At the end of the 18th century, there were seven colonies in British North America: Lower Canada (Québec), Upper Canada (Ontario), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, St. John's Island (which would become Prince Edward Island in 1798), and Cape Breton Island (which would be incorporated into Nova Scotia in 1820).

British North America in 1791

Rupert's Land was not a colony but a vast territory that the Crown granted to the Hudson's Bay Company. It was like a "private colony," having hardly any ties with other British settlements. At the time, Canada was not yet a country but more an "archipelago of British colonies" that were relatively isolated from each other.

Rupert's Land, Lower Canada, Hupper Canada

Constitutional Act of 1791

The Constitutional Act passed by the British Parliament in 1791 divided the Province of Québec into two distinct colonies: Lower Canada in the east and Upper Canada in the west. The new constitutional act that repealed the Québec Act of 1774 did not concern other Canadian colonies. For the first time since 1763, the name Canada was reintroduced into official documents and the two colonies were from then on called "province":

And whereas his Majesty has been pleased to signify, by his Message to both Houses of Parliament, his royal Intention to divide his Province of Québec into two separate Provinces, to be called The Province of Upper Canada, and The Province of Lower Canada.

Lowe Canada Hupper Canada Rupert's Land

The British authorities chose the Ottawa River as the border between the two new provinces of British North America.

In 1800, Lower Canada had 225,000 inhabitants, including 10,000 Anglophones, while Upper Canada (today Ontario) had only 46,000 inhabitants, nearly all Anglophone Loyalists, as well as some aboriginals, Métis, and Francophones.

Early linguistic conflict in Lower Canada

In the late 19th century, the province of Lower Canada had 160,000 inhabitants, including 20,000 Anglophones (12.5%). It was comprised of four administrative districts (Gaspé, Québec, Trois-Rivières, and Montréal) and 25 counties. Lower Canada and Upper Canada achieved numerical equality around 1806, with 225,000 inhabitants in each province. Francophones would become the minority throughout the country around 1806.

Initially, Lower Canada francophones welcomed the Constitutional Act of 1791, as it guaranteed the rights of the Québec Act, notably by maintaining recognition of the Catholic religion and French civil law. English common law complemented French civil law, and land was given as "free tenure" outside of seigniories, and an elected assembly was created, while the power of the Catholic Church and the seigniorial elite was maintained. In short, things were looking up. But administrative problems very quickly arose.

Francophone underrepresentation on the councils

The number of members of the Legislative Assembly was set at 50. Even though Francophones were the vast majority, they elected 34 members and Anglophones 16. The situation was even more controversial in the Legislative Council, which had seven Francophones and nine Anglophones, while the Executive Council had four Francophones and five Anglophones. Of the 31 people appointed to the Executive Council between 1793 and 1828, only six were francophone, compared to 25 Anglophones. Of the 30 judges, only 11 were francophone, not to mention the administrative machinery, where French Canadians formed an even smaller minority. In short, the unequal representation of Francophones and Anglophones did not bode well for the future.

Linguistic situation in Upper Canada

In 1791, Upper Canada covered more or less the same area as today's southern Ontario, i.e., the Great Lakes region. It came into being with the Constitutional Act of 1791, a response to the demands of the Loyalists, who refused to settle among the Canadians with their French civil law and Catholic faith. Instead, Governor Haldimand offered them this hinterland. In 1787, the governor of the "Province of Québec," Lord Dorchester, had arranged to purchase Toronto from the Mississauga Indians. The territory was over 1,000 square kilometres in size and situated in what is today the Toronto and York regions. However, the first capital of Upper Canada was not Toronto, but Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake), near the American border. In 1793, the capital was moved to York (now Toronto), for it appeared less vulnerable to attacks from the new republic of the United States. John Graves Simcoe (1752–1806) became the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada (from 1791 to 1796). He was very attached to his native England and wanted to model the new territory on his country of origin and institute Anglicanism as the state religion. Simcoe held British values in very high esteem. He dreamed of a "superior form of government, more desirable and refined," not only to attract immigrants, but also to restore the Empire and bring the Americans back into the British fold.

The first Legislature of Upper Canada1792

At the closing of the first session of the first Legislature of Upper Canada in 1792, John Graves Simcoe noted to members that "this Province is singularly blessed with, not a mutilated Constitution, but with a constitution that has stood the test of experience, and is the very image and transcript of that of Great Britain." It was during this first session of the Legislature that the members for Upper Canada passed a law abolishing French property and civil law and establishing English law. As a very great majority of the population was English-speaking, English became de facto the official language of the Legislature, justice, and administration. Legal scholars have only found a single legal text in the archives wherein French has any sort of an obligatory character, a clause saying that notices appended to proceedings intended for "Canadiens" be in the French language.

Unlike in Lower Canada, language was scarcely an issue in Upper Canada. The Loyalists considered the province theirs and concerned themselves not a whit with the language problems of Lower Canada. And Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe did everything he could to erase all trace in the colony of the French and even the Amerindians. In 1792, John Graves Simcoe decided to ignore his Francophone subjects by limiting their influence in Upper Canada. With the arrival of the Loyalists, Francophones were excluded from administrative posts. Governor Simcoe also changed certain place names. Thus Toronto became YorkLac des Claies became Simcoe Lake (nothing less!), Rivière La Tranche was changed to the Thames RiverRivière Chippewa to the Welland RiverRivière Toronto to the Humber RiverRivière Wonscoteonach to the Don River, and so on. This practice was aimed not only at eliminating toponymical references to the French and the Amerindians as much as possible, but also paying tribute to friends of the regime. Amerindian place names still reminded people of the Franco-Amerindian alliance and were thus rejected, although John Graves Simcoe still sought to maintain good relations with the native peoples during his term of office. By the time he left the province in 1796, Simcoe had neither convinced the Americans to renounce republicanism, nor Great Britain to convert Upper Canada into a great military centre for the Empire.

John Graves Simcore

Simcoe's successors (Peter Russell, Peter Hunter, Alexander Grant, et al) authorized French-language confessional schools outside the new public (or "common") school system, providing those of minority faith with their own "separate" school at public expense, in addition to that of the majority.

While the children of Anglophone Protestants attended public schools, those of Francophone Catholics attended separate schools administered by the religious orders. For a century, the French school system in Upper Canada was mainly run by the Grey Nuns. The school boards called on the religious orders because they could guarantee a relative abundance of teachers (mostly female) willing to work for a pittance. The Catholic hierarchy strongly encouraged Francophone parents to send their children to separate schools, where they would be instructed in French. Confessional schools were a way for Francophones to ensure the survival of their mother tongue. An 1855 statute (the Taché Act) stipulated that separate schools were for Catholics only and excluded all others from them except in very rare cases. In the mid-1850s, the Catholic hierarchy in Upper Canada sought to keep Catholic children totally separate from the general population. In 1856, Bishop Armand-François de Charbonnel (1802-1891) accused Catholic parents who enrolled their children in public common schools of committing a "mortal sin." In the last two decades of the 19th century, Bishop Joseph-Thomas Duhamel (1841-1891) went even further, brandishing the menace of excommunication for any French Catholic parent who continued to prefer public schools.

Demographic and ideological transformation of Upper Canada

The colonies of British North America began to change as their populations rose and trade expanded. They still operated within the constitutional framework of 1791, but what seemed tolerable in 1791 no longer was in the decades to follow. Administrative inefficiency was preventing them from reaching their full potential. The members of the various legislative assemblies elected by the local population had no real power since the legislative councils—entirely made up of men (friends) appointed by the governor or lieutenant-governor—still held a veto over all bills presented by the legislatures.

Although demographically and economically different, all the colonies of British North America began experiencing political unrest. But it was in Lower Canada that debate turned the most violent, since ethnic tensions between Anglophones and Francophones came into play. Yet Upper Canada and Lower Canada had similar problems: a reformist majority thwarted by a conservative minority jealously guarding its privileges.

Awakening of Nationalist Ideology in Lower Canada

The structural problems were the same in Lower Canada, with the addition of ethnic and linguistic conflict. In Lower Canada, the Family Compact had its equivalent in the "Château Clique" (Château Saint-Louis in Quebec City), a small group of prominent citizens and merchants, virtually all of whom were British and Anglican. The Catholic francophone population considered itself shortchanged with its representatives at the Assembly, who had no real power. The language issue came up when Governor General James Henry Craig ill-advisedly intervened in the dispute, and in so doing turned Francophones against Anglophones.

Chateau Clique

Other BNA colonies

Unlike the colonies in Upper and Lower Canada, those in the Maritimes did not face the same problems. Nonetheless, conservatives and reformers faced off for control of institutions and decision-making power. Throughout the Atlantic colonies, the original Acadian population was not at all involved in political life (poverty, illiteracy, discriminatory measures, etc.). This is why there were never any language conflicts in these British North American colonies, even though they were populated by immigrants of various ethnic origins (English, Scottish, Irish, German, Yankees, and Acadians). However, problems arose between Catholics (Acadians and Irish) and Protestants (the others). English (in a wide variety of dialects), Irish, Scottish, German, Low German, and French were spoken in all the colonies. All of these languages, except for Acadian French, would one day melt into a unique North American English. As for Acadian French, it will retain its peculiarities peculiar to the Poitevin and Saintongean languages of western France, and will absorb words from the English language.

Lower Canada, Rupert's Land, Hupper Canada

The Durham report and Its solutions

The year 1840 marked a milestone in Canadian history, the union of Upper and Lower Canada, an event of crucial importance that shaped the culture of Canada's early inhabitants and the relations between  Francophones and non- Francophones. At the time, the total population of British North America—the future Canada—was approximately 1 1/2 million, distributed among seven colonies:

Lower Canada650,000
Upper Canada450,000
Nova Scotia130,000
New Brunswick100,000
Prince Edward Island45,000
New Caledonia/Oregon (present-day B.C.)(??? nonofficial)

Under the Royal Charter granted by Charles II in 1670, the Hudson's Bay Company ran Rupert's Land as a private colony. The company also detained a monopoly on the fur trade in the area on the other side of the Rocky Mountains known as New Caledonia to the British and Oregon Country to the Americans. This zone was jointly occupied by the United States and Great Britain and extended north from the 42nd parallel all the way to the 54th parallel marking the border with Alaska, which still belonged to Russia. The native population of the areas under Hudson's Bay Company control was approximately 300,000, but this non-white population was not included in official statistics. A few years later in 1846, the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the western border between British North America and the United States. Two distinct colonies were created on the West Coast: Vancouver Island and British Columbia.

In 1840, the seven British North American colonies—Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Lower Canada, Upper Canada, and New Caledonia (Oregon) —had no geographical or political links. They existed as independent entities, each with its own governor (or rather lieutenant-governor), assembly, executive, civil service, customs offices, police, militia, stamps, etc. Only the “Province of Canada" (divided into Lower and Upper Canada) shared a certain number of institutions. None of the colonies had yet obtained responsible government

British Colonies and Territoires before 1840

Governor General Durham

John George Lambton, Earl of Durham (1792–1840) was appointed governor general of British North America in January 1838 (after the rebellions of 1837), a position he held until November 1838. He was also appointed the high commissioner to Canada to examine the situation created by the strife of 1837. Lord Durham arrived in early summer in 1838 and promptly launched his investigation. He traveled throughout Lower and Upper Canada to familiarize himself with relations between the British and the Canadiens and draw his own conclusions, later set down in the 1839 Durham Report, which served as the basis for the Act of Unionof 1840.

Durham noted that in all of the colonies, the elected assemblies were no longer willing to accept the domination of the oligarchic councils. However, he believed that the roots of the problem were more ethnic than political. In Lower Canada, the British emissary found "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state." After a six-month stay, Durham presented his report to the British government.

In his research, Lord Durham never sought contact with Canadian officials. According to its first Secretary Charles Buller (1806-1848), his opinion of Canadians was already set before arriving in Quebec City. He had even decided that no concession could satisfy the French-Canadian rebels. He never acknowledged any basis for the arguments put forward by the Reform parties that wanted to change the institutions of the colony in depth. If the demands of the "rebels" did not deserve attention, the reforms demanded by the English merchants seemed to him to be quite appropriate: the granting of responsible government and then the union of Upper and Lower Canada. His secretary, Charles Buller, believed that "long years of injustice" and "the deplorable ineptitude of British colonial politics" had pushed Canadians to rebel.

In his 1839 report, Lord Durham analyzed the crisis raging in Lower Canada. In his view, the crisis had two causes:

1.The conflict generated by the presence of an elected assembly and an unelected executive council and the governor's opposition to the assembly

2.The coexistence of the French and English populations, causing a "conflict of races"

Lord Durham made three recommendations:

1.The union of Upper Canada ( Ontario) and Lower Canada ( Québec) into a single colony (1840)

2.The assimilation of the French Canadians (1840)

3.The granting of ministerial responsibility, or responsible government (1848)

In fragile health, Lord Durham died not long after his return to London in 1840.

Lord Durham

Canadian exodus to the United States

Between 1840 and 1930, almost four million Canadians left their country for the U.S.  Given that no serious study had been conducted by the Canadian Department of Immigration to record the number of emigrants, it was necessary to use data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, specifically U.S. census records, which constituted the most immediately accessible source. 

The geographic distribution of English- and French-speaking Canadians to the U.S. was different, for obvious reasons.  Quite naturally Canadian emigrants tended to settle in the states which were immediately south of where they lived.  For this reason, the cities of New England held a stronger attraction for French Canadians from Quebec and English Canadians from the Maritimes than for those who lived west of the Ottawa River (i.e. Ontario).   The majority of Anglophone Canadians settled along the border, in Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Ohio. Conversely, Francophone Canadians settled in the New England states:  Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont and Connecticut.

English and French Canadian emigrants : 1890-1920

Canadian emigrants also dispersed westward to other American states, including Idaho, Oregon, Washington State and California, but they did so in much smaller numbers than to states near the Canadian-U.S. border.  It was necessary to open the Canadian West to settlement and create a network of railways to attract English Canadians and European immigrants to the area.  .However, the Canadian Prairies attracted almost no French Canadians, who preferred the labour market in New England.  

The table below shows certain differences between English- and French-speaking emigrants.  Almost twice as many Anglophones as Francophones left Canada between 1890 and 1930, which is understandable, since Francophones made up approximately 40% of the population of Canada.   During this period, 1.3 million Francophones (31.0% of total departures) and 3 million Anglophones (68.9%) left Canada.  

Geographic distribution of Canadians by language
DecadeFrench CanadiansEnglish CanadiansTotal
1890302 496678 442980 938
1900395 126784 7961 179 922
1910385 083819 5541 204 637
1920307 786810 0921 117 878
Total1 390 4913 092 8844 483 375

G. E. Jackson, Emigration of Canadians to the United States, in Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 196, May 1923, pp. 25-34.

The majority of English-speaking Canadian emigrants chose to work in the agricultural sector in the U.S., while French-speaking Canadians preferred to work in the manufacturing sector in New England.   However, there were more job opportunities for English Canadians than for French Canadians. Some knowledge of English was necessary to obtain better paying jobs, and a certain level of literacy in English was necessary to learn about possibilities in the job market.  Francophone Canadians were at a disadvantage in these areas.  At the same time, because Francophones were a homogeneous community due to the Catholic religion and the French language, they remained a minority in the U.S. for a longer period of time, while Anglophones were quickly assimilated into the Anglo-Protestant majority in the U.S.  The ravages of Canadian emigration were particularly substantial from the second half of the 19th century until 1930, when the U.S. government decided to close the Canadian-United States border.  

It is understandable that Canada’s demographic growth was relatively modest during this period; although the country attracted almost 1.5 million newcomers it then lost them to its neighbour to the south.  During the same period, while immigration to Canada didn’t decrease, it was far exceeded by Canadian-born emigrants going to the U.S. It is estimated that from 800,000 to 1,000,000 Canadians (of all linguistic backgrounds) left the country, more than 10% of the population each decade.

Historians have pondered the causes of the exodus of the two major linguistic communities. First of all, there was over-population in both Ontario and Quebec in relation to the available land, although the entire Canadian economy was predominantly agricultural. Moreover, there was not sufficient industrial growth in Canada to absorb the surplus population from rural areas.  Although the Canadian government adopted a national policy to promote settlement in the Prairies, Francophone Canadians were even more reticent than Anglophone Canadians to settle in this region; most preferred to settle in the U.S. .  

After 1930, Canadian immigration declined gradually as the Canadian economy grew after the Second World War and as political autonomy improved in the Francophone province of Quebec.  Nonetheless the fact still remains that more than four million Canadians of all linguistic backgrounds left their country between  1890 and 1930, a real drain on the nation.

Status of languages in the Other British North American Colonies

The other colonies that made up British North America—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland—were not subject to any form of official bilingualism. The constitutional laws that had been imposed upon Canada West and Canada East were of no effect in the Atlantic colonies.

The Maritimes

Despite the relatively large Acadian population in The Maritimes, including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, French had no official status there. Nova Scotia's colonial constitution was included with the directives the British authorities sent to Governor Edward Cornwallis in 1749. His instructions were to introduce English laws to the colony and ensure that court proceedings were conducted according to those same laws. Over the course of previous centuries, French had remained the language of the English courts, despite the Statute of Pleading of 1362, which had recognized English as the sole language of use. However, since 1731, the use of any other language than English in the courts of England and Great Britain had been strictly forbidden.

At the time of Nova Scotia's entry into Canadian Confederation, English was the colony's official language. There were no texts giving any kind of status to French, not even as a "language of translation." The situation was the same in New Brunswick. Detached from Nova Scotia in 1784, the province also based its constitution on directives issued on August 16 of that year to Governor Thomas Carlton. The instructions were similar to those given to Edward Cornwallis for Nova Scotia.

Vancouver Island and British Columbia

It was not until 1849 that the United Kingdom formally established the colony of Vancouver Island to protect its sovereignty in the West. At the time, apart from a few hundred British settlers in Fort Victoria, the Pacific region was peopled by some 40,000 to 50,000 natives. On the mainland, the white population was no more than 1,000 (employees of the Hudson's Bay Company), whereas the native population was around 26,000. But the character of the region changed markedly with the Fraser River gold rush of 1858, when as many as 30,000 people flooded in one year alone. The influx was such that Great Britain created the mainland colony of British Columbia to run things more efficiently. The two Western colonies were governed by a single British representative. English became the de facto official language of the two colonies.

In November 1866, London unilaterally merged Vancouver Island and British Columbia, judging that there were was nothing to be gained from maintaining two separate colonies. And it must be said that with the recession that followed on the heels of the gold rush, separate colonial administrations were an unjustifiable financial burden. The newly merged colony adopted the name British Columbia, and its capital was that of the former Vancouver Island colony, Victoria.

In March 1867, B.C. reformers managed to convince Governor Seymour (who opposed union with Canada) to send a telegram to the Colonial Office asking that a provision allowing for British Columbia's possible entrance into Confederation be included in the British North America Act. The Colonial Office saw merit in the suggestion, but drew attention to a major obstacle—the thousands of kilometres of Hudson's Bay Company land (known as Rupert's Land and the North-West Territory) separating B.C. from the rest of Canada. To extend its territory from coast to coast, Canada had to acquire this land.

Other Westerners saw annexation to the United States as a logical solution. But pro-Canada forces received a major boost in 1869 when Canada acquired Rupert's Land from the HBC. As in the other British colonies, English remained the official language in B.C. by virtue of British law.

Effects of political change on Language in Canada

In the early 19th century, Anglophones and Francophones were equally numerous in United Canada, which had two parts: Canada East (part of the current province of Quebec) and Canada West (what is currently southern Ontario). Canada East was the most populous with 697,000 inhabitants in 1844, some 75% of whom were francophone. British, Scottish, Irish, and aboriginal inhabitants made up the remainder. Canada West had 450,000 inhabitants in 1848, 2.5% of whom were francophone. The vast majority of its inhabitants were of Anglo-Saxon (British, Scottish, Irish, and American) or aboriginal origin.

Elsewhere, the population of the Atlantic colonies was over 500,000. Nova Scotia, which had 202,000 inhabitants, was the most populated, followed by New Brunswick (156,000 inhabitants in 1840), Newfoundland (96,000 inhabitants in 1845), and Prince Edward Island (47,000 inhabitants in 1841). Recent political and economic upheavals were changing the languages spoken in British North America.

The West, then known as Rupert's Land, belonged to the Hudson's Bay Company. It was still populated by aboriginals and Métis (some 5,000 in all). The white presence was limited to Hudson's Bay Company trading posts; several Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist missions; and isolated settlements on the banks of the Red River in the south of the current province of Manitoba.