The American Revolutionary War was an armed conflict that lasted eight long years, from 1775 to 1783. It was also a civil war between British subjects and Americans, a rebellion against colonial authorities, and an insurrection against the king of England (George III) and the monarchical regime.

American Revolution (1775–1783)

It was ultimately a war of "national liberation," the first in modern history. It caused some 25,700 deaths on the American side alone, which ranks it the second bloodiest war ever waged by the United States (after the Civil War).

In British North America, the American Revolution and Independence had serious consequences. The American Revolution and the sentiments leading up to it gave rise to the Québec Act of 1774 and the Constitutional Act of 1791. American Independence not only brought about a change in the Canadian-American border that considerably reduced British holdings, but also radically changed the demographic makeup of Canada with the arrival of tens of thousands of British loyalists from the American colonies. Moreover, these changes led to the creation of another "province" or British colony —New Brunswick— and the division of Québec into two separate colonies: Upper Canada (Ontario) to the west and Lower Canada to the east (Québec). British North America thus went from three colonies (Québec, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland) to five (with New Brunswick and Upper Canada).

a picture of an eagle and an ameican flag

At the time the Québec Act was passed in 1774, Québec's population was 70,000, whereas Nova Scotia had some 12,000 inhabitants. New England was home to about 2.5 million people. In addition to boasting the world's most powerful navy, Great Britain was able to muster an impressive military force far superior to that of the New England colonies. The British drew on an army of 30,000 professional soldiers (disciplined, experienced, well armed, and well paid) and the best European generals, as well as 700 warships, 2,000 merchant ships for the transport of troops and ammunition, and 150,000 seamen. A formidable force to say the least! In 1775, in response to initiatives by the Continental Congress and insurgents, George III ordered 25,000 additional soldiers to set sail for America.

For the American insurgents, success was far from guaranteed as they had only 18,000 to 20,000 inexperienced men, no navy, and only a small number of well-trained generals. Nevertheless, it was the revolutionists who won the war, by slowly wearing the British into the ground. In 1787, the Federal Union of the United States was born. The American colonies agreed to renounce a large degree of their local autonomy to merge the thirteen independent colonies into one powerful central state—the United States of America—able to stand up to Great Britain.

Treaty of Versailles (1783) and redrawing of the Canada-U.S. Border

After two years of vacillation and delay, Great Britain and the future United States of America signed, on September 3, 1783, the Treaty of Versailles, which also involved France, Spain, and the Netherlands and officially marked the end of the War of American Independence. Great Britain recognized the sovereignty of the United States, which was made up of its 13 former colonies. However, since the Canada-U.S. border was not clearly defined, it was subsequently contested. The union of the Thirteen Colonies remained fragile, and it was not until four years later that a constitution was drafted and a veritable federation created. As for the first president of the new republic, George Washington, he did not take up his duties until 1789 (the year of the French Revolution).

According to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, the United States were granted:

  • Independence under the name "United States of America"
  • Expansion of their territory westward to Mississippi, as well as ownership of "Indian territory"
  • A clearly defined border with Canada and the equal partition of the Great Lakes, except for Lake Michigan, which was granted to the Americans in full
  • Fishing rights off the banks of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia

Great Britain obtained:

  • The recognition of debts it contracted before, during, and after the conflict (to be repaid in pounds sterling)
  • Amnesty for the Loyalists and permission for them to resettle in other British colonies (Québec, Nova Scotia, Bermuda, the British West Indies, etc.)

From a geographical viewpoint, the Treaty of Versailles redrew the borders between Great Britain's colonies to the north and the United States to the south. As a result, the United States' territory doubled, while that of the Province of Québec was reduced by a third.

Under the Treaty, the southwest border of the colony of Québec was redrawn so as to bisect the Great Lakes, except for Lake Michigan, which was ceded to the Americans in its entirety. Further south, Great Britain lost Florida, which was handed over to Spain. Several border disputes remained to be resolved, in particular in Nova Scotia (on the territory of present-day New Brunswick). These new Québec borders meant that the Canadians who lived in the area south of the Great Lakes instantly became American citizens. Most of the inhabitants were Amerindians, French Métis, and French-speaking Whites. All of them became English speakers over the next few decades.

province of Quebec in 1774 and 1783
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

Arrival of the loyalists in Canada

With America declaring its independence, Great Britain lost 2.5 million subjects in one fell swoop. However, over 100,000 settlers who remained loyal to the Crown — hence the name "Loyalists" — left the Thirteen Colonies that had become the United States, since they were no longer welcome there, to return to England or settle in other British colonies. In 1783, some 8,000 of these Loyalists sought refuge in the "Province of Québec", while another 35,600 fled to Nova Scotia. Since at the time the combined population of Québec and Nova Scotia totalled 166,000, with Québec accounting for 113,000, one can imagine the extent to which the Loyalists transformed the demographic makeup of British North America, especially in the colony of Nova Scotia, and, as a result, the languages commonly spoken there. Apart from a few rare exceptions (for example, the French Huguenots), all the Loyalists who migrated to Canada were English speakers.

The authorities in both the Province of Québec and the colony of Nova Scotia granted the new refugees between 200 and 1,200 acres of land for each family, as well as farm implements and sufficient food and clothing for two years. In addition to this assistance, an Order in Council by the government of the Province of Québec dated November 9, 1789, provided for the settlement of the children of Loyalists as follows:

Loyalists Landing in Canada

The authorities in both the Province of Québec and the colony of Nova Scotia granted the new refugees between 200 and 1,200 acres of land for each family, as well as farm implements and sufficient food and clothing for two years. In addition to this assistance, an Order in Council by the government of the Province of Québec dated November 9, 1789, provided for the settlement of the children of Loyalists as follows:

The Council concurring with His Lordship, it is accordingly ordered that the Land Boards take means for preserving a register of the names of all persons falling under the description above mentioned (Loyalists), to the end that their posterity may be discriminated from future settlers in the parish registers and rolls of the militia of their respective districts and other public remembrances of the Province, as proper objects by their perseverance in the fidelity and conduct so honourable to their ancestors for distinguished benefits and privileges. And it is also ordered that the Land Boards may, in any such case, provide not only for the sons of those Loyalists as they arrive at full age, but for their daughters also of that age, or on their marriage, assigning to each a lot of 200 acres more or less.

Loyalists Landing in the British Colonies

Most Loyalists, that is, 80.4% of all refugees, settled in Nova Scotia (which, prior to 1784, included the territory of what is now New Brunswick and the island of Cape Breton), lured by the economic potential of the colony, its British common-law system, and the fact that it was English-speaking. Only 18% of them took up residence in the Province of Québec. The Crown resettled some Loyalists in Newfoundland, but most were given land in Nova Scotia and present-day Ontario.


Number of Loyalists


Nova Scotia



New Brunswick



Cape Breton (Cape Breton Island)



St. John Island (now Prince Edward Island)



Québec (St. Lawrence Lowlands)



Québec ("upper country" or Ontario)



Total Loyalists



The population of Nova Scotia consequently doubled, while the Province of Québec became, for the first time, home to a large contingent of English speakers. These new refugees would forever change the political face of what was to become modern-day Canada.

Creation of Upper and Lower Canada (1791)

In addition to two new colonies, New Brunswick and Cape Breton Island, the massive migration of Loyalists to British North America led to the creation of a third colony in 1791—Upper Canada—which ensued from the division of the Province of Québec into two separate colonies. This division was made official by the Constitutional Act of 1791, which recognized the creation of Upper Canada, in the western portion of the province, and Lower Canada, in the eastern portion.

By this time, relations between English speakers in the west and French speakers in the east were strained to the breaking point, and this partition was the British government's only hope of retaining the allegiance of its Loyalist subjects in Québec.

map of Upper and Lower Canada

In a bid to end the French-English conflict, Lord William Grenville, Secretary of State with the Colonial Office, presented the British Parliament with a bill dividing the "Province of Québec" along ethnic lines into two separate entities: Upper Canada in the west and Lower Canada in the east. The British government thus managed to appease everyone, on the one hand by rallying French Canadians to its cause, since the threat of war with the United States still loomed (and would materialize 21 years later, in 1812), and on the other hand by creating a Loyalist enclave so that His Majesty's faithful subjects, virtually all of whom were English-speaking and of Anglican faith, would no longer be plagued by the demands of the French Catholic majority. Finally, the establishment of the new colony in the western portion of Québec ensured that any attempt by the French inhabitants to expand their boundaries toward the "upper country" (now Upper Canada) would be nipped in the bud.

The English settlements in Upper Canada and the Eastern Townships of Lower Canada would be ruled by British common law and an elected assembly, while the French province would retain the form of government decreed in the Québec Act (a governor and appointed counselors). It was the British government that decided, against the wishes of Governor Carleton, Lord Dorchester, to partition Québec, deeming that this was the best way of satisfying the interests of both the Loyalists and the French Canadians. Thus the "Province of Québec" ceased to exist, and Lower Canada was born.

At the end of the 18th century, the population of the seven colonies of British North America (Lower Canada, Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, St. John Island, and Cape Breton Island) totaled approximately 390,000 inhabitants, not including the aboriginal peoples. In addition to the 200,000 inhabitants of French origin who had settled in the St. Lawrence Lowlands (now Lower Canada), there were 140,000 British settlers: 70,000 in the Maritimes, 25,000 in each Canada, and some 20,000 in Newfoundland. In the West, still a largely uncharted region, there were probably about 40,000 inhabitants. The residents of Upper and Lower Canada would now have to cope with the difficult beginnings of linguistic duality.