Canada’s Revolution

Prompted by the riveting scenes from Cairo, journalists and bloggers are revisiting the great modern revolutions: the French, the American and the Russian. Even the Glorious Revolution (1688) gets the occasional mention.

Of the Canadian Revolution, we hear nothing.

Perhaps you are of the opinion that Canada did not have a revolution. If that’s your view you are wrong but you’re in good company. Donald Smiley, usually so astute, says: “Unlike Americans in the eighteenth century … Canadians never experienced the kind of decisive break with their political past which would have impelled them to debate and resolve fundamental political questions” (Canada in Question, 1980). Philip Resnick agrees: “It is a well-known feature of Canadian history that this country, unlike the United States, was not born of revolution” (The European Roots of Canadian Identity, 2005). Resnick appears to suggest that if we had fought our way out of Britain’s clutches – shed a little more blood – Canadians today would enjoy a more robust sense of national identity.

He’s wrong. Smiley’s wrong. Canada had a revolution, an excellent and successful one. It unfolded in three stages.

Count the Rebellions of 1837 and 1838 in Lower and Upper Canada as the first stage. The rebels failed to overturn the colonial oligarchies, it is true, but no episode in which numbers of citizens or subjects carry arms against constitutionally recognized authorities is without consequences.

The oligarchies fell ten years later with the introduction of the parliamentary principle known as “responsible government.” As each colony adopted the practice it became in effect an independent, self-governing state. Voilà: the revolution’s second stage.

And then, in 1867, came the third.

At the Quebec Conference of 1864 the Fathers of Confederation drafted a constitution providing for a federal union of the British North American colonies under a “general government,” complete with taxing and spending powers; they created the body that is now called the Parliament of Canada. And first one and then others of the British North American colonies ratified the proposal.

Think in Lockean terms. In the Second Treatise of Government (paragraph 94), Locke argues that the people “could never be safe nor at rest nor think themselves in Civil Society, till the Legislature was placed in collective Bodies of Men, call them Senate, Parliament, or what you please. By which means every single person became subject equally with other the meanest Men, to those Laws, which he himself, as part of the Legislative had established.”

The British North America Act (1867) – now called the Constitution Act (1867) – was made in British North America for British North Americans by British North Americans. The British Government was  looking over the colonists’ shoulders and gave the Act the final touch of legitimacy, putting it through the British Parliament. But from first to last it was a colonial creation, willed and drafted by the Fathers at Quebec and – most important – of ultimate importance – ratified by the people of each province as represented in their provincial legislatures.

A new country, a new state, had emerged. It had certain international obligations. But not noticeably more than the Canadian state has today. It had prudential and sentimental reasons for maintaining good relations with Britain. It was nevertheless new; it was an independent regime.

A successful revolution, I would say! It has endured.

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13 Responses to “Canada’s Revolution”


  1. 1 Joseph G Girard March 26, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Very well presented. As an American of French-Canadian heritage I can clearly seen the same steps toward a functioning democracy that set up the United States: 1. the military revolt (my ancestor was held in Montreal after the defeat at St. Denis in 1837) 2. the funtioning, independent states 3. the uniting of the states. The over arching theme was the initial rejection of independence by the British, then the final acceptance.

  2. 2 Craig Yirush April 19, 2011 at 9:18 pm

    Dear Janet,

    Wasn’t the British Parliament still sovereign in Canada after 1867 (at least de jure – e.g., the Colonial Laws Validity Act of 1865 which I recall held that no dominion law could be contrary to an act of the British Parliament which pertained to that dominion).

    And didn’t the British Parliament still conduct foreign policy for the empire well into the 20th century?

    If your story of a 19th revolution is right, what import do you think the Statute of Westminster had? I was always under the impression that it had made Canada fully sovereign or self-governing.

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