What They Said About Responsible Government at Confederation

Let’s get back to questions of responsible government. Did the 1848 grant of responsible government to the British North American colonies sever the colonies’ formal connection with the mother country?

I say yes. After 1848 the colonists continued to regard themselves as part of the Empire and looked on the mother country affection, but conducted their local affairs as if they were free and independent polities able to legislate on any and all matters.

Most historians disagree. (Some readers on this blog disagree.) What is usually said is that in 1848 the united Province of Canada and the colonies in the Maritimes got a truncated form of responsible government; important powers were reserved for the British Parliament. Gerald Craig, editor of the Carleton Library edition of Lord Durham’s Report says in his introduction: “The grant of colonial self-government that Lord Durham was prepared to make in 1839 was wholly genuine, but it was also extremely limited in scope.” The mind stutters; imagine a form of self-government – self-government! – both “wholly genuine” and “extremely limited.”

The issue was discussed at Confederation and I can tell you at once that without exception participants in the ratifying debates in the provincial legislatures agreed that provinces adopting responsible government remained proud of their association with the mother country, but regarded themselves as free in the way that independent countries are free.

Nova Scotia’s William Lawrence boasted: “We are a free people, prosperous beyond doubt, advancing cautiously in wealth … Under the British Constitution we have far more freedom than any other people on the face of the earth.” By “British Constitution” Lawrence meant the colonial legislature. In Newfoundland, George Hogsett said: “We have here a constitution for which the people nobly fought, and which was reluctantly wrung from the British government. We had the right of taxing ourselves, or legislating for ourselves. Newfoundland’s Ambrose Shea argued that responsible government had brought “virtual independence.” He claimed moreover, that the colony had legislated tariffs hostile to the commercial interests of England. In New Brunswick, John Mercer Johnson said: “We want nothing better than British institutions, for under them we have as much liberty, and a little more, than they have in the United States.

In statements like these you hear the sentiments of the anti-Confederates. In the Atlantic Provinces especially, the chief objection to Confederation was fear that union with the Canadian provinces would impair liberties enjoyed from 1848.

But similar arguments can be found among the legislators committed to federal union. In the Canadian Legislative Assembly Thomas D’Arcy McGee said: “The two great things that all men aim at in any free government are liberty and permanency. We have had liberty enough – too much perhaps in some respects  – but at all events, liberty to our heart’s content. There is not on the face of the earth a freer people than the inhabitants of these colonies.”

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13 Responses to “What They Said About Responsible Government at Confederation”


  1. 1 Guest December 8, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Can you recommend any sources in the academic literature that spell out the two sides of the debate re: independence (i.e. the colonies became independent when responsible gov’t was granted in 1848 versus those who argue it wasn’t formal independence)?

    • 2 janetajzenstat December 9, 2011 at 3:02 pm

      Don’t go to the academic literature. Study the primary documents.That’s my advice. I do have a book a book on Lord Durham’s Report. Ajzenstat, The Political Thought of Lord Durham (McGill-Queen’s, 1988). You may not find it helpful. I also have an introduction to the latest edition of the Durham Report from the Carleton Library (McGill-Queen’s, 2006).

      On 1867 Bowden’s wrong on one count. The Constitution Act, 1867 rested on an exhaustive division of powers between the national Parliament, and the provincial legislatures. Each had its list. There might be quarrels over whether a particular legislative measure fell to the national Parliament or to the provinces, but there were no “free-floating”legislative powers. powers. (Thus the the Westminster principle of parliamentary powers was satisfied.) There was no list of powers assigned the British Parliament.

  2. 3 James W.J. Bowden December 8, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    I must count myself in the category of historians who disagree with your interpretation: “self-government” does not necessarily mean full sovereignty. The crown colonies practised “wholly limited” self-government because the British Crown delegated authority for local matters upon the colonies but retained control of Imperial matters like foreign policy and defence — and therefore still retained the source of sovereign authority.

    I would argue that we didn’t become independent until the Statute of Westminster formally created the Crown of Canada as a separate legal entity and elevated it to the level of the British Crown.

  3. 6 Alastair Sweeny (@AlastairSweeny) December 11, 2011 at 6:42 am

    FYI, even Yankee loving firebrand William Lyon Mackenzie, who fought in 1837 to have Upper and Lower Canada admitted as states of the union, returned from exile in New York after 1848 with this observation to a Toronto newspaper:

    “American democracy as it presented itself in the form of political corruption, crass materialism and human slavery, filled his soul with righteous indignation. He was convinced that the vaunted liberty of the United States was merely a sham; that neither the grandiloquent principles of the Declaration of Independence, nor the unctuous guarantees of the American Constitution assured to the private citizen the same measure of civil and political freedom as was enjoyed by the humblest Canadian subject under the British Constitution.”

    PS: Imperial finance is also an issue, and Britain retained pretty tight control after 1848. Cartier constantly went begging to London for money for fortifications and capital for the Grand Trunk Railway. Canadian timber, wheat, Nanaimo coal and the “All Red Route” ensured that the development of Canada would remain an imperial project. After Confederation, some Wall Street money went into the CPR, but through friendly financiers opposed to Chicago interests who wanted to tap into the Canadian Prairies.

    I think the big shift in attitude came with the Alaska Boundary dispute, and a betrayal by Mother Britain.

    I suppose we should also look at the finances and bankruptcy of Newfoundland in 1933, and its reversion from dominion to colonial status. (Shades of Greece today, only the Mother Country is Germany.)

  4. 7 Stephen MacLean December 14, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    Have to agree with James and Alastair … to write that ‘the 1848 grant of responsible government to the British North American colonies sever[ed] the colonies’ formal connection with the mother country’ would seem to ignore the constitutional give-and-take between the two that occurred up to patriation in 1982.

  5. 8 Craig December 15, 2011 at 7:51 pm

    I’ve already had my say on this topic in the new issue of the Dorchester Review. Suffice to say, I agree with Alistair, James and Stephen.

    One question, though, Janet. You say that “there was no list of powers assigned the British Parliament” in 1867. Are you claiming that post-1867 the British Parliament had no authority in the Dominion of Canada?

  6. 10 John December 23, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    This would make for a great debate topic at a future Civitas meeting. Any takers?

  7. 12 Beverley Thomas Hall April 8, 2012 at 11:09 pm

    You said on Dec. 8, 2011, that there is no list of powers reserved to the UK Parliament in the British North American Act of 1867 (as it then was). Of course there wasn’t because that Act was an Act of the UK Parliament. It has been amended by the UK Parliament many times since 1867, the last time being the Canada Act, which gave us the Constitution Act, 1982. That these amendments were enacted at the request of the Canadian Parliament was a political requirement, not a legal one. What was reserved for the UK Parliament is shown by what was missing from the 1867 Act, viz. the power to amend the Constitution of Canada except with regard to specified sections of that Act and the provincial constitutions (amendable by their legislatures). Your statement that the UK Parliament had no authority in Canada after 1867 is clearly refuted by the legislative evidence of amendments to the 1867 Act, the Statute of Westminster, and the Canada Act.

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