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Uniting Upper and Lower Canada

For the week of February 8, 2016.

On February 10, 1841, British Parliament brought the Act of Union into effect. The Act was prompted by uprisings in the name of political justice and was eventually followed, after more efforts, by responsible government in Canada. This year marks the 175th anniversary of the union between Upper and Lower Canada.

Robert Baldwin (left) led the Upper Canada reformers while Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (right) led those of Lower Canada.
© Library and Archives Canada
Rebellions began in 1837 against an entrenched governing class who used their status and the public’s money for personal gain, known in Upper Canada as the “Family Compact,” and in Lower Canada as the “Château Clique.” Violent uprisings were led by Louis-Joseph Papineau in Lower Canada, and by William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada but were short lived. About 50 rebels were executed and more than 250 were exiled to Bermuda and Australia. Mackenzie and Papineau fled to the United States.

In response, Britain sent Lord Durham to Canada to report on the reasons behind the rebellions. Durham submitted three major recommendations, which had the ultimate goal of assimilating the French Canadians. These included uniting Upper and Lower Canada, instituting representation by population and the establishment of responsible government. The latter two recommendations were not accepted by the Crown.

Painting of Sir Charles Metcalfe (Governor-General, 1843-5) opening Parliament in Montréal
©Library and Archives Canada

The end result was the Act of Union, which was passed by British Parliament in 1840. A newly elected union assembly was created with 42 seats for each province, even though Lower Canada had 200,000 more people. Not surprisingly, among Canada’s French-speaking populace there was strong opposition to the idea of being assimilated.

The first parliament was held in Kingston, but between 1841 and 1867 the site of the capital changed six times between Kingston, Montréal, Toronto, Québec City, and finally to Ottawa. This new parliament gave French and English reformers a chance to join forces. The reformers, led by Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, succeeded in forming a coalition government from 1841-43, and again from 1848-51. Baldwin and LaFontaine fought for responsible government until it was established by Lord Elgin in 1848. French was officially recognized and parliamentarians won the right to speak in either French or English.

William Lyon Mackenzie, Louis-Joseph Papineau, Robert Baldwin, Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, John George Lambton (1st Earl of Durham), and Bruce James (8th Earl of Elgin) are all National Historic Persons. The Meetings of Parliament, 1841-1866 is a National Historic Event.

To learn more about the events that followed the Act of Union and built the foundation for Confederation, read A Responsible Government and The Great Ministry of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in the This Week in History archives.

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