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:

Explain the development of Responsible government in the newly formed United Canada.

Indicate the change in economic policy of the British Government.

Describe the alliance of Reformers in the Province of Canada.

Introduction (and review) of the realities of the times

"In 1837 and 1838, insurgents in Upper and Lower Canada led rebellions against the Crown and the political status quo. The revolt in Lower Canada was more serious and violent than the rebellion in Upper Canada. However, both events inspired the pivotal Durham Report. It led to the Act of Union, which merged the two colonies into the Province of Canada. It also resulted in the introduction of Responsible Government. These were critical events on the road to Canadian nationhood."

(Read more at source: Buckner, Phillip A. . "Rebellions of 1837–38". The Canadian Encyclopedia, 04 October 2019, Historica Canada. )

Engage Activity:

View sections of Boniface EN film describing the Rebellions of 1837 from 2 minutes to 6 minutes, and consider the nature of the political system they fought against. Explain the grievances of the Patriotes, in terms of the way the government didn’t represent the people. Alternatively, ask yourself: Did the government represent the people in 1837?

Review the Act of Union video available at LEARN’s Secondary History - Act of Union site. What other problems existed with the way the government was structured in the new and united Province of Canada of 1840?

Responsible Government

The concept of Responsible Government is important to the understanding of Canadian democracy today. In Canada, the federal and all of the provincial governments are responsible to the voters for their decisions, laws passed and how they govern. This is because the Prime Minister or Premier and the ministers are elected members of the House of Commons or provincial assembly, and there is no more easy power of veto from above, and even the councils are made up of members chosen from the Assembly.

In 1840 however, the ministers or the members of the Executive Council were not elected members of the assembly, but rather they were appointed by the Governor General. Likewise, the members of the Legislative Council were also appointed. Thus, the government in the Province of Canada was not a responsible government, but rather it was simply a representative one; i.e. technically it was a democracy, since the population had the right to vote, but in reality, the assembly had little to no power.

Responsible Government Overview video:
View this video to learn more about the functioning of a responsible government in general. Return to this video later after overviewing other pre- and post-responsible government events!

Additional videos:
For more information about how Responsible Government actually functions today, see this second video:

Related: Connecting With Historical Concepts Lab on Democracy
Sometimes a concept stems from a root concept that students need to know. Dan Hedges (SWLSB) has shared the document "Connecting With Historical Concepts lab on Democracy" that you can use to go over some of the basic terms, and to better personalize the notion and experience of democracy. Click here ➦

Election poster 1841. Map of Terrebonne area (Lafontaine driven out). Map Toronto/York regions (Lafontaine elected)

Exploration Activity:

Use the Responsible Government Primary Source Analysis ➦ - (and the 5 W's!) to compare likely reactions to Durham's proposed changes and solutions in The Province of Canada.

Research definitions for “Responsible Government” in general and develop further questions using What, Who, Why, When and Where.

Exploration video:

What were Durham's motives for writing his report? How did different players react? Consider critically the 1961 NFB video Lord Durham ➦

The Reformers

Following the implementation of the Act of Union, elections were held in 1841. Unlike today, elections in the 1800s could last weeks. The new governor general, Lord Sydenham, supported the Tory party and actively tried to prevent the Reformers from winning seats. He changed the boundaries of electoral districts (called gerrymandering) to increase the number of English voters in French districts, appointed loyal outsiders to run in other districts (called carpetbagging), used the army to protect preferred candidates and bribed others into abandoning their candidacies. He refused to protect the leader of the Reformers in Lower Canada Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine from mob violence in Terrebonne. As a result, Lafontaine was not elected in Lower Canada, but the elections continued in Upper Canada and the Reform leader there had a plan.

Robert Baldwin was the leader of the Reformers in Upper Canada and persuaded his father to step aside in the district of North York in Toronto for LaFontaine to run. Baldwin knew that if the French, Catholic LaFontaine could win in Protestant, English Upper Canada that the Reformers would be in a strong position in the Legislative Assembly. LaFontaine would win the election in 1841 and take a seat in the Assembly. The alliance between the Reformers was not just based on the desire to gain responsible government. Baldwin had promised to make French an official language in the Assembly, like it had been before 1840.

Learn more about the election.

Statue of Baldwin and LaFontaine, Ottawa.

Investigate the situation in Britain and the solutions proposed here:

To better understand "the change in economic policy of the British Government" and "the alliance of Reformers in the Province of Canada" read the following texts.

Corn Laws: An example of Free-Trade

In the first half of the 19th Century, Great Britain's economic policy was based on mercantilism. This policy was enacted through the Corn Laws, which were tariffs that imposed taxes on the import of grains from outside of the British Empire. These laws protected British farmers from foreign competition and gave access to Britain for Canadian farmers to export their excess produce.

However, as industrialization grew and more people moved from the countryside to cities in order to work in factories, there grew an increased demand for cheaper food. As well, British industrialists wanted to abolish the Corn Laws so other countries would reduce their tariffs that allow British exports to grow. The abolishment of the Corn Laws, essentially a move toward a freer system of trade, also meant that the British government was willing to give Canada more control over their own affairs including responsible government, which was allowed in 1848.

Rebellion Losses Bill and Responsible Government

In the election of 1848, the Reformers under Baldwin and LaFontaine won a majority of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. However, the governor, Lord Elgin, did not call on them to form the government. The executive council still was not responsible to the Assembly. The Assembly passed a motion of non-confidence in the executive and Lord Elgin then called Baldwin and LaFontaine into the executive council to form the government. This was the first time that a government was formed by the leaders of the majority party in the Province of Canada.

The most serious matter that the government had to face was the question of paying owners for the destruction of their property during the Rebellions of 1837-38. The Reformers introduced what was known as the Rebellion Losses Bill in 1849. The Tory party were opposed to this law that they saw would benefit people who were disloyal traitors. They did not have the votes and the law passed both the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council.

Lord Elgin did not personally support the law and the Tories thought that he would veto it. However, despite his misgiving, Elgin gave the law royal assent*, thus establishing the principle of responsible government in the Canadian government.

English Tories in the Province of Canada were incensed by Elgin's decision. Rioting broke out in Montreal in April of 1849. Lord Elgin's carriage was assaulted by a crowd who pelted it with rocks. The mob rampaged for two days and burnt the Legislative Assembly to the ground. Disorder even spread to Bytown (Ottawa) later that September, when gangs of Reformers and Tories fought first with sticks and rocks, and then it all escalated into a full gun battle in the streets of the market area!

*Royal Assent: "Approval by the Governor General or another designated representative of the Crown is required for a bill to become law once it has been passed by both Houses in identical form." (Source)

News of the Events

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


"An election and an historic moment introducing responsible government ... but not everyone was happy about the changes".Source video: Montréal, A capital, A Parliament (1844-1849)

Investigating the situation and resulting events

Research specific events that resulted from the situation(s) of the time. Examine the text, images and videos above and other documents you find. Use our larger Google Document collection of texts and images and curated web sites to delve further.

Organize your findings:

Identify one or more causes (factors) that led up to what you feel is the key event. Identify one or more consequences (results) that followed from that event. Use this organizer to help you note down causes and consequences for the key event.

Teacher guide: Open a Google slide deck of online activity ideas for different learning phases ➦

LIVE - Process (Engage)- Responsible Government
1840-1896 (#1) Responsible Government

Check knowledge/Make Connections:

  • View and discuss available concept circles on responsible government. Students check their knowledge and “make connections between facts." Click here