Linguistic History of Canada

Difficult Beginnings of Linguistic Duality

British North America in 1791

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). 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.

Creation of Upper and Lower Canada (1791)

©Jacques Leclerc 2018


Population of the Colonies

At the very end of the 18th century, the seven British colonies had some 350,000 inhabitants, not counting the aboriginal peoples. In addition to the 200,000 descendants of the French colonists in the St. Lawrence Valley, there were 140,000 British (70,000 in the Maritimes, 25,000 in each of the Canadas, and about 20,000 in Newfoundland). In the West, there were probably more than 40,000 people for a grand total of about 390,000 to 395,000 inhabitants.

The population of Lower Canada numbered 225,000 inhabitants, 25,000 of whom were anglophone. Thus, at the end of the 18th century, the francophones constituted not only the vast majority of Lower Canada (88.8%) but, in fact, the majority of the population of British North America (51 - 56%). There were anglophones and francophones in all the colonies, but the francophones were in the minority everywhere except in Lower Canada. The smallest number of inhabitants (0.5%) were found in the colony of Cape Breton Island.


Number of Inhabitants


Lower Canada (Québec)


56 %

Upper Canada (Ontario)


11.6 %

Nova Scotia


10.1 %

New Brunswick


6.3 %



3.5 %

St. John's Island


0.7 %

Cape Breton Island


0.5 %

The West


10.1 %



100 %

Sources: David J. Bercuson, ed., Colonies: Canada to 1867 (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1992) 242.
Douglas McCalla, "The 'Loyalist' Economy of Upper Canada," Histoire sociale/Social History, 16.32 (November 1983): 285.

The "West" designated the territories located to the west of Upper Canada. It was no longer the terra incognita of 1763 at the time of the British conquest. Merchants and explorers had gained geographic knowledge of the continent at a surprisingly quick rate. Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) left the Hudson's Bay Company to explore the lands of the West as far as the Great Slave Lake, and Matthew Cocking (? - 1779) travelled into Blackfoot lands and pushed the fur trade territory further west. At the time, it was known that, besides the Blackfoot, several thousand other Amerindians—including the Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Cree, and Athapascan—lived in these regions of the Plains (currently the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). The approximately 40,000 Amerindians had already been affected by their contacts with the Europeans. Alexander Mackenzie (1764 - 1820) ventured as far as the Arctic in 1789 to reach the Pacific in 1793. In 1778, the great English navigator James Cook (1728 - 1779) embarked from Vancouver Island (which would get its name in 1792 in honour of Captain George Vancouver, dispatched by the United Kingdom) in order to reach the Bering Strait that connects Alaska to Asia.

Colonial Administrative Framework
Administrative Structure of Colonies of British North America

© Jacques Leclerc

Theoretically, the seven colonies in British North America—Lower Canada, Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the island of Newfoundland, St. John's Island, and Cape Breton Island—had a relatively simple administrative framework. At the summit of the hierarchy was the British Parliament, which was the supreme authority. The British government passed its directives on to the Governor General, who lived in Québec City. In each of the colonies there was a lieutenant-governor, known locally as the "Governor," who ensured the link between the British authorities and the local populations. In theory, the colony had a House of Assembly (or Legislative Assembly) elected by the people. An Executive Council and a Legislative Council, whose members were appointed by the Crown (Governor), completed the picture. The councils had the authority to draw up budgets and spend government money without being accountable to the elected members.

In reality, the colonial government proved to be more complex. First, the Governor General had discretionary power—he was as powerful as the British sovereign because the distance between London and North America gave him independence. As a New Brunswick official reported to London, "The empire is so vast and we are so far away that our matters are but a chore." The Governor General controlled the Executive and Legislative Councils, and, by his right of veto, he could reject any bill presented by a Legislative Assembly, dissolve the House of Assembly, and call elections. However, since his career was often at stake, he had to act with caution and take a generally conservative approach.

In addition, the colonial system showed serious shortcomings. The Governor General ran the province of Québec (or Lower Canada), the only predominantly French-speaking colony, which did not have a Legislative Assembly until 1791. Newfoundland did not get one until 1832. Only landowners and certain tenants had the right to vote, and did so orally in just one polling station per riding.

In time the balance of powers swung in favour of the legislative assemblies, which brought about resentment and confrontation between the Reformers and the Conservatives, especially in Lower Canada, where an English governor and a Council dominated by the British decided to flout the Legislative Assembly composed of a francophone majority. The inhabitants of all the colonies became less and less tolerant of the discretionary power of the Governor General and the lieutenant-governors, as well as the privileges of the conservative cliques that gravitated around the Governor.

Constitutional Act of 1791
Creation of Upper and Lower Canada (1791)

©Jacques Leclerc 2018

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.

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.

Advent of Parliamentarianism

The 1791 Constitution introduced parliamentarianism to the two Canadas. Upper and Lower Canada each had their own Legislative Assembly, Legislative Council, Executive Council (created in 1792), and Lieutenant Governor (especially in Upper Canada, as the Governor General ordinarily governed Lower Canada). At the top of the hierarchy, London had appointed a Governor General who had absolute authority over not only the two Canadas, but also the other colonies (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, etc.). The Governor General could veto the laws passed by all elected legislative assemblies. The Councils were appointed by the Crown—namely the Governor General or lieutenant governors—and could draw up budgets and dictate government expenditures without being held accountable to voters. Accordingly, their role was to tailor the laws passed by the Assemblies to British interests, generally those of English merchants, in Lower Canada in particular.

The new Constitution appeared very tolerant for the time, as it gave women, aboriginals, Jews, and Catholics the right to vote. It was, at least in terms of voting rights, certainly one of the more liberal constitutions of the 18th century. British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger stated that the Canadians would be masters of their own destinies, but that experience would teach them that English laws were best. But, as was the custom in Great Britain, the right to vote was only granted to landowners; English merchants in Lower Canada opposed giving the colony the right to vote. They knew that, in Lower Canada, landowners were more common than in Great Britain: they made up an eighth of the population. This pitted the land-rich Canadian seigneurs against the capital-rich English merchants. The anglophone minority feared losing control of a political system designed, as in Great Britain, to ensure its domination of the majority. The colonial legislative assemblies were responsible for domestic matters (justice, education, culture, administration, health, agriculture, etc.), while Great Britain (officially the United Kingdom in 1801) oversaw defense and foreign affairs.

Though the system London implemented brought parliamentarianism, it was not a true democracy and had serious flaws. Legislative Assembly members were elected by the local population, but had no real power in the colonial government, as the Legislative Council, which was entirely composed of men nominated by the Governor, could veto any bills presented by the Assembly. The Assembly, therefore, had no control over the actions of the government, which used provincial revenue as it saw fit. This system also systematically blocked all Assembly member initiatives, but the Assembly, in turn, could refuse to ratify budgets, thereby paralyzing the state. The following years saw the development of an executive oligarchy with too much power and parliaments that had too little power. Lieutenant governors had almost absolute power in that they appointed Council members and could overturn laws passed by the Legislative Assembly. Power was concentrated in the hands of the Governor General (and lieutenant governors) representing the British crown. In a nutshell, capitalist interests controlled all political life in British North America with the help of the governors.

In addition, the Constitutional Act stated that the Catholic faith was to continue to be respected, but set aside the "seventh Part of [public] Lands so granted" in each province for Protestant clergy to cover the living expenses of Anglican clergy and related educational costs. Following the example of the Québec Act, the 1791 Constitution did not mention language, except in sections 24 and 29, which respectively stated the oath of a voter or member of the Legislative Assembly or Council could be administered in either French or English. In the following decades, all of these factors would spark conflict between not only Anglophones and Francophones, but also the various political parties in each colony.

An Aborted Bill

Before London passed the Constitutional Act, Governor Guy Carleton (who had become Lord Dorchester) had presented a draft Constitution quite different from the one finally presented to the British Parliament. Lord Dorchester had envisioned a federation of all British colonies (Lower Canada, Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, St. John's Island, and Cape Breton Island). The laws would have required the support of a double majority: a majority of elected members of a colony and a majority of all colonial members. This system would have forced Lower Canada, which was much more heavily populated in 1791, to submit to majority rule by the provinces. The draft Constitution was developed by chief justice William Smith, a supporter of francophone assimilation and strong British nationalist. For Colonial Office minister Lord George Grenville, this attempt to unite peoples that shared neither laws nor language and join the victor and vanquished seemed absurd and conducive to discord. He, therefore, thought it better to create two separate colonies, even though it risked creating a mainly francophone and Catholic province.

In fact, it was the small western Loyalist minority that called for and obtained from London the separation of Upper Canada from Lower Canada. To limit risk, Minister Grenville stipulated that the powers of the Legislative Assembly (Chamber of Assembly) would be limited by a non-responsible Executive Council (it would later be derided as an "irresponsible" council) and a Legislative Council is chosen by London, as well as a governor with right of veto over all laws. The system was similar in the other colonies (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, St. John's Island, etc.), except in Rupert's Land, which was given to the Hudson's Bay Company as a private colony.

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.

Language Issue in the House of Assembly

In the House of Assembly, the language issue soon sparked conflict between Francophones and Anglophones. At the first session of the first Lower Canada legislature on December 17, 1792, debate immediately broke out on the language issue. Francophone and Anglophone members squabbled over the choice of the Assembly speaker. The francophone majority proposed Jean-Antoine Panet, who spoke little English, while the Anglophone minority nominated William Grant, James McGill, and Jacob Jordan, stating that it was necessary for the speaker to be fluent in "the language of the Sovereign." To Anglophones’ great consternation, Jean-Antoine Panet was elected by 28 votes to 18. On December 20, 1792, Jean-Antoine Panet appeared before the province's Governor, declaring "I beg Your Excellency to consider that I can only express myself in the primitive language of my native country and accept the English translation of what I will have the honour to say to Him."

British prime minister William Pitt (the "Younger," son of Lord Chatham) thought it highly desirable for Lower Canada's French Canadians and Britons to be united so as to create a preference for English laws and institutions. "With time," he believed, "the Canadians may adopt English laws through conviction. Experience must teach Canadians that English laws are best." As for the working language, British members completely ignored the issue. They were no doubt familiar with bilingualism as it existed in local government, i.e., in courts and newspapers, and believed that Canadians would continue the system. That the speaker of the House of Lower Canada was a francophone who barely spoke "the language of the Empire" did not seem an insurmountable obstacle, but the language issue had been raised and the true debate was still to come.


The keeping of House minutes raised the issue once again on December 27 of the same year (1792). Member William Grant proposed using English with translation "into French for the use of those who so desire," while member Louis-Joseph Papineau called for bilingual French-English texts. On January 14, 1793, it was agreed to present motions in French and English, but nothing was decided for the language of legislative documents. Member Pierre-Amable de Bonne (who would later join the Legislative Council) proposed two rolls "in one of which House business and motions will be written in French, with the translation of motions originally made in English," and the reverse for the other roll. Member John Richardson called for English to have legal primacy: "To preserve this unit of legal language indispensably necessary to the Empire [...], English will be considered the legal text." After three days of debate, the House accepted that laws be "written in both languages," given that each member could present a motion in the language of his choice, which would be translated "for consideration in the language of the law to which the said bill relates." Below is the resolution adopted on January 23, 1793:

That bills presented will be translated into both languages, that those in English will be translated into French, and those in French translated into English by the clerk before first reading, and when duly translated will also be read in both languages each time, given that each member has the right to table any bill in his own language; but after the translation of such, the text will be considered in the language of the law to which the said bill relates, in accordance with the resolution of this House.

In short, Canadians wanted French only, while the English refused to recognize French as an official language.

English as the Official Language

In practice, the decision meant that laws related to civil law and the Catholic religion had to be in French and those related to common law or the Protestant religion had to be in English. Governor Lord Dorchester approved the use of both languages "provided that all bills be passed in English." This provision did not please British officials.

In September 1793, His Majesty's government decreed that English would be the only official language of Parliament, with French being recognized only as a language of translation. During this period, the French language, therefore, remained without any constitutional protection or legal value, though it continued to be used in debates, minutes, and the writing of laws (in translation). This was the practice from 1793 up until 1840, when the adoption of the Union Act made English the only official language. In reality, legislative bilingualism was taking root and in the coming years would continue a tradition not only in Lower Canada (Québec), but also later in the Canadian federal system.

Reid James-judge

Though the status of French was unclear in the Legislative Assembly, such was not the case in the administration of justice. In 1813, Justice James Reid presided over a summons the plaintiff wished to annul as it had been written in French. Below is the judgment:

His Majesty has used the French language in communications to His subjects in this province in both His executive and legislative capacity, and this language has been recognized as the legal means of communication for his Canadian subjects. At all times, both before and since the ordinance of 1785, the courts of justice have used this language in their writs and in their other procedures. It is for the benefit of subjects that this has been done, and the defendant may not be able to say that he will not be prosecuted in his native language.

Since then, legal bilingualism has been allowed in Canadian federal courts. In the current Canadian system, provinces have the power and authority to initiate proceedings for offences under the Canadian Criminal Code, which contains official languages provisions.


In 1787, Governor Lord Dorchester created the first committee to investigate the state of teaching in the province of Lower Canada. The goal was to provide instruction to all, even the most disadvantaged and remote. The quality of teaching proved lamentable, as educating the children of Francophone Catholics was the responsibility of settlers and the parish. It was hard for peasants to build churches and schools while paying teachers' salaries. Accordingly, in 1790 French Canadians had only around 40 schools for some 160,000 inhabitants, or an average of one school per 4,000 inhabitants, while the English had 17 schools for 10,000 inhabitants, or one for fewer than 600 inhabitants. As for the Francophone literacy rate, it dropped to 13% in 1779 and 4% in 1810, before slowly rising starting in 1820 to reach 27% around 1850.


Given this state of affairs, the first issue to stoke real controversy was the Royal Institution Act of 1801. The purpose of this law was to place the educational system under the control of Anglo-Anglican religious officials through the creation of free government schools open to the public. This measure, an initiative of the first Anglican bishop of Québec City, Jacob Mountain, and Lower Canada administrator Robert Shores Milnes, did not affect Francophones.

The Catholic hierarchy feared the creation of free State schools like the plague, as it was haunted by the spectre of assimilation, echoed in the words of Hugh Finlay, Legislative Council member in 1789:

Schoolmasters must be English if we are to make Englishmen of these Canadians [...]. We could completely anglicize the population by introducing the English language. This will be done through free schools.

Francophones refused en masse to send their children to government schools and sometimes even burned them down, with the result that in 1830 only 2,000 of 400,000 Canadians (0.5%) knew how to write French: French Canada had become illiterate! Many historians believe this dramatic regression in schooling was above all due to the clergy's opposition to the schools offered by the British government. The government should never have proposed that the Anglican Church control the province's schools! It was obviously a very unwise move by the governor.

At the same time, "ethnic quarters" had already formed in cities like Montréal and Québec, as well as other small urban centres. Anglophones lived in commercial areas, while Francophones (workers, small workshop artisans, etc.) lived in the other quarters. Banks, insurance companies, administrative offices, and retail stores were virtually all run by  Anglophones, which was reflected in the architecture of public buildings and Anglican churches, where the tastes of the British predominated.

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

John Graves Simcos

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.

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 York, Lac des Claies became Simcoe Lake (nothing less!), Rivière La Tranche was changed to the Thames River, Rivière Chippewa to the Welland River, Rivière Toronto to the Humber River, Rivière 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.

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.

Land Grants and Demographics

In according the Loyalists of Upper Canada a political regime with an elected assembly, the Constitution of 1791 sought to let them to live as loyal subjects of His Majesty while remaining faithful to the Anglican Church. There is no doubt that the Loyalists, who numbered between 6,000 and 8,000 in 1784, were eager to uphold British traditions. And they had greatly benefited from the generosity of London through the granting of free land. But much of the land in Upper Canada had been awarded to speculators who had done little to develop it. Some Americans had passed themselves off as Loyalists and received free land to which they were not entitled. Faced with such abuse, Governor Peregrine Maitland (1777-1854) abolished the system of free land grants and levied taxes on all idle land.


Over the following two decades, various groups settled in Upper Canada, notably German colonists from the State of New York, Mennonites speaking Low German who settled in the Grand River Valley, and Catholic Highlanders who moved to Glengarry County. By the middle of the century, most of the available land had been sold, and it was time to look to the West, the private domain of the Hudson's Bay Company.

At the turn of the century, Upper Canada had 46,000 inhabitants, and by the time of the Anglo-American War of 1812, the population had risen to 90,000, including several thousand Amerindians, Métis, and Francophones (over 3,000). The latter, who had been used to living as a minority among the Amerindians under the French regime, tolerated the Anglophone majority well. In the 1820s when the population of Upper Canada hit 120,000,  Francophones were a small group of 4,000, or 3.3% of the total, divided mainly between Sault Ste. Marie, Kingston, Pointe-à-l'Orignal, Hawkesbury Mills, and the villages of Vankleek Hill and Orignal.

War of 1812

The War of 1812 had no linguistic consequences for the two Canadas, but at least demonstrated that Anglophones and Francophones could cooperate when their common interests were at stake. Upper Canada was much more affected by the war than the other British colonies (e.g., Lower Canada) since the Americans launched a massive attack against it and burned down the Legislature in Toronto in 1813. Support for the British among the residents of Upper Canada was not automatic, because of many settlers, called "last minute Loyalists," were relatively sympathetic to the American cause. Major General Isaac Brock, determined to whip up support among the population for British North America, launched a preemptive attack against the city of Detroit. His victories convinced many Canadian settlers (including Francophones in Lower Canada) to fulfill their militiaman duties in the fighting that continued on for over two years. British forces invaded the city of Washington in 1814 and burned down the Capitol building and the home of the president of the United States, known since as the "White House" because it had to be repainted white to mask the traces of the fire. In Lower Canada, Colonel Charles-Michel De Salaberry fought off the Americans at Châteauguay with the help of Les Voltigeurs, a French Canadian army contingent. After the fall of Napoleon at Waterloo, the United Kingdom transferred considerable troops from Europe to North America (about 14,000 soldiers).


On Christmas Eve 1814, the Americans and the British signed the Treaty of Ghent (Belgium) restituting all conquests by each of the parties, but requiring the British to give up their Aboriginal allies in the Northwest. The treaty also extended the Canada-U.S. border west along the 49th parallel, from the Lake of the Woods to the Rockies. However, the border between Maine and New Brunswick remained uncertain, which would serve to perpetuate a climate of mistrust between the United States and the British colonies of North America for decades to come.

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.

A New Multiethnic Population

Over time, the inhabitants of Upper Canada developed a degree of animosity toward the British government. The province had been mostly Loyalists in 1784, but its demographic makeup changed considerably in the years to follow. In a space of mere decades (between 1815 and 1860), the population rose to some 400,000 as it welcomed waves of immigrants, especially Mennonites from the United States who had bought lands ceded to the Mohawks in the Kitchener area. Living in small farming communities, the Mennonites can still be seen today wearing their traditional black garb and speaking their language derived from Low German—Plautdietsch, or Plattdeutsch in German—and strongly influenced by Dutch and Flemish. In the U.S., Plautdietsch was called Pennsylvania Dutch (Pensilfaanisch in German). Then after Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo in 1814, a flood of British veterans came to settle in the lowlands that the government had ceded to John Galt (1779–1839) and his Canada Company near lakes Ontario and Huron. Other Brits took up residence in the Peterborough area north of Lake Ontario. There were also many seasonal workers in the forests (e.g., at Fort Kaministiquia, now Thunder Bay) and on the big construction projects of the day, i.e., the Erie, Welland, and Rideau canals. Many of these workers were Amerindians and Francophones. What's more, Upper Canada welcomed a huge contingent of Irish, up to 25,000 a year. So the population grew more multiethnic with each passing year, and the English language more dominant.

Meanwhile, Scottish colonists were granted land by the Hudson's Bay Company west of Upper Canada, in the Red River Valley where Métis Francophones were already living. Adding to the mix were Hudson's Bay Company retirees and their aboriginal wives, which led to the appearance of English-speaking Métis. As for the Amerindians, they suffered epidemics of smallpox, whooping cough, and measles, struggled with alcoholism, and were forced off their lands (present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Disease spread death among the Tchippewayan, Ojibwa, Sioux, Assiniboine, Western Cree, and others. By 1840, the native peoples were already in the process of being confined to reserves. By the second half of the 19th century, the buffalo had disappeared, railways stretched across the prairies, fences and cities went up, and ancestral customs appeared irremediably lost.

Aside from English, the inhabitants also spoke Amerindian tongues (the native peoples), French (the Métis and Francophones), German (the Germans), Low German (the Mennonites), Irish (the Irish), and Gaelic (the Scots). The English spoken by Anglophones was a different English from that of London, full of American influences, awash in regional accents, and sculpted by the customs and beliefs that the Scottish and Irish immigrants brought over with them. Occasionally conflicts arose between Irish Catholics and Presbyterian Scots, between Irish Catholics and Irish protestants (the Orangemen), and even between the Irish and French Canadians. The biggest brush-ups occurred in Bytown (today's Ottawa) between Reform Catholic groups from the Lower Town (the Irish and French Canadians) and conservative and Orangeman groups from Upper Town. Over time, apart from a few Amerindian languages, only English, French, and to a certain degree German continued to be spoken.

From a sociological perspective, the Anglophone population of Upper Canada seemed generally less radical than that of the United States and less conservative than that of Great Britain. According to historians, the Anglophones were less outgoing and more respectful of authority than their neighbours to the south. A British lady visiting Toronto around 1850 summarized general perceptions of the time when she wrote that people "aren't rushing off in every direction" like in the U.S. and that she "hadn't seen any malingerers." The loyalty of Upper Canadians seemed to distinguish them from Americans. They were attached to the Crown, but also to the Anglican Church, British freedoms, and British imperialism. However, with outmigration and the melting pot of influences, British traditions lost a few feathers, which would pave the way for the Reformers. The fact remains, however, that unlike the Francophones of Lower Canada, the Anglophones of Upper Canada had developed less of a collective identity rooted deep in ethnicity, the land, and shared destiny.

Fight between Reformers and Conservatives

Demographic change and the ensuing economic expansion brought about a flurry of public works (road construction, new canals, schools, hospitals, etc.) that caused constant budget deficits. When John Colborne (1778–1863) took over as lieutenant-governor in 1828, he ran up against stiff opposition from the Reformers. Two Anglophones political groups were doing battle—the Tories (or Conservatives) on one side and the Reformers (the predecessors to the Liberals) on the other. The Tories belonged to families close to the governor—The Family Compact—and were part of the “United Empire Loyalist” elite of businessmen and professionals, mostly members of the Church of England and fiercely anti-American. Opposing them were the Reformers led by Scotsman William Lyon Mackenzie, who deeply distrusted British colonialism.


The Reformers identified with the Whigs and British radicals and fought the Conservatives, who dominated the Executive Council and the Legislative Council and occupied the main administrative and judicial positions in the province. Family Compact members were accused of being a local aristocracy besotted with British values and who kept tight control over all decision-making bodies in the province for their own benefit.

When the governor granted over 20,000 acres of land to the Anglican clergy in the colony in accordance with the Constitutional Act of 1791, the outcry from the other churches was so great that the British Minister of the Colonies had to intervene. By 1830, the British authorities faced open opposition from a part of the population. When Governor Francis Bond Head (1793–1875) proclaimed the dissolution of the Legislature in 1836, the member for York, William Lyon Mackenzie (1795–1861), began a round of public assemblies.

Rebellion of 1837–1838

The Reformers of Upper Canada broke into two clans—radicals pushing for a U.S.-type republican system and moderates more open to British institutions. When London refused to allow the governor to use colonial revenues without the approval of the Legislative Council, the Reformers decided to take up arms, which led to the first skirmishes of the Rebellion of 1837–1838.

In November 1838 at the Battle of Prescott (or Battle of the Windmill) near Kingston, some 2,000 militiamen and regular soldiers of the British army crushed a contingent of some 300 men who had come from the United States (the New York Hunter's Lodge, a patriotic organization committed to driving the British from North America) to help those Canadians seeking to overthrow the British government of Upper Canada. The leader of the patriots and ten of his comrades were hung while sixty others were exiled to Australia (on the Island of Tasmania). William Lyon Mackenzie sought refuge in the United States until the government of United Canada granted amnesty to the rebels in 1849. He resigned his seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1858.


Structural problems were the same in Lower Canada, but there were also ethnic and linguistic conflicts. In Lower Canada, the Family Compact (Le Pacte Famille) found its match in the "Château Clique" (the Château Saint-Louis in Quebec), a small group of notables and traders, almost all of British origin, and Anglican religion. As for the Francophone and Catholic population, it considered itself to be blurred in its representatives in the Assembly, who were deprived of all power. The language issue arose when the Governor General, James Henry Craig, by very clumsy measures, intervened in the dispute by training Francophones against Anglophones.

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.

Francophone Nationalism

The early 19th century was marked by the birth of French Canadian nationalist sentiment. This nationalism was akin to national liberation movements worldwide, notably in Europe and South America. Between 1804 and 1830, Serbia, Greece, Belgium, Brazil, Bolivia, and Uruguay won their independence. In Lower Canada, this movement took the form of parliamentary fights. The years 1805 to 1810 were particularly noteworthy in this regard. Francophone Legislative Assembly members were a homogenous bloc, with their own party—Le Parti canadien—and their own newspaper—Le Canadien, started in 1806. Up until 1820, executive power was successively wielded by governors general  Guy Carleton (lord Dorchester), Robert Prescott, James Henry Craig, George Prevost, and John Coape Sherbrooke. He wavered between confronting Francophones and seeking to appease the House of Assembly. For example, when he was displeased with the elections, Governor James Henry Craig dissolved the Assembly and seized Le Canadien. He was exasperated that Francophones talked constantly of the "Canadian nation" and its freedoms: "They seem to want to be considered a separate nation. They are constantly going on about la nation canadienne." In 1810, Craig described the Canadians as follows:

I mean that in language, religion, attachment, and customs, [this people] is completely French, it has no other tie or attachment to us than a shared government; and that it in fact holds us in mistrust […], feels hatred […]. The dividing line between us is complete.


Ross Cuthbert (1776–1861), the long-time Anglophone member for Warwick (Lower Canada) and a member of the Executive Council, wrote an account of the Canadians' French character in 1809:

A stranger travelling across the province without entering the cities would be persuaded he was visiting a part of France. The language, manners, every symbol, from vane to clog, join together to lead him astray. […] Should he enter a house, French politeness, French dress, French apparel will strike the eye. In the finest of French accents, he'll hear talk of French soap, French shoes; and so on, for everything carries the adjective French. Should one of the daughters of the house decide to sing, he'll likely hear the lovely ballad Sur les bords de la Seine, or some other song that transports him to a beautiful valley of Old France. Among the portraits of saints in the guest room he will also notice that of Napoleon. In short, he could not imagine he had crossed the borders of the British Empire.

But this prominent Anglican citizen of Lower Canada saw the situation as an anachronism that would disappear "in the effervescence of a British solvent." On June 6, 1823, Lower Canada Chief Justice James Stuart (1780–1853), who was also a member of the Executive Council and the member for William Henry, submitted a brief on a draft Union that had this to say about the refusal by Canadians to assimilate:

Lower Canada is mostly inhabited by what one could call a foreign people, despite the fact sixty years have passed since the Conquest. This population has made no progress towards assimilation with its fellow British citizens, in language, manner, habit, or sentiment. It continues, with a few, rare exceptions, to be as perfectly French as when brought under British dominion. The main cause of this adherence to national particularities and prejudices is certainly the impolitic concession that was made to it, of a code of foreign laws in a foreign tongue.

In its May 21, 1831 issue Le Canadien wrote:

There is not to our knowledge a French people in this province, but a Canadian people, a religious and moral people, a people at all times loyal and freedom-loving, and capable of delighting therein; this people is neither French nor English, Scottish, Irish, or Yankee, it is Canadian.

Throughout this period, Anglophones did not yet consider themselves "Canadians." They proudly called themselves Britons—meaning English—and bore loyalty only to the British nation, not the "Canadian nation." The term "Canadians" was only used condescendingly to refer to French-speaking Canadiens. This troubled era was marked by conflict between the governor general, backed by English merchants, and the mainly francophone parliament: religious quarrels, threats of assimilation, parliamentary crises, the battle over "subsidies," immigration troubles, the draft political union, and more.  

Policy of Anglicization

In 1810, Governor James Henry Craig sent a dispatch to the British government proposing a series of measures he believed would restore harmony to Lower Canada. These measures included "the need to anglicize the province," "resort to heavy American immigration to submerge the French Canadians," the requirement to own "substantial land holdings" to be eligible for the Assembly, and especially "the union of Upper and Lower Canada for a more certain and prompt Anglicization." Below is an extract of Governor Craig's dispatch:  

For many years, English representatives have scarcely made up a quarter of the total Assembly, and today out of fifty members representing Lower Canada, only ten are English. One could posit that this branch of government is entirely in the hands of illiterate peasants under the direction of several of their fellow countrymen whose personal importance, in contrast to the interests of the country in general, depends on the continuation of the current depraved system. [...]

The petitioners of Your Majesty cannot omit to note the excessive scope of political rights that have been granted to this population to the detriment of its fellow British subjects; and these political rights, at a time when the population feels its strength growing, have already given birth in the imagination of many to the dream of a distinct nation called the "Canadian nation." [...]

The French inhabitants of Lower Canada, today distanced from their fellow subjects by their particularities and national prejudices, and ardently aiming to become, through the current state of affairs, a distinct people, would be gradually assimilated into the British population and with it merge into a people of British character and sentiment.

For Governor Craig, it was unthinkable for the Assembly to have only 10 Anglophone members out of 50 and that they be "in the hands of illiterate peasants under the direction of several of their fellow countrymen." There was already talk at the time of a "distinct nation" and "distinct people," an idea that would resurface 200 years later in the 1990s with the expression "distinct society." In 1836, a movement even pushed for partitioning Montréal Island and the county of Vaudreuil (on the western border near Ontario) to reattach them to English Upper Canada. The outcry from Anglophone Townshippers and the City of Québec put a stop to the movement.  

Anglophone and Francophone Newspapers

Significantly, newspapers had been bilingual since the start of the British regime. The first newspaper, which was founded in June 1764, was La Gazette de Québec/The Québec Gazette. Of the nine papers published between 1764 and 1806, eight were bilingual, the only exception being La Gazette littéraire launched in 1778 by Fleury Mesplet (1734–1794). Quite often, the English text came first, followed by a French translation, or else the English text ran in the traditionally better left column, with the French on the right. Whatever the case, most subjects were culled from foreign newspapers, nearly all British or American.

Bilingualism in newspapers continued until the early 19th century. Several years later (1808), when Le Canadien devoted 85% of its space to the election, the British and the Catholic clergy reacted with condemnation. On December 4, 1809, the Bishop of Québec, Mgr. Joseph-Octave Plessis, violently attacked Le Canadien for "ruining all the principles of subordination and inflaming the province." Exasperated, Governor James Henry Craig ordered the seizure of Le Canadien's presses in 1810 and the arrest of its senior editors.  

Political Parties

In politics, Francophone members became increasingly aggressive and formed Le Parti Canadien, while Anglophones gathered in the Tory Party. Each group had its own newspaper: Le Canadien (Parti Canadien) and the Québec Mercury (Tory Party), which vied with each other. Antagonism grew between Francophones and Anglophones, and debates turned poisonous. In 1805, the ruling British business bourgeoisie, which opposed political concessions for French Canadians, founded a militant newspaper, the Québec Daily Mirror. On October 27, 1806, the Québec Mercury attacked Canadians in these terms:

This province is already much too French for an English colony. To defrancize it as much as possible, if I may use this expression, should be our primary goal.  

The Montréal Gazette put forward equally extremist views in 1836: "The time for indecision has passed. The British must either crush their oppressors or meekly accept the yoke that has been prepared for them." Anglophones feared to fall under the supremacy of a "French republic." They called for the union of the two Canadas and spoke openly of assimilation, while Canadians denounced favouritism, the governor's corruption and arbitrariness (the "Chateau Clique"), and  Anglophone control of the councils. Francophones wanted an elected Legislative Council, oversight of government spending, and the maintenance of the seigniorial system and even threatened to join the U.S. Year after year, the abuse continued and even grew worse, profiting a group of the governor's personal friends. In 1827, a petition with 87,000 names denounced the profiteers known as the "Chateau Clique." The Gosford-Gipps-Grey Commission(Royal Commission for the Investigation of all Grievances Affecting His Majesty's Subjects of Lower Canada) had predicted in 1837 that British settlers "would never consent without an armed struggle to the establishment of what they see as a French republic in Canada." T. Fred. Elliott, the secretary of the Gosford-Gipps-Grey Commission, seems to have clearly understood the issue of Lower Canadian duality:

French Canadians could not have failed to notice that the English have seized all the riches and all the power in each country where they have set foot. In all parts of the world, civilized or savage, the English have shown, whether as British subjects in the East or as settlers in revolt on this continent, the same inability to mix with others, the same need to predominate. One must admit that this could not be an agreeable thought for the gentle and easy-going race that finds itself caught in the midst of growing institutions and nations of English origin.

For him, the solution was to placate French Canadians and train them to govern themselves with the help of their fellow British citizens. But Elliott was only speaking personally and had little authority as secretary.

Through several strong-arm tactics, Governor James Henry Craig succeeded in arbitrarily dissolving certain Houses of Assembly. Francophones and Anglophones bunkered down for several years in a hardened conflict that totally paralyzed the state. In 1834, French Canadian MPs went to London to present "92 resolutions" designed to update the 1791 Constitution. They called for an elected Legislative Assembly and greater political powers (responsible government and tax administration). Mired in its domestic problems, the British government took its time. In the meantime, as a pressure tactic, the House of Assembly refused to vote on the budget until London accepted its demands. The official response came three years later in May 1837. The British government rejected the proposals of the Parti Canadien (which had become the Parti Patriote) and flatly refused the House of Lower Canada's requests.


As though to add fuel to the fire, officials authorized the colonial government to dispense with the Assembly's consent for the use of public funds, cemented the privileges of Anglophone capitalists, and raised the spectre of uniting the two Canadas. These measures fired up the revolt movement and forced the Patriots' leader Louis-Joseph Papineau to choose between submission and revolt. Once Papineau started to galvanize a population fed up with the economic crisis, inflation, unemployment, cholera epidemics, poor harvests, and political rot, the conflict was ripe for an armed confrontation.

In his Declaration of July 31, 1837, William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the Upper Canada Reformers, took up the cause of the Lower Canada Patriots, writing these words:

We must address our warmest thanks and express our admiration [...] to the Honourable Louis-Joseph Papineau [...] and his compatriots for having conserved a virile and noble independence in favour of religious and civil liberty; and for their opposition to attempts by the British government to violate their constitution without their consent, to subvert the powers and privileges of their local parliament, and to intimidate them through coercive measures […]. Upper Canada reformers are called on, by every fibre of their sentiment, interest, and duty to make common cause with their fellow citizens of Lower Canada."


The armed revolt of the Patriots broke out in fall 1837. They engaged the British army in combat near Montreal and in Saint-Denis, Saint-Charles, and Saint-Eustache. British officials soon intervened and quickly crushed the rebellion, spreading terror by looting and burning several villages, while the Catholic clergy preached loyalty, obedience, and resignation. The following pastoral letter of October 24, 1837, by then Bishop of Montréal Mgr. Jean-Jacques Lartigue is telling in this regard:

Everybody, said Saint Paul to the Romans, shall be subject to the powers of God. And it is He who has established all those in existence. Therefore, he who opposes these powers disobeys God's order. And those who disobey earn damnation for themselves. The prince is God's minister to do well. And since it is not in vain that he wears the gladius, he is also His minister to punish evil. You must therefore obey him not only through fear of punishment, but also as a duty of conscience. [...] And you must see at present that we cannot, without neglecting our duties and placing our own salvation in peril, omit to purge your conscience of such a slippery step.

However, some historians believe that the 1837 Patriots' Rebellion was staged by Montréal loyalists, who provoked the Patriots to be able to accuse them of treason and thereby fight them legitimately. In any case, this is what Patriot militant Dr. Edmund B. O'Callaghan believed, who compared the situation in Lower Canada to that of his native Ireland:

They wanted, as in Castlereagh in Ireland, to incite the people to violence, then abolish their constitutional rights. In the history of the union of Ireland with England, you will retrace as in a mirror the 1836–1837 plot against Canadian liberty.

For O'Callaghan, the government had knowingly armed volunteers and issued arbitrary orders to inflame the population and then cry rebellion once people were up in arms. During the 1837–1838 rebellion, between 200 and 300 Patriots died. Some 9,000 people participated in the uprising in Lower Canada and 1,000 in Upper Canada.

The failure of the 1837–1838 rebellion was key to the development of Francophone society in Lower Canada. Bitterly disappointed, French Canadians turned further inwards and resigned themselves to their fate. For over a century, they took refuge in obedience, religion, agriculture, and conservatism. There was no Lower Canada Assembly for the next four years, as the main political figures were all in exile. The Catholic clergy filled the political vacuum. The French language accordingly suffered the consequences of these events: it rooted itself in conservatism while incorporating English terms.

Dispatched urgently by London, John George Lambton (Lord Durham) arrived in Quebec City with full authority to investigate and report on the situation in Canada. Durham, a career diplomat, was known in Great Britain for his liberal ideas and was nicknamed "Radical Jack."

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.

Creation of Upper and Lower Canada (1791)
©Jacques Leclerc 2018


Nova Scotia

In 1817, the population of Nova Scotia was 81,000. In the following decades, the colony grew as tens of thousands of immigrants arrived, virtually all from Scotland and Ireland. A good number settled Cape Breton Island, which was annexed to Nova Scotia in 1820. These newcomers posed a serious threat to the political privileges that a clique of merchants and officials surrounding the governor in Halifax still enjoyed. However, the reformers and conservatives wouldn't square off until the early 1830s.

The progressive leader was Joseph Howe (1804–1873), who was considered the father of responsible government in Nova Scotia, but a moderate compared to William Lyon Mackenzie and Louis-Joseph Papineau in the two Canadas. In his newspaper, the Nova Scotian, Howe campaigned for a system in which government was responsible to the people. Nova Scotia reformers won the 1837 election and the following year obtained the separation of the Legislative Council from the Executive Council. In 1848, Nova Scotia became the first British North America colony with representative government. Joseph Howe served as the colony's first premier from 1860 to 1863.

As in Upper Canada, language quarrels did not accompany political conflict, Acadians having been forgotten. English had been the province's de facto official language since 1713.

New Brunswick
New Brunswick

Though the population of New Brunswick was 35,000 in 1805, it hit 74,000 in 1824, then 156,000 in 1840. In the wake of the Napoleonic wars, New Brunswick experienced a heavy influx of Scottish and Irish immigrants. The newcomers, who were more numerous than the original Loyalists, proved more receptive to reformist ideas. Certain governors, such as Major General Archibald Campbell (1769–1843; lieutenant governor from 1831 to 1837), were not ready to abandon their right to use Legislative Assembly funds as they saw fit. Reformers, particularly merchants and forest operators, asked for the Assembly to control revenues, rather than the Executive Council and Legislative Council, where rich landowners sat. Reformers finally won the day in 1837, and New Brunswick got its first responsible government in 1849.

As in Nova Scotia, language was not an issue, as English had been the language used since the colony was founded in 1784.

Prince Edward Island
Prince Edward Island

In 1798, the name of St. John's Island was changed to Prince Edward Island in honour of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (1767–1820), son of King George III and the father of Queen Victoria. Prince Edward commanded the British troops in Halifax at the time. The colony had 9,600 inhabitants. The population grew to 24,600 in 1822, 32,292 in 1833, and 62,000 around 1850. The island was populated by descendants of American Loyalists as well as Scottish Highlanders who arrived in the early 19th century. Numerous British settlers followed after the Napoleonic wars. English therefore became the common language, even though many Highlanders continued to speak Gaelic in their immediate communities.

On Prince Edward Island, the land tenure system established at the start of British colonization still existed. The island belonged to powerful landowners, most of whom lived in Great Britain and gave little thought to the management of their properties. Settlers looking for farmable land had to settle on land for which they had no property rights. There reigned on the island a sort of anarchy that was also a source of deep discontent. The system particularly affected the Acadians, who in essence became tenants on their own lands. As a result, settlers were more concerned about issues of land ownership than parliamentary democracy. But it wasn't until 1830 that the land issue took on political overtones as the population sought to free itself of its colonial government, which it viewed as overly beholden to the landowning oligarchy. With the right to vote finally accorded Catholics, the Acadians and Irish could vote. A reform party was started, and in 1851 George Coles became the island's first head of a responsible government. The issue of land redistribution was only settled in 1870.


Within the British North America colonies, Newfoundland remained an anachronism. In 1806, the island's population was estimated at 26,500. It hit 52,600 in 1816, then 59,000 in 1832 and 101,600 in 1851. It no longer had, as in 1816, a seasonal and fluctuating population, but a permanent population living mainly off fishing. The island's first governor, Henry Osborne, was appointed by London in 1729 and, like all his successors, only fulfilled his duties during the fishing season. In the winter, the island was administered by fishing admirals, that is to say, ship captains. It was only after the Napoleonic wars that the British government required its governors to reside permanently on the island. Since 1713, all conflicts had been resolved under French civil law, and Henry Osborne was forced to continue to do so due to clashes between French and Newfoundland fishermen on the French Shore.

The first governor to winter in the colony was Francis Pickmore in 1817. Up to then, British officials had always refused to make Newfoundland a permanent settlement. Order had to be brought to an anarchic situation, as illegal immigrants had no property rights. Numerous disputes arose between Newfoundland and French fishermen when the latter plied their trade on the French Shore. Conflicts had to be mediated, not only between fishermen, but also between various religious faiths (Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, Catholic), notably between English protestants and Irish Catholics. It was only in 1829 that the British Parliament dropped the Oath of Allegiance, thus enabling the Irish to hold public office. Over the next few years, the colonial system moved toward more democratic representation to the point that the 1846 election handed power to an Irish Catholic reformer majority. Following the example of United Canada and Nova Scotia in 1848, Prince Edward Island in 1851, and New Brunswick in 1854, Newfoundland obtained responsible government in 1855.

Rupert's Land
Rupert's Land

Rupert's land owes its name to Rupert of the Rhine, who was the first governor of the Hudson's Bay Company to which this territory has long belonged. The latter also owes its name to Prince Rupert because Rupert of the Rhine (or Bavaria-Palatinate) was the nephew of King Charles I of England by his mother Elisabeth Stuart.

At this time, Rupert's Land, which was ceded by royal charter in 1670 to the Hudson's Bay Company, was little affected by European penetration. It still belonged to aboriginals (around 300,000), the Inuit, and the Métis. Most of them spoke their ancestral language, except francophone and Anglophone Métis (perhaps 2,000 or 3,000 in total), and conserved their traditional ways of life.

However, major changes altered the demographic makeup. Many aboriginals were already fighting to survive, as alcohol and disease had decimated their numbers. Trading posts were the only sign of British presence. Only Hudson's Bay Company agents—a minuscule minority—used English daily. They generally had aboriginal wives and their mixed children also learned English. The political and ideological problems in the British North America colonies were of little concern to the inhabitants of these vast northern regions far from centres of colonization. At the time, several hundred Anglophone and francophone European settlers populated the Red River region.

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 Canada


Upper Canada


Nova Scotia


New Brunswick


Prince Edward Island




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.

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 Union of 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.

Gouverneur général Durham

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.

Union of Upper and Lower Canada

In 1840, the British government decided to unite the two colonies into the Province of Canada by introducing the Act of Union, creating a single assembly for Upper and Lower Canada. The act was passed by the British Parliament on July 23, 1840, under the title An Act to re-unite the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, and for the government of Canada (3 & 4 Victoria, c. 35). The new constitutional act, which had 62 sections, came into effect on February 1, 1841. The first section of the act proclaimed the Union: "The said Provinces [...] shall form and be One Province, under the Name of the Province of Canada."


The two Canadas (officially the "Province of Canada") officially became United Canada under the Act of Union. Upper and Lower Canada would henceforth be known as Canada West (Ontario) and Canada East (Québec), although the terms Upper Canada and Lower Canada continued to be widely used until 1867, and even after Confederation. The city of Kingston was capital of the Province of United Canada until 1843. An act passed in 1847 officially made Montréal the new capital due its location, which was deemed more appropriate for the seat of government of Canada West (primarily  Anglophone), and Canada East (primarily francophone). The introduction of the new constitution was warmly welcomed by the English merchant class, whose future was said to depend on the development of the St. Lawrence River Valley. However, it drew the ire of the French Canadians, who were angry with a number of provisions of the act. They feared a centralized colony run primarily by Anglophones.

At the time, United Canada was still very small, for it only included a part of present-day Ontario and Québec. The rest of the territory (Rupert's Land, New Caledonia, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia) remained separate British colonies.


With a population of 650,000, Canada East (Québec) had 42 members in the Legislative Assembly, the same number as Canada West (Ontario) with 450,000 habitants. The goal was to impose parliamentary equality while waiting for immigration to close the demographic gap. In addition, French Canada was forced to assume the debts English Canada had contracted to build canals and roads. Francophones in Lower Canada viewed this measure as unjust, since Upper Canada's debt was 1.2 million louis compared to 95,000 for Lower Canada. Given that Lord Durham had urged that each province be made responsible for its internal affairs through the introduction of ministerial responsibility within the governments of the British North American colonies, London agreed to his recommendation, especially since it was a way to pre-empt the reformers. However, Lord John Russel, Secretary for War and Colonies from 1846 to 1852, had already expressed his opposition to responsible government. He felt it was tantamount to giving in to "rebel" demands and that the colonial Council should not be in a position to advise Her Majesty.

The impact of the Durham Report proved positive for Upper Canada. Durham believed that the political union of Upper and Lower Canada would re-establish peace. It was crucial to establish a loyal, English majority, anglicize French Canadians, and grant ministerial responsibility. By declaring English as the sole official language of the Parliament of United Canada, the Act of Union protected the population of Upper Canada. By according the same number of parliamentary representatives to Upper Canada and its more populous neighbour, British authorities gave Upper Canada the political advantage. In short, the Durham Report posed no threat to Upper Canada. This is why it was so well received. For the Anglophones of Montréal, who found themselves still dependent on a French-speaking majority, it was another story.

English as the Official Language of Parliament

United Canada was created to give the English-speaking community an advantage over the French-speaking community. In the mid-19th century, political decision makers took little interest in language issues, except when they had to. The notion of institutional bilingualism was still foreign to them. In 1848, Switzerland (probably overlooked) was the only country in the world practicing institutional bilingualism (French/German). In such circumstances, it went without saying that English would be the only official language of the new Parliament, as set out in Section 41 of the Act of Union:  

Section 41

And be it enacted, That from and after the said Reunion of the said Two Provinces all Writs, Proclamations, Instruments for summoning and calling together the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, and for proroguing and dissolving the same, and all Writs of Summons and Election, and all Writs and public Instruments whatsoever relating to the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, or either of them, and all Returns to such Writs and Instruments, and all Journals, Entries, and written or printed Proceedings, of what Nature so ever, of the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, and of each of them respectively, and all written or printed Proceedings and Reports of Committees of the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly respectively, shall be in the English Language only: Provided always, that this Enactment shall not be construed to prevent translated Copies of any such Documents being made, but no such Copy shall be kept among the Records of the Legislative Council or Legislative Assembly, or be deemed in any Case to have the Force of an original Record.

It was the first time since the Conquest that Great Britain (officially the United Kingdom since 1801) had proscribed the use of French in a constitutional text, testifying to the British government's newfound assimilationist intentions. French was to become but a language of translation, with no legal value. Section 31 did not, however, formally prohibit the use of French in the parliamentary debate: in fact, of this, it made no mention.

Not unexpectedly, the Act of Union sparked a wave of protest in Canada East (Québec). From the outset, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (1807–1864), lawyer and joint head of the Executive Council, tried to convince Parliament to accept the use of French. After having demanded the Chamber meet as a general committee in 1842, he addressed the members from United Canada in these terms:

To begin, I must make allusion to the attack by the honourable member for Toronto, who has so often been presented to us as a friend of the French Canadian people. Has he already forgotten that I belong to that nationality which has been so horribly ill-treated by the Act of Union? If so, I would find it most regrettable. He asks me to deliver in a language other than my maternal tongue the first speech I have to deliver in this house! I distrust my ability to speak the English language. But I must inform the honourable members that even if I knew English as well as French, I would still make my first speech in the language of my French Canadian countrymen, if only to protest solemnly the cruel injustice of that part of the Act of Union which aims to proscribe the mother tongue of half the population of Canada. I owe it to my countrymen, I owe it to myself.

The purpose of the Union, in the mind of its author, was to crush the French population: but a mistake has been made, for the means employed will not achieve this result. Without our active cooperation, without our participation in power, the government cannot function in such a way as to re-establish the peace and confidence essential to the success of any administration. Placed by the Act of Union in an exceptional situation, as a minority with respect to the distribution of political power, should we succumb, we shall at least succumb by commanding respect.

The Parliament of United Canada sought to temper the impact of Section 41 by adopting various measures to facilitate the translation of laws and other parliamentary documents. During the session of 1844, Francophone members presented a motion requiring that the speaker of the assembly be able to speak English and French. As a result, Allan McNab, an eminent but unilingual member of the William Henry Draper government (1843–1846), was not eligible for re-election and was replaced by Augustin-Norbert Morin. The following year (February 17, 1845), Francophone members presented another resolution demanding that official versions of parliamentary texts also be produced in French. Allan McNab rejected the resolution, sparking a vote in the assembly which his side won by a single vote. Subsequently, Francophone members decided to ask the British government to simply abrogate Section 41 of the Act of Union. They had to endure endless parliamentary procedural maneuvering and the bad faith of Governor Charles Theophilus Metcalfe (1843-1845) but in the end, the Parliament of United Canada unanimously approved the request and forwarded it to the British government.


A new governor of United Canada, Lord Elgin (Lord Durham's son-in-law), replaced the Earl of Charles Murray Cathcart (1846–1847) after a change in government in Britain brought a more reform-minded government to power. The following year, George Baldwin, an Anglophone from Canada West, and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, a francophone from Canada East, concluded a political alliance in order secure a majority in Parliament. They were elected in 1848. Baldwin and Lafontaine had been fighting for a number of years against the London-appointed governors and the English-speaking merchants of Montréal, who tried to pull strings in their favour. Lord Elgin (1847–1854) himself came to view the economic oligarchy and the Tory Party as "pocketbook loyalists," even though they presented themselves as ardent defenders of British values. In Canadian history, the Baldwin-Lafontaine alliance remains one of the country's greatest political achievements. It also proved to be, against all expectations, the first time Francophones and Anglophones proved able to surmount traditional cleavages to rally around shared political principles. Thanks to the Baldwin-Lafontaine alliance, United Canada obtained responsible government and legislative bilingualism.

Spurred on by Louis-Hyppolite Lafontaine, Lord Elgin pestered the British government to agree to the demands of the Canadian Parliament regarding bilingualism. Writing to Lafontaine on June 15, 1848, Elgin affirmed, "I am certain that the next post from Downing Street will inform me of what you intend to do to secure the repeal of the restrictions imposed by the Act of Union with respect to the use of French." The Francophone opposition had been so intense since 1841 that London finally decided to accept use of the French language. It repealed Section 41 to restore the de facto bilingualism that had existed prior to the Act of Union by passing An Act to repeal so much of an Act of the Third and Fourth Years of Her present Majesty, to re-unite the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, and for the Government of Canada, as relates to the Use of the English Language in Instruments relating to the Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada. Here are paragraphs 11 and 12 Victoria, ch. LVI, of the 1848 amendment rescinding Section 41 of the Act of Union of 1840, which made English the sole language of parliamentary record.

WHEREAS by an Act [1841] [...] it is amongst other things enacted, that all Writs, Proclamations, Instruments for summoning and calling together […], and all Writs of Summons and Elections, and all Writs and Public Instruments whatsoever relating to the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, or either of them, and all Returns to such Writs and Instruments, and all Journals, Entries and written or printed Proceedings of what Nature soever, of the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, and of each of them respectively, and all written or printed Proceedings and Reports of Committees of the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly respectively, shall be in the English Language only: Provided always, that the said Enactment should not be construed to prevent translated Copies of any such Documents being made, but no such Copy should be kept among the Records of the Force of an original Record: And whereas it is expedient to alter the Law in this respect, in order that the Legislature of the Province of Canada, or the said Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly respectively, may have Power to make such Regulations herein as to them may seem advisable:' Be it therefore enacted by the Queen's most Excellent Majesty, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal, and Commons, in this present Parliament assembled, and by the Authority of the same, That from and after the passing of this Act so much of the said recited Act as is herein-before recited shall be repealed [...].

The 1848 amendment did not formally allow for the use of French, but rather repealed the provisions imposing English as the only language. In any case, as of 1849, the official texts of all laws were passed in both French and English. It could be said that the act revoking Section 41 of the Act of Union was a remedial law that restored a legitimacy to the French language that a poorly inspired piece of legislation had taken away for a number of years. Since no simultaneous interpretation was available during parliamentary debates, members expressing themselves in French were "condemned" to being understood solely by their French-speaking colleagues. The inverse was also true. The repeal bill did not change the de facto institutional unilingualism prevailing in Upper Canada (which became Canada West), but did establish the de jure bilingual character of the joint Legislative Assembly of Upper (Western Canada) and Lower Canada (Eastern Canada). Lord Elgin, the governor general, opened the session of the United Canada Parliament in Montreal by giving part of his throne speech in French. It was the first time since the end of the French regime that a representative of the Crown had formally conducted this parliamentary ritual in both languages.

It may be worth mentioning another element related to the absence of language provisions in the Act of Union of 1840. Certain legal specialists argue even though the act did not concern language, it gave French quasi-official status by recognizing French civil law. Since this law was originally written in French, this amounted to implicit recognition of French alongside English. The same thing happened in Louisiana after the colony was sold to the United States by Napoleon Bonparte on April 30, 1803. When Louisiana became an American state on April 30, 1812, English was named the only official language, but French civil law was also recognized. The courts even ruled in 1825 that in the event of a conflict of interpretation, the French version took precedence over the translated English version. However, after the U.S. Civil War (Louisiana was a slave state), the new 1868 Constitution prohibited the use of any other language than English.

The laws, public records, and judicial and legislative proceedings of the State shall be promulgated and preserved in the English language; and no law shall require judicial process to be issued in any other than the English language.

This marked the end of institutional bilingualism in Louisiana. In 1870, the Civil Code was overhauled and adapted in English only. The Code of Civil Procedure was also revised, and any obligation regarding the use of French removed. Then, out of patriotic duty (see the famed slogan "One flag, one nation, one language"), the Irish-descended high clergy eliminated French from the schools. In other words, the law is nothing without the force of law!

Destruction of the Montréal Parliament

Starting in 1847, the Parliament of United Canada met in Montréal (Canada East) instead of Kingston (Canada West). In 1849, the Parliament building was to become the site of one of the saddest chapters in Canadian parliamentary history. The first piece of legislation introduced under the responsible government of Lafontaine and Baldwin was the Lower Canada Rebellion Losses Act. Its purpose was to compensate inhabitants of Lower Canada who had suffered reprisals by British soldiers and Anglophone militias during the rebellions of 1837–38. A similar measure had been adopted by the Tory government in 1845 to compensate victims of destruction in Upper Canada. This time, the law sparked virulent debate because the victims were not Anglophones, but rather Francophones.

Certain Anglophones felt it was indecent and immoral to use funds from English-speaking Protestants to compensate French-speaking Catholics. Despite an initial claim of £250,000, an inquiry commission concluded that £100,000 would be enough to pay for the damages suffered in Lower Canada (Canada East). In the end, the government authorized a £10,000 payout, sparking an outcry in both Canada East, where the amount was viewed as utterly ridiculous, and Canada West, which opposed the very idea of compensating the "papist rebels." The Tory opposition did everything it could to block the bill, but in vain. In its view, only loyalists to the Crown had been compensated in Upper Canada, whereas those who had shown disloyalty were to get a share in Lower Canada. The leader of the Tory Party and the member for Hamilton, Allan McNab, proclaimed his indignation:

The Union has completely failed its purpose. It was created with the sole design of submitting the French Canadians to English domination. The opposite has occurred. Those who were to be crushed dominate! Those in whose favour the Union was concluded are the serfs of the others.

Sir McNab warned the ministry that the compensation plan would plunge the people of Upper Canada into despair and that it would be better to be governed "by a people of the same race, rather than by those with whom they have nothing in common, neither blood, nor language, nor interests." Despite the warnings from Anglophones in English-dominated Montreal (only 19,000 of its 43, 0000 inhabitants were Francophone at the time) angered by what they felt was French Domination, Lord Elgin nonetheless gave the bill royal assent on April 25, 1849. The Montreal Gazette immediately called on people to riot.

The end is nigh, Anglo-Saxons, you must live for the future; your blood and your race shall hereafter be your supreme law, if you are true to yourselves. You shall be English, if you may no longer be British. In the words of William IV, Canada is lost and delivered. The crowd must assemble at Armoury Square tonight at eight o’clock. To arms, the time has come.

As Lord Elgin left Parliament after delivering the Throne Speech, throngs of Orangemen pelted his carriage with eggs, stones, and other projectiles. The angry crowd then made its way to the Parliament building to cries of "To Parliament," "To Monkland (the governor general's residence), and "Down with Lord Elgin!"


Using torches, the crowd set fire to the building—the so-called French Parliament—which was rapidly destroyed. Not only were 25,000 English and French documents destroyed in the library (one of the best parliamentary libraries of its day), but also the colony's largest collection of archives. The value of the buildings destroyed in the riot exceeded the total cost of compensation awarded under the law. The pro-Tory British army, with its garrison of 10,000 soldiers, had been ordered the night before to turn a blind eye to these "unpredictable" events. In any case, it would have been unthinkable for Lord Elgin to deploy soldiers and police against British subjects. The rioters roamed the streets brandishing pig's heads coiffed with a bishop's mitre and chanting "Catholic pigs." French Canadian Montrealers were terrified. The next day, a crowd gathered at the home of Premier Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and burned it to the ground. Only the army's intervention saved him from death.

James Moir Ferres, the publisher and principal owner of the Gazette, was arrested on April 26, the day after the Parliament burned, but was released under pressure from the crowd:

The Rebellion Losses Act. And the eternal shame of Great Britain. Rebellion is the law of the land. [...] The end is nigh, Anglo-Saxons, you must live for the future; your blood and your race shall hereafter be your supreme law, if you are true to yourselves. You shall be English, if you may no longer be British. In the words of William IV, Canada is lost and delivered. The crowd must assemble at Armoury Square tonight at eight o'clock. To arms, the time has come.

Two days later, the "friends of peace" attacked Governor General Elgin, who decided it would be wise to leave town for a few days. On September 5, 1849, inhabitants of Brockville, a town between Kingston and Cornwall on the banks of the St. Lawrence River, raised black flags and made death threats to Elgin on his way through town. Elgin offered to resign, but the colonial secretary assured him that British authorities approved his action. Agitation continued and chapters of the "Anglo-American League" of Montréal were established in Toronto, Kingston, and other towns in Upper Canada. Feeling abandoned by London, and angry with Great Britain's decision to abolish the protectionist regime, Anglo-Montréal merchants called for Canada's annexation to the United States, giving Lord Elgin ample reason to consider them "pocketbook loyalists." As one Canadian historian ironically commented, "Montréal was like the Wild West back in those days." The fire marked the end of Montréal's stint as the home of Parliament. No seat of government was ever permanently fixed there. Parliament subsequently alternated between Toronto and Québec City every four years before moving definitively to Ottawa in 1866.

Policy of Assimilation and Minority

Lord Durham believed that Canada's problems could be traced to the coexistence of loyal British subjects (including the Scots and the Irish) and the untrustworthy "French Canadians [who] are but the residue of a former colony." It was simple—it was all the French Canadians' fault! In Lord Durham's view, the solution was to subordinate French Canadians politically and demographically in order to anglicize them and establish an English-speaking majority fully loyal to the British Crown. Doing so meant rapidly flooding Lower Canada with "Her Majesty's loyal subjects" and combining the two Canada's, perhaps even creating a federation of all the British North American colonies in which the French Canadians would be definitively relegated to minority status.

Shortly after his arrival in Québec City on May 29, 1838, Lord Durham, who undoubtedly, more or less, sympathized with the French Canadians at the start, hired English-language journalist Adam Thom (1802-1854) as his advisor. If his writings are any indication, Thom, who was well known for his anti-Francophone and anti-papist views, did not think very highly of the French Canadians. In November 1835, he wrote in the Montréal Herald:

For too long the English of this province have slumbered, there is a time for action and a time for sleep. One thing is sure: the first drop of English blood spilled in the colony for the aggrandizement of the French faction will raise the indignation of any Englishman that avarice or ambition has not yet made a traitor.

The well-known Montréal Herald polemicist also declared that French Canadians were a pampered lot who had received more than their share of attention since the Conquest, whereas "English subjects" had been neglected. He believed that the policy of conciliation promoted by Governor Gosford (1835–1838) had allowed the vanquished French Canadians to dictate colonial policy to the victorious British. Loyalists denounced this policy, fearing that London would look favourably on the French Canadians and end up giving in to their grievances by granting them more powers.

Loyalist organizations banded together in an umbrella committee—the Montréal Constitutional Association (MCA)—in January 1835. A similar organization—the Québec Constitutional Association (QCA)—had been founded in Québec City in December 1834. These bodies were set up to defend the Constitution of 1791 and preserve the Legislative Assembly in its existing form. But the loyalists were not content to form constitutional associations and hold public meetings, they also began setting up armed organizations. Adam Thom, the leader of the "British" of Montréal, defended these militias in the December 12, 1835, edition of his paper:

The organization, to combine moral determination and physical force, must be both military and political. We as much need an Army as a Congress. We need pikes and rifles as much as wisdom (...) Therefore let us call a provincial congress immediately and increase the British Rifle Corp. of Montréal to 800, which is its full complement, let us send deputies to win the sympathies of the neighbouring provinces.

It was increasingly clear that the English minority had no intention of letting itself be governed by French Canadians, and was even prepared to put up armed resistance. Adam Thom freely called for the ransacking of Francophone villages.

Past history proves that nothing short of their disappearance from the land and the reduction of their homes to dust will prevent new rebellions south of the St. Lawrence, or new invasions by the Americans.

After the British Rifle Corp was disbanded in January 1836, another paramilitary organization—the Doric Club—was founded by a group of young armed loyalists. In their manifesto of March 16, 1836, club members declared that they would rather give their lives than submit to a French Canadian republic.

If we are deserted by the British government and the British people, rather than submit to the degradation of being subject of a French-Canadian republic, we are determined by our own right arms to work out our deliverance..., we are ready... to pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

In the English-language papers, certain journalists publicly shared their views with the Queen's representative, Lord Durham, as evidenced by this June 1838 excerpt from the Missiskoui Standard, published in Frelighsburg in the Eastern Townships:

It is foolishness for the French Canadians to fight their destiny. It is impossible that a handful of Frenchmen in the extreme north-east can rise to the state of a nation, against the entrepreneurial genius of a race that has already covered most of this continent. It's more than foolishness. Since 1791 and until last year, the French sought to defy their fate; and despite having all manner of legislative facilities, they did not succeed. They oppressed the Anglo-Saxon race residing in this province, and sought to keep away those who wanted to come. And what was the result of all this? They failed. The legal power they possessed was not proportionate to their end; and when in desperation they had recourse to force to accomplish their favourite desire, the Anglo-Saxon race, like a boa constrictor, wrapped itself around them, pressed them on all sides, and crushed them.

The October 18, 1838, edition of the Montréal Gazette also featured an interpretation of the source of problems with the French Canadian community:

What is, we ask, the real cause of the state of division in which this province finds itself, and of the maladministration and anarchy to which it has long been submitted? What is it, other than that the majority of its inhabitants are of foreign origin, custom, law, language, and institutions to that of the nation at large, and that no attempt has yet been made to assimilate them into the ways of the Mother Country.

For various reasons, Lord Durham had little contact with French Canadians during his six-month stay in Canada. Instead, he surrounded himself with Anglophone advisers who viewed the French Canadians as a backward and illiterate people constantly manipulated by irresponsible leaders. In contrast, these same advisers were convinced that the English-speaking minority was well governed and had the province's best interests at heart. It was not without irony that French immigrant and journalist Napoléon Aubin (1812 – 1880), founder of the newspaper Le Fantasque, warned Lord Durham against using words such as British in 1838:

It would seem, Milord you have taken it upon yourself to make French Canadians understand that their hour has come, hope has run out, and they now must endure slavery and contempt to atone for the grave sin of not being English. All the trappings man covets are denied them: titles, honours, and consideration are taken from them and offered to those who insult them at will […] You plan to defend British interests! Ay, My Lord, do change this word, for it is a vile one. Say you shall defend colonial interests, provincial interests or whatever you may choose, but not British interests; for you see, you will not be understood here. All that is abuse and cruelty, all that is tyranny, ignorance, oppression, and intolerance, has been shrouded by your compatriots in the word British.

In these conditions, it is no surprise that Lord Durham developed such a poor opinion of the French Canadians. Here are several excerpts from his report on the topic:

They (the Canadiens) are an old and stationary society, in a new and progressive world. In all things and places they have remained French, but Frenchmen who in no way resemble those of France. Rather, they resemble the French of the Ancien Régime. [...]

The French Canadians, on the other hand, are but the remains of an ancient colonization, and are and ever must be isolated in the midst of an Anglo-Saxon world. [...]

There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature. The literature of England is written in a language which is not theirs; and the only literature which their language renders familiar to them, is that of a nation from which they have been separated by eighty years of a foreign rule, and still more by those changes which the Revolution and its consequences have wrought in the whole political, moral and social state of France. [...]

In Durham's eyes, the English, on the other hand, were a superior race, and English the dominant language:

The language, the laws, the character of the North American Continent are English; and every race but the English (I apply this to all who speak the English language) appears there in a condition of inferiority. It is to elevate them from that inferiority that I desire to give to the Canadians our English character. I desire it for the sake of the educated classes, whom the distinction of language and manners keeps apart from the great Empire to which they belong. At the best, the fate of the educated and aspiring colonist is, at present, one of little hope, and little activity; but the French Canadian is cast still further into the shade, by a language and habits foreign to those of the Imperial Government. [...]

The English have already in their hands the majority of the larger masses of property in the country; they have the decided superiority of intelligence on their side; they have the certainty that colonization must swell their numbers to a majority; and they belong to the race which wields the Imperial Government, and predominates on the American Continent.

Anglicization of the French Canadians and their transformation into a minority went hand-in-hand, and were to be the main objective of colonial authorities. To this end, Lord Durham encouraged London to promote massive English immigration:

Without effecting the change so rapidly or so roughly as to shock the feelings and trample on the welfare of the existing generation, it must henceforth be the first and steady purpose of the British Government to establish an English population, with English laws and language, in this Province, and to trust its government to none but a decidedly English legislature. [...]

I believe that tranquility can only be restored by subjecting the province to the vigorous rule of an English majority; and that the only efficacious government would be that formed by a legislative union.

But, I repeat that the alteration of the character of the Province ought to be immediately entered on, and firmly, though cautiously, followed up; that in any plan, which may be adopted for the future management of Lower Canada, the first object ought to be that of making it an English Province; and that, with this end in view, the ascendancy should never again be placed in any hands but those of an English population. Indeed, at the present moment this is obviously necessary: in the state of mind in which I have described the French Canadian population, as not only now being, but as likely for a long while to remain, the trusting them with an entire control over this Province would be, in fact, only facilitating a rebellion. Lower Canada must be governed now, as it must be hereafter, by an English population; and thus the policy, which the necessities of the moment force on us, is in accordance with that suggested by a comprehensive view of the future and permanent improvement of the Province [...]

For Lord Durham, perpetual negligence by the British government was the explanation for the lack of freedom and civilization among French Canadians. "It has left them without instruction and without the organizations of local responsible government, which would have enabled it to assimilate their race and customs easily and expeditiously, for the greater benefit of the Empire to which they belong." Durham saw "no hope for their nationality," in part because they could never break away from the British Empire unless they decided to go it alone (in "a wretched semblance of feeble independence"), joined some sort of potential "English Confederacy," or eventually opted for "merging in the American Union."

In short, the British Empire needed to act quickly to definitively resolve the problem of "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state" and "squelch the mortal hatred that now divides the inhabitants of Lower Canada into two hostile groups: the French and the English." Obviously, many French Canadians were outraged by the report's recommendations with respect to assimilation as well as by the insinuation that they possessed neither culture nor history.

After the Act of Union, Francophones stood helplessly by in the face of anti-French determinism. Encouraged into submission by the clergy, they believed in their "grand" spiritual destiny while the Anglophone community took control of the economy and secured the capital required for industrialization and urbanization.

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.

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


French Canadians

English Canadians



302 496

678 442

980 938


395 126

784 796

1 179 922


385 083

819 554

1 204 637


307 786

810 092

1 117 878


1 390 491

3 092 884

4 483 375

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.

Difficult Challenge of Canadian Dualism

It must be remembered that widely sought-after provisions for responsible government were not included in the Act of Union of 1840. Responsible government was obtained by a coalition of Francophone reformers from Canada East and Anglophone reformers from Canada West, with the backing of Lord Elgin. In order to make things work as best they could, reformers in both camps had to accept major compromises. While the Anglophones of the west had to abandon the idea of assimilating the Francophones of the east, the latter had to accept their minority status. In the years that followed, the Canadian parliamentary system grew inefficient, costly, and unstable, because it had to meet the needs of both groups. French Canadian politicians gave up on the ideology of a French state in North America and played by the rules of the British political system to ensure the survival of the French Canadians in British North America. However, since no provisions for proportional representation had been made, equality of representation in the Legislative Assembly eventually proved disadvantageous to Canada West, whose population had outgrown that of Canada East. This situation sparked increasing acrimony in the Parliament of United Canada.

French Domination


In 1853, the Clear Grits ( meaning tenacious or dedicated), the radical party of Canada West led by George Brown (1818–1880), began denouncing the French Domination of a government it felt to be imposing its will on Canada West. The Clear Grits were Francophobes with a virulent anti-Catholic streak. On November 22, 1850, Lord Elgin wrote to Albert Henry George (Earl Grey), who would be Canada's Governor General from 1904 until 1911:

Every day, the hatred of the Clear Grit Party for Francophones is more and more apparent. Mr. Boulton, the former chief justice of Newfoundland and a leader of sorts of the Clear Grits is said to have declared at a public dinner the other day that "Negroes are the great difficulty of the United States, and French Canadians that of Canada," a sentiment likely to catch in the craw of a somewhat sensitive and distrustful people.

But the Clear Grits also defended liberal ideas, demanding non-denominational schools, the annexation of the West, proportional representation in Parliament, universal and secret suffrage, an elected legislative council, etc. They also denounced a system that forced the Legislative Assembly to pass separate bills for Canada West or Canada East, and sometimes for the two Canadas. The double majority principle applied for all legislation with implications for both Canadas, which is why Parliament was becoming so inefficient and costly. But the Liberals did not have sufficient parliamentary representation to push George Brown's reforms through.

The Anglophones of Canada West were frustrated with equal Anglophone and Francophone representation in the Assembly given that Canada West's population had outgrown that of Canada East by 60,000 people. With English immigration broadening the gap, the political situation could only get worse. The Clear Grits were categorically opposed to what they considered the French Domination of Canada. In 1856, George Brown described the situation reigning in the United Canada Legislative Assembly as one of two countries, two languages, two religions, and two ways of thinking and acting. He wondered whether it would be possible for the two nations to share a single Legislature and a single Executive.

Anglophones demanded constitutional reform that would ensure them proportional representation in Parliament. In light of the continual parliamentary instability, they began to toy with the idea of a federation of all the British colonies. Anglophone reformers had no particular interest in the maritime colonies, but they were fed up with the so-called French Domination. However, they needed Québec, because they wanted to hang on to its numerous canals and railways, as well as the port of Montréal. For them, the ideal solution was two provinces with separate cultural and political institutions, but joined by a common market.

The Confederation Initiative

Eventually, the Clear Grits earned the support of the electoral majority in Canada West, where their opposition to the business capitalists earned them the support of peasants and workers. In 1857, John Alexander Macdonald, a Conservative from Canada West, joined forces with Catholic Conservative George-Étienne Cartier (often written Georges in French) of Canada East. As Lord Elgin had predicted, the Francophobic attitude of the Clear Grits in Canada West had pushed numerous liberal-leaning citizens in Canada East into the Conservative camp, transforming the party into a national organization. In 1864, George Brown proposed that the Conservative leaders of the two Canadas join him and the Liberals of Canada West in establishing a coalition government favourable to a federal union of the two provinces. To avoid political isolation, George-Étienne Cartier, the leader of the Canada East reformers, joined the coalition, where he played an active role in establishing a federal union. This "Grand Coalition," as it would come to be known, included three of the four main political groups in United Canada: Macdonald's Anglophone Conservatives, Cartier's Francophone Conservatives, and Brown's reformers.

At the same time, the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island were exploring the possibility of a Maritime federation and a possible economic union with the other provinces. Brown's proposal proved of central importance in negotiations for the confederation of the British North American colonies. The idea was to establish a confederation with a central government that would handle the federation's general and national affairs, along with a government in each province responsible for local affairs. In September 1864, the coalition government of United Canada was invited to Charlottetown, in the colony of Prince Edward Island, for a conference attended by Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. The coalition piqued the interest of the Maritime Provinces with its proposal, and a second conference was held one month later in Québec City. It was here that the negotiators, later known as the "Fathers of Confederation," drafted the "72 resolutions" that were to form the basis of the future Canadian constitution.

During this same period, Great Britain was beginning to find that Canada was a heavy financial burden on the British Treasury. The cost of maintaining a contingent of 50,000 troops was at least two million pounds a year, a sum deemed enormous. British authorities grew convinced that by grouping the British North American colonies together, they could solve their spending problems. Edward Cardwell, Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1864 to 1866, made his intentions clear in this letter:

Her Majesty's government firmly believes that it is most desirable that all the British colonies of North America agree to come together in a single government. [...] The provinces of British North America are incapable, separated and divided as they are, of making the necessary preparations for their national defence, a task that could easily be assumed by a single province counting all the population and all the resources of the land at its disposal.

Language Question

When negotiations on establishing a Confederation of the British North American colonies got underway in 1864, the legal status of English and French was as follows: in the province of United Canada, made up of Canada West and Canada East, French and English were recognized as official languages in the joint House of Assembly and joint courts, whereas in the other colonies (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland), English was the only language in use. Under the projected federal framework, where two or more provinces would have their own government, two linguistic groups would find themselves in a situation of heightened minority status: the French Canadians, already a minority in the province of Canada (Canada West and Canada East), would become even more of a minority when the other colonies joined the federation; and the Anglophones of Canada East, who would in some respects be "cut off" from their Canada West compatriots because they lived in a province with a French majority.

Among the resolutions adopted at the Québec Conference in 1864, only one concerned language. It was Resolution No. 46, and it read as follows:

Both the English and French languages may be employed in the General Parliament and in its proceedings, and in the Local Legislature of Lower Canada, and also in the Federal Courts and in the Courts of Lower Canada.

This version was somewhat different from the original proposal by Alexander Tilloch Galt, one of the negotiators and defenders of the provision respecting the protection of Protestant minority education rights in Québec. Galt's text only made allusion to the federal courts in Canada East, which did not go over very well with the French Canadians. Once the debate on the resolutions got underway in Canada East, Francophones pointed out that the clause provided no guarantees and called for replacing the word "may" by the word "shall" with respect to the language of Parliament and the legislature. Their demands were not to go unheeded!

Influence of the American Civil War

Another element affecting the Confederation debate was the thorny matter of the Civil War that had been raging in the United States since 1861, and did not end until 1865. The main cause of the conflict was slavery in the Southern states. This issue interested the negotiators of Confederation because it touched upon the rights and powers of the states (and by extension the potential powers of the provinces) with respect to those of the Union (and by extension, the federal government). Macdonald wanted to avoid the breakup of the central government by granting it as many powers as possible, and leaving the provinces with the strict minimum necessary for a federal system. He seems to have envisaged the central government as the "master" and the provinces as being at its beck and call. In the long term, he hoped to reduce the provincial governments to the rank of glorified municipalities (as in New Zealand).

Since the United Kingdom and its North American colonies supported the South in the war, the tension between the United States and the British North American colonies soon escalated into a political crisis. As a result, the Civil War convinced many Canadians that Confederation was undoubtedly the best way to keep British North America independent from the United States. Certain politicians believed that a union of the British colonies would protect them against eventual annexation by the Americans.

From the United Kingdom's point of view, a federation of British North American colonies seemed very appealing, since the new federation would assume its own defence spending. The British government made its position known in December 1864 and brought pressure to bear on the governors posted in Halifax, N.S., Fredericton, N.B., Charlottetown, P.E.I., and St. John's, Newfoundland. Colonial authorities eventually replaced a recalcitrant governor in Nova Scotia, threatened two others in Newfoundland and P.E.I., and sparked a coup d'état in New Brunswick. The strategy was partially successful.

Four Provinces Sign On

In 1865, provincial representatives gathered at the Parliament of United Canada to review the constitutional resolutions. Speaking on February 7, 1865, George-Étienne Cartier declared his belief that the various national groups would preserve their respective identities under Confederation:

In our own Federation we should have Catholic and Protestant, English, French, Irish and Scotch, and each by his efforts and his success would increase the prosperity and glory of the new Confederacy [...]. It was a benefit rather than otherwise that we had a diversity of races. [...]

When the vote was held, the project won massive approval among delegates from Canada West, the colony most in favour of Confederation; Canada East approved by a bare two-vote majority (due to strong divisions among Francophones), thanks to the appeal of getting a new provincial government; but strong resistance remained in the Maritimes. Despite pressure from the British government, only New Brunswick and Nova Scotia voted for Confederation.

All of these negotiations were held without consulting the populations concerned, even though the new federal framework would affect them for centuries to come. Nova Scotia reformers led by Joseph Howe (1804–1873) reproached the "federalists" for not having received a mandate from the population to negotiate a deal. John A. Macdonald wrote most of the new constitution himself. As he confided to Justice Gowan of Barrie, "All that is good or bad in the Constitution is of me." Macdonald took his inspiration from both the British model (constitutional monarchy with a parliamentary regime) and the American model (a federation with a central government that shares jurisdictions with regional governments).

Finally, on May 8, 1867, the British Parliament passed the British North America Act (which was officially renamed the Constitution Act, 1867). The new constitution received Queen Victoria's royal assent on March 29, 1867, and was proclaimed at noon on July 1 of the same year. Confederation, therefore, came into effect on July 1 under the official name of the Dominion of Canada. The inhabitants of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were very disappointed and objected strongly, but had no legal grounds for action. Macdonald and his Conservatives emerged victorious from the first federal election and went on to form Canada's first government and dominate the federal scene for the next three decades.

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.

Aboriginal Languages

Prior to the early 1800s, when many of them succumbed to epidemics, nearly 33,000 aboriginals lived in what are currently the Prairies. In some 500 years, the European presence probably reduced this number by 50% to 75%, although some researchers put the loss closer to 90%. Aboriginal customs also underwent a profound transformation, notably in terms of habitation, work, clothing, diet, etc. Many aboriginal languages that had been used for thousands of years disappeared without a trace.

Even the remote Inuit were affected by "civilization." In the second half of the 19th century, some 30,000 white fishermen plied their trade in the Great North. They brought disease, which, combined with changes to traditional diets, caused a sharp decline in the Inuit population. The consequences were disastrous for nearly all aboriginal languages, which declined or disappeared.

French Language

Francophones saw the use of French decline throughout the British North American colonies, except in the "province of Quebec" (1763), which became Lower Canada in 1791 and Canada East in 1840, before becoming the province of Quebec once again in 1867. Let's start with the Atlantic Provinces (the Maritimes).

The Maritimes

In the Maritimes, the deportation of the Acadians in 1755 stripped the region of the vast majority of its French speakers. Technically speaking, the deportation was an effective way to weaken or eliminate a language, though many Acadians later returned to the region. Overall, the data available on the Acadian population covers the period from 1800 to 1870. During this time, the francophone population grew from 8,408 in 1803 to 87,000 in 1870 (according to the 1871 federal survey). The population hit 45,000 in New Brunswick, nearly 33,000 in Nova Scotia, and under 9,000 in Prince Edward Island.

Once Acadia was ceded to Great Britain in 1713, restrictive laws were passed against Acadians (and Catholics) that hindered Francophones’ development, first because they were Catholic, and second because they spoke French. Throughout the 19th century, the Acadian community had no official status and had to adapt to British rule. In the three colonies with French-speaking populations (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island), Acadians experienced ongoing religious, linguistic, educational, and political segregation. It was only starting in 1830 that certain laws began to be lifted. Today, such discriminatory measures would spur countless legal challenges, but in the past authorities paid these issues little heed.

For example, in Nova Scotia a 1758 law forbade any Catholic from owning land. Catholics had to wait until 1783 before the restriction was lifted, as the law affected the English-speaking Irish as well. Catholics—namely Acadians and Irish—were subject to heavy fines if they opened a school, a measure that lasted until 1786. They only won the right to vote in Nova Scotia in 1789 and the right to sit in the legislative assembly in 1830. Simon d'Entremont was the first Acadian to be elected to a legislative assembly, that of Nova Scotia, where he immediately sided with the Reformers.

Nova Scotia's colonial authorities denied Acadians the right to equal education. A 1786 law prohibited any Catholic from teaching Anglican children under 14. Acadians had to wait until 1826 for annual funding for their schools. An 1841 Nova Scotia law made English the language of instruction for all schools in the colony, but the teaching of French, Scottish, Irish, and German was tolerated. The existence of these schools was precarious, as they were often supported by parental donations. Each parish was free to choose the headmaster and his or her salary.

In New Brunswick, 1846 marked the election of the first francophone, Armand Landry. Generally, Acadians had very little say in the political process, mainly because they did not have easy access to government services. The fact that they were Catholic certainly did not help. Prior to 1850, Acadian schools were virtually non-existent, as the first school laws were closely tied to the Anglican religion. The first law of its type in New Brunswick dates back to 1802. It provided for the construction of Anglican schools. A network of schools known as Grammar Schools was organized starting in 1816, but they were reserved for children of landowners, which excluded Acadians. School conflicts sprung up until francophone religious orders decided to get involved in running schools. At that point, future teachers were trained only in English.

In Prince Edward Island, Acadians won the right to open their first school in 1815, in Rustico. The few Acadian schools operated without government assistance up until 1825. The rare schools that did exist were seen as inferior, as students were taught only in French.

Throughout the Maritimes, logging and fishing companies were owned by English or English-Norman (Jersey and Guernsey) businessmen. English was the language of business (Robin, Fruing, and Lebouthiller), but Acadian workers spoke French to each other.

Quality of French in Canada

The differences between the French spoken in France and that spoken in Canada deepened in the 19th century, especially in the cities. However, these differences, which often went unnoticed in the countryside, caused no real worry. Canadian peasants (called "habitants") thought they spoke "French from France," but Francophones in the cities began to have doubts.

Though "habitants," workers, and lumberjacks were unilingual, the francophone elite, which was in contact with the British, saw that English was omnipresent and eroding the French language in politics, the economy, industry, and more. Generally, rural residents in Quebec or Acadia—with the exception of Anglophone enclaves (Ottawa Valley, Eastern Townships, Gaspé)—seemed better protected linguistically. However, as capitalism made headway in the countryside, English followed. For example, the railroad, post office, and telegraph helped introduce manufactured products and their English instructions.

After the union of Canada West and Canada East in 1840, the language of politics was generally English. Though it was on more or less equal footing to English in the United Canada parliament in Kingston, in reality French was seriously threatened. Laws were written in English, then translated into French. French-speaking members could not understand English-speaking members, and vice versa. In Canada east (which was still called Lower Canada), English remained the only language used in administration, business, the economy, trade, and industry. The industrialization of the country led to the arrival of English-speaking bosses and managers, which increased knowledge of English terms. Anglophone businessmen and Anglo-Scottish immigrants mainly dominated the new economy. In the early 19th century, the working language of bosses was English but, as the accounts of numerous visitors attest, including France's Alexis de Tocqueville (1831 voyage), English was also the language of signs in all cities in French Canada. Below is an account from November 18, 1848, in Le Fantasque, a satirical Quebec City newspaper that targeted political leaders and landed Editor Napoléon Aubin in prison during the 1837–1838 Rebellion:

A resident of Great Britain arriving in our city would not believe that two-thirds of the population are French Canadian. With each step he takes, he sees the front of boutiques and stores with signs bearing the words Dry Goods Store, Groceries Store, Merchant Taylor, Watch and Clock Maker, Boot and Shoe Maker, Wholesale and Retail, etc.

In cities, English had started to invade economic and social life. In 1841, the publication of Manuel des difficultés les plus communes de la langue française by Thomas Maguire (who was American) marked the start of linguistic purism, especially with regard to anglicisms. The author attracted a following throughout French Canada, and several similar works were published in the years to follow. Various past accounts revealed the influence of English on French on the one hand, and the preponderance of English in business on the other.

To foreign visitors in the second half of the 19th century who imagined they heard the contemporaries of Montcalm (who lived 100 years earlier) speaking, this simply meant that, in the words of Lord Durham, Canada's Francophones had remained "an old and backwards society in a new and progressive world.":

French Canadians have stayed an old and backwards society in a new and progressive world. Overall, they have remained French, yet in no way resemble the French in France. They resemble the French of the Ancien Régime.

In 1864, French deputy Ernest Dubergier de Hauranne spent some time in Lower Canada, noting: "Nearly all aristocratic families in Quebec have forged ties with the English and more often speak the official language than their native tongue. Government is full of them."

The proliferation of businesses owned by Anglophones or Francophones imitating them put an English face on cities. In addition, the colony's economic growth brought British products into all homes, resulting in the adoption of British customs. Anglophilia was slowly winning over Canadians, as it had conquered the Acadians.

Isolated in their world of agriculture, peasants continued to speak their French, without being too affected by the English that was gaining ground in Lower Canada's cities. However, the renewal of ties with France alerted French Canadian intellectuals to the fact that "habitant" French was unlike that used in France. It had become an increasingly different and archaic French. Théodore Pavie (1850), a French visitor to Lower Canada, wrote of the language of Canadian peasants:

They speak an old, inelegant French; their thick pronunciation devoid of stresses closely resembles that of the Lower Normans. In speaking with them one quickly sees that were separated from us before the time when everyone in France took an interest in literature and debate.

In fact, what the biased Théodore Pavie had noted was that Canadian French had changed little since the Conquest. This observation is echoed in the accounts of several French travellers throughout the 19th century. Two accounts deserve a closer look. First is that of J. F. M. Arnault Dudevant (1862):

The Canadian spirit has stayed French. But one is struck by the form of the language, which seems outdated by some hundred years. This is in no way disagreeable, for though peasants have the accent of our provinces, city dwellers speak somewhat in the manner of our 18th century writers, and this made such an impression on me from the first day that, by closing my eyes, I imagined I had been whisked into the past and was hearing the contemporaries of the Marquis de Montcalm speaking.

The second comes from another Frenchman, Henri de Lamothe (Cinq mois chez les Français d'Amérique: Voyage au Canada et à la Rivière-Rouge du Nord, 1875): "One hundred years of isolation from the mother country has crystallized Canadian French as it were, enabling it to faithfully retain expressions in use in the first half of the 18th century." In actual fact, it was impossible that the French spoken in Canada had not evolved, but these accounts clearly reveal that Canadian French had become archaic in relation to that of France.

Up to that point, French had played a relatively positive role in the French Canadian collective identity. However, in the decades to follow, it started to be seen as something negative. This marked the first signs of the poor self-image French Canadians would later develop.

Spoken English in Canada

The English spoken in Canada also differed from that spoken in Great Britain. However, the English used by British visitors to Canada (e.g., administrators and military personnel) differed from that used by the peasant and working classes. The English of "true" Britons who only lived in the colonies to further their careers was identical in every way to that used in London. Strongly nationalistic, these Anglophones were generally learned (except low-ranking soldiers), and their English was a sign of prestige for other citizens. This "English from England" remained in Canada up to the 20th century.

The English spoken by peasants, workers, and fishermen was much different, divided between two main regions: the Maritimes and Upper Canada/Canada West (Ontario).

The Maritimes

There were few Loyalists in the Maritimes and virtually all came from New England. The English spoken in the region was more similar to that of southeast England than that spoken by Loyalists elsewhere in Canada. The most distinctive contribution came from Gaelic languages such as Scottish and Irish, which gave "Atlantic English" a special character. The English of the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island picked up Scottish and, to a lesser degree, Irish words and expressions. This explains some of the fishing terms used in the region (e.g., fiddler: small salmon, flake: fish drying platform) and other words (e.g., lolly: ice cream). There were also unique pronunciations—today no longer used—for certain words that were quite different from Standard English (London English).

As for Newfoundland English, it had become much different by the 19th century and seemed very archaic as compared to other forms of English. The English spoken on the island was the product of 300 years of isolation and had become quite regionalized, the result of Irish on the one hand and Southeast English on the other, which had already broken from London English. Newfoundland English was unique in its grammar, pronunciation, and archaic vocabulary. In this sense, it was similar to the French of rural Quebec and Acadia (Atlantic Provinces), which spoke an archaic language, too.

Canada West (Ontario)

Working class English in Canada West (which would soon become Ontario) was that of the American Loyalists. It resembled American English from the Northeast U.S. The differences between American English and Canada West English were no doubt subtle, but they represented a fairly unique British-American linguistic hybrid. The numerous immigrants that settled in this region of Canada learned this form of English, which then spread west.

In short, the French and English spoken in Canada's rural regions in the 19th century was linguistically different from that spoken in Great Britain and France, with archaic elements in the East (Quebec and the Maritimes) and standard forms used by the educated only. The most distinctive forms were found in rural Quebec, Acadia, and Newfoundland.

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