Act of Union

Questions to ask yourself:

Is historical change caused more by individuals or the conditions of society at the time?

What you will be able to do:

Describe roles of the Legislative assembly, Governor, Executive and Legislative councils and explain how they interact with each other.

Describe and explain the main aspects of Lord Durham’s report.

Identify the territory of the Province of Canada on a Map

Explain the changes and continuities made by the Act of Union.

Pique your interest!

View a map from before (and after!) 1840, and see if you see things you know, or things that are different than now. What does this say about the territory and the times? Zoom in on this map of the United States from 1835.

Government in Lower and Upper Canada

Under the Constitution Act of 1791, the colonies in Canada were granted representative government, that is, those who were eligible to vote could elect representatives to the Legislative Assembly (also called the House of Assembly). The role of the Assembly was to pass laws and to control the budget of the colony. In Lower Canada, the qualification for voting was that you had to be 21 and own or rent property. This property qualification was relatively generous and as a result, the proportion of electors was higher in Lower Canada, than in Great Britain. There were no gender restrictions on voting either and women who held property (usually widows) were able to vote.

Along with the Legislative Assembly, each colony also had an Executive and a Legislative Council. These councils were where the real power lay in the government. Members of the councils were appointed to terms that only expired when they died. Governors thus appointed those that were loyal to them and to the British Government. They did not have to take into account the will of the people.

The Legislative Council also had a law making role under the system. Councillors could propose laws which were then sent to the Assembly to be voted on. More importantly, they reviewed laws passed by the Assembly and could reject them with the power of a veto. Trouble came when the Assembly was controlled by one political party and the Legislative Council was controlled by the other as the unelected councillors could reject the laws passed by the elected representatives of the people. This was precisely why the government was not a responsible one.

The Executive Council was responsible for the administration of the colony. These councillors controlled the application of laws and regulations in the colony. For example they ran the courts, the post office and appointed people to government jobs. Their decisions were not checked by those that were elected and once again could run counter to what the elected representatives in the assembly wanted.

Finally, the governor was the ultimate power in the colony. He was appointed by the government in Great Britain and was the representative of the Crown in Canada. He was in charge of the military in the colony, could appoint councillors, called elections and could also approve or veto laws passed by the Assembly and the Legislative Council.

Explore the situation.
Ask yourself questions!

Source and other maps and mini activities available at:
Government-Making of a Country (Societies & Territories site)

The above chart and questions are also available here.


As indicated above, after reading through and visualizing what exactly happened in terms of government and voting structures before and during the process of the 1841 act of Union, you can use these writings and tools to explore the situation further, and to ask yourself questions? The Societies and Territories page Government-Making of a Country has SmartBoard tools to help you organize your questions, in particular as concerns who was affected by these changes! Do you have any further questions? Are there details missing you need to research to understand the facts?

Lord Durham's Report

After the Rebellions of 1837-38 in Upper and Lower Canada Great Britain sent a new governor general with a mandate to investigate the causes of the rebellions and to make recommendations for the future governance of the colonies. Lord Durham's stay in Canada was short, but his report laid the foundation for the changes that were to happen in 1840.

Lord Durham thought that at the heart of the problem was the fact that the French and English colonists were too divided. His recommendation was to merge Upper and Lower Canada into one colony. This would allow the English colonists to eventually gain the upper hand as more and more of them were migrating to Upper Canada.

His other main recommendation was to grant to colonists responsible government. This would mean that the members of the Executive Council would be chosen from the elected members of the Legislative Assembly. They would then be 'responsible' for their decisions to the voters, who could choose a new government. At the time it was a radical idea and would have meant that subjects in Upper and Lower Canada had more democratic rights than those in Great Britain. Britain would essentially be giving almost complete control of the colony to the colonists.

Act of Union 1840

The Act of Union (or the Union Act) in 1840, put some of the recommendations of Lord Durham into effect, but not all of them.

The colony was merged into one, to be known as the Province of Canada (or United Canada). People still referred to Lower and Upper Canada, but there was one government now. (Sometimes during this period Lower Canada was referred to as Canada East and Upper Canada as Canada West. This was because the colony was still divided into two regions, and from 1841 to 1867 those two regions were governed jointly under one government.) Voters could still elect representatives to the House of Assembly, but now there was only one which would now be dominated by Anglophones. Each side of the colony would elect 42 representatives despite the fact that in 1840, Lower Canada had a larger population than Upper Canada.

Just like the House of Assembly, there was now only one Executive Council and one Legislative Council. These continued to be appointed by the Governor General, as the British government rejected the idea that Canada should have a responsible government. In fact, the belief among the colonial authorities was that since Canada was a colony, the government should be responsible to Great Britain, and not the citizens in Canada.

All texts by Matt Russell | © LEARN under CC license BY-NC-ND


Research more about when, why and what exactly Lord Durham reported.
Use LEARN's main Google Document version, including additional curated web sites, activities and documents ➦

Larger Document Collection:

For the various texts, activities and specific documents mentioned or displayed above, a larger Google Document version, including additional curated websites, activities and documents is also available here ➦

Separate Educator guide:

View a separate Online Activity ideas for different learning phases here ➦

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