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Upper Canada Adopts a Representative Government

For the week of Monday September 17, 2012

On September 17, 1792, the first legislative assembly of Upper Canada (a region that today includes southern Ontario and the area north of the Great Lakes) was held in Newark (today known as Niagara-on-the-Lake). During this session, which ended on October 15, the members created a system of government with elected representatives called representative government.

The colony of Upper Canada was established under the Constitutional Act of 1791. The Act stipulated that the new colony would have a political system that included an elected legislative assembly. This was a privilege already granted to other British colonies, including Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. Thereafter, the government of Upper Canada consisted of two bodies: the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly.

Diagram showing Upper Canada’s political system in 1791
© Parks Canada

The members of the Executive Council, corresponding to our present-day Cabinet, and Legislative Council were usually members of the local elite and were appointed by the Lieutenant Governor. The members of the Legislative Council were appointed for life and the few representatives of the Executive Council also sat in the Legislative Council.

The Legislative Assembly, the only chamber with elected representatives, was established in response to pressure from United Empire Loyalists who had settled in the colony and from the growing middle class.

Although the establishment of an elected legislative assembly was a major step forward for the British colony, the system was not perfect. For example, the decisions of the Legislative Assembly could be vetoed by the Lieutenant Governor, the Legislative Council and the Executive Council. In other words, the chamber did not have true decision-making powers. Moreover, only property owners had the right to vote back then. Despite the limitations of this representative system of government, it nonetheless paved the way to the establishment of a democratic system of government.

Depiction of the opening of Upper Canada’s first Legislative Assembly, circa 1931
© Library and Archives Canada / J.D. Kelly / 1968-11 37
In the first election, 16 members representing 19 counties were elected to sit in the Assembly. During the first session with John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, presiding, several pieces of legislation were passed, including recognition of British common law as the legal system to be used for civil and property issues, and the right to trial by jury.

As it established a limited form of representative government in the new province of Upper Canada, the First Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada was designated a National Historic Event in 1990. John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in 1974.

To learn more about John Graves Simcoe, read A First for Upper Canada: John Graves Simcoe in the This Week in History archives.

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