This Week in History


A Responsible Government

For the week of Monday April 19, 1999

On April 25, 1849, the Rebellion Losses bill was passed in parliament and made a law, an event considered the first big test for responsible government in Canada.

Captured Rebels

Captured Rebels
© LAC / C3653

There had been rebellions in the two Canadas in 1837. In Lower Canada, the rebels were largely French-Canadian Patriotes who resented British control over their government. The Governor-appointed Executive Council could vote down any decision made by the elected Legislative Assembly. The Patriotes held rallies, organized boycotts of British products and made raids against the British military.

In Upper Canada, the appointed Executive Council consisted of men who were related or very good friends, most of them Anglican, earning it the nickname the Family Compact. The Compact favoured their own church when distributing government money, even though most colonists were not members. This displeased many. The rebels drafted a new constitution and tried to attack York (now Toronto) in order to "liberate" Upper Canada.

Following the rebellions, Britain sent Lord Durham to the Canadas to investigate. In his famous report, he recommended that the colonies unite and be given some power to govern themselves. The Act of Union of 1840 gave Canada East and Canada West (previously Lower and Upper Canada) equal representation in a more powerful elective assembly.

The Burning of Parliament Building in Montréal

The Burning of Parliament Building in Montréal,
Joseph Légaré

© McCord Museum / M11588

Less radical than the rebels, the Reform Party sought to make changes to the government through political means. Their opponents, the Tories hired thugs to threaten them during elections. Despite this, they managed to become popular among voters. Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, Reform leader from Canada East formed the cabinet in 1848 with help from Robert Baldwin, the Reform leader from Canada West.

The government introduced a bill to pay for damages caused during the rebellion in Canada East. The passing of this bill, on April 25, 1849, confirmed that Canadians enjoyed responsible government. Parliament was finally controlled by the elected assembly instead of the appointed executive.

Many people worried that the rebels would find a way to profit from this decision. Tory protestors burned down the Parliament Buildings in Montréal and attacked the Governor General, Lord Elgin, after he gave the bill royal ascent. Still, support for the government's decision was strong and the law remained in place.

For helping to establish Responsible Government, Robert Baldwin and Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine are honoured with plaques in Toronto and Montréal respectively.

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