The historical Process of Canadian Confederation


Act of Union 1841

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Act of Union 1841

The rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada convinced Britain that change was needed. In early 1838 the British government relieved Bond Head of his position and appointed Lord Durham to study the problems of Upper and Lower Canada. Arriving in May of 1838, Durham and his associates would spend most of their time in Lower Canada making only one short trip to Upper Canada to consult Robert Baldwin and a few other Reform leaders. Lord Durham wrote his findings entitled Report on the Affairs of British North America, aka Durham's Report. Durham make three main proposals


  1. He Recommended greater colonial self-government, emphasizing that local affairs should be colonial matters and only the larger issues such as constitutional concerns, foreign relations, trade with Great Britain and other British colonies, and disposal of public lands, should be reserved by the mother country.

  2. The colonial governor should choose his closest advisers, the members of the Executive Council, from the majority party of the Assembly, and that the governor should abide by the wishes of these elected representatives.

  3. Finally, Durham recommended a union of the two colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. Durham saw a union as the center of an eventual larger union of all the British North American colonies, one which he highly favored, and as a necessary precursor to the assimilation of the French Canadians. (Francis, Jones, Smith, 232).

Lord Sydenham succeeded Lord Durham and had to implement the program into a union of the the Canadas in 1840-41. Sydenham settled long standing disagreements in Upper Canada and worked out an arrangement whereby the two leading Protestant denominations – Church of England (Anglican) and Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) – would share half of future sales of Clergy reserves while the other half would be divided among the other denominations, according to their numbers (Ibid, 233).

By the terms of the Act of Union 1841 the capital of the new province would be Kingston. English would be the official languages of the Assembly; the united colony would assume the debts of Upper Canada; the Assembly would consist of 84 members – 42 from Upper Canada and 42 from Lower Canada. This arrangement did not set well with Lower Canada as they did not have a debt.

The Act of Union 1841 began a new era of history that would ultimately lead to the wider union of British North America.


Canada from Act of Union to Confederation

It is at this point the terms Upper and Lower Canada expire.  Now the terms become Canada West (Upper Canada, Ontario) and Canada East (Lower Canada, Quebec). 

The hope was that in fusing these two colonies together under a single parliament, the Colonial Office hoped that the anglophone majority would take control of the colony.  This would not happen.  Under responsible government, the provincial Parliament became the forum in which the politica power of the grancohone minority of what is now Canada was permanetly established (Moore 12).  However, it became apparent that the equality in the division of votes that Canada East would become a cohesive bloc.  As a result, Canada East was never much more than one vote away from a working majority (Moore 12).

 It did not take long after the establishment of the joint parliament that the Reformers of Canada West would join in an alliance with Canada East. This would be the only route to power they would have due to the cohesive link of Canada East. The person that the Reformers from the West had to talk to was Louis-Hippolyate LaFontaine who saw the Assembly as a forum for French-Canadian concerns. Hence on the surface, responsible government came to the united Canadas through an alliance between Catholic francophones and Protestant anglophones. Two groups that were otherwise suspicious of each others motives. This alliance put the reformers into power in 1848 under the joint leadership of LaFontaine and his partner from Canada West, Robert Baldwin.. On the face of it, this looks like the achieved goal. That of assimilation and cooperation between the two populations. However, this was not the great assimilation program had been anticipated.

What became clear was that once responsible government (and francophone influence) occurred, the voters of Canada East had what they needed from the reformist alliance. Canada East members of the coalition became focused on more conservative concerns - preservation of their language, faith, and traditions against the English Protestant onslaught. Reformers of Canada West also moved on to other issues - most notably the separation of church and state (Moore 13). The Reformist coalition soon fell apart because of the pursuit of different interests. Nevertheless, it paved the way for the emergence of another coalition between East and West more conservative in nature lead by two of the great leaders George-Etienne Cartier from Canada East and John A. Macdonald from Canada West.

In less than 10 years, the structure of the government that was intended to provide assimilation for the French did not come to pass. By the 1850s, George Brown, owner of The Globe, had entered parliament as a reformer. The Reformers of Canada West by this time had detached themselves from their colleagues in Canada East putting themselves out of power (Moore 14). Brown, in fact, became a regional spokesman at the expense of securing him from any further governmental role. Brown began to call for "rep by pop" or representation by population advocating a stronger role for Canada West.

Representation by population, however, had been sidelined by a competing principle of sectional equality. When the union of the Canadas took place in 1841, sectional equality had been part of the plan to assimilate the French population. Each section has an equal number of seats. At the time of the Act of Union, French Lower Canada had to accept the equal number of seats despite the fact that it had a larger population. Within a decade, a constant migration to Canada West had provided Upper Canada with a larger population than Canada East. Now, the politicians in Canada East saw sectional equality as a protection for the French Canadians. As a result, George Brown and many other Reformers began a campaign for rep-by-pop to obtain more seats for Canada West and, perhaps, for Reformers.

Photograph | Sir Francis Hincks, politician, Montreal, QC, about 1875 | MP-1991.12.6

By the end of the 1850s, Francis Hincks made a most notable observation stating that "the truth was that the people of occupying Canada West and Canada East were not homogeneous; but they differed in feelings, language, laws, religion, and institutions, and therefore the union must be considered as between two distinct people, each returning an equal number of representatives" (Moore 15). Hence, for George Brown, the lesson of sectional equality meant the imposition of French Canada's agenda, no matter how unpopular, upon Canada West whenever Canada East got the support of a few western collaborationists (Moore 16). In the end, Canada East was able to use sectional equality to its advantage and preservation.


What emerged as a fundamental fact of union politics was the diversity of political faiths and factions. There occurred a fundamental split between Reformers and Conservatives, compounded by regional and linguistic divisions. The result of these divisions was the emergence of two sets of Reform and Tory caucuses, one each for Canada West and Canada East (Moore 19). These blocks often divided into the alliance minded and the non-compromisers. The latter were exemplified by a group of Reformers in Canada West called the Clear Grits, so named by George Brown, who wanted a more democratic government along the lines of the US model. The Conservatives were headed by John A. Macdonald in Canada West and George-Etienne Cartier in Canada East, also know as the blues. The reformers in Canada East were know as the rouges.


By the late 1850s, George Brown and like minded Reformers began to call Responsible Government a failure and advocated the dissolution of the union and a presidential constitution for Canada West. Thus, abandoning the attempt to govern Protestant, English Canada West and Catholic, French Canada East within one state. The governing situation was such that neither Canada East or West could completely govern via a majority.  

George Brown in the aftermath of a dissolved coalition government would form a coalition with the rouges in Canada East for 2 days in 1859 and no sooner had a coalition then it fell apart to be subverted by the very coalition government that had proceeded his own. Brown would not be returned to the legislature in the elections of 1861. Brown in that short two year periods went back to work on his newspaper, overcome an illness, married, established a household, and fathered his first child. He returned politics in the early spring of 1863 elected for the constituency of South Oxford in a by-election. By 1864, Brown exemplified many other politicians totally disgusted with the intolerable agitations of Canadian politics. In particular the parties who had tried to appeal to each division and to attract both French Canadians and English Canadians, displaying an inveterate tendency to become strong in one section and grow weaker in the other; as a result they had reached, during a half dozen years, an apparently permanent state of approximate equality (Creighton, Confederation 44). Nevertheless, if Conservatives appeared to hold power longer than Reformers, it was only by the narrowest of margins. The business of getting into power began to consume politics.Photograph | Hon. George Brown, politician, Montreal, QC, 1865 | I-16562.1

The forward thinking George Brown on March 14, 1864 stood up in the House and defended his motion for the appointment of a select committee of nineteen on constitutional reform (Creighton, Confederation 45-46) The resolution was not a political document. Brown had made not attempt to advocate either his own preferred solution or a federal union. However, Brown explicitly gave voice to the problem of inoperable government. The resolution never came to a vote that night as the current government was, once again, confronted by a crisis that would lead to its dissolution. Governments had become so fragile by the 1860s that the majority of the Assembly only had a one or two seat plurality. Four days later when debate resumed Brown, in perhaps his best speech, managed to voice the longing of many members for a better state of governing. Brown got his constitutional committee by a surprising 59 to 48 margin (Creighton,Confederation 49). One month later, Brown's committee announced the results of their findings that a federal union should be adopted either to the Canadas alone or the greater British North American Provinces. They type of union was not discussed or advised. The government then passed over the committee report to the political matter of a vote of no confidence and lost.


With this second government collapse in almost 3 months, Brown began to move in the background. He informed some close members that he would be willing to support a government that would settle the constitutional difficulties that had plagued the Union of Canada East and West. On Friday, June 17, 1864, two leaders of the soon to be ousted coalition government John A. Macdonald and Alexander Galt met with Brown to discuss his "offer". What transpired was an agreement that the constitutional committee's report offered a possible basis of agreements; after a good deal of discussion, they reached a conclusion that a "compromise might probably be found in the adoption of either the federal principle for all the British American Provinces, as the larger question, or for Canada alone. . . (Creighton, Confederation, 63). The next day in the Assembly, Macdonald announced that discussions with a prominent member of the opposition - George Brown- in the hope of finding an agreed principle for reform on which a stronger government could be based (Creighton, Confederation, 64). The news was tremendous in that the government finally recognized that reform had to occur to prevent the continuous search for governing coalitions. George Brown rose afterwards to assure some of his Reform friends from Canada East that he would have only justified negotiations between such old opponents as the Conservative ministers and himself because the circumstances of Canadian politics -sectional hostility and feeble governments, inconclusive election- were extreme (65). This was a new sigh of relief on the part of the Assembly as the political air now focused on change.  

On June 30th, 1864 three Reform ministers, George Brown, Oliver Mowat, and William McDougall, were sworn into office with the rest of the new government. The governor of Canada on that same day, as required, informed sent a dispatch to the Colonial Secretary informing him of the new coalition government, and he letters off to the Lieutenent-Governors of the Maritime Provinces, asking permission for a delegation from Canada to attend the approaching conference on Maritime Union (Creighton, Confederation, 69).