Making government responsible

Friday, March 3, 2017
An image of Joseph Howe defending himself in court, from the base of the Joseph Howe statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia. (Photo: Megan Mahon, Communications Nova Scotia)

This is the third blog in a series about the stories and artifacts that are found in the Museum’s new travelling exhibition – 1867: Rebellion & Confederation. 1867 explores the 30 years of Canadian history that culminated in Canadian confederation. This blog is about the struggle for democratic government in Canada.

What would you do for democratic rights? Would you go to court? Would you fight a duel? Would you face down an angry mob? During the Confederation era, citizens of British North America – what Canada was called back then – did all these things and more.

In the early 1800s, there were six colonies in British North America, and although they all had elected legislatures, true power lay in the hands of the British-appointed governors. Some people resented this and wanted to see the colonies controlled by elected officials. These people were called reformers.

In 1837 and 1838, some reformers rose in armed rebellion, but were defeated by the government. After the failed rebellions, it seemed that democracy was further away than ever, but the reformers would not give up the cause. 

Reformers were pushing for what they called “responsible government,” the idea that the government must have the support of a majority of members in a legislative assembly. Since the assembly was elected, true power would then reside with voters. However, only a small percentage of the population had the right to vote; voting was a privilege reserved primarily for property-owning men of European descent. It would be many more years before women and Indigenous people would win the right to vote. Nonetheless, the struggle for responsible government was a pivotal moment in the history of democratic rights in Canada.


A painting of Joseph Howe. He is wearing a dark suit and a white shirt.
Portrait of a young Joseph Howe. (Photo: Nova Scotia Archives, Photograph Collection of Tintypes, Ambrotypes and Daguerreotypes, Location 43-4-3)


After the rebellion, moderate reformers came to the forefront and tried to achieve change through legal means rather than through violence. That didn’t mean their approach lacked drama, however! In the colony of Nova Scotia, one prominent reformer was the energetic and outspoken newspaper publisher Joseph Howe. Howe was a vocal critic of the government and, in 1835, opponents tried to silence him by charging him with libel. He pleaded his own case in court and won an acquittal, declaring, “the press of Nova Scotia is free.” In 1840, an opponent of responsible government named John Haliburton challenged Howe to a duel. At the duel, Haliburton fired and missed. Howe, feeling he had defended the honour of the reformers, shot his own pistol into the air.

Early in 1848, thanks to the efforts of individuals like Howe, Nova Scotia became the first colony in British North America to achieve responsible government. Sir John Harvey, the lieutenant-governor of the province, chose his advisors from the political party that won the most seats in the last colonial election; it was the start of a more representative democracy.

In Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec), the situation was very different. After the failed rebellions of 1837 and 1838, the British government united Upper and Lower Canada into one colony called the Province of Canada, in part to quash the rebellions which were strongest in French-speaking Lower Canada. They also made English the only official language, as part of an effort to assimilate the French-Canadian population. Last but not least, they refused to grant the colony responsible government. 

These measures did not end the struggle for responsible government. Instead, it sparked dialogue between Anglophone and Francophone reformers. Reformers in the two united colonies knew they needed to work together. They both made responsible government their key issue. For French Canadians, another main concern was protecting their linguistic and religious rights, which were now under threat.

Two reform politicians, English Canadian Robert Baldwin and French Canadian Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, decided to join forces. Some former rebels – such as Dr. Wolfred Nelson, about whom you can read in our last blog – also joined the cause, and fought for democratic rights in the legislature instead of on the battlefield. Slowly but surely, the reformers turned the tide. At the end of 1848, Baldwin and La Fontaine’s reformers won more seats than their opponents did, and Lord Elgin, the Governor General, asked them to form the government. Responsible government had been achieved in the Province of Canada.



A black and white illustration shows a large stone building on fire with a large crowd gathered in front of it.
An illustration of the burning of Canada’s Parliament buildings in Montréal in 1849. (Photo: Library and Archives Canada, e011080201)


This victory didn’t mean the struggle was over; the new system was almost immediately put to the test. In 1849, when the new government passed a bill aimed at compensating people in Lower Canada (Quebec) for losses they suffered during the rebellions, opponents of the bill rioted in the streets of Montréal, which was then the capital of the United Province of Canada. The rioters tore cobblestones out of the street and threw them at the Governor General, Lord Elgin. They then marched on Parliament, vandalized it and set it on fire. The cobblestones pictured here are some of those that were thrown at Lord Elgin. His wife Lady Elgin gathered them up and kept them as mementoes of a tumultuous time in Canadian history.


Two large stones. On the front of each stone is a strip of white paper with the words “Thrown at the Gov. Genl. Montreal, April 30, 1849.”
Being the Governor General in the 1800s could be a dangerous job. These are two of the cobblestones thrown at the Governor General by an angry mob in 1849. (Photo: Canadian Museum of History, 2008.118.4)


In the end, all of the colonies achieved responsible government: Prince Edward Island in 1851, New Brunswick in 1854 and Newfoundland in 1855. It was a triumph for the reformers and an important step on Canada’s path to self-government, though it did not expand democratic rights to women or Indigenous people. In the next blog, I will look at the social and economic transformation that occurred during the Confederation era and how it led to growth, new conflict, and even a military invasion!

If you visit the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg, you can take a close look at the cobblestones that were thrown at Canada’s Governor General, as well as remains from the Montréal Parliament fire, dueling pistols like those used by Joseph Howe and his opponent, and many more fascinating pieces of Canada’s past. They’re all on display as part of 1867: Rebellion & Confederation, showing until May 7, 2017.