19th Century Canadian History

Canada 1841

A map of British possessions in North America circa 1849. The dark red area would form Canada in 1867.

When we last left off, the British army had seized the French colony of Quebec, placing thousands of irate French settlers under English rule. Meanwhile, the 13 British colonies of New England had just declared independence as the United States of America, which sent hoards of English-speaking Loyalists northward, looking for somewhere to live that was still under British rule. They found Quebec. To achieve peace in their now uncomfortably diverse colony, in 1791 the Brits chopped Quebec in half, making one colony into two: Upper Canada for the English, and Lower Canada for the French.

And now, the next 100 years.

The 1812 War (1812-1814)

White House fire

In 1814, British soldiers torched the White House, causing President James Madison (1751-1836) to flee in terror. This powerful gesture of anti-Americanism is often used as a chauvinistic symbol of pride by certain Canadian nationalists.

Though the British government promised to respect the sovereignty of the United States after the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), a lot of British elites remained skeptical that the American experiment with independence would last. As a result, Anglo-American relations remained quite tense and disrespectful in the early 1800s, with the British Navy routinely harassing American ships, seizing their goods or forcibly kidnapping and drafting their sailors into British military service, offering only the justification that “once British, always British.”

A certain faction of American politicians (sometimes dubbed “the War Hawks“) soon began calling for a “Second War of Independence” against the British, and an American attack against British armed forces stationed in the Canadian colonies. It was a very controversial proposal. The United States of those days was a small, poor nation quite ill-equipped to fight the most powerful country in the world, and many Americans worried a second war with England might actually weaken their independence, rather than strengthen it. But by 1812 the Hawks had won the debate, and the U.S. Congress narrowly voted in favour of war.

Brock memorial

The British general Issac Brock (1769-1812) is considered the key architect of Britain's successes in the 1812 War, and is particularly acclaimed for his strategic alliances with anti-American aboriginal tribes. Seen here, the massive Brock Memorial obelisk in Niagara, Ontario.

When fighting broke out, the bad behaviour of both sides only reinforced initial suspicions. The rapid American invasion of Quebec stirred fears that the American government had nothing less than the complete conquest of North America in mind, while the corresponding British invasion of Washington,D.C. heightened fears that America’s hard-won independence was in danger of being lost. Despite two years of heavy fighting on both sides, by 1814 it was clear that no one was really getting any closer to victory, and the peacemaking Treaty of Ghent merely restored the pre-war status quo. As historians like to dub it, it was the “war nobody won.”

But don’t tell that to Canadians. In modern times, the War of 1812 has achieved an almost mythical status as the tale of the time plucky little Canada beat the big, mean USA that was trying to invade and conquer them. Of course, almost all of the actual fighting for the “Canadian side” in 1812 was done by imported British troops, and the Canadian colonies of 1812 obviously bore little political or cultural resemblance to the independent Canadian nation-state of today. Yet, for nationalist-types who enjoy the anti-American symbolism of Canada battling off a U.S. invasion, the war remains a great point of patriotic pride.

The Rise of Democracy (1820s—1850s)

Now, up to this point, the Canadian colonies had very authoritarian, aristocratic governments. Though elected assemblies had been introduced to the colonies in the late 1700s, these were quite weak and powerless, with all real political authority held by a British-appointed governor. And this was fine when the colonies were filled mainly with illiterate farmers and fur traders, but by the 1820s Upper and Lower Canada were becoming larger, richer and more diverse societies. Though the gap between the wealthy landed gentry and everyone else still remained enormous, a population boom and diversifying economy meant that there was now a growing number of middle-class professionals in the Canadas — people like merchants, carpenters, doctors, lawyers and journalists, all of whom wanted to have a say in how their colony was being run.

William Lyon Mackenzie

William Lyon Mackenzie (1795-1861) was a charismatic newspaper publisher and one of the most famous of the pro-democracy radicals of the mid-19th century. His political career was a wild whirlwind of elections, arrests and armed rebellions.

The 1830s saw the Canadas enter a considerable period of political unrest, with a well-organized group of Reformers, led by middle-class, largely French and Catholic professionals, rallying against the corruption and authoritarian rule of the so-called Family Compact, the clique of wealthy, self-interested and frequently corrupt British-born landowners and blue bloods who surrounded the governor and influenced his policies. What the Reformers wanted varied. Some merely wanted stronger elected assemblies and a system of government more like Britain’s. Others, however, went much further and wanted the Canadas to either abandon British rule altogether and form an independent republic, or apply for U.S. statehood.

Several armed rebellions broke out over this conflict, with Reformers taking to the streets, brandishing weapons and torching buildings. Many leading provocateurs were either jailed, hung or exiled to Australia, and in 1838 the frightened British sent over a new governor, Lord Durham (1792-1840), to examine the situation. Durham, who wrote a famous report on the matter, concluded that the the colonies were facing two major problems: one, not enough democracy, and two, an out-of-control French population. He advocated the merging of Upper Canada and Lower Canada into one United Province of Canada, governed by a proper parliamentary system — so long as the system was rigged to ensure the more conservative English always held the majority of seats. In 1841 London passed the Act of Union, and Durham’s vision came true.

The Rise of Federalism (1850s—1867)

Though applauded by English colonists, the French saw the Act of Union for pretty much what it was: a British effort to placate and assimilate them out of existence. To the new joint parliament that was set up, French voters continued to send radical Reformers, who routinely deadlocked or opposed legislation as a way of voicing their ongoing displeasure with the state of colonial government.

Fathers of Confederation

The politicians who helped draft the first constitution of the Dominion of Canada are known as the "Fathers of Confederation," seen here in this iconic mural.

Meanwhile, similar things were going on in Britain’s Maritime colonies, a small collection of islands and peninsulas on the Atlantic coast. Initially sparse and underpopulated, an influx of Loyalist migrants had flooded into the colony of Nova Scotia after the American Revolution, and in 1784, a chunk was split off to form the new colony of New Brunswick. Like the Canadas, these colonies experienced similar bouts of political turmoil in the mid-1800s stemming from a lack of democratic government, but also born from a hopeless economic situation far worse than anything on the mainland.

From 1861-1865, the United States fought a bitter civil war between its northern and southern states. The British government, in an embarrassingly ill-conceived move, decided to support the South, which did not do great things for U.S.-British relations once the North eventually won. The Americans began to once again see the Canadian colonies to their north as a possible staging ground for British subversion or attack, and talk of a rematch of 1812 became louder.

Confederation cartoon

This 1870 cartoon shows a young woman representing the Canadian colonies who is faced with a choice between a warm, grandmotherly figure representing Confederation on the right, or sleazy ol' Uncle Sam on the left. Stoking fears of American annexation were a huge component of the pro-Confederation campaign.

For these and other reasons, colonial politicians in the 1860s began to support the idea of merging all of England’s remaining North American colonies into some sort of unified, jointly-run confederation. This would give the colonies improved economic and military strength born from their combined land and resources, while also granting greater local government powers to groups like the French, who clearly wanted more control over their own affairs. A series of colonial conferences were held, and members of the various colonial parliaments discussed and debated what a proposed federation of British North America should look like.

Inspired by the U.S. constitution, but also eager to avoid a repeat of the American Civil War, the politicians eventually agreed that their colonial confederation should have a single federal government run by an elected parliament, but also allow each member colony to retain its own local parliament and prime minister, too. The federal government would be given the power to make all criminal laws and regulate matters of national importance like currency, trade and immigration, while the colonies — or provinces, as they would now be known — would retain full control over local affairs like education, business and natural resources. A draft constitution was agreed upon at the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, and approved by the British government (which was getting a bit tired of dealing with Canadian affairs at this point) on July 1, 1867. A new, self-governing mega-colony known simply as the Dominion of Canada was formed. The old United Province of Canada was once again split into two pieces, Ontario for the English and Quebec for the French, which, along with New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, became the confederation’s first four provinces.

Growth of the New Dominion (1867-1905)

The last railroad spike

The President of the Canadian Pacific Railway Co. hammers in the symbolic "last spike" to complete MacDonald's giant cross-country railroad on November 7, 1885. This has been called the most famous photo in Canadian history.

Modern-day Canadians celebrate July 1st as the day Canada “became a country,” but the confederation deal of 1867 was not really understood that way at the time. While the new dominion government had gained a bunch of fresh responsibilities from Britain, Canada remained a colonial possession of the Empire, albeit an increasingly self-reliant one. London still retained a number of important powers, however, and it was up to the new confederation to prove they could be trusted with the ones they had been given.

Canada’s first prime minister was a hard-drinking Scot named John A. MacDonald (1815-1891), who had served as a high-profile conservative politician in the old legislature of the United Province. A man of enormous ambition and vision, MacDonald wanted an even bigger Canada than the one he was given, and eagerly set upon expanding the confederation’s borders in all directions. To achieve this, he built a giant trans-Canadian railroad from one end of the continent to the the other, aggressively promoted the migration and settlement of British pioneers into the largely unexplored west and north, and negotiated Canada’s merger with a number of other lingering British colonies in North America.

Death of Louis Riel

For a variety of complex reasons, Louis Riel soured on Canada shortly after leading his colony into Confederation, and in 1885 led his followers in armed uprising known as the North-West Rebellion. Easily quelled by Canadian authorities, Riel was arrested and executed for treason, though the validity of his complaints have made this one of Canadian history's more controversial episodes.

In 1870, the provisional government of the western British territory of Manitoba, led by the charismatic Louis Riel (1844-1885), agreed to become Canada’s fifth province. They were followed by the Pacific coast colony of British Columbia in 1871, who threw their lot in with Canada after receiving MacDonald’s assurance that his railroad would reach that far. Two years later, the tiny Atlantic island colony of Prince Edward Island became province number seven. They had cockily refused to join the Dominion in 1867, but by 1873 they were so heavily in debt they had little choice.

By now, the fur trade had all but declined, and in 1868 the once-mighty Hudson’s Bay Company agreed to surrender the lands under its control to MacDonald, and the new acquisition, which more than doubled Canada’s size, was christened the Canadian North-West Territory in 1870. By 1905, settlement to the NWT had increased to the point where its previously vacant southwestern regions could be carved into provinces eight and nine: Alberta and Saskatchewan. Canada now stretched unbroken from sea to sea to sea.

When Canada’s new prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919) declared in 1900 that the “20th century will belong to Canada!” many people believed him. Why wouldn’t they?

Continue to 20th century history…

Quick Facts:

  • Britain's North American colonies grew significantly in size and wealth during the 19th century.
  • A mix of political unrest and armed rebellions led to the establishment of parliamentary democracy in the colonies.
  • In 1867, three of Britain's North American colonies merged to form "Canada," triggering the birth of the modern country.
  • Canada's first prime ministers were able to expand Canada's borders by absorbing other parts of North America.