The British Empire 
                                                              1815-1914

Uprisings in Canada in 1837

As Queen Victoria became Queen on 20 June 1837 little did she realise that far away on the American continent there were a number of uprisings in her North American colonies that threatened the existence of her North American empire which had seen the loss of the thirteen American colonies in 1783. The uprisings were in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada and although they were put down relatively quickly, they were of sufficient concern to the Prime Minister of the day, Lord Melbourne that he sent Lord Durham, one of his rivals, to investigate. Durham’s recommendations were to become a blueprint of how to grant an element of self determination to the settler colonies and yet maintain their loyalty to the British Empire.


In 1837, Victoria’s American colonies consisted of Upper and Lower Canada ,New Brunswick,  Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. Newfoundland was one of the oldest colonies having been founded by fishermen from Devon in the c16th. Nova Scotia was ceded to Britain by France in 1713 and was largely settled by Highland Scots and Ulstermen following the Highland clearances of the late c18th. Its economy was largely based on shipbuilding and timber until the emergence of steam power in the mid-c19th. New Brunswick was established as a province in 1784 following migration from New England whilst Upper and Lower Canada were established in 1791 following the migration of 40,000 empire loyalists during the American Revolution. It was Pitt’s Canada Act of 1791 that gave Upper and Lower Canada representative government of a kind.


In all there were probably no more than two and a half million British subjects in North America, and apart from those in Upper Canada none were doing very well in the 1830s. The Canadian provinces took no more than 3% of Britain’s exports and exported themselves no more than Jamaica. The maritime provinces were suffering an economic depression and needed to import food from Maine in order to survive. Many of its residents had decided to leave and emigrated to New Zealand, Australia or the USA. In Lower Canada, hemmed in by the Canadian Shield, the French speaking population clung to the shores of the St Lawrence River and lived an almost medieval subsistence existence on their strip farms. Some were reduced to eating their own animals, including their horses, in order to survive.


These French Canadians , numbering about 450,000, did their best to maintain their own cultural independence speaking French worshiping at their Catholic churches but with more and more British migrants arriving in Canada fleeing the economic depression in Britain they felt more and more isolated. These new British migrants, had left Britain at a time when the Reform Act had granted the middle classes the vote and various other acts promised further reform. Any demands by British settlers for political and economic reform would not go unnoticed by the French Canadians.


The British of Lower Canada had arrived in the years following the loss of the American colonies and established themselves along the fertile crescent on the northern shores of  Lake Ontario. The climate here was more temperate than in Lower Canada and the province was quite prosperous and its people contented. The towns were slowly developing but compared with the USA Upper Canada was a backwater. When Lord Durham arrived in 1838 he contrasted the settlements along Lake Ontario with the USA making the point that they lacked decent roads, post offices, schools, churches, mills. The southern shores of Lake Ontario were a hive of industrial activity whilst the northern shore was sleepy and stagnant.


In 1837 uprisings in both Upper and Lower Canada forced the British government to consider its position in Canada. In Lower Canada Louis Papineau, the Speaker of the House of Assembly, constantly spoke about the grievance of the French Canadians and their increasing isolation. He opposed any proposals to unify Lower and Upper Canada given the rise in British  migration in the 1830s and the suspicions of many French Canadians that it would not be long before land was being offered to the British. Papineau opposed the system of land tenure operating at the time and wanted more control of financial affairs with an elective assembly that had a say in the composition of the executive council. Al his suggestions were rejected in London. When in November 1837 Papineau told his followers of a few thousand to prepare for rebellion an attempt to arrest him was made. Shots were fired by both sides and Papineau fled to the US. The rebellion was put down before it became serious.


A few weeks later taking advantage of what was happening in Montreal, William Mackenzie and a group of around 1000 disaffected supporters attempted to take control of Toronto in Upper Canada. Mackenzie had been Mayor of Toronto and was, like Papineau,  a member of the legislature where he used his position to attack social injustice and privilege. Mackenzie was particularly concerned at the entrenched position of the church in local affairs and wanted a new constitution that gave more of a voice to the new migrants and les to the old established hierarchy. This was at a time when settlers in Upper Canada were politically quite active having either lived in the USA where settlers had a certain amount of political freedom or came from the UK at a time of political reform. Mackenzie like Papineau was forced to flee and enter a period of exile.

Although both rebellions were put down easily the metropolitan government of Melbourne needed to act in a way that did not antagonise the settlers of both provinces. The government needed to maintain the loyalty of its people abroad if it wanted to keep its colonies in North America at a time when relations with the USA were not good and no government wanted to be the government that lost Canada.

Relations between Britain and the USA for most of the c19th were not good and there were a number of occasions when there was the very real possibility of war yet the USA was a major trading partner for Britain. The two economies were tightly linked together. Britain was the chief market for the USA with 90% of Britain’s tobacco coming from the USA whilst the USA was dependant on Britain for textiles, hardware iron and many other manufactured goods. British investors invested heavily in the USA with many western cattle estates funded by British investors and American railway companies relying on British capital


Throughout the c19th century the USA was an expanding power and Canada was a focus for American aggrandisement. The seventh article of the original American constitution allowed for the inclusion of Canada at some point in the future and at several points there were American agents in Canada discovering the attitude of Canadian people to annexation. The USA was therefore in every way Britain’s main international rival and the only power able to challenge Britain’s economic pre-eminence.

It was the view of Lord Glenelg at the Colonial Office and Lord Durham (who was sent to Canada following the uprisings in 1837) that a united Canada could act to counter-balance the increasing power of the USA and Melbourne decided to send Lord Durham to Canada as Governor in 1838 to pacify the provinces where there had been trouble and to produce a report which recommended a solution.

Durham was chosen partly because he was a man of immense charm and also because he had a reputation as a radical and might appeal more to the political dissidents in Canada. Durham was also a political rival of Melbourne’s and he was glad to get rid of him for a while. Unfortunately for Melbourne he was not to be away for very long.


Durham arrived in Quebec with luggage that needed several days to unload. He paraded through the streets of Quebec in the uniform of a general displaying the arrogance of his inherited wealth and rank. Durham was keen to bring about reconciliation and gave pardons to the rank and file of the dissidents but he wanted to punish the ring leaders. He probably would not have been able to secure a guilty verdict by local juries so he banished them, illegally,  to Bermuda for which he was heavily criticised and recalled to London. His period as Governor –General had lasted just six months.


In the time he had before he was to die in 1839 Durham produced a report recommending a future course of action for the North American provinces. He was to recommend the adoption of a responsible form of government to replace the representative system that already existed. Instead of a legislature that consisted of partly elected and partly appointed members, Durham advocated that in future the elected members of the legislature should form an administration in which the governor would play the role of the monarch in a constitutional monarchy and government ministers would be responsible to the legislative body. Matters of general imperial concern like defence, foreign and commercial policy would remain the prerogative of the imperial government but all other matters would be decided at the provincial level.


Durham also recommended that Upper and Lower Canada should form a union anticipating that over time the French speaking minority in Quebec would accept being part of what Durham hoped would be an independent and prosperous dominion. By giving colonies responsible government in which they controlled their own affairs Durham hoped that colonies would stay loyal to the empire and in North America would become a bulwark against American expansionism.


Melbourne’s government accepted much of the Durham report as the way forward for British North America. The union of the two Canadas was enacted in 1840 but responsible government had to wait a little longer until the end of the decade. The formula of granting responsible government to settler colonies as a way of keeping their loyalty to the empire and yet enabling them greater political and economic independence was to be used for all the white settler colonies by the end of the c19th although not always with the results that the metropolitan governments hoped for. Following the Second Boer War, self government was granted to the South African colonies but this resulted in the Boer population gaining control of the government. When Canada was granted responsible government in 1848, it had already signed a commercial treaty with the UA and in 1859 the Canadian government imposed a tariff on steel imports, most of which came from Britain.


The danger of the North American provinces being annexed by the USA gradually receded as support dwindled in Canada following the Civil War in which Canadians looked on as Americans fought each other and as Americans became more and more critical of the reciprocal trade treaty. Fenian raids across the border into Canada alarmed Canadian loyalists and instead of annexation Canadians began talking of a federation between the provinces which came to fruition after the British parliament passed the British North America Act in 1867 which provided for the federation of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The creation of a federated Canada became the blueprint for a self governing colonial system and ensured that the independence of colonies by revolution belonged to the c18th and not the c19th.



Acadian settlement in 1605

Acadian expulsion from Nova Scotia 1755

Louis Papineau, leader of the rebels in Lower Canada

Canadian rebels in 1837

Lord Durham

The Union Of Canada was brought about by the British North America Act 1867