This archived Web page remains online for reference, research or recordkeeping purposes. This page will not be altered or updated. Web pages that are archived on the Internet are not subject to the Government of Canada Web Standards. As per the Communications Policy of the Government of Canada, you can request alternate formats of this page on the Contact Us page.
After the famous battle between the French and the English on the Plains of Abraham of Quebec in 1759, and the capitulation of Montreal by the French in September 1760, the French regime was replaced by an English one. This period is now called the "Conquest."
The Conquest led to an entirely new regime. New France became a British colony, just like Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. The British took control over all the land and established their way of government.
On October 7, 1763, the first constitution for the "Province of Quebec," the new name for the colony, was introduced by Royal Proclamation. It set up political institutions modelled on British tradition. As had been the case under French law, the Governor of Quebec represented the King, but under English law he had a more significant administrative role, as he also replaced the intendant.
Almost 11 years later, the Royal Proclamation was replaced by the Quebec Act. This new constitution effectively increased the size of Quebec by adding Labrador, the Magdalen Islands, the Great Lakes Region, and the Ohio Valley.
The new act repealed the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and instituted a more realistic policy for dealing with the Canadians. It reinstituted French civil law, gave official recognition to the French language and the Catholic religion, and allowed for the participation of Canadians of French origin in the civil administration of the colony. The 1774 constitution also created a deeply felt upheaval in America. It enabled the Canadians to join the Empire, but raised the ire of the colonies to the south.
These colonies, 13 in all, had gone through considerable development, and they broke their ties with England following the Declaration of Independence of 1776. This independence was recognized seven years later, in 1783, by the Treaty of Paris, which recognized the 13 colonies as the United States of America.
The American Declaration of Independence had the effect of bringing to Canada a large number of Loyalists -- Americans who chose to flee the United States to remain loyal to the King and the Empire. They came to the northern British colonies: Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Quebec.
Several of them settled along the upper St. Lawrence and along the banks of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. With the arrival of such a large number of Loyalists, the Quebec Act quickly became difficult to enforce, as the Loyalists called for the British system of parliament and for British civil law. The British government answered the grievances of the Loyalists by proposing a compromise between their desires and those of the Canadians: the Constitutional Act of 1791.
Passed by the Parliament in London, the Constitutional Act did not abolish the Quebec Act but introduced some amendments. The new act divided the Canadian territory into two colonies, a mostly French-speaking Lower Canada, and a mostly English-speaking Upper Canada.
To the existing offices of governor and legislative council was added a house of assembly, which jointly held with the Legislative Council, the power to pass laws for the peace, good order and healthy administration of the colonies. The constitutional text remained silent, however, on the subject of the status of the languages. In 1792, a special order rounded out the act by establishing an executive council, whose members were appointed by the King. This executive institution was answerable not to the elected members, but to the governor, and the governor was answerable only to the imperial government.
The new constitution did not offer any solutions for resolving conflicts that could arise between the House of Assembly and the Executive Council. Therefore, the Act of 1791 brought the parliamentary system to Lower Canada, but it clearly did not bring democracy. Freedom of religion was upheld, but the Act also provided for establishing the Anglican Church.
At the time, the population of Lower Canada was 160,000, of which 20,000 were English-speaking. It was divided into four administrative districts: Gaspé, Québec, Trois-Rivières and Montréal. The territory was also divided into 25 counties.
Developments in Lower Canada Prior to the Uprisings of 1837-1838
The first election campaign, with 50 seats at stake, was held in 1792. There were no structured political parties or party leaders. The campaign resulted in the election of 34 French-speaking and 16 English-speaking members. The House of Assembly of Lower Canada officially opened in December of 1793 at the Bishop's residence in Québec City.
The first debate concerned the selection of a Speaker or President of the Assembly. Jean-Antoine Panet was elected on December 18. The language issue immediately haunted Assembly debates, and as a result the members were divided into two blocs. Although the French language had no legal status in Canada, official documents had been published in both languages since the Conquest. After a long and noisy debate, the Assembly passed a law decreeing that both languages were official. Nevertheless, London disagreed and imposed English as the only official language of Lower Canada. French was admitted only as a translation language.
This first Parliament adopted only four laws of significance, covering the judiciary, the militia, finance and highways.
Two parties began to take shape: the Tory Party, which brought together English-speaking members, and the Canadian Party, whose members were French-speaking and were in the majority in the House of Assembly. The bills introduced in the Assembly by the Canadian Party were strongly attacked by the Tories and, in most cases, were blocked by the Legislative Council.
In 1805, the British business class founded The Quebec Mercury, a political paper that gave voice to their business, national and political ambitions. To show their opposition to the English, the Canadians founded a paper called Le Canadien in 1806. There were now two clearly defined classes in this new society: English merchants and Canadians.
Over the years, the tension increased between these two groups as each defended its own interests. Some powerful Canadian spokespeople were already coming to the fore, notably Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, François Blanchet and Louis-Joseph Papineau.
The Canadian Party won the election of 1808 and immediately voted to expel two English members. Furious, Governor James Henry Craig prorogued the House and called a new election. He also had the presses of Le Canadien seized. The Canadian Party again won the election.
In addition to its internal struggles, Lower Canada was soon under threat from outside forces. Motivated by expansionist fervor, the United States declared war on Great Britain in 1812. The Americans fielded a large army of 12,000 soldiers, though poorly trained and under inept leadership. The war ended in 1814 after England sent 14,000 well-trained soldiers under good leadership to America. One outcome of this conflict was that it enabled both English- and French-speaking citizens of British North America to discover that they could co-operate in defending their common interests.
The subsequent easing of tension between the two groups was short-lived, however, as both wanted to impose their own social structures. The Tories pushed for a society cast in the British mould, characterized by political power in the hands of the aristocracy, intense trade, unconditional attachment to royalty and the British Empire, and a culture pervaded by Protestant reform.
In contrast, the Canadian Party preached a society based on local sovereignty, with power exercised on behalf of the working classes by the middle classes, and supported by agriculture, domestic trade, the Custom of Paris, Catholicism and local markets.
Both coalitions, sometimes with no regard for their own interests, fell back to stubborn, intransigent positions, which effectively stymied Lower Canada's development and led to armed conflict.
Several events contributed to the rise of nationalism, which found its outlet in the insurrection of 1837. Apart from the numerous conflicts that pitted the two groups against each other, a major issue worsened the situation, namely the question of subsidies. Subsidies were the amounts of money that the Assembly granted to the governor and the Executive Council to balance the budget. In 1818, the Assembly approved the subsidies requested by the Governor, but demanded that numerous abuses be rectified, such as pensions for deceased individuals, paying people to do nothing, salaries for non-residents, and fictitious salaries.
Nothing was done. The following year, Governor Charles Gordon Lennox, Duke of Richmond, submitted a request containing the same abuses. The Assembly voted on the budget section by section, refusing to allocate funds for abusive expenditures. The Legislative Council blocked the effort.
The abuses multiplied year after year, to the benefit of a group of individuals under the Governor's wing. In 1827, 87,000 people signed a petition denouncing the abuses perpetrated by this so-called "château clique."
While the subsidy crisis was fomenting, another major problem arose, this time concerning the sharing of customs duties between Upper and Lower Canada. Due to its geographical position, Upper Canada had no seaport and was thus entirely at Lower Canada's mercy, as customs duties were the main source of revenue for the colony.
In 1797, it was determined that the lower province -- Lower Canada -- had to remit a share of the customs duties collected according to its regulations and in proportion to the quantity of goods entering at Côteau du Lac. The issue was again raised in 1817, at which time it was agreed that one-fifth of the customs duties collected by Lower Canada were to be remitted to Upper Canada.
However, the crisis that developed in 1819 meant that the necessary calculations were not made, and Upper Canada found itself deprived of its share. The feeling was growing that the existence of two completely separate colonies was inadequate.
The British in Montreal felt that uniting the English forces of both Canadas was their only hope for becoming leaders of a majority, which would allow them to develop unhindered the business opportunities along the St. Lawrence Valley. They used the pretext of the administrative crisis to demonstrate the inadequacy of the 1791 constitution.
In 1822, the English merchants managed to make a secret presentation to London advocating unification of the two Canadas. The plan called for each "section" to be represented by a maximum of 60 members in a new, single legislature. The merchants figured they could get about 20 members elected in Lower Canada, and therefore the 200,000 English people in both Canadas would be represented by 80 members, compared with 40 members for the 300,000 French Canadians. At the heart of the matter was who would truly hold power and be able to impose their law.
When introducing the bill in London, the English merchant asked for a quick vote to avoid a counterproductive flood of protest. However, the opposition refused to co-operate. The bill was withdrawn, but it was not completely dead. In September, news of the manoeuvre reached the colonies. Meetings were called immediately and petitions began to circulate.
Ethnic tensions mounted. Some 60,000 signatures were collected, and two delegates, pro-French journalist John Neilson and Speaker of the House Louis-Joseph Papineau, were selected to go to London to present the petitions and fight against union. The British ministers heard their statements, as well as one from Governor Dalhousie, who had returned to England for a short stay. They decided to reject the bill, and assured the two men that it would not be studied again during the 1823 session. Moreover, it would never be considered again without the interested parties having had an opportunity to express their views.
Nonetheless, Governor Dalhousie did not give up and continued to believe that union of the two Canadas was absolutely necessary to the interests of British colonization. Upon his return to Canada, Dalhousie feared the worst for the 1824 session. An administrative scandal then came to light that seemed to justify the Assembly's claims regarding the administration of public funds. An inquiry showed that the Receiver General John Caldwell, who administered the public funds, was guilty of misappropriation. Some 100,000 pounds sterling had been used for speculative transactions and had been lost.
Furthermore, Papineau was becoming an increasingly formidable opponent to Governor Dalhousie's plans. Dalhousie called an election in 1827 in the hope of getting rid of this bothersome opponent. Election results were disastrous for the English party, and Papineau was re-elected Speaker of the Assembly. It was too much for Dalhousie, who refused to approve the choice and immediately prorogued the legislature.
The protest movement intensified. A delegation of three members -- John Neilson, Denis-Benjamin Viger and Augustin Cuvillier -- was mandated to go to London to present a petition containing 87,000 signatures and a series of resolutions that dealt with much more than the issue of subsidies. The work they did led to the creation of a special committee of the British House of Commons, responsible for studying and reporting on the Canadian question.
Overall, the grievances of the delegation from Lower Canada were recognized as well founded in the ensuing report. In 1828, Governor Dalhousie was replaced by Sir James Kempt. After the report from the House of Commons, the political climate improved throughout the colony. The new governor took advantage of the general lull created by the expectation of corrective measures from London.
In 1830, a new governor, Lord Matthew Aylmer, landed in Quebec with new instructions. Meanwhile, the House of Assembly wanted to settle the question of subsidies, and made control of all the colony's revenues and expenses a point of principle. Governor Aylmer, however, informed the House that the next subsidy act would have to respect the requirements of the Crown. Once again the situation was deadlocked. Any hopes raised by the actions of 1827, the report of the special committee of the British Commons, and the statements of the English ministers were dashed.
In February 1834, exasperated Assembly members passed ninety-two resolutions that summarized their requests and grievances, and sent them to the government in London. The resolutions denounced all the injustices that the Assembly had noted, similar to the memorandum that the Canadian Party -- now the Patriot Party -- had submitted in 1828. This time, however, the tone was different, and the proposed solutions were of such an uncompromising nature that they rattled the faith of those who had put their trust in the wisdom of the British parliamentary system.
Meanwhile, London had fallen into a position where it could not intervene quickly. A domestic political crisis had caught the full attention of the imperial Parliament: in the space of 11 months, there had been four different ministers responsible for the colonies. Despite this overriding concern, a commission of inquiry was created to study the Canadian situation. During this time, the House of Assembly of Lower Canada decided it would not approve any more budgets so long as London did not accept its demands.
The official response from England arrived three years later, in May 1837. The British Parliament was in possession of the report from the investigative commission, which rejected the theses of the Patriot Party and recommended that the moderate reform begun in 1828 be continued. Armed with this report, the imperial government felt justified in imposing its views on the radicals in Lower Canada.
As a follow-up, the British Parliament adopted the Russell resolutions, which placed an estoppel against the demands from the Lower Canada House of Assembly. The Russell resolutions also authorized the colonial government to do without the consent of the Assembly in the use of public funds, upheld the requirement for a civil list (to cover administrative expenses), confirmed the privileges of the British American Land Company, and raised the threat of unifying the two Canadas if they continued to get in each other's way.
By forcing Papineau and his followers to choose between submission and revolt, these resolutions only served to increase the momentum for rebellion.
Discontent peaked in Lower Canada in the spring of 1837. Despite the repeated requests of the Patriot Party, London still refused to reconstitute the Legislative Council as an elected body or to make the Executive Council answerable to the House of Assembly. Protest meetings, soon to be prohibited by Governor Gosford, were held everywhere. Rebellion finally broke out in the fall. "Patriots," often poorly organized, took up arms against the English army at St. Denis, St. Charles and St. Eustache.
The crackdown was swift: villages were burned, members of the public were attacked, and women and children were put out of their homes just as winter was setting in.
Several Patriots who had taken refuge in the United States were eager to take up the struggle again. In February 1838, under the direction of Robert Nelson, they proclaimed the Republic of Lower Canada and invited volunteer Americans to join them. The American president did not co-operate, however, and threatened to imprison anyone who compromised his government's neutrality.
In November, the Patriots attacked English troops at Lacolle and Odeltown, but the operation was a fiasco. The second crackdown was worse than the first. More villages were pillaged and burned. Almost 1000 people were arrested, twice as many as in 1837. Of these, 108 were put on trial, about 60 were deported, and 12 were hanged in the Pied-du-Courant prison in Montreal.
The Catholic clergy was not inactive during this time of revolt. Monsignor Lartigue, the Bishop of Montreal, spoke out against the insubordination of the Patriots and warned the faithful that those who promoted revolt and disobedience might well find themselves refused the sacraments. The Bishop even went so far as to publish a notice that defended the established powers. The Bishop of Québec adopted the same attitude.
After the armed uprisings, the administrator John Colborne dissolved the House of Assembly and appointed a special council to administer Lower Canada until 1841. England was becoming worried during this time, for riots were also breaking out in Upper Canada and discontent was again on the rise in its Gulf colonies. It appointed John George Lambton, Lord Durham, a radical Whig, as Governor General and High Commissioner to British North America. Lord Durham arrived in Quebec on May 27, 1838, to conduct an investigation.
In 1839, having spent six months on the new continent, Durham presented his report to the English government. It dealt mainly with various tactics he felt would restore peace: ensure the existence of a majority of loyal English people, anglicize the French Canadians who, in his opinion, had no chance of survival in an Anglo-Saxon America, and establish ministerial responsibility. To Durham, harmony could be re-established only by strengthening the influence of the people.
The imperial government immediately rejected ministerial responsibility, as it entailed broadening colonial freedoms. To put the Canadians in a state of political subordination, London introduced the Act of Union in 1840. Its purpose was to reunite the two Canadas under a single parliament and make English the only official language. Henceforth, according to the will of London, one was to speak only of United Canada. The English government felt that a colonial assembly dominated by British elements would guarantee that ties to imperialism would be strengthened and that British investors would be reassured.
The Act of Union was by and large based on the ideas about assimilation put forward by Durham, who saw in the conflict a confrontation of two races and, in Francophone society, an atrophied cultural group that hobbled Canada's expansion.
The Act of Union was passed by the Parliament in London on July 23, 1840, and came into force on February 10, 1841. It introduced numerous reforms. The two Canadas were to become one United Canada, with one government. This United Canada was to keep the institutions established by the Constitutional Act of 1791: a governor who was answerable to the British Parliament, an executive council appointed by the Crown, a legislative council of 24 members, appointed for life, and a house of assembly of 84 members, half to be elected by Canada East and the other half by Canada West . Officially, Canada East and Canada West simply replaced the names Lower Canada and Upper Canada. In practice, however, the former names did not die quickly.
The implementation of political union, which unified the economy as well, greatly pleased the Canadian business class. However, it only made the French Canadians angry, for several clauses of the constitution humiliated them. For example, Canada East, which had a larger population than Canada West, was allotted the same number of elected representatives -- a breach of the principle of democracy. The civil list was raised to 75,000 pounds per year, and elected members no longer had any control over it. Also, section 41 of the Act of Union decreed that English was to be the only official language of the country. This was the first time that England had prohibited French in a constitutional text.
The objective pursued by England in the Act of Union was clear: hammer together a British-style parliamentary system with an artificial majority, while waiting for immigration to run its course and give the British a real majority. Such a system would in all likelihood adopt policies favourable to British colonization. So it was that French Canadians began their existence as a minority.
The measures of 1841 created deep wounds. In the Québec City region, petitions called for the abolition of the Act. Some people suggested withdrawal from political life. The reaction was so intense that, in 1848, London had to recognize and accept the use of French.
At that time, the great French-Canadian champion was Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine. During the rebellion, he had developed his political philosophy around the notion that political parties must be based on "opinions" instead of "origins." He felt that social peace and prosperity would happen of their own accord once racial distinctions were rooted out of public administration and institutions were given freedom.
As a pragmatic politician who strongly denounced the discriminatory elements of the Union regime, he invited fellow French Canadians to get involved in political life. Without being aware of it, therefore, Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine was urging his compatriots to take the road that was to lead to Confederation.