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Responsible Government

FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION

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Our governor general controlled by an elected assembly, instead of by us. It's a Canadian idea!

Individual women and men can achieve great things when they break with tradition. But history shows that nations, too, must forge new paths to realize their ideals.

The struggle toward self-government in Canada includes stirring tales of Louis Joseph Papineau, William Lyon Mckenzie, and the other patriots and martyrs of the 1837 rebellions. It is also the record of the less colourful yet equally important individuals, those whose vision of peaceful political change brought responsible government to Canada.

The story began in the early part of the 19th Century when the British colonies in North America were dominated by closely-knit groups of wealthy businessmen and landowners. Called the "Family Compact" in Upper Canada (now Ontario), the "Château Clique" in Lower Canada (now Québec) and "The Council of Twelve" in Nova Scotia, these influential groups had the ear of the colonial governors - the Crown's representatives. The governors appointed these powerful people to the governing cabinets of each colony, the Executive Councils.

Opposing these governing elites - and the system that kept them in power, was a growing number of discontented citizens who advocated effective elected representation in their governments. That discontent erupted in Lower and Upper Canada in the rebellions of 1837.

After the rebellions had been thoroughly suppressed, the British government sent Lord Durham to Canada to investigate the causes of the uprisings. Reformers presented him with the concept of "responsible government," which would give legislative power to elected assemblies. Fearing another popular uprising, as well as the expansionist republic to the south, Durham thought it prudent to meet some of the reformers' demands if the colonies were to remain British. He therefore recommended a form of responsible government in his report. This idea, however, was refused by the British government, which was not prepared for a move toward democracy in its colonies.

The Reformers did not give up. Joseph Howe and others campaigned for responsible government in Nova Scotia, and in the newly formed Province of Canada (the union of Upper and Lower Canada), Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin led the Reformers. In 1849, their reform-minded assembly passed a bill recommending compensation to those who had suffered damage in the rebellions of 1837. The Executive Council bitterly opposed the Act, and the Governor General, Lord Elgin, had to decide whether to favour the powerful old establishment or bow to the wishes of elected representatives.

When Lord Elgin signed the Rebellion Losses Bill, responsible government won the day. Finally, government legislation was to be controlled by the majority in an elected assembly. Although suffrage was still far from universal, this event marked an important milestone on the road to democracy in Canada.

Heritage Minute Cast
Victoria Bronwen Mantel
Melbourne Harry Hill

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