not go far enough toward responsible government.

The act also promoted the political and cultural dominance of the English-speaking population by attempting to hasten the assimilation of French Canadians. It forbade the use of the French language in government and ended certain French Canadian institutions relating to education and civil law.

In the 1850's and 1860's, much political and economic progress was made. Responsible government was achieved by the Province of Canada in 1848. It was also gained by the Maritime colonies—Nova Scotia in 1848, Prince Edward Island in 1851, New Brunswick in 1854, and Newfoundland in 1855. Local government and public schools were established. Laws that had granted special privileges to certain groups, such as the seigneurs (landed gentry) in Canada East, were abolished; and church and state were separated in Canada West. A change in British imperial policy allowed the Canadians to develop their own economic policy. As a result, an agreement on reciprocal free trade was reached with the United States in 1854. Also closer economic ties among Britain's North American possessions were forged by the construction of a series of railways in the 1850's, linking Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax.

There was no resolution, however, to the long-standing conflict between French and British settlers. No ministry was able to win a large majority in elections or stayed long in office, even though leaders of the dominant parties in both sections of the colony were included. The continued unrest in Canada caused concern in the British government. Then, in the early 1860's, the American Civil War generated fears that an armed United States might seek to expand northward into Canada. These conditions, coupled with the persistent efforts of Canadian statesmen such as Alexander Gait, George Brown, John A. Macdonald, and Georges Cartier, convinced Britain that a union of all its North American provinces was a necessity for their survival.