Constitution Act (1791)

The large influx of Loyalists to the Maritimes created problems for Great Britain. Even though Nova Scotians and the United Empire Loyalists were both English, they differed in their outlook: Americans were more vocal and independent-minded while Nova Scotians tended to be more on the conservative side.

Moreover, Loyalists resented the fact that while they had lost everything during the American Revolution the merchants of Halifax had enjoyed huge profits. These differences were effectively overcome by creating a new colony for the new comers (New Brunswick).

When it came to the Loyalist situation in Quebec an altogether different solution was required: for inasmuch as two English groups might differ from one another the differences between French and English were by comparison astronomical; therefore, it was at once obvious that the mutual distrust between the French and English made separating the two groups a priority; nonetheless, Westminster was unwilling to give the French their own colony because doing so would effectively end any hope for their eventual assimilation. So, the two groups had to be kept separated geographically...but...they somehow had to remain part of the same administrative center.

Through the Constitution Act (1791) the colony of Quebec was sub-divided into two provinces—Upper Canada (Loyalist) and Lower Canada (French). By keeping the colony of Quebec intact Britain left the door open for the eventual absorption of the French into an English-dominated Canada.

The words Quebec and Canada are in many respects synonyms for one another at this time (1791).

The Constitution Act of 1791 reflected the constitutional changes then being implemented by England in its reorganization of British North America.

British North America refers to all those non-American colonies still under English control following the American Revolution.

The Constitution Act's Main Provisions

Listed below are the five most important provisions of the Constitution Act:

1). Quebec would be divided into two provinces called Upper and Lower Canada.
Although the British separated the two peoples geographically the door was left open for the potential assimilation of the French.

2). Each province was granted a separate elected government (assembly).
The colonies were to have separate governments. For the time being this would keep French-English contact to a minimum. In reality, the elected assemblies had absolutely no decision-making power. These assemblies were in fact powerless. Upper and Lower Canada would be controlled by a non-elected governor and two councils (legislative and executive) members of which were directly appointed by the governor.

3). Roman Catholics could vote and hold public office; but only people who owned land were allowed to vote.

The right to vote really didn't matter anways as the elected assemblies of the two Canadian provinces did not actually have any decision-making power. In terms of French culture, the freedoms granted to them through the Quebec Act (1774) were re-affirmed; it was believed that once the English were in the majority the two provinces—Upper and Lower Canada—would be united under a single assembly and the English would then be able to overturn the Quebec Act's more "controversial" provisions.

4). In Upper Canada, British civil and criminal law and a British landowning system went into effect.
The English received what they had wanted all along in Quebec—the adoption and supremacy of their own set of laws.

5). Lower Canada combined French civil law with British criminal law. The tithe to the Catholic Church remained in affect.
The French (especially landowners and the Church) were pleased when their ancient feudal privileges were reaffirmed.

Why was Ontario called Upper Canada instead of Lower when it was obviously the southern-most of the two colonies? Because Ontario was up the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City (and by extension Quebec was down river or "lower").


Some Problems with the Constitution Act

Although the Constitution Act created the desired political stability in Canada for the present (1791) it opened the door for future problems. This is ironic, in that, the new colonial government system was ultimately designed to prevent the spread of revolutionary ideals from America to Canada. In reality, the flawed colonial government system encouraged the eventual outbreak of three Canadian rebellions in the 1830s.

By granting both Upper and Lower Canada elected assemblies it appeared that Canada had a democratic system. Nothing could have been further from the truth. (Well, okay, okay, if I were to say a marauding army of light-sabre wielding leprechauns invaded Quebec to impose their luck on unwilling Canadians then that would be even further from the truth.) Ultimately, Britain did not trust either the French or the American-Loyalists. The French could not be trusted for obvious reasons (they were French, afterall). The Loyalists could not be fully trusted, well...because they were American; and because they were American they may have been "infected" by the ideals of the Revolution, i.e. One man one vote, a desire to expand democracy, a faith in representative government, etc. Therefore, Britain was determined to limit the power of both Upper and Lower Canada's elected assemblies.31

In reality, the elected assemblies for both provinces had absolutely no decision-making power whatsoever. Instead, all power was in the hands of a colonial governor (who was only accountable to the British Parliament). To assist the governor with the day to day affairs of the colony he appointed a small number of wealthy men (I like to call them "ugly, rich, noble dudes") to one of two administrational councils. By denying the average colonist any power, Britain hoped to preserve traditional authority and minimize the risk of any future revolution breaking out in Canada.

Some More Problems with the Constitution Act

The Thirteen Colonies insisted that they had rebelled because they felt oppressed and had no other alternative. Britain disagreed. On the contrary, Britain insisted the revolution was precisely a result of the Americans being given too much freedom. Britain learned its lesson: they would never again make the mistake of giving one of their colonies too much freedom. This anti-democratic attitude had an unmistakable influence over subsequent developments in Canada. For instance, when the British put together the Constitution Act (1791) they did everything possible to include provisions that prevented power from ending up in the hands of the common person.

Thus, the power of the colonial governor was exponentially increased. Now if you thought Murray and Carleton were powerful, governors after 1791 had comparatively more power over the colony (more power than even what the king himself possessed in Britain). Not even kidding. Governors were virtually absolute rulers in Canada. When it came to the king his power was limited by Westminster and a Constitution. In the colonies, the governor had no such limits imposed upon him.

The governor could not of course rule all by himself. Even dictators need help. He could not align himself with the masses. The uneducated and poor majority had to be if anything controlled. No. He needed to look to help from a willing minority. Therefore, the governor aligned himself with the most powerful and rich people of the colony. And he appointed these "ugly, rich noble dudes" to something called the Executive Council. The Executive Council's most fundamental role was in seeing that the governor's policies were enforced. Oh, and by the way, these policies just happened to help the rich get richer. But this of course was just a coincidence. =P





The historical record is full of examples where governors, kings, dictators, even democratic governments, ally themselves with the wealthy to suppress the freedom of the masses.

Members of the wealthy elite of Germany in the 1930s aligned themselves with the National Socialists (Nazis) because Hitler promised to put "labor unions in their place." William L. Shirer's book Rise and Fall of the Third Reich provides an excellent description of the betrayal of German democratic institutions by the middle and upper classes.

And in Iran during the 1960s and 70s, the United States backed up a "rich dude" who was very unpopular with the majority of Iranians because of his oppressive policies. The Americans supported him with money/weapons and in return the Shah gave them unrestricted access to Iran's oil reserves. The Shah was eventually overthrown by the Iranian people in 1979. If you are interested in reading more about the Iranian Revolution I recommend the book Takeover in Tehran by Massoumeh Ebtekar.

Constitution Act: Final Remarks

The elected assemblies created by the Constitution Act had no real authority. For the colony to be called truly democratic both the governor and the "rich guys" would have to be somehow accountable to the people. And by "accountable" I mean "removable" and by removable I mean "bootable." If people are unhappy, they should be able to replace those currently in power with other more suitable representatives. Further, if the colonial government were truly accountable they would have to consult with the colony's people (rich and poor) about how tax dollars should be spent. This simply did not happen. The opposite occurred.

I'll give you an idea of how irresponsible the Executive Council was with the colony's tax dollars, e.g. Instead of using the money to build schools, roads or hospitals that would benefit the colony as a whole, council members actually used tax dollars for gambling purposes and/or to pay for the expense of throwing lavish parties on their massive estates. The executive got away with this type of irresponsible behavior because they were not directly held accountable to the people from whom the taxes were collected. The majority had no way by which they could remove corrupt leaders from power. This all sounds eerily similar to what caused the American Revolution.

Click here to view the accurate (and extremely cynical) diagram of the colonial government as established by the Constitution Act.

The colonial government in Canada was a collection of contradictions: it was democratic in name but in reality was aristocratic, e.g. An appointed council was placed in charge of an elected assembly.


The Creation of Upper Canada

Upper Canada was carved out of Quebec because the English Loyalists wanted their own colony. The border separating the two Canadian provinces was basically an imaginary line drawn in the wilderness. And by wilderness, I mean just that. There were no roads, towns, settlements, etc. in the new colony. There were trees, trees, rocks, tree roots, trees, maybe a few Leprechauns, and yes more trees (oh, and some more rocks). Despite humble beginnings, Upper Canada was geographically two times the size of France and it was also destined to become Canada's most populous province.

The early growth of the colony can in part be attributed to the efforts of its patriotic first governor, John Graves Simcoe. He used to lower the British flag in front of his cabin before going to bed every night singing God Save the King with his wife. He really knew how to show a girl a good time. The first thing that popped into my mind when I read this was an image of Simcoe fronting the Sex Pistols and singing a punk rock version of God SavFind my the faces of my three sons and win a prize!e the Queen.

Simcoe wanted to recreate England in the wilderness of Canada. One fundamental ingredient was lacking: people. To encourage settlement he placed ads in newspapers around Europe and America promising free land to anyone willing to swear an oath to the king. His efforts were not fruitful. Instead of attracting farmers to Upper Canada, he attracted American land speculators (people who like to buy land cheap and sell it high). In fact, the City of Hamilton, Ontario is named after one of the most notorious of land speculators at the time. I'd like to start a Facebook group to pressure Hamilton to change its name to something more Canadian...

Although settlers did not pour into Upper Canada as Simcoe had hoped, he did manage to establish the basis of what would eventually become Ontario. And to defend the colony from the Americans, he set up a military garrison on the shores of Lake Ontario at a fort called York. The First Nations called the place Toronto. I call the place smog-ville and the place where NHL franchises go to die.

My wife and I traveled to Toronto in the summer of 2006. I was impressed by the shear size of the city; nevertheless, what caught my attention most was the terrible air quality. The Toronto air hurt my throat. I constantly had to wipe a white film build-up from my lips and inner mouth. During my stay, I had a conversation with an elevator operator about the air quality. He was surprised that I thought the air was bad. I told him quite emphatically that Saskatchewan, despite being located in the "gap" at least had good air quality. (I'll take adding ten years to my life expectancy over the privilege of watching the Maples Leafs lose all the time.)

By 1812, the population of Upper Canada was 75,000. The majority of these people could trace their ancestry directly to the United States. The colony, therefore, was essentially American.

Slavery and Canada

In the 18th and eartly 19th centuries, the entire British Empire—including Canada—had institutionalized slavery. Canada had fewer slaves compared to the United States only because we had fewer land owners. However, the number of slaves grew dramatically with the arrival of the Loyalists following the revolution.

Although slavery was legal in the British Empire there also existed a strong anti-slavery movement. Governor Simcoe personally despised slavery. Despite strong public opposition, Simcoe passed the Slave Act (1793) making Canada the first place in all the British Empire to officially abolish slavery.

In order to pass the Slave Act, Simcoe had to reach a compromise with the elite: the legislation would not free existing slaves but it would make it unlawful to buy or sell any future slaves. The elected assembly of Upper Canada was so angered by the Slave Act that they introduced a law of their own to reinstate slavery. Simcoe refused to place the law into affect. The ruling elites, and Simcoe in particular, were responsible for ending slavery in Canada.


Click here to learn some facts about and what it might have been like to live in Upper Canada.

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