The beginnings of various regional democracies in what is now Canada, after the War of 1812

Aug 21st, 2015 | By | Category: Heritage Now

The establishment of several regional political cultures of united empire loyalism was one thing going on in the second British North America during the first half of the 19th century. Something of this old imperial and monarchist ideology still has traction in some parts of Canada today. Yet it is no longer at any centre of things.

(If it ever quite was. In the hearts and minds of many hardworking diverse human beings, preoccupied with what the Pierre Trudeau who paddled canoes memorably called “the struggle of nameless Canadians to improve their lives in our often hostile environment.”)

Even in the Harper Conservative government’s first throne speech in 2006, Governor General Michaelle Jean made one ritual bow to the (for now) continuing symbolism of the British monarchy in Canada. Then the speech appealed to the higher wisdom of “the Canadian people” four times.

The address which Mme Jean gave for Stephen Harper’s second minority government in 2008 fell all over itself with tributes to the “women and men … who established democracy in this country,” the “ideal of democracy that we embody in the world,” and the “people [who] spoke once again in a general election.”

In Canada today there is no doubt that “the Canadian people,” especially as they speak in federal, provincial, and municipal elections, are the practical sovereign force in what section 1 of the Constitution Act, 1982 quietly alludes to as “a free and democratic society.”

And at least the beginnings of the complex long gestation of the Canadian people of today are also a legacy of the first half of the 19th century. (And this is as well the immediate background to what the present-day constitutional lawyer Brian Slattery has called “the long process of decolonization that Canada has undergone since 1867.”)

* * * *

One main if still in many ways mysterious ingredient in the 19th century beginnings of today’s Canadian people was the deep Canadian past itself – Indigenous, French Canadian (Canadien), Acadian (Acadien) and Métis — and the almost folkloric, near-tribal Canadian identity it bequeathed.

From an over-aggressive British imperial point of view, all these peoples were “conquered peoples,” according to the 1763 Peace of Paris. They should just get used to their new status in an increasingly global British empire. (Which, its 19th century acolytes certainly thought, was in any case the best thing that could happen to any part of the world so fortunate as to fall in with “the greatest empire since Rome.”)

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 at least ought to have given Indigenous peoples some sense of protection for their part of any rising new Canada. And the Quebec Act of 1774 had (some would say) bestowed a benign conqueror’s favour on at least some aspects of the language and religion of the self-described Canadien community of the lower St. Lawrence and beyond.

Yet, as noted earlier, in the lower Great Lakes and all points east the War of 1812 spelled the beginning of the end for the old Indian-European middle ground. According to Richard White (again): “The imperial contest over the pays d’en haut ended with the War of 1812, and politically the consequence of Indians faded.”

In other ways what was changing had a still longer reach. In 1821 the North West Company — heir of the old French and Indian fur trade out of Montreal — is said to have “merged” with the Hudson’s Bay Company (headquartered in London, England until 1970). But the name of the new firm was just the Hudson’s Bay Company.

At the same time, by the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the “Canadien” francophone culture of the lower St. Lawrence valley had been putting down roots for more than a century and a half. As Pierre Berton noted, most English-speaking people in British North America at the time of the War of 1812 “certainly did not call themselves Canadian … That word was reserved for their French-speaking neighbours.”

By the end of the War, however, “Canada” and “Canadian” had begun to add some fresh meanings. And these meanings started an uncharted new journey down the road to the unusual British imperial experiment known as the Canadian confederation of 1867.

Meanwhile, a decade after the end of the War of 1812 a new wave of mass migration to the second British North America was underway. This time most of the migrants came not from the United States but directly from the United Kingdom across the sea. As a British liberal historian from the age of imperial sunset would explain in the 1920s : “The second quarter of the nineteenth century was the period in the settlement of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand which decided that those lands should be peopled mainly from Britain, and should become parts of a free British Commonwealth of Nations.” (George Macaulay Trevelyan).

* * * *

Another main ingredient in the 19th century beginnings of today’s Canadian people involved regional British North American variations on political themes also in the air elsewhere — in Western Europe and its various still more westward expansions in the American “New World.”

To start with, Andrew Jackson from Tennessee won the US presidential election in the late fall of 1828. And, in at least some if far from all respects (he was a renowned “Indian fighter,” eg, and on his death his estate included 161 unfree African Americans), over the next eight years he began at least something of a new democratic and Democratic age in American politics.

To report on the phenomenon, the French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville arrived in the United States in May 1831, ostensibly to study the American prison system (as strange as that may seem today). For some nine months Tocqueville and his colleague, Gustave de Beaumont, visited many different parts of a still quite young United States — and even the two Canadas in the remaining British North America. On January 19, 1832 they met briefly with President Andrew Jackson himself at the White House.

In 1835 it became clear, with the publication of the first volume of his classic Democracy in America, that Alexis de Tocqueville had been studying more than the American prison system. The point was confirmed with the publication of Democracy in America, volume two, in 1840.

At the time the United States of America was almost certainly the only country extant that most people familiar with such things might agree was properly called a democracy. (Albeit one that so incongruously still lived side by side with slavery, as in classical Greece.) Yet the parts of Europe that meant most to the second British North America in the first half of the 19th century saw some related political turmoil as well.

In 1830 the July Revolution in France exchanged the old Bourbon monarchy restored in 1814 for a new “July Monarchy” under the “Citizen King” Louis-Philippe. In the United Kingdom the first Reform Act of 1832 began what we nowadays can see as a gradual democratization of the Westminster mother of parliaments in the 19th and earlier 20th centuries.

* * * *

In British North America itself during the 1820s and 1830s parallel colonial reform movements developed in the provincial legislatures of the British Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland, and in Upper and Lower Canada.

At this time and in these places “reformers” did not always talk openly about “democracy.” Yet in Lower Canada, with its majority French-speaking population, the early murmuring of the modern democratic impulse blended with the national or racial animosities of La conquête to create an almost serious armed rebellion in 1837–38, inspired by the lawyer, politician, and late seigneurial landlord Louis Joseph Papineau.

The early murmuring of the modern democratic impulse in Lower Canada inspired Upper Canada as well. There the reform movement was especially motivated by populist opposition to what Pierre Berton called a “British colonial oligarchy” and a “pro-British ruling elite” (aka the “Family Compact” in popular legend, whose Lower Canadian analogue has been called the “Chateau Clique”).

In this case what finally amounted to a few failed skirmishes just north of the provincial capital in Toronto, and a companion protest in the Brantford area, in early December 1837, was inspired by the “firebrand” newspaper publisher and sometime popularly elected legislator William Lyon Mackenzie, a Scotsman who had arrived in Upper Canada in 1820, at the age of 25.

Those attracted to economic interpretations of political events can also stress the role of the North American “Financial Panic of 1837,” in what the Nova Scotia author Thomas Chandler Haliburton dismissed as The Bubbles of Canada, otherwise known as the Upper and Lower Canadian rebellions of 1837–38.

The financial panic was compellingly characterized by the late 19th century American historian Hubert Bancroft : “During the first three weeks of April [1837] two hundred and fifty business houses failed in New York … Throughout the whole country the mercantile interests went down with a general crash, involving the mechanic, the farmer even the humblest laborer, in the ruinous consequences of the disaster. Bankruptcy everywhere prevailed.” In some significant degree, then as later, the politically separate British North America could not help but be part of the larger continental economic body, and suffered many of the same intermittent ailments.

* * * *

Meanwhile, the explorations of James Cook and George Vancouver in the later 18th century had laid British claims to the Pacific Northwest coast.

Other explorations of the same era by Juan Pérez and Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra raised conflicting Spanish claims. But the uniquely sophisticated native peoples of the region, with their giant totem poles and carved wood canoes, remained a demographic majority until the later 19th century. And the growth of Hudson’s Bay Company and (until 1821) North West Company fur trade outposts in the early 19th century secured the British North American presence in what is now called Western Canada — from the Lake of the Woods to Vancouver Island.

Even in the 1830s “democracy” was not exactly a rallying cry in the later Western Canada. Yet on one of several still-not-very-well-known multicultural sidebars, opening up the Pacific coast in the earlier 19th century brought Hawaiian men into the Canadian fur trade.

They were often known as “Kanakas … a Polynesian term for persons of aboriginal blood” (from which, some have speculated, the modern Canadian nickname “Canucks” derives). And they often married aboriginal women in what is now British Columbia (where, others have speculated, Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders may have originated in some more remote past).

So native Hawaiians who arrived on what is now Canada’s Pacific coast in British trading ships “ended up working in the fur trade alongside Orkney Islanders and French Canadians as boatmen, blacksmiths, farm help, mill-hands, and general labourers.” They were such good workers that between “1829 and 1850, the Hudson’s Bay Company kept an agent in Honolulu to recruit local men.”

The early story of what later became the first Western Canadian province of Manitoba is better known. Late in 1812, as war with the United States descended on Upper Canada back east, the first contingent of Scottish settlers organized by the 5th Earl of Selkirk arrived in what would later become the City of Winnipeg, to start the Red River Colony.

Lord Selkirk had bought a majority share in the Hudson’s Bay Company to facilitate his plans. The HBC had been granted the land by Charles II in 1670. But in 1812 it was more of a home for Métis fur trade employees of the rival North West Company. Selkirk’s early Red River Colony became a focus for conflict between the two companies, and between old Métis fur traders and new family-farm settlers from Scotland.

All this culminated with the death of 21 men in the Battle of Seven Oaks on June 19, 1816 — a kind of grandparent of the later two Riel rebellions in Western Canada, in 1869 and 1885.

* * * *

Meanwhile again, back among the bubbles of old Upper and Lower Canada, both rebellion leaders William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis Joseph Papineau had fled into exile in the United States late in 1837.

Both would return to Canada — Papineau in 1845 (after a further sojourn in France), and Mackenzie in 1850 (having survived in the USA, in part, by working for Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune.)

The name of William Lyon Mackenzie would also echo loudly in later Canadian history, in the career of his grandson, William Lyon Mackenzie King, Liberal Prime Minister of Canada, 1921–1926, 1926–1930, 1935–1948.

Mackenzie King’s approach to the thorny complications of Canadian politics is reflected in his much-remembered declaration on “conscription” or compulsory military service in the Second World War (an especially controversial issue in French-speaking Quebec): “Conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.”

Back in the 1830s William Lyon Mackenzie arguably shared more of his grandson’s  political philosophy in this respect than some Canadian political legends have subsequently allowed.

He no doubt foolishly believed that Upper Canada could have a democratic revolution without serious bloodshed or significant turmoil. He thought the colonial government in Toronto could for the most part be taken over with just a resolute march of farmers and mechanics carrying pitchforks and a few rifles down Yonge Street, from a tavern near the present-day Eglinton subway station  — “a rebellion if necessary, but not necessarily a rebellion.”

In Lower Canada Louis Joseph Papineau was in some ways a quite different character. He was perhaps as close as the Canadien society of his day came to an indigenous St. Lawrence valley aristocrat, from Francis Parkman’s old regime in Canada. But he was also a real proto-democratic reformer of the 1830s. And he shared both Mackenzie’s “starvation-like devotion to principle,” and his often ambiguous approach to the real world of politics (and rebellions).

In both cases all this almost certainly helped spell failure for the 1837–38 rebellions in the two Canadas. And the failure was only somewhat less abject in Lower Canada, where French Canadian nationalism helped energize the strictly rational side of the proto-democratic cause.

Yet if failure was the immediate outcome of the Canadian rebellions, it had a silver lining. When William Lyon Mackenzie died in Toronto, late in August 1861, the Globe (old reform precursor of at least part of today’s Globe and Mail) editorialized : “It must be reiterated that insurrection was the immediate cause of the introduction of a new system. It might have been gained without rebellion but the rebellion gained it.”

More exactly, the Canadian rebellions of 1837–38 at least prompted Lord Melbourne’s Whig government in the United Kingdom to appoint John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, “governor-in-chief of the British North American colonies and high commissioner,” with a mandate to propose reforms in the public administration of British North America.

* * * *

Lord Durham was also known as “Radical Jack” for his passionate support of the 1832 UK Reform Act. According to the 20th century Canadian historian Fernand Ouellet, Durham has been “quite accurately” described “as a radical Whig and a moderate Radical.”

In a report made public in the London Times early in 1839 Durham proposed various reforms, some of which succeeded more than others. The separate provinces of Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec) were merged into a single United Province of Canada in 1841. And this was a constructive first step towards the wider Canadian confederation of 1867.

Yet part of Durham’s intention here was to assimilate the old francophone Canada into some new anglophone majority in British North America. And this never happened. Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine would later explain that “the union … aimed at the annihilation of the French Canadians … But the result has been very different.”

All this was ultimately the result of Durham’s most successful and historic proposal — for the introduction of so-called “responsible government” in the public administration of British North America. The 21st century might just talk about the beginnings of parliamentary democratic self-government in what is now called Canada.

The theory was that the executive branch or operative arm of government (and what the German liberal social scientist Max Weber later called the monopoly of legitimate physical force) was responsible to the majority in the elected legislature or local parliament.

Durham, local legend has it, learned about the colonial concept of responsible government in British North America from the more moderate branches of the reform movement in the two Canadas (and especially from Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin) — and from the parallel exertions of such Atlantic coast reformers as Joseph Howe in Nova Scotia.

Yet these colonial reformers also “saw their struggle … as an attempt to apply the party system that had evolved in Britain in the 1830s [inspired by the first Reform Act of 1832] to their own colonial circumstances” (P.B. Waite).

The Canadian regional reform drama ultimately descended from the January 4, 1649 declaration of the Rump Parliament in Oliver Cromwell’s England : “the people are, under God, the original of all just power,” and “the Commons …. in Parliament assembled, being chosen by and representing the people, have the supreme power in this nation.”

The new United Province of Canada took legal effect on February 10, 1841. But in the subsequent July 1841 general election in the United Kingdom the Peel Conservatives defeated the Melbourne Whigs. And the new government was less persuaded by the wisdom of Radical Jack.

The progressive Whigs (or Liberals, as they were later known) would not return to office until Lord John Russell’s somewhat ambiguous victory in the summer of 1847.

The Scottish aristocrat Russell’s government chose to preside over the controversial granting of responsible government in British North America — James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine — had been a bland progressive conservative in his youth.

But he sparkled brilliantly in his late 30s and early 40s, as the Governor General of British North America who planted the official seeds for what a later generation would call parliamentary democracy, in the new Canadian confederation of 1867.


Children of the Global Village
Democracy in Canada Since 1497

Randall White
eastendbooks 2024

(For background on the larger series of which this is a part, see The Long Journey to a Canadian Republic.)


Beginnings of modern Canadian people after War of 1812 .. Enduring French and Indian heritage, US frontier migrations, new migrations from UK .. Jackson, Tocqueville, and Democracy in America (UK and France) .. Reform movements in British North America and Canadian rebellions of 1837–38 .. From the Lake of Woods to Vancouver Island : Fur Trade, Hawaiians, and Red River Colony .. Papineau, Mackenzie, and the Durham report … The road to ”responsible-government” (and parliamentary democracy) in 1848


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