British North America 1763-91

In 1763 Britain acquired the province of Quebec from the defeated French, where over 50,000 French-speaking and Roman Catholic inhabitants, the ‘Canadiens’, greatly outnumbered the British Protestant settlers.

Quebec Act

The British Parliament established a government for this potentially volatile settlement by the Quebec Act of 1774, which extended the territory of Quebec to the west, accepted the inhabitants' practice of Catholicism and provided that a royal governor and his appointed council would rule the colony without an elected assembly.

American colonists thought the Quebec Act was part of the British government's plot to destroy their liberties by creating a large French-style absolutist government which could act as a base of attack.

Loyalists

The ‘Canadiens’ did not join their American neighbours in the Revolution of 1776-83, and Quebec - having lost much of its territory in 1783 - and the neighbouring colony of Nova Scotia, became the destination of perhaps as many as 50,000 American loyalists who had sided with Britain during the Revolution.

In 1784 the separate colony of New Brunswick was created for the loyalists out of western Nova Scotia.

The immigration of these loyal British Protestant settlers meant that the Quebec Act, originally aimed at a French Catholic population, would have to be modified.

Constitutional Act

Parliament took control this time to prevent any future insurgencies and in 1791 it passed the Constitutional Act. This divided Quebec into Lower Canada on the St Lawrence River, the centre of the old French colony, and Upper Canada on the northern shores of the Great Lakes, where most of the British settled.

It provided for government by a governor-general, assisted by lieutenant-governors and appointed executive and legislative councils for each of the two Canadas. Elected legislative assemblies were set up for the two provinces, but the Act ensured that the governor-general had sufficient powers to prevent another American revolution.

The Constitutional Act was the British Parliament's first attempt to extend some self-government to a British settler colony, but the conflict between French and English settlers was not so easily resolved and was to continue to trouble Parliament's relations with British North America for many years to come.

Related information

Did you know?

Quebec was captured from the French in 1759 in a daring military campaign led by General James Wolfe, whose troops scaled the cliff leading to the Citadel of Quebec. Wolfe's death in the ensuing battle made him a British hero.