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.
The tension in democracy between empowerment and restraint has long been a motif in Canada's political history. It was, in fact, the reason for the political establishment of the country in its current form. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Britain's remaining colonies in North America were governed by legislative assemblies, elected by the members of these colonies. Yet these elected bodies had little real power in relation to the unelected executive councils of the Lieutenant Governor of each area; these councils usually comprised a small group of local elites who had little interest in devolving their power more widely. In 1836, Robert Baldwin wrote to Lord Glenelg, Britain's Colonial Secretary, drawing a passionate picture of the political resentment of those subject to the autocratic rule of the Council in Upper Canada. Representative government might exist in the colonies, but it was not responsible government, as those with the most considerable power had no obligation to heed elected representatives. Sixty years after Britain lost its American colonies, Baldwin pointedly reminded Britain that "she will therefore only govern the Canadas so long as she can do so with the concurrence of the People".i
Joseph Howe, editor of the Novascotian newspaper, wrote to Glenelg's successor at the Colonial Office, Lord John Russell, with much the same argument. Howe suggested, somewhat impishly, that, were he to travel to Britain and find himself in the City of Liverpool, having become "the great pivot upon which all its civil administration, its order and defence, its external relations with the rest of the empire and with the rest of the world turns; the fountain from which its internal patronage is to flow; and to which all, for a period of years, must look for social and political ascendancy," then the good citizens of Liverpool would, with good reason, be as aggravated and discontented as were the people of Nova Scotia, whose experience with this arrangement was quite real.ii
Howe chose his target well: before coming to the Colonial Office Russell, as Home Secretary, had made great efforts in democratizing the governance of several large British cities. These calls for responsible government in Canada found voice in Lord Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America, and the consequent reforms of 1841 eliminating elite rule were so successful that political stability collapsed and the colonies became even more ungovernable. This, of course, precipitated the constitutional negotiations which led to the establishment of Canada as a federal democratic state in 1867. Thus is Canada not only a country which exhibits the tensions of democratic governance, but also a country founded upon them.
i. Robert Baldwin, in Statutes, treaties and documents of the Canadian Constitution, 1713- 1929: Constitutional documents of Canada. Toronto : Oxford University Press, 1930, 2nd. ed., p. 336. Available online at http://www.canadiana.org.
ii. Joseph Howe, ibid., p. 393.