Canada – Representative Institutions, 1791-1814

THE time had now come for Canada to emerge from her pupilage and receive from the British Crown the con-cession of representative institutions for which she was prepared.

By the Constitutional Act of 1791 Canada was divided into the two provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. Lower Canada, the province of Quebec, had a population at this time of something like 140,000, of whom the vast majority were of French origin.

Upper Canada, with a population of perhaps 25,000, was preponderatingly British and mostly of Empire Loyalist stock. British criminal law was to run in both Canadas, but French Civil Procedure was conceded to Lower Canada.

Lord Dorchester, who as General Carleton had been notably successful in governing Canada, was installed as first Governor-General. In 1792 the first Assembly of Lower Canada met in the Bishops’ Palace at Quebec, and of Upper Canada in the Navy Hall, Newark. Lower Canada was divided into twenty-one electoral districts, and Upper Canada into twenty-one provinces. Of the two houses that of Upper Canada was perhaps the more romantically interesting. The peoples’ representatives were scattered over a huge area of uncultivated country, and had laboriously to find their way to Parliament by the river, lake and forest track.

Lieutenant-Governor Simcoe, of Upper Canada, proved an able administrator, and devoted his energies to developing the resources of the province to the utmost. Largely owing to his influence a goodly number of immigrants from the United States were attracted, who were, on the whole, good settlers, though they included in their ranks a certain number of ” undesirables ” who later were to become a source of trouble. Other immigrants of an undeniably useful stock were a number of Scottish Highlanders, who founded and settled the county of Glengarry.

It was during this régime that the capital of the province was altered from Newark to Toronto (then called York) on account of the proximity of the former place to the American border.

As time went on these representative institutions developed parties and much heat of party spirit. That of Lower Canada was the most restless and intolerant, because in Quebec the racial line was very sharply marked, and the French majority chafed constantly at their impotence in face of the official minority. They demanded the right of imposing their own taxes and customs duties ; they resented—with reason—the official attitude towards the French ; and the frequent interference of the Imperial Government in local concerns was a constant source of irritation.

The Assembly of Upper Canada was in the nature of things more homogeneous and less antagonistic to the official class. In the course of a few years the effect of the United States immigration made itself felt in the presence of a somewhat antagonistic element, whilst in the maritime provinces there was some sparring between Governor and Assembly.

There were in the situation the elements of considerable political trouble, when danger on the border claimed the attention of the whole of Canada, and by setting up a keen anxiety provided that tonic influence of a national danger which the country needed to save it from internal dissension.

In 1812 Great Britain was engaged in her great fight with Napoleon. British warships, supreme upon the seas, were ranging to and fro engaged in commerce destruction. In this business many neutral American vessels were condemned because their cargoes were not made up of home-grown produce, but had been brought from an enemy’s colony. Furthermore, Britain claimed—and exercised—the right to stop American vessels in high seas and impress for the Navy any British subject found on board, even though he might have been naturalised in the United States. Later came the order that forbade American trade with any country hostile to Great Britain.

All this caused great loss and intense irritation in the United States, an irritation fanned to flame by the Democratic party. In the south and west the Democrats had the people with them ; in New England the peace party was in the majority. War was declared by the United States in June, 1812, and though the objectionable shipping orders had by this time been repealed by England, still the momentum gained by the war party carried the United States army over the border on July 12th into British territory.

Ontario, then Upper Canada, with its small population of approximately 80,000, had to bear the full brunt of the war. Its defensive resources were small, but the rally of its men was magnificent. The material was of the finest ; frontiersmen and pioneers all, with a stiffening of veterans, who responded eagerly to the call to arms. Many had seen service, all were eager to repel an attack upon their homes. The legislature seconded the efforts of the settlers by voting supplies, and army bills were issued to a large amount.

For the first year of the war Canada was almost uniformly successful. Several small engagements were followed by the surrender of Detroit, where the Canadians took 2,500 prisoners, 33 cannon, and 2,500 stands of arms, which together with large quantities of stores, were a very valuable addition to the Canadian war-chest. In October the American troops crossed the Niagara river to attack Queenstown ;; but after a furious engage-ment they were beaten off with a loss of nearly 200 killed and wounded and 900 prisoners.

In 1813 the Americans took York (now Toronto) and for a time occupied the Canadian shore of the lake. In 1814 the British army was reinforced with Peninsular veterans, who were a most valuable support for the Canadian volunteers. Other attacks of Americans were repulsed, though the Canadians were driven from Fort Erie. Then, in June, occurred the famous battle of Lundy’s Lane, when 2,800 British repulsed 5,000 Americans. In the following month a British force under Major-General Ross defeated a far superior force, with the result that Washington was captured and burned in retaliation for the burning of York and other towns. Roused by the wanton destruction at Washington the American army advanced in overwhelming force, before which the British retreated. An attempt upon Baltimore failed, and the British were defeated at New Orleans with great loss.

At sea there was nothing worthy of record. In the early part of the war, the American Navy won several small successes ; but the lesson was taken to heart, and the British Government sent out a more powerful force, till in 1813 and 1814 English squadrons invaded the American coast, the smaller vessels ascending the rivers and doing great damage. During the last year of the war practically the whole coast was blockaded, with the exception of the New England ports which were open to neutral vessels.

When peace was declared by the Treaty of Ghent, on December 24th, 1814, both sides were heartily tired of war, though indeed it is doubtful if the sober heads on either side had ever desired it. Born of intolerance, nursed by southern and western politicians, war and its results were quickly forgotten. No definite result was arrived at in the Treaty except that the British claim to the right of search was practically abandoned, and certain privileges in the British North American coast granted to American fishermen by the Treaty of 1783 were withdrawn.

The one useful result of the war was to draw together in a common bond of sympathy all parties in Canada. British and French Canadians shared in the honours and disasters ; racial differences were forgotten, and it was only with the conclusion of peace that politics once more regained their ascendency and racial antagonism reappeared.