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Provinces and Territories

Key Terms

Responsible Government

In the British North American colonial context, to have responsible government meant that the Executive Council had to obtain and maintain the support of a majority of members of the House of Assembly in order to be able to govern the province. The Executive Council would be governed by the leader of the political party that held an elected majority in the Legislative Assembly. That same leader would also appoint the members of the Executive Council. The governor would therefore be forced to accept these "ministers", and if the majority of the members of the Legislative Assembly voted against them, they would have to resign. The governor would also be obliged to ratify laws concerning the internal affairs of the colony once these laws had been passed to the Legislative Assembly.

This was a major evolution in the way that the British North American colonies were run -- responsible government greatly diminished the governor's powers. He could no longer use his right of patronage to appoint public employees; appointment to public positions fell to the Executive Council. The governor was no longer allowed to attend Council meetings, nor could he favour one political party over another.

The achievement of responsible government in the Province of Canada in 1848 led to political instability that lasted until Confederation in 1867. Since it was very difficult to maintain a majority in the Executive Council, governments followed one another in rapid succession. This political instability was a major factor leading to the discussions that resulted in Confederation in 1867.

Nova Scotia also achieved responsible government in 1848. Great Britain then granted it to Prince Edward Island in 1851, to New Brunswick in 1854 and to Newfoundland in 1855.


Hamelin, Jean.  --  Histoire du Québec.  --  Montréal : France-Amérique, 1981.  --  P. 355.

Lacoursière, J. ; Provencher, J. ; Vaugeois, D.  --  Canada Québec : synthèse historique.  --  Montréal : ERPI, 1976.  --  P. 346.

Careless, J. M. S.  --  "Responsible government."  --  The 1999 Canadian encyclopedia : world edition.  --  Toronto : McClelland & Stewart, 1998.