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The Founding of Canada: Part 1

A short history of Canadian Confederation

By Marco den OudenPublished 12 months ago Updated 12 months ago 11 min read
The death of General Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, 1759

Canada has been shaped by its history. The story of Confederation is one not often discussed today, but it is instructive in understanding Canada’s culture and politics. We’ll start our journey after the British conquered Quebec, defeating the French at the Plains of Abraham in 1759.

Quebec was put under a civil government consisting of Governor and Council. With 65,000 French Catholics and 400 English Protestants in the territory, an elected government was not in the cards. The government, however, was described by Stephen Leacock in his book, Canada: The Foundations of Its Future, as benign.

  • "The regime under which French Canada lived until the eve of the French Revolution was for the most part one of happy neglect, that art of government most congenial to the British temperament. Not knowing what to do with Canada in this interim, the British government did nothing in particular, and did it rather well." (102)

This neglect was a fortunate turn of events for it left the French free to practice their own religion (something actually spelled out later in the Proclamation of Civil Government of 1763) but also their language.

The French language was left undisturbed, not by law, but by common sense. There was no way for the ‘business men’ to teach English to seventy thousand new subjects. (103)

In fact, it went the other way. Many Englishmen adopted French. Today there are many Francophones named Fraser or Mackay. This attitude towards the French proved foundational. As Leacock puts it,

  • "In this period of quiet was laid the foundation of the mutual tolerance and co-operation of French and British in Canada… A certain mistaken school of British writers has looked upon this period as a fatal error… The country, it was claimed, should have been made British from the start. The French language should not have been tolerated, the Roman Catholic religion should have lost all government support." (104-107)

But as Leacock concludes, “This period first showed the possibility of a united French and British Canada.” (107)

The Quebec Act of 1774

The Quebec Act of 1774 cemented the relationship

  • "with such full measure of recognition of the religion, the customs and the law of the French-Canadians as should secure allegiance… It preserved the French civil law and with it the criminal law of England; it gave freedom of worship to Roman Catholics... It took for granted the use of the French language in daily life and in the courts, making no attempt to extend English beyond its necessary official sphere." (108-109)

Stephen Leacock

The allegiance of the French proved vital as events south of the border started to move quickly. Leacock noted that the unrest in the Thirteen Colonies pitted neighbour against neighbour. “Resolute patriotism took arms against resolute allegiance, a new ideal against an old loyalty, a sudden angry struggle, undreamed of yesterday and feeding on its own anger.” (110)

The Americans tried to recruit Canada to the cause, first by force, then by persuasion. The spring thaw saw the British fleet rout the invaders and Benjamin Franklin himself was the envoy on the subsequent diplomatic mission. But it went for naught and Canada stayed out of the struggle.

On July 4, 1776, the Americans issued their Declaration of Independence and war followed for the next eight years. About a third of the people of the colonies were Loyalists. Interestingly, Benjamin Franklin's own son was a Loyalist. Although the terms of peace “expressly provided for the safety of the Tories against retaliation, ... retaliation began at once” (112).

Tory refugees had already been leaving during the war and now it became a flood, “partly of people who were afraid to stay, but mainly of people who did not want to.” (112) Over 28,000 settled in Nova Scotia, and a further 12,000 along the St. John River which led to the formation of the Province of New Brunswick. And a great many settled in Upper Canada, now Ontario.

  • "The British Government was generosity itself; it did not do anything by halves. It supplied transport, tools, implements, seeds and food for one year and more if needed. It gave land with ungrudging hand; two hundred acres went to each disbanded private soldier; two hundred to every farmer civilian; to officers, according to rank, up to five thousand acres." (115)

Many of the new-comers “were not Loyalists at all - just incoming Americans tempted by good land.” (116)

Now there is a modern mythology that these Loyalists were Tory in their sentiments but Leacock disputes this idea.

  • "It is important to remember that the Loyalist settlers themselves were most of them not British in the first-hand sense, but Americans. Many of them came from families already several generations in America. They differed in this from the generality of the settlers, British people from their own Isles, who came later in the great migration after the Napoleonic War. Now allegiance is one thing, culture another. These Americans, Loyalists and others, helped to give to the Province of Ontario that peculiar stamp of similarity to “the States” in speech and habit which its plainer people have always carried…. Time was when the word ‘Loyalist’ and the prouder ‘U.E. Loyalist’ were terms used as if in contrast to Yankee or American. We know better now." (116)

The Constitutional Act of 1791

The Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Canada into the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, today Ontario and Quebec. Each was governed by Lieutenant-Governor and an appointed Legislative Council. There was also a popular Assembly often at loggerheads with the appointed Governor and Council.

The first Governor of Upper Canada was Colonel John Graves Simcoe, a visionary Tory who had nothing but disdain for popular government. “To Simcoe, democrat meant scoundrel; dissenter , sniveling hypocrite; and without the Church of England morality would go under.” (117) He was British to the core and loved pomp and circumstance. But he also built roads “that turned to avenues of settlement”. (118) Yonge Street stretched from Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe to Georgian Bay, a distance of 100 miles. Built to outflank the United States, it actually served as an impetus to settlement.

The War of 1812

Immigration slowed with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, and in 1812 a maritime dispute between Britain and America led to what Leacock calls “the deplorable and fruitless war of 1812”. (119)

This view is echoed by Pierre Berton who wrote a two part history of the war. In the first book, The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813, he starts out with a short overview of the war. It was a war, in fact, that few wanted on either side of the conflict. It was precipitated by the British who were embroiled in war with Napoleon’s France. Berton lists two factors:

  1. “The British policy of boarding American ships and impressing American seamen for service in the Royal Navy… At least three thousand and perhaps as many as seven thousand fell victim to this practice.”
  2. “With cool disdain for the rights of neutrals as for American sea power, the British warned that they would seize on the open ocean any ship that dared sail directly for a Napoleonic port. By 1812 they had captured almost 400 American vessels, some within sight of the U.S. coast, and played havoc with the American export trade.”

This goaded a faction described by Thomas Jefferson as the War Hawks into pushing for invasion of Canada. Most of the fighting would happen in Upper Canada. If there had been no Napoleon, there would have been no War of 1812.

The war was a half-hearted affair.

  • "For most of the men who fought it then, it was a part-time war. Some refused to fight. In spite of harsh discipline, men on both sides mutinied. Soldiers were shot for desertion, forced to ride bent saplings, to stand barefoot on sharpened stakes, branded or flogged to death. Neither threats nor pleas could stop thousands of American militiamen from refusing to fight on foreign soil." (22)

But this was not just on the American side.

  • "In Upper Canada treason worked its slow poison, even invading the legislature. Farmers were hanged for abetting the enemy; tribunes of the people took refuge on foreign soil to raise squads of traitors; dark suspicions, often unfounded, seeped down the concession roads, causing neighbour to denounce neighbour." (23)

In the Maritimes, neither the Americans nor the Acadians engaged in battle. Life went on as if the war did not exist.

  • "The Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia issued a proclamation announcing that his province and New Brunswick would abstain from predatory warfare against their neighbours and that trade would continue “without Molestation.”" (23)

More people were killed on some single day battlefields in Europe than in the entire two and a half years of the War of 1812. For the people who actually did engage in the war, it was horrific as all wars are. But in the end it petered out and the status quo was maintained.

The Mythology of the War of 1812

There is a mythology that has sprung up about the war. Each side thought they had achieved a glorious victory. The Canadian attitude today is best exemplified by the song by the Edmonton comedy troupe, Three Dead Trolls in a Baggie.

The song makes much of the burning of the White House. It gives the impression that Canadians forged their way south and laid waste to Washington. In fact, the Napoleonic war had ended which freed up British troops and the British fleet to attack America from the South. It was the British and not Canadians who burnt down the White House.

On the other side, the Americans' major victory, The Battle of New Orleans, was immortalized in the Johnny Horton song as a major victory and turning point.

In fact, that battle had nothing to do with the outcome. The battle occurred fifteen days after peace had been negotiated with the Treaty of Ghent.

There were no real winners in the war. The Americans thought they won. Canadians thought they won. And the British thought they won. In truth it was a stalemate. But there was a loser. The losers were the native Indians who sided with the British and were led by the great warrior chief Tecumseh. There was hope that they would have lands returned, maybe even an Indian state established. It went for naught.

The Invasion of Canada !812-1813 by Pierre Berton

Lacklustre war that it was, it cemented in the Canadian psyche a new spirit. As Pierre Berton puts it,

  • "The war, or more properly, the myth of the war, gave the rootless new settlers a sense of community. In the end the myth became the reality. In the long run it did not matter who fought and who did not, who supported the cause or who disdained it. As the years went by and memories dimmed…. The settlers began to believe that they had repelled the invader almost single-handed. For the first time, Upper Canadians shared a common tradition.
  • "It was a tradition founded to a considerable extent on a rejection of American values - a rejection encouraged and enforced by the same pro-British ruling elite who fed the myth of the people’s war and who made sure that the province (and eventually all of Canada) would embark on a course markedly different from that of the people to the south. They were, after all, “the enemy,” and to be pro-American in post-war Upper Canada was to be considered vaguely traitorous. This attitude affected everything - politics, education, civil liberties, folkways, architecture. It affects us to this day, even those who do not think of themselves as Upper Canadian.
  • "The Canadian “way” - so difficult to define except in terms of negatives - has its roots in the invasion of 1812-1814, the last American invasion of Canada. There can never be another." (28-29)

John Strachan, First Anglican Bishop of Toronto

The reactions in Canada and the United States were polar opposites. Canada’s antipathy to Americans developed in the aftermath and Yankee became a dirty word. The Americans celebrated victories and heroes. Three military men from the war went on to become President. By contrast

  • "The quintessential Canadian hero was a clergyman, not a soldier, a transplanted Scot, a supporter of entrenched values, a Tory of Tories. Dour, earnest, implacable, John Strachan acquired a reputation for courage and leadership that made him a power in Upper Canada and helped freeze its political pattern.
  • "Strachan’s thrust was elitist. He believed implicitly in everything the Americans had rejected: an established church, a limited franchise, a ruling oligarchy. He despised Americans, loathed Americanisms, “Democracy” and “republicanism” were hateful words. The York elite, linked by intermarriage and soon to be dubbed the Family Compact, wanted no truck with elected judges or policemen, let alone universal male suffrage." (Flames across the Border 427)

Berton continues:

  • "Loyalty, security, and order - took on a Canadian connotation… Liberty was exclusively American, never used north of the border, perhaps because it was too close to libertine for the pious Canadians. Radicalism was the opposite of loyalty, democracy the opposite of order." (428)


Berton, Pierre, The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813, McClelland and Stewart, 1980.

Berton, Pierre, Flames Across the Border 1813-1814, McClelland and Stewart, 1981

Leacock, Stephen, Canada: The Foundations of Its Future, The House of Seagram, 1941.


This essay was written for Political Science 320, The Canadian Political Tradition, a course I took at the University of the Fraser valley in the Fall of 2019. It was orally presented to the class using Google Slides to illustrate its points. The actual presentation was shortened considerably from the essay as we were allotted twenty minutes for the presentation and I went on for forty minutes even with its truncation. Part 1 takes us to the end of the War of 1812. Part 2 will continue the story with the Rebellions of 1837 and Durham's Report. Part 3 will look at the Constitutional Conferences of 1864-1867 that led to the creation of the Canadian Confederation with the British North America Act of 1867.


About the Creator

Marco den Ouden

Marco is the published author of two books on investing in the stock market. Since retiring in 2014 after forty years in broadcast journalism, Marco has become an avid blogger on philosophy, travel, and music He also writes short stories.

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