Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux
National Historic Site of Canada
Role and Functions of the Colonial Governors
The governor represented the king of France in the colony. From 1608, when Quebec was founded, until 1663, the governor held virtually all powers: military command, civil management, and execution of royal decrees. He could make civil and criminal judgments, with or without the participation of officers of the court, according to his will. Only financial management was outside his domain, since the colony depended on the authority of trading companies, which were more interested in the profits of the fur trade than colonizing the country.
In 1663, things began to change: the king of France took direct control of the colony and installed a true colonial government. New France became the equivalent of a French province. From that moment on, royal jurisdiction involved nomination of a governor, intendant and sovereign council to ensure the smooth functioning of the colony.
Although he lost the power to intervene in civil and legal administration, the governor remained the king's representative in the colony. This gave him precedence and moral authority over the events that marked colonial life. The governor had a high hand in military affairs, leading the troops, setting up and managing the militia and recommending the construction of fortifications.
He was also responsible for managing external relations, not only with neighboring colonies, but especially and above all with Amerindian nations, in order to protect and expand the French realm of influence in America. In wartime, the governor was invested with supreme authority. In other spheres of colonial activity, he had a right of review and in some cases exercised shared jurisdiction either with the intendant or council.
The French governor's three spheres of influence
The governor's influence extended locally, regionally and across the continent.
Since the French regime extended over much of North America and the fur trade itself was continental, the governor's influence was continent wide. But if in principle he had command over all of New France – from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico – in practice his territory was limited to the Saint Lawrence valley and Great Lakes region. This was due to the fact that Acadia, Newfoundland and Louisiana would eventually have their own governors.
With the administration of the Saint Lawrence valley being divided into three jurisdictions – Trois-Rivières, Montreal, and Quebec - this last jurisdiction over which he presided personally – it could be said the governor also fulfilled a regional function.
The presence of the militia was another source of the governor's power in the Saint Lawrence valley. During wartime, the governor could command the militia or demand that it carry out fatigue duty.
Locally, the governor could recommend the construction of fortifications and other military works to protect the capital.
In 1763, France lost Canada to England. Henceforth, British governors presided over the colony on behalf of the English king.
Although British custom was to have an elected assembly, the small number of English subjects and large number of Catholics in the colony thwarted this approach. In his management of the colonial administration, the governor therefore called on a council of eight people exercising legislative and executive powers. All governors, with the exception of James Murray, continued to act as military chief and oversee diplomatic relations.
The Quebec Act adopted by the British parliament in 1774 changed government of the colony. Henceforth, Catholics, who had been excluded from the colony's civil government due to British law, were able to participate in the colony's administration. The legislative and executive councils were separated and the number of councilors increased to 23. The governor presided over judicial and executive powers and the legislative council.
With American independence came many Loyalists to what was then known as the province of Quebec. They added their voice to the many English-speaking merchants who had for 30 years been calling for a legislative assembly. In 1791, with the Constitutional Act, the colony was divided in two: Upper and Lower Canada.
The governor was responsible for managing the legislative assemblies in Upper and Lower Canada, but remained the only British authority in force in North America. He held civil and military powers and managed revenues from crown lands. He chose members of the legislative and executive councils, which continued to exist. Although laws were voted by the legislative assembly and legislative council, they were to be sanctioned by the governor, who could veto certain legislation. The governor could also review judicial sentences. At any time, he could convene or dissolve the legislative assemblies.
These responsibilities belonged to the governor until the advent of responsible government in 1848, seven years after the union of the two Canadas. As of that date, the governor general named a prime minister from a member who held the confidence of the elected majority.