Diversity in Canada, A Second Look

Sometimes those “Today in History” feeds give me ideas for stories, and sometimes they broaden my thinking. That happened this week. February 2019 marks the 177th anniversary of the proclamation in Canada of The Act of Union in February 1841. It had been passed by the British Parliament the previous July 1840.

I hope my Canadian friends will forgive me if I get a bit confused sometimes about the various stages in the history of their relationship with Britain, raised as I was on the all or nothing break we made down here in 1776. The succession of acts that emanating from the parliament across the ocean that changed and occasionally upended how Britain’s various North American colonies were governed led eventually to the independent country we know now.

Finley Map of Canada, 1827I’ve written earlier about The Quebec Act of 1774 and The Constitutional Act of 1791, which created two separately governed entities, Upper and Lower Canada in Diversity in Upper Canada Lower Canada was created in response to the large influx of loyalists fleeing the American Revolution. Upper Canada remained primarily French. As someone with French-Canadian ancestry I was particularly moved by the protections for the language, legal systems, and government for the French population of what we now know as Quebec.

Patriots at Beauharnois, 1838 by Katherine Jane Ellice

Though both colonies had constitutions built on the British model of a balance of monarchy/aristocracy/democracy, they in fact very different constitutions and things didn’t proceed smoothly. The North American colonies for the most part lacked a true hereditary aristocracy, and the non-elective legislative body in each (think of it as the shadow of the House of Lords, as I suspect the government in London did) were dominated by local oligarchies made up of wealthy “new money” families seeking to set up their own hereditary power. Both the Family Compact in Lower Canada and the Chateau Clique in Upper Canada were dominated by British merchants, the latter also included French landowners, holdovers from the old French seigniorial governing structure. As you may guess, they were resented.

Tensions broke out into open rebellions in 1837 and 1838. That turbulent period is much to complex for this essay, and interpretations of it vary widely. It has been interpreted as true class struggle, as the root of French Canadian nationalism, and as a democratic revolution. The rebellions were put down ruthlessly, to some extent with the assistance of the Americans.

John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham by Thomas Phillips

When the dust settled, the British parliament ordered Lord Durham, newly appointed High Commissioner of British North America to report. The Report on the Affairs of British North America or as it is commonly known, The Durham Report. Durham famously called The Family Compact “a petty corrupt insolent Tory clique,” and his report covered a variety of issues his primary finding was conflict between English and French settlers, which he famously described as “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” The report glossed over the participation of English leaders in the rebellion and the discontent over the treatment of migrants from the United States versus those from Britain; it focused on a perceived need to assimilate French Canada into an English state.

The resulting Act of Union forcefully merged the two Canadas into one and eliminated most of the protections of the Quebec Act. Descriptions of the act differ only slightly in emphasis.



According to the Canadian Encyclopedia the Act:

  • Established a single Canadian Parliament with equal representation from entities now called East Canada and West Canada.
  • Consolidated debt.
  • Banished French language for official government usage.
  • Suspended French Canadian institutes in regard to education and civil law.

The Musée de la Neufv-France words in more strongly. The Act:

  • Aimed at assimilation of francophones, ending their aspirations for independence.
  • Gave the English have a higher representation in the assembly, even though they represented only 40% of the population.
  • Dissolved Quebec institutions with jurisdiction in education and civil law.
  • Made English the only official language of the new parliament of Canada.

Note that the councils (in red) were appointed not elected. (Via Wikimedia commons, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/)

There appears to have been plenty to make just about everyone unhappy. Those that benefited from the old system objected as strongly as the French religious and political leaders.

Ultimately the act was displaced by British North America Act, 1867 which merged the provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia into the Dominion of Canada. and took one more step toward Canadian independence. There would be more. It was only in 1969 that The Official Languages Act mandated two official languages for Canada and provided that those who spoke French could be guaranteed service in French. While that is now true in most places, it is still unreliable in others.

For a deeper look, see:

Bellanger, Claude, “The Union Act (1840-1841),” on Quebec History, Marianopolis CollegeCollege, 1998. Last revised August 23, 2000. http://faculty.marianopolis.edu/c.belanger/QuebecHistory/readings/1840.htm Accessed February 7, 2019

Monet, Jacques, S.J., “The Act of Union,” in The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 6, 2006, last edited by Richard Foot, March 4, 2015, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/act-of-union Accessed February 7, 2019

Responsible Government (Era of), Canada History, 2013. http://www.canadahistory.com/sections/Eras/responsible%20government/Responsible%20Government.html Accessed February 7, 2019

The Union Act, 1840 (full text), on The Solon Law Archive, © 1994-2011, William F. Maton, https://www.solon.org/Constitutions/Canada/English/PreConfederation/ua_1840.html Accessed February 7, 2019

Caroline Warfield is a writer of family centered romance deeply embedded in nineteenth century history across the globe. She always nudges her characters to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. Her novel, the Renegade Wife was set in Upper Canada and England in 1832. The great grandson of the hero of that book, who grew up in Saskatchewan, appears in a series of novellas set during World War I that will be released as a single volume in September, 2019