This Week in History


The Father of Responsible Government in Canada

For the week of Monday January 28, 2008

On February 2, 1848, James Boyle Uniacke became Premier of Nova Scotia and leader of the first responsible government outside of the United Kingdom. This event marked a turning point in Canada’s political system.

Portrait of James Boyle Uniacke
© Nova Scotia Museum Collection/ L'Estrange/ 49.1.34, c.1834
Uniacke was born in Halifax in 1799. He studied law at Kings College in Windsor and Inner College in London, England, graduating in 1823. In 1830, Uniacke entered politics when he was elected as the representative of Cape Breton County. Uniacke would continue to hold a seat in the Legislative Assembly until 1854.

In 1838, Uniacke was appointed to the Executive Council, a governing body appointed by and reporting only to the governor, without any input from the elected Assembly. The Council made decisions on the domestic affairs of the colony, but had no responsibility to the people. Uniacke initially supported this system, but while serving on the Council he began to shift towards more reform ideas, which included support for an elected Executive Council. On February 1840, Uniacke resigned from the Council, but retained his seat in the Assembly.

On January 22, 1848, a new Assembly convened with the Reformers holding a majority of seats. The Executive Council, however, was made up of Tories, which made it difficult to govern effectively. Uniacke rose in the Assembly on that same day to make a motion, urging the Legislature “give the reins of government to the majority, not because they were the majority, but because it would be for the best interests of the province.” 

Nova Scotia Province House, c.1819
© Nova Scotia Museum, History Collection/ J.E Woolford/ 1819

Uniacke’s speech was effective and, on January 27, the current Executive Council resigned. On January 28, the Lieutenant Governor asked Uniacke to form a new Council of both elected members and individuals chosen by the elected majority.  On February 2, James Boyle Uniacke was sworn in as the new Premier and, a week later, Attorney General of Nova Scotia. Uniacke’s government was the first in the British Empire that an Executive Council was chosen exclusively by the majority party in the Assembly.

Uniacke’s government set the standard for future Canadian governments, which would be responsible to those that elected them. The legacy this milestone left on Canadian politics was recognized in 1947 as The First Responsible Government in the British Empire Overseas, a National Historic Event.  James Boyle Uniacke, was recognized as a National Historic Person in 1938.

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