FYI logo

The Founding of Canada: Part 2

A short history of Canadian Confederation

By Marco den OudenPublished 12 months ago Updated 12 months ago 10 min read
The Battle of Saint-Eustache, 1837

The first part of this three part series took us from the British victory over the French at the Plains of Abraham in 1759 to the War of 1812. Today's installment takes us to the end of the Rebellions of 1837-1838 and Durham's Report. The next installment will conclude the series with the Constitutional Conferences of 1864 and the adoption of the British North America Act in 1867. Click here if you missed Part 1.

The years following the War of 1812 were an extended peace resulting in a huge surge of British emigration to Canada. 403,000 flowed into Canada from 1815-1834.

It was an era of rapid growth coupled with a system of patronage and oligarchy. Colonel Thomas Talbot controlled his fiefdom with an iron hand. John Galt founded the Canada Company, which later was noted for its corruption. Both were pivotal in developing the province. Both had close ties with the Family Compact. But both caused dissent.

It was an era which saw big government became entrenched in Canada. Power was granted to select trusted friends and denied to others. As Leacock puts it,

  • "In our eagerness not to give too much of this power to anybody, we have taken it from everybody. Westminster, Ottawa and Winnipeg must now all act together before a sparrow can light in Manitoba. None do." (126)

One historian notes

  • "The decade 1827-37 was one of those periods in which it is possible to observe, step by step, the gradual accumulation of tension between contending classes, which finally can only be resolved by revolution." (Stanley Ryerson, 1837 The Birth of Canadian Democracy)

The next pivotal point in the history of Canadian political development happened 23 years after the War of 1812. Rebellion broke out in both Upper and Lower Canada. Its cause was discontent among the plain folk of the provinces with the upper crust that ruled them. As Leacock notes,

  • "Hardship helped make the Rebellion of 1837. But more powerful perhaps were the angers that go with ‘class’, the indignation of plain people against others claiming superiority." (132)

Leacock continues:

  • "Appointments and offices and emoluments went overwhelmingly to a favoured class. The little capital at York hatched out an aristocracy, and inside it a group of office holders called a ‘family compact.’" (133)

William Lyon Mackenzie

Ironically, the leader of the Rebellion of 1837 was Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie. A friend of the common man, advocate of democracy and an opponent of the privileged class that made up the Family Compact, Mackenzie stirred up the ideals of liberal democracy in his newspaper and other journals.

  • "There are those doubtless who fear the ignorance of the people of Upper Canada; I, on the other hand, stand more in dread of rulers like ours who are virtually independent of them. The people have an interest in good government, but the rulers have a gain by misrule." (William Lyon Mackenzie, Colonial Advocate , 14 July 1831)

  • "The backwoodsman, while he lays the axe to the root of the oak in the forests of Canada, should never forget that a base basswood is growing in his native land, which, if not speedily girdled will throw its dark shadows over the country and blast its best exertions. Look up, reader, and you will see the branches – the Robinson branch, the Powell branch, the Jones branch, the Strachan branch, the Boulton twig, etc. The farmer toils, the merchant toils, the labourer toils, and the Family Compact reap the fruit of their exertions." (William Lyon Mackenzie, Patrick Swift's Almanac, 1834)

In 1837, a straggling group led by Mackenzie tried to seize Toronto and were soundly defeated. Mackenzie escaped to exile in the United States. Two of the rebels, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews were publicly hanged in Toronto. Schoolboys at the elite Upper Canada College were given a half-day off school to go and watch the hanging.

The Methodist minister Egerton Ryerson, also an opponent of the Family Compact oligarchy wrote in his autobiography:

  • "At eight o'clock today, Thursday, 12th April, 1838, Lount and Matthews were executed. The general feeling is in total opposition to the execution of those men. Sheriff Jarvis burst into tears when he entered the room to prepare them for execution. They said to him very calmly, 'Mr. Jarvis, do your duty, we are prepared to meet death and our Judge.'" (Egerton Ryerson, The Story of My Life, 1883)

In Lower Canada the situation was somewhat different. The province had remained predominantly French. But the English minority ruled.

  • "Here, as in Upper Canada, only more so, were sinecure offices, often held by absentees, and profits and emoluments for the favoured. But every other discontent was here merged with the larger hostility of nationality. Those in control were British, those below were French. If Upper Canada was carried forward on the winds of European radicalism, so was Lower Canada swept by the new winds of nationalism that were remaking the Europe of the nineteenth century." (Leacock 135)

The Lower Canada rebellion was much more violent and extended into 1838. It was struck down ruthlessly but the rebels managed to leave “fifty dead on the field at Odelltown.”

Louis-Joseph Papineau addressing a crowd

The leader of the Lower Canada Rebellion was the nationalist Louis-Joseph Papineau. A great orator, he is still revered in Quebec as a nationalist patriot. After the rebellion was quashed by the authorities, Papineau, like Mackenzie, escaped to the United States. Both Papineau and Mackenzie were later given amnesty and eventually returned to Canada. Both were elected to the legislature after their return.

Lord Durham had been sent to Canada to see what the rebellions were all about. “An impassioned liberal Whig,” Durham

  • "saved the rebels’ lives with a general amnesty for all and a special banishment for twenty-four of them. The action was disallowed and Durham called home. In place of it, Sir John Colborne’s military court hanged twelve rebels at Montreal and sent three score of others to convict settlements in Australia. This changed rebellion to martyrdom. The French-Canadians called their lost comrades ‘les patriotes,’ and the English later on discovered that they were." (135-136)

"Le Vieux de '37" was the symbol of the FLQ (Quebec separatist group in the 1960s)

These actions led, ultimately, to the rise of the radical separatist and terrorist Front de Liberation de Quebec in the 1960s. The FLQ was responsible for 160 acts of violence that included mailbox bombs, killed eight people and injured more. It ended with a bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange in 1969 and the kidnapping of British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Cabinet Minister Pierre Laporte in 1970. Laporte was murdered and then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act and put down the insurrection. The separatist political party Bloc Quebecois was formed in the aftermath, as well as its federal counterpart.

The impact of the rebellions was a pivotal event in Canadian politics. It led to the end of the dominance of the Tories. Leacock writes

  • "The storm of radicalism that shook all Europe in the eighteen-thirties, and brought down a throne in France, these winds of the new gospel of individual rights swept also the woods and fields of Canada. The sense of injustice bites harder than hardship."
  • "... the Radical idea of reform or the Tory loyalty to order—these contrasted ideals, like twin circulating stars, have ever since held our political life in its orbit." (134)

John Lambton, Lord Durham – Portrait by Thomas Phillips

Lord Durham is famously known for his Report on the Affairs of British North America of 1839. In it Durham analyzed the Rebellions of 1837-1838 and made recommendations on the governing institutions of the day. Durham was a liberal Whig and his report reflects those inclinations. They include a critique of the oligarchical style of government represented by the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique.

  • "Fortified by family connexion, and the common interest felt by all who held, and all who desired, subordinate offices, [the ruling party] was… erected into a solid and permanent power, controlled by no responsibility, subject to no serious change, exercising over the whole of the Province an authority utterly independent of the people and its representatives, and possessing the only means of influencing either the Government at home, or the colonial representative of the Crown."
  • "This entire separation of the legislative and executive powers of a State is the natural error of governments desirous of being free of from the check of representative institutions." (cited in Ajzenstat 2003 165)

Durham had several recommendations which included

  • "It is not by weakening but by strengthening the influence of the people on its Government; by confining within much narrower bounds than those hitherto allotted to it, and not by extending the interference of the imperial authorities in the details of colonial affairs, that I believe harmony is to be restored where dissention has so long prevailed." (cited in Ajzenstat 2007 124)

This was his assessment of the oligarchical cliques, but he also recognized that in Lower Canada (Quebec)

  • "the French had become a powerful if disorganized presence in the provincial Parliament, dominating the legislative agenda and taxing and spending in defiance of constitutional law. Durham saw it as his task to save the province from the tyranny of the “many”." (Ajzenstat 2007 145)

Janet Ajzenstat

The remedy for these problems was the idea of “responsible government”. As Ajzenstat explains it

  • "In the eighteenth century British Whigs and Tories both argued that a strong political executive, relatively immune to popular demand, was as necessary to good government as a legislature responsive to popular demand. The good political constitution, it was said, required a “balance” of more representative and less representative institutions. This was the defining characteristic of the famous balanced or mixed constitution." (145)

This did not mean Oligarchy. In fact, Ajzenstat argues that

  • "the men of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique did not put the common good above individual interest. They were oligarchs; they used their position in government to feather their individual nests at the expense of the common good." (Ajzenstat 2003 6)

Durham also noted the great disparity in wealth north and south of the border. This he attributed to remnants of a feudal approach to property.

  • "In his 1839 Report, Durham argues at length that the inadequate systems of land tenure and registration in the Canadas, and the arbitrary distribution of land grants, had had adverse consequences for immigrants, for small landholders, and for the prosperity of society as a whole. Like so many in his time, Durham was convinced that good laws and good institutions promote prosperity. And by “good” laws he meant laws that protect each and all equally. He was struck by the relative prosperity of the United States. In his opinion, the economic stagnation of the Canadas was proof of poor laws and poor administration." (62)

Works Cited

Ajzenstat, Janet, The Once and Future Canadian Democracy: An Essay in Political Thought, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.

Ajzenstat, Janet, The Canadian Founding: John Locke and Parliament, McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007.

Ajzenstat, Janet et al (editors), Canada's Founding Debates, Stoddart 1999, reprint University of Toronto Press 2003. (cited in Ajzenstat 2003 and 2007)

Canadian Primary Resources in the Classroom, "Rebellions of 1837", The Begbie Contest Society (

Lambton, John George (Lord Durham), Report on the Affairs of British North America, 1839 (cited in Ajzenstat 2003 and 2007)

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

Mackenzie, William Lyon, Editorial, Colonial Advocate, July 14, 1831 (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)

Mackenzie, William Lyon, Editorial, Patrick Swift's Almanac, 1834 (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)

Ryerson, Egerton, The Story of My Life, Toronto: William Briggs, 1884 (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)

Ryerson, Stanley, 1837 The Birth of Canadian Democracy, Francis White Publishers, 1950. (cited in "Rebellions of 1837" at Canadian Primary Sources in the Classroom)


The next installment will conclude the series with the Constitutional Conferences of 1864 and the adoption of the British North America Act in 1867. Click here for Part 3.


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.

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2023 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.