Diversity in Upper Canada

My grandmother is Ojibwa, my father was French, and my husband was a Scot. You can despise whichever one of those your English heart chooses, or all of them, but I am not a thief.

I put those words into the mouth of the heroine of a novel, but they provide a good description of the people of Upper Canada in 1832, when the story takes place. It was a time of upheaval and change.


From the CIA World Factbook

The Parliament of Great Britain created Upper Canada with the passage of the Constitutional Act of 1791. The act carved a new political entity out of what had been the Province of Quebec, effectively dividing the province in two. The driving force behind the act came from the influx of loyalists from the thirteen southern colonies during and after the American Revolution. Threats, loss of property, and punitive taxes drove many north.

Britain had previously governed the entire area under the Quebec Act of 1774. That act extended Quebec Province west into what later became Upper Canada/Southern Ontario, and what would become the Northwest Territory of the United States, bounded by the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. (On a side note the Quebec Act is also one of the causes of the American Revolution because it claimed the aboriginal lands for the crown and closed them to settlement. That’s a subject for another day.)

The residents of that territory were primarily people of the First Nations, Metis people, and French who

Boy Chief Ojibbeway, by George Catlin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Boy Chief Ojibbeway, by George Catlin

had built missions, trading posts, and settlements in this western country as early as the 1600s. Two main groups of native peoples lived in the territory that became Upper Canada, Anishinaabe people including the Ojibwa, and people of the Iroquois nations. Ojibwa tradition is that they came from the east, settling around the lakes well into what is now Wisconsin and Minnesota. By 1791 they had ceded most of their land in what became Upper Canada by purchase or treaty. During the1830s, about the time of my novel, there were Ojibwa villages stretching from Lake St. Clair, along the eastern shore of Lake Huron and north around Georgian Bay.

French traders had been in the area for over 100 years at the time of the Act of 1791. There was a French mission at St. Marie in Midlands in 1639 and one at Sault Ste. Marie in 1688. Fort Ponchartrain du Detroit dates to 1701.After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Scottish traders also immigrated to the Detroit area. French fur traders, and Scottish as well, married native women and there was a significant body of mixed or Metis people in Upper Canada.

The Quebec Act provided reassurances to the French population of the province. It:

  • Removed reference to the Protestant faith from oaths of loyalty and guaranteed freedom to Roman Catholics.
  • For the most part imposed French civil law as the legal system, as opposed to English common law.
  • Retained the Catholic Church’s right to impose tithes.
  • Retained the Seigneurial system of land ownership, a semi-feudal system which meant, in general, that tenants had the right to use land but did not own it outright.
  • Did not provide a elected assembly. Officials worried about that based on the rebels in the thirteen colonies.
The Road between Kingston and York, James Pattison Cockburn

The Road between Kingston and York, James Pattison Cockburn

The religious provisions generally worked well, but loyalists, who began to arrive soon after the Act, found themselves a minority in a French-speaking province and soon began to push for English law and customs.

The Act of 1791 carved out an English province with English law, government, and land-holding customs aimed largely at the loyalists. The government was based on the English limited monarchy system. While Canada did not have aristocracy, the Upper Canada tended to be dominated by powerful families. The government appointed members to the Legislative Council (analogous to the House of Lords) for life. The Legislative Assembly was elected, but its power was limited, and the Council had veto power. There was a deep suspicion of democracy rooted in reaction to the American Revolution.

The loyalist population continued to arrive in waves. An estimated 7,000 scattered across the area initially were joined by a large influx after the Act of 1791 which promised land. By the War of 1812, and the arrival of the so-called “late loyalists,” conflicts arose over entitlement to land grants and some resentments of Americans rose up.

About the same time, after the end of the Napoleonic War in 1815, the Great Migration from Britain into Canada began, spurred by economic conditions and the promise of cheap land. It has been estimated that 800,000 migrants immigrated to Canada between 1810 and 1850, but it isn’t clear how many settled in Upper Canada, and how many Irish and Scottish settlers are included in that number.

Locks Under Construction (along the Rideau Canal) 1830, by Thomas Burrowes [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Locks Under Construction (and the Rideau Canal) 1830, by Thomas Burrowes

Memorial to Fallen Canal Workers, Photo by Circa24 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Memorial to Fallen Canal Workers, Photo by Circa24 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

In 1826, construction began on the Rideau Canal, and officials determined that commercial contractors would be used. Some contractors had existing labor forces, largely French and Metis workers. The textile industry had collapsed in Ireland and destitute Irish immigrants were eager for work. The building of the canal was backbreaking and dangerous. It is unclear, but at least one thousand died, five hundred from malaria alone by the time work finished in 1832.

The canal had begun as a strategic military project, but by the time in was complete, its importance was primarily commercial. It served as a conduit for ongoing waves of immigrants. The Great Famine of the late 1840s brought yet more Irish into the area.

Very early on Upper Canada included an African American population. A incident in which an enslaved black woman resisted transfer to a new owner in the United States—and the support she gathered from neighbors—led to the Act Against Slavery for Upper Canada of 1793. It is credited with helping prod Britain to abolish overseas slave trade in 1807. Aiding fugitive slaves began at that time. Eventually over 30,000 fugitive slaves came to freedom in Canada via the Underground Railroad, most of that to Upper Canada.

Refugees Escaping Over the Ice, 1837, from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant

Refugees Escaping Over the Ice, 1837, from Upper Canada Sketches by Thomas Conant

The diverse groups in Upper Canada began to strain against some of the provisions of the Act of Constitution by the 1830s. Ongoing disputes about land and the late loyalists, crop failures and economic stress, lack of power to the elected assembly, and resentment of the ruling elite came to a head in the 1837 Rebellion. Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada are believed to have led in part to the Act of Union of 1840 and the United Province of Canada in 1841. It also contributed to the rise of moderate and more effective government is what is now Ontario.




Caroline Warfield lives in the urban wilds of Easter Pennsylvania where she spends time with her own hero and their grandson, enjoys the history all around her, and writes historical romance. The heroes and heroines of Caroline’s Dangerous Series overcame challenges even after their happy ending. Their children seek their own happiness in distant lands in Children of Empire. The first of the new series, The Renegade Wife, set in Upper Canada in 1832, comes out in October. Its sequel, The Reluctant Wife, set in India in 1835, will follow in April, 2017.

For More information:

Exodus: Migration To, From, and Within the British Isles, “The Great Migration of Canada,” http://www.exodus2013.co.uk/the-great-migration-of-canada/ , (accessed August 27, 2016)

Historica Canada, “The Constitutional Act 1791,” http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/constitutional-act-1791/, (accessed August 27, 2016)

Historical Narratives of Early Canada, “The Quebec Act,” http://www.uppercanadahistory.ca/pp/ppa.html, (accessed August 27, 2016)

Klowak, Sandy, ” History Spotlight: The Underground Railroad,” Canada’s History, http://www.canadashistory.ca/Magazine/Online-Extension/Articles/History-Spotlight-The-Underground-Railroad, (accessed August 27, 2016)

Loyalists in British North America, ” The Constitutional Act of 1791, http://loyalistsinbritishnorthamerica.weebly.com/loyalists-and-the-constitutional-act-of-1791.html (accessed August 27, 2016)

Magnetawan First Nation, “Ojibwa—History, Clan System, and Culture,” http://www.magnetawanfirstnation.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1&Itemid=4, (accessed August 27, 2016)

Slavery to Freedom, “The Abolition of Slavery in Ontario,” http://www.heritagetrust.on.ca/Slavery-to-Freedom/History/Toward-the-abolition-of-slavery-in-Ontario.aspx (accessed August 27, 2016)

Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, Atlas of the Great Lakes Indian History, Norman Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, pages 126-129.

Watson, Ken W., “Those Who Labored,” Rideau Canal World Heritage Site, http://www.rideau-info.com/canal/articles/laboured.html (accessed August 27, 2016)

Except as noted, all illustrations are [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons