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Canada’s Path to Establishing a System of Responsible Government


Throughout human history, various forms of government have been created to establish order and law in societies. From empires to kingdoms, anarcho-syndicalist communes to oligarchies, theocracies to revolutionary triumvirates, there have been numerous attempts. However, none have quite achieved the blend of social stability and popular participation seen in the British parliamentary system of responsible government.

Though parliaments have existed in Britain for centuries, they did not always hold real power. During medieval and early-modern times, they were only summoned by the monarch, who could dismiss them at will without any obligation to heed their decisions. If the king disagreed with a bill, a simple declaration of “Le roy s’avisera” – the king will think about it – would suffice.

The English civil wars and revolutions of the 17th century resulted in more powers being given to Parliament. It was increasingly believed that the king should govern with advisers who could command a majority of seats in the House of Commons. This led to the concept of “responsible government,” where the prime minister and cabinet owed their positions to the votes of MPs, and the monarch was obliged to listen to Parliament. Failure to maintain the confidence of the House would result in the resignation of the prime minister and cabinet. While the rest of Europe faced revolutions and civil unrest in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the British system remained stable and free to progress peacefully.

However, not all British subjects experienced responsible government and a role in their own governance. In colonies worldwide, the word of London-appointed governors was law. For instance, in British North America, governors ruled with the advice of a council of elite colonials chosen by themselves. Although legislative assemblies existed, they had limited power and were primarily used to raise taxes. This situation led to unsuccessful uprisings in 1837 in Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec).

Calls for responsible government grew louder in Canada and in the Atlantic colonies and found support in John George Lambton, the Earl of Durham and Governor General of Canada. Durham’s 1839 “Report on the Affairs of British North America” recommended several reforms, including uniting the colonies and implementing responsible government.

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Portrait of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, by Thomas Phillips. (Public Domain)
Portrait of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, by Thomas Phillips. (Public Domain)

It took several years to persuade the UK government to implement these changes, but in 1848 responsible government was introduced in British North America. The first colony to adopt it was Nova Scotia in February of that year, followed by the Province of Canada (including Ontario and Quebec) and New Brunswick.

The establishment of responsible government in the Province of Canada played a crucial role in paving the way for independence and Confederation in 1867. The successful administration of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin, appointed after the House of Assembly withdrew support from the previous Executive Council, demonstrated that cooperation between Ontario and Quebec was possible, and showed Québécois that English-speaking Canada took their values seriously.

The debate over the Rebellion Losses Bill of 1849 tested this harmony and the concept of responsible government. This bill aimed to compensate French Canadians who had suffered financially during the uprisings of the 1830s. It faced strong opposition from English speakers in Quebec and caused concern for Lord Elgin, the new governor general. The legislative debates became heated, with speech escalating to the point where a duel was demanded, and violence spilled onto the streets.

Despite his own reservations, Elgin demonstrated his faith in responsible government by approving the bill passed by the legislature. This decision sparked riots and acts of arson, with Parliament Buildings being set on fire while politicians were still inside, along with nearby offices, warehouses, and a hospital.

Although sporadic unrest continued in 1849, the government in London supported Lord Elgin and the legislature’s actions, confirming that responsible government had withstood the test and would form the foundation of political life in Canada thereafter.

Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

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