In the Upper and Lower Canada provinces, rebellions took place during 1837 as citizens protested for more democratic reforms. British Prime Minister Lord Melbourne asked Lord Durham to travel to the provinces as governor-in-chief of British North America to assess the political tensions. Durham published a report which recommended the union of Lower and Upper Canada in a step to unite all provinces in British North America. Three years later, the Act of Union 1840 united Upper and Lower Canada into one Province. It enabled a single legislative council to govern with British crown assent. The Act of Union ruled that the assembly should consist of an equal number of representatives from both provinces. A responsible government was eventually formed in the Province of Canada in 1848. It would be nearly twenty years before it united with further colonies under Confederation introduced with the 1867 British North America Act now called the Constitution Act 1867.
John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham. Attribution: National Portrait Gallery, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_George_Lambton,_1st_Earl_of_Durham_by_Thomas_Phillips.jpg
Giving each Province equal representation had an unforeseen result. The two Canadas, each with its separate history, society, and culture, remained equal, distinct sections inside one political framework. They were now Canada West and Canada East, but the names Upper and Lower Canada survived in popular and official use. The Union Act had embedded dualism in the very constitution. It resulted in dual parties, double ministries, and sectional politics. (See also: Act of Union: Timeline; Act of Union: Editorial.)
Agitation for Democratic Reforms
In the early 19th century, the provinces of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) and Lower Canada (present-day Quebec) faced political tensions and unrest as citizens agitated for more democratic reforms. Rebellions occurred in 1837 as a response to the people’s grievances against the colonial administration. In response to these events, the British government appointed Lord Durham as governor-in-chief of British North America to assess the situation and recommend solutions.
The Durham Report and the Call for Union
Lord Durham travelled to the provinces and conducted a thorough investigation, culminating in the publication of the Durham Report in 1839. Durham recommended a significant constitutional change: uniting Upper and Lower Canada into a single political entity. He believed such a union would help overcome the divisive cultural and linguistic differences between the two provinces and create a more stable and united British North America.
Durham was sent by the British government to the Canadas in 1838 to investigate and report on the causes of the rebellions of 1837–38. He arrived in Quebec City on 29th May 1838. As Governor-General, he was given special powers as high commissioner of British North America.
On the first page of his Report, he stated that “[w]hile the present state of things is allowed to last, the actual inhabitants of these Provinces have no security for person or property—no enjoyment of what they possess—no stimulus to industry.” He would return to that theme repeatedly throughout his report.
The Report was highly controversial. In Upper Canada, it was rejected by the dominant Tory elite, while out-of-power reformers welcomed the ideal of responsible government. In Lower Canada, anglophone Tories were supportive because it would enable them to remain in power. French Canadians were opposed to a union that threatened their nationality.
Durham also visited the United States and wrote that he had assumed that he would find that the rebellions had been based on liberalism and economics. However, he eventually concluded that the real problem was the conflict between the traditionalist French and the modernising English. According to Durham, the French culture in Canada had changed little in 200 years and showed no sign of the progress that British culture had made. His report contains the famous assessment that Lower Canada had “two nations warring within the bosom of a single state.” and called the French Canadians “a people with no literature and no history“.
Durham made two main recommendations:
- that Upper and Lower Canada be united into one province, and
- the introduction of responsible government for all colonies in British North America.
The British Parliament implemented the first point immediately but not the second. Responsible government was only granted to these colonies after 1848.
The “Report” led to major reforms and democratic advances. The two Canadas were subsequently merged into a single colony, the Province of Canada, in the 1840 Act of Union. It moved Canada slowly towards “responsible government” (that is, self-government), but it took a decade to do so. In the long run, it advanced democracy and played a central role in the evolution of Canada’s political independence from Britain.
Durham resigned on 9th October 1838 amid controversy excited in London by his decision on the penal questions and was soon replaced by Charles Poulett Thomson, 1st Baron Sydenham, who was responsible for implementing the Union of the Canadas. The report of Durham was laid before Parliament in London on 11 February 1839.
The 1840 Act of Union
In 1840, the British Parliament passed the Act of Union, officially uniting Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada. The Act abolished the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada and established a single, centralised government for the newly formed Province with a legislative council composed of members from both former provinces to govern with the crown’s assent.
The 1840 Union Act marked a significant step in the evolution of Canada’s political structure. While it sought to create a more united British North America, it also inadvertently perpetuated regionalism and dualism. However, it laid the foundation for responsible government and set the stage for further constitutional developments leading to Canadian Confederation. The Act of Union remains a crucial milestone in Canada’s journey toward nationhood.
Equal Representation and Sectional Politics
One of the key provisions of the Act of Union was the equal representation of Upper and Lower Canada in the legislative assembly. Each Province sent an equal number of representatives to the assembly, aiming to ensure fair representation and prevent one Province from dominating the other. However, this arrangement unintentionally exacerbated sectarian politics and divisions within the united entity. In this context, ‘Sectarian Politics’ refers to political dynamics based on religious or denominational differences.
Distinct Identities within the Union
Despite the formal union, the two Canadas, becoming Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada), retained their distinct histories, societies, and cultures. The Act of Union did not erase the differences between the provinces but preserved the unique identities within the new political framework.
The Formation of a Responsible Government
While the Act of Union centralised political power, it did not immediately create a responsible government accountable to the elected representatives. However, the demands for responsible government persisted, and the Province of Canada eventually achieved responsible government in 1848. This meant that the executive council was required to have the support of the majority in the legislative assembly to remain in power, increasing the democratic accountability of the government.
The Impact and Consequences of the 1840 Union Act
The Act of Union laid the groundwork for further political developments in British North America. Nearly twenty years later, in 1867, the British North America Act (now known as the 1867 Constitution Act) established the Canadian Confederation, uniting the Province of Canada with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. This event marked the birth of the Dominion of Canada, paving the way for the country we know today:
- Economic and Infrastructure Development: The Act of Union brought about some positive changes in terms of economic and infrastructure development. With the consolidation of political power, the new provincial government was better equipped to undertake large-scale projects, such as the construction of railways and canals. These infrastructure developments played a crucial role in connecting different regions of the Province and stimulating economic growth and trade.
- Language and Cultural Tensions: While the Act of Union aimed to foster unity, it also intensified language and cultural tensions between English-speaking Canada West and French-speaking Canada East. The preservation of distinct cultural identities within the unified political structure led to challenges in balancing the interests and rights of both linguistic groups, a challenge that continues to be relevant in Canadian politics.
- Representation and Regional Grievances: The equal representation of Canada West and Canada East in the legislative assembly had unintended consequences. Smaller regions within each Province, with varying interests and concerns, found themselves underrepresented compared to more populated areas. This imbalance led to regional grievances and demands for fairer representation, which later influenced the debates surrounding electoral reforms.
- Emergence of Political Parties: The Act of Union fostered the development of distinct political parties based on regional and linguistic lines. In Canada West, political parties emerged representing English-speaking interests, while in Canada East, parties represented the Francophone population. The political landscape of the Province of Canada became increasingly defined by these dual parties, further reinforcing the sectional nature of Canadian politics.
- Continuation of British Influence: The Act of Union ensured that British colonial authorities retained considerable influence in the governance of the Province of Canada. The governor-general, appointed by the British government, held significant powers, including the right to veto legislation. The continued presence of British authority contributed to tensions between colonial administrators and the demands for responsible government by elected representatives.
Burning of the Parliament Buildings, Montreal, 1849. Attribution: Attributed to Joseph Légaré, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Page URL: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:.jpg
Troubles in Montreal, 1849
The burning of the Parliament Buildings in Montreal was an important event in pre-Canadian history and occurred on the night of 25th April 1849 in Montreal, the then-capital of the Province of Canada. It is considered a crucial moment in developing the Canadian democratic tradition, largely due to how the matter was dealt with by then co-prime ministers of the united Province of Canada, Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin.
The St. Anne’s Market building lodging the Legislative Council and Assembly of Canada was burned down by Tory rioters as a protest against the Rebellion Losses Bill while the members of the Legislative Assembly were sitting in session. There were protests right across British North America. The episode is characterised by divisions in pre-Confederation Canadian society concerning whether Canada was the North American appendage of the British Empire or a nascent sovereign nation.
Legacy and Historical Significance
The Act of Union left a lasting impact on Canadian history. It highlighted the complexities of accommodating diverse linguistic and cultural communities within a single political entity. The tensions and challenges arising from this early experiment in political union influenced later constitutional developments, and the issues it raised continue to shape Canadian politics and identity to this day:
- Impact on Indigenous Peoples: The Act of Union had implications for the Indigenous peoples of the region. The union of Upper and Lower Canada further consolidated British colonial authority over Indigenous lands and resources. As the Canadian government pursued westward expansion, Indigenous communities faced increasing pressure to cede land and negotiate treaties. The Act’s focus on European settlements and regional divisions often marginalised Indigenous voices and interests in the emerging political landscape.
- British Imperial Interests: The Act of Union was influenced by British imperial interests in maintaining control and stability in North America. The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837 raised concerns about the potential spread of revolutionary ideals and American influence. The Act aimed to create a stronger, more centralised government to better manage the colonies and prevent further unrest.
- Constitutional Experiment: The Act of Union was a constitutional experiment demonstrating the British government’s willingness to experiment with different political structures in its colonies. The act introduced a central legislative council while addressing the distinct identities of Upper and Lower Canada. Though it did not fully resolve the political tensions, it laid the groundwork for future constitutional developments.
- Economic Integration: The Act of Union facilitated increased economic integration between Canada West and Canada East. The unified government could implement economic policies that benefited both regions, leading to the growth of trade and commerce between the two former provinces.
- Sectional Identity and Political Cleavages: The Act of Union, notwithstanding its intent to promote unity, solidified sectional identities and political cleavages. This sectionalism persisted even after the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867 and remained a significant aspect of Canadian politics for many years.
- Evolving Relationship with Britain: The Act of Union marked a transitional period in the relationship between Britain and its North American colonies. While the act centralised some powers in the hands of colonial authorities, it also set the stage for future discussions about responsible government and increased autonomy. The trajectory towards Confederation demonstrated a growing desire among Canadians to have more control over their own governance.
The Canadian Confederation: How it emerged
Starting in 1839 – 1840
In 1840, the British Parliament passed the Act of Union. It became effective on 10th February 1841. The Act established a single government and legislature in a united Province of Canada. The capital was located in Kingston from 1841 until 1844. It was then moved to Montreal in 1849. It was located in Toronto from 1849 to 1851, in Quebec City from 1851 to 1855, in Toronto again from 1855 to 1859, and once more in Quebec City from 1859 to 1865. It was held in Ottawa from 1866 to 1867 when the city became the capital of the Dominion of Canada under Confederation.
The Durham Report (1839) recommended the guidelines to create the new colony with the Act of Union. The Province of Canada comprised Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). The two regions were governed jointly until the Province was dissolved to make way for Confederation in 1867. Canada West then became Ontario and Canada East became Quebec. The Province of Canada was a 26-year experiment in anglophone-francophone political cooperation.
During this time, responsible government expanded trade and commerce and brought wealth to the region. Strong leaders emerged, and the Canadian Confederation was born.
The Canadian Confederation
The Act of Union planted the seeds of the Canadian Confederation. The experience of political unity within the Province of Canada, coupled with growing concerns about American expansionism and the desire for increased autonomy from British control, led to discussions about uniting other British North American colonies.
These discussions culminated in the Confederation conferences of the 1860s, eventually resulting in the creation of the Dominion of Canada in 1867.
The Canadian Confederation, also known as the Confederation of Canada, was the process by which the British colonies of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick were united into a single country called Canada. It culminated on 1st July 1867, when the British North America Act (now known as the Constitution Act, 1867) came into effect, creating the Dominion of Canada, a self-governing entity within the British Empire.
Key Points of the Canadian Confederation
- Federal Structure: The Canadian Confederation established a federal system of government, dividing powers between the central government and the provincial governments. This distribution of powers was intended to strike a balance between a strong central authority and regional autonomy.
- Representation and Responsible Government: The British North America Act maintained the concept of responsible government wherein elected representatives were accountable to the people and responsible for the decisions made in the legislature.
- Division of Powers: The act delineated the specific areas of jurisdiction for the federal and provincial governments. Matters of national concern, such as defence, foreign affairs, and trade, were assigned to the federal government, while areas like education and healthcare were left to the provinces.
- Addition of Provinces: Over time, other British territories and colonies joined the Canadian Confederation as provinces, expanding the country’s territorial extent. Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward Island (1873), Alberta and Saskatchewan (1905), and Newfoundland (1949) were among the provinces that joined later.
Comparing the Confederation with the 1840 Act of Union
Before Confederation, Canada was governed under the Act of Union of 1840, which had merged Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (now Quebec) into a single Province of Canada. The key differences between the Act of Union and the Canadian Confederation were:
- Scope of Unification: The Act of Union only united Upper and Lower Canada into a single political entity with a single government. In contrast, the Canadian Confederation united multiple colonies (Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick) to form a federal Dominion.
- Federal Structure: The Act of Union did not establish a federal system; it created a unitary government for the Province of Canada. On the other hand, Confederation brought several colonies together into a federal structure with a division of powers between the central and provincial governments.
The Success of the Canadian Confederation
Overall, the Canadian Confederation is widely regarded as a successful political union that has stood the test of time. Some of its key successes include:
- Political Stability: Confederation provided a stable framework for governance, reducing political tensions between English-speaking and French-speaking regions and providing a mechanism for resolving disputes.
- Territorial Expansion: The Confederation facilitated the incorporation of other territories and provinces into Canada, expanding the country’s geographic and demographic diversity.
- Economic Growth: By creating a larger domestic market, Confederation encouraged economic growth and development, contributing to Canada’s growing prosperity over the succeeding years.
- Protection of Rights: The Constitution Act, 1867, laid the foundation for the protection of various rights and freedoms, including language rights and minority rights.
- Evolution of Canada’s Identity: Confederation played a crucial role in shaping the Canadian identity, emphasising the importance of unity in diversity and multiculturalism.
Influence on Later Canadian History
While the Canadian Confederation has been successful in many aspects, it’s worth noting that it hasn’t been without challenges. Various issues, such as tensions between the federal and provincial governments, regional disparities, and efforts to address the rights of Indigenous peoples, have been ongoing challenges in Canada’s governance and development. However, on the whole, Confederation has been a pivotal moment in Canadian history, providing a strong and enduring foundation for the nation.
Animated map showing the growth and change of Canada’s provinces and territories since the Confederation in 1867.
Source: https://atlas.gc.ca/ette/en/index.html 
The Act of Union and the subsequent confederation process profoundly shaped the course of Canadian history. The desire for responsible government, the challenges of managing diverse linguistic and cultural identities, and the push for greater autonomy from British control were all central themes that continued to influence Canadian politics and identity as the country matured.
Britain responded to political tensions in Upper and Lower Canada, laying the foundation for future constitutional developments and the eventual Confederation. While it sought to unite the provinces under one political framework, it also perpetuated sectionalism and linguistic divisions, and reinforced existing regional identities and cultural differences. The Act of Union’s impact on Indigenous peoples, economic integration, and the evolving relationship with Britain also played important roles in shaping the history and identity of Canada as a nation.
The Act of Union of 1840 was a pivotal moment in the history of British North America, setting the stage for Canada’s path towards nationhood and self-governance. It is essential to recognise the enduring legacy of the Act of Union and its impact on shaping the Canada we know today.
The Act of Union sought to address political tensions and create a unified political framework, but it also inadvertently perpetuated regionalism and linguistic divisions. Despite the formal union, Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada) retained their distinct histories, societies, and cultures. This duality and the equal representation of both provinces fostered sectional politics and challenges in striking a balance between the two regions.
However, beyond its complexities, the Act of Union laid the groundwork for responsible government and democratic advances. It expanded trade and commerce, leading to economic growth and prosperity for the region. The Act’s role as a constitutional experiment demonstrated the British government’s willingness to experiment with different political structures in its colonies, shaping the course of Canadian governance for years to come.
As one looks back at the Act of Union and its influence on Canadian history, it’s important to acknowledge the role of Indigenous peoples in these events. The Act further consolidated British colonial authority over Indigenous lands and resources, contributing to ongoing challenges faced by Indigenous communities. Recognising and learning from this aspect of history is essential in our journey towards reconciliation and acknowledging the contributions of Indigenous peoples to the fabric of Canada.
Today, Canada is a diverse and unified nation, celebrating its multicultural heritage and promoting inclusivity. The Act of Union’s impact resonates in Canada’s modern political system, where the principles of responsible government and representation continue to be central to its democracy. In celebrating Canada’s growth and achievements, one must also reflect on the ongoing efforts to address regional disparities, promote national unity, and protect the rights and traditions of all Canadians.
Ultimately, the Act of Union set the stage for the discussions that led to the Canadian Confederation and the birth of the nation of Canada. Its impact and historical significance resonate throughout Canadian history and continue to shape the country’s evolution as a diverse and unified nation.
Openverse.org: Canada Flag at a Pole on Mountain Area
Picture URL: https://www.pexels.com/photo/canada-flag-at-a-pole-on-mountain-area-10227950/
In conclusion, the Act of Union of 1840 remains a crucial milestone in Canada’s journey toward nationhood. Its impact and historical significance continue to shape the nation’s evolution as a diverse and unified entity.
Sources and Further Reading
- Acts of Union and Disunion, by Linda Colley, Paperback, published by Profile Books Ltd (2014), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Union-Disunion-Linda-Colley-2014-01-02/dp/B01LPDBRP2/
- Canada (1535-1913): A History Source Book, Paperback, by James Munro, Independently published (2017), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Canada-1535-1913-History-Source-Book/dp/154988400X/
- A Concise History of Canada (as a PDF), by Margaret Conrad, Professor Emerita, University of New Brunswick, available online at: https://electriccanadian.com/history/AConciseHistoryofCanada.pdf.
- The Dream of Nation, by Susan Mann, published online as a PDF, at: https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/The_Dream_of_Nation/3wLR3p7zqewC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=the+1840+Act+of+Union+(Canada)&pg=PA81&printsec=frontcover
- Self-government in Canada and How It Was Achieved [microform]: the Story of Lord Durham’s Report, Paperback – 9 Sept. 2021, by Frederick F Bradshaw (Creator), published by Legare Street Press (2021), available at: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Self-government-Canada-How-Achieved-microform/dp/1014578698/
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End Notes and Explanations
- Source: Compiled from research using information at the sources stated throughout the text, together with information provided by machine-generated artificial intelligence at: bing.com [chat] and https://chat.openai.com ↑
- NOTE: Whig reformer, John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham (Lord Durham) was appointed governor-general to enquire into the troubles in Canada. Source https://www.britannica.com/place/Canada/The-union-of-canada ↑
- Source and Acknowledgement: UK Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/1/1840/3&4V1n159, at: https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/evolutionofparliament/legislativescrutiny/parliament-and-empire/collections1/parliament-and-canada/union-act-1840/ ↑
- Source and Acknowledgement: The Canadian Encyclopaedia, at: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/province-of-canada-1841-67 ↑
- Source: https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Report_on_the_Affairs_of_British_North_America ↑
- Source: https://www.canadiana.ca/view/oocihm.32374/2 ↑
- Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Report ↑
- Source: Carol Wilton, “‘A Firebrand amongst the People’: The Durham Meetings and Popular Politics in Upper Canada.” Canadian Historical Review 75.3 (1994): 346-375. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Report ↑
- Source: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/durham-report#TwoWarringNations Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Report ↑
- Source: David Mills. “Durham Report”. Historica Foundation of Canada. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Report ↑
- Source: David Mills, Richard Foot, and Andrew McIntosh, “Durham Report” The Canadian Encyclopedia (2019) Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Report ↑
- Meaning that there was a significant amount of disagreement and public discussion in London regarding Lord Durham’s decision on penal questions during his time as governor-in-chief of British North America. ↑
- Source: Lambton, John George, 1st Earl of Durham, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, University of Toronto, Université Laval, 2000. Cited at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Durham_Report ↑
- Source: https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/province-of-canada-1841-67 ↑
- NOTES: Map URL: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canada#/media/File:Canada_provinces_evolution_2.gifAttribution: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Golbez The animated map shows changes to the borders of Canada. The captions read as follows: July 1, 1867: Dominion of Canada formed July 15, 1870: Rupert’s Land and North-Western Territory join, become North-West Territories; Manitoba formed July 20, 1871: British Columbia joins July 1, 1873: Prince Edward Island joins July 26, 1874: Ontario provisionally expanded north and west April 12, 1876: District of Keewatin formed September 1, 1880: British Arctic Islands joins as part of North-West Territories July 1, 1881: Manitoba expanded May 7, 1886: Border of District of Keewatin adjusted August 12, 1889: Ontario’s expansion finalised June 13, 1898: Yukon Territory formed, Quebec enlarged May 23, 1901: Yukon Territory adjusted September 1, 1905: Alberta and Saskatchewan formed, District of Keewatin dissolved May 15, 1912: Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec enlarged; North-West Territories renamed Northwest Territories March 11, 1927: Border with Newfoundland adjusted March 31, 1949: Newfoundland joins April 1, 1999: Nunavut formed December 6, 2001: Newfoundland renamed Newfoundland and Labrador April 1, 2003: Yukon Territory renamed Yukon. ↑