Canada An American Nation



The Coming of Responsible Government

I have already sketched, in the merest outline, the growth, development and final emergence of Canada as a democratic nation. Some of the gaps in the earlier sketch I now propose to fill in, because this is necessary if we are to come to an intelligent estimate of the part which American influences played in the making of Canada.

After the loss of the thirteen colonies a vast stretch of the North American continent remained British, but this wilderness was broken by only two struggling colonies: Quebec, newly taken from the French, alien in language and religion; and Nova Scotia. From those inauspicious beginnings there has grown the Dominion of Canada of today, a country which, though far outdistanced in population, wealth and strength by its vast neighbor, is nevertheless not negligible among the nations of the earth. For the making of this nation there had to be a steady extension of its physical basis and the progressive development of its institutions of government. In the founding of the various colonial settlements which in due time came together to form the Dominion of Canada there was no thought of nationhood or of democracy; they were {44} intended to be and to remain provinces subordinate to the rule of Great Britain. It was fifty years before they attained a working measure of self-government; and it was not until after this stage was reached that the processes of consolidation and expansion began. It took another sixty years for the Federation to emerge and develop to its present appearance of finality; and it was only yesterday that its constitutional development came to its full flowering.

To this long development of growth, change, and adjustment, external influences from the neighboring republic contributed; the country was in special degree open to them because, with the exception of Quebec, it lacked such defensive and repelling powers as differences of religion, of language and institutions. I have already tried to indicate the extent and value of the endowment in political instinct and belief which the foundation populations of the English Canadian colonies took with them from their earlier environment. This was derived, not from the new Republic, but from a political society antecedent to it; but the impact of the Republic and its people upon the newer British communities continued, and has been during the whole period of our existence, and is to this day in almost every aspect of our national life, a factor of high importance. Before I deal with the institutions and the governmental system which are the working agencies of the Canadian democracy, it will not, I think, be out of place briefly to consider some of the {45} American influences which were inescapable in view of the circumstances.

For the earlier years I limit my inquiry to Upper Canada, where the interlacement of interests was greatest. I have referred to the Loyalist immigrants as constituting the foundation population of Upper Canada. This population was soon overlaid by a second and a larger influx from the United States. Governor Simcoe abounded in strongly-held convictions; one was that a large proportion of the people of the United States were yearning to resume their British citizenship. He therefore let it be known, through the border settlements, that those who held these sentiments would be welcome to Upper Canada, where there was free land for the asking. The trusting governor assumed that the activating motive, when an immigrant made his appearance, was rather a desire to renew allegiance than to obtain land. The Duke de la Rochefoucauld, who visited Governor Simcoe, records in his account of his travels a conversation between the governor and an immigrant whom he met by chance on the forest trail.

You are tired [said Simcoe] of the federal government; you like not any longer to have so many kings; you wish for your old father. You are perfectly right. Come along, we love such good Royalists as you are: we will give you land.[1]


The immigration thus induced continued in increasing volume until, by the time it was stopped by the war of 1812, about half the residents of Upper Canada were Americans who had come into the country during the preceding eighteen years, many, perhaps most, of whom were of Revolutionary stock. Only a small proportion of these settlers, however, showed sympathy with the invaders in the War of 1812 and found it necessary, when the attempted conquest failed, to leave the country. Nevertheless those who remained fell under the suspicion of the government. Efforts were made to deprive them of a citizenship which previously had been assumed to have been bestowed with the grant of land, and to harass them in various ways. This was due perhaps less to their American birth than to the fact that, in the political alignment then taking place, they allied themselves solidly with the reform elements which were demanding an extension of popular government. This question of the status of American-born residents was in issue for nearly twenty years until a Reform majority in the Assembly forced a satisfactory settlement.

The twenty years before the so-called rebellion of 1837 constituted a highly critical period in Canadian history which still awaits adequate treatment by historians. It is customary to deal with it as though the issues between the conflicting parties, which were fought over during this period, were plain to see and easy to understand, whereas they were in fact {47} somewhat complex. The factor, which still awaits critical examination and appraisement, is the extent, character and purpose of the contribution to the political struggle made by the powerful American elements in the Reform Party of Upper Canada.

There is no mystery about what the government party believed in and fought for. The control of the province was in the hands of a highly efficient and thoroughly organized upper class which filled all the offices, dominated the professions, distributed the public revenues in ways most pleasing and profitable to themselves, practised nepotism unblushingly, and held all the reins of government. Each governor in turn was absorbed into this organization. He was indispensable to it because he threw over its programs and performances the prestige of the crown. But it was not a mere governing clique; it had a popular following which enabled it to win alternate elections. A Reform control of the Assembly with its protestations, inquiries and memorials, almost invariably led to a Tory rally with victory at the next election. And the cry by which victory was won, with the governor often sounding the note, was that the reformers desired to bring in American systems of administration and government, looking to separation from Great Britain, and ultimate union with the United States. The stock observation upon this charge has been to denounce it as a libel on the reformers who, it is declared, sought only to regularize government methods by bringing {48} them into conformity with the British practice. That this was indeed the purpose of that substantial wing of the Reform Party which accepted the Baldwins, father and son, as leaders is undoubted; but research work in the political literature of the time certainly tends to give some measure of support to the Tory charges, at least to this extent, that many of the changes and reforms urged by elements in the Reform party were obviously suggested by the experience of the United States. This was especially the case when the formulation of policy was in the hands of Marshall Spring Bidwell, a native of Massachusetts. He led the party in the disastrous election campaign of 1836, when Sir Francis Bond Head, the new governor, took the stump on behalf of the Tories.[2] Exasperation over their defeat resulted in the extreme elements of the party, under the leadership of William Lyon Mackenzie, a perfervid Scot, raising the standard of rebellion and declaring for a republic. This so compromised Bidwell, though historians acquit him of complicity, that he obeyed the order of the governor to leave the country. He thereupon removed to the state of New York, where he had a career as a lawyer of some distinction.


These events were naturally regarded by the victorious party as amply justifying their estimates of the Reform program and the ends it had in view. When, subsequently, in consequence of the effect upon English public opinion of the uprisings and their suppression with drastic punishments of exile and death, they found it necessary to give an account of the reasons for the outbreak, the American residents in Upper Canada were cast in responsible roles. A Committee of the Legislative Council by an official report gave themselves, in their capacity as members of the ruling combination, a testimonial of complete innocence; in their identification of the guilty parties they had this to say:

Your Committee are of opinion that the proximity of the American frontier—the wild and chimerical notions of civil government broached and discussed there—the introduction of a very great number of border Americans into this province as settlers who, with some most respectable and worthy exceptions, formed the bulk of the reformers, who carried their opinions so far as disaffection … emboldened a portion of the minority to rise in rebellion in the hope of achieving the overthrow of the government with foreign assistance. Is it [the report went on to ask] because reformers or a portion of them can command the sympathies of the United States and of Lower Canadian rebels that the internal affairs of a British Colony must be conducted to please them?[3]

On the morrow of their triumph, which as they {50} doubtless thought permanently insured their position, the Tories met with humiliation and overthrow. Though the rebellion in Upper Canada hardly exceeded a riot in dimensions, it outweighed in political effectiveness the much more serious uprising of the French Canadians in Lower Canada, because it was an indication of the alienation of a formidable political party in an English-speaking province from the scheme of government which Great Britain had established and was delighted to uphold. The affair was altogether too reminiscent of the American Revolution. Lord Durham was dispatched posthaste to Canada in the capacity of High Commissioner; and at the same time Robert Baldwin rose to a position of undisputed leadership in the Reform Party. It did not require the recent discovery in the Durham papers of a memorandum from Baldwin to Durham[4] in which the doctrine of responsible government is set forth in detail, to make it evident that there was a measure of understanding and agreement between Durham and those reformers who sought a solution for the problem in the application to Canada of the British system of responsible government and parliamentary control. In the report of the Committee of the Legislative Council, already referred to, in which the exasperation of the doomed oligarchy finds acrid expression, Lord Durham is accused of taking his {51} information about Upper Canada from some person unnamed in the report “who has evidently entered on his task, with the desire to exalt the opponents of the Colonial government in the estimation of the High Commissioner and to throw discredit on the statements of the supporters of British influence, and British connections.”

Lord Durham, in his great report, and in the dispatches which preceded it, took a line which was maddening to the oligarchy. In place of falling in with its idea that the way to combat American influence was to discourage intercourse and to keep, by arbitrary rule, a firm control over the population, he saw the situation of Canada, existing and in the future, in the light of its relations to the United States. He saw that the conditions of living in the British colonies, as controlled by such factors as municipal institutions, provision for education, participation by the people in the government, contrasted most unfavorably with those in the adjoining states; and he knew that the perpetuation of these conditions would strengthen the desire, already sporadically present in the colonies, for absorption by the United States. Attempts to check this by the application of force based upon the power of Great Britain would strengthen the interventionist mood of the American people, already somewhat in evidence.

There are two pregnant passages to this effect in the report:


If by such means the British nation shall be content to retain a barren and injurious sovereignty, it will but tempt the chances of foreign aggression by keeping continually exposed to a powerful and ambitious neighbor a distant dependency, in which an invader would find no resistance but might rather reckon on active coöperation from a portion of the resident population….[5]

The maintenance of an absolute form of government on any part of the North American continent can never continue for any long time without exciting a general feeling in the United States against a power of which the existence is secured by means so odious to the people.[6]

The side note to the paragraph in which this significant statement is made reads: “Importance of preserving the sympathy of the United States.”

The purposes of Lord Durham were to meet the demand for self-government by concessions, based upon British practice and precedent, which would be in themselves so satisfactory and so capable of development that the disgruntled element would accept them in lieu of possible American expedients to which it had been giving consideration; and further to check the tendency to look to union with the United States as the only road to the deeper satisfaction of citizenship by giving it the vision of nationhood. “If we wish,” he wrote, “to prevent the extension of this [American] influence it can only be done by raising {53} up for the North American colonist some nationality of his own; by elevating these small and unimportant communities into a society having some objects of a national importance; and by thus giving their inhabitants a country which they will be unwilling to see absorbed even into one more powerful.”[7] In these parts of his report Durham as in a vision foresaw the future nation and its essential foundation: self-government on British lines; the union of the North American colonies; and the development of the spirit of nationality. Time and the labors of others turned the vision into reality; and his estimate of the consequences of these changes has been justified in the widest measure by actual results. They removed from Canada that desire for the adoption of American institutions which, if acted upon, would have been the forerunner of political union. This general statement is not affected by the episode of the Montreal manifesto of 1849, calling for annexation, which was an expression of temporary pique by the most British element of the population, enraged by their ejection from power, and the simultaneous loss of their preferential markets in Great Britain.

From this time forth there was universal acceptance by Canadians of the British parliamentary system as the most effective agency of democratic government. Confederation came thirty years later, supplying the physical basis of a nation; and in this area the rising {54} spirit of nationality, employing the machinery of self-government, built the Canada of today, which divides the North American continent with the United States and exemplifies north of the line the British principles of democratic government in contrast with those which are known to the world as American.

But I have been very inadequate in setting out the antecedent causes of this great and beneficent development if I have not made clear to you that the direct and indirect effects of the impact of the United States upon the colonies bulks high among these causes.