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The settler colonies: Canada

Responsible Government

The North American colonies were the subject of the British Parliament's first attempt to devolve what is known as responsible government to one of its settler colonies.

This was the system that had developed in the Westminster Parliament itself, where the ruling government is made up of ministers drawn from the elected legislature, to which they are responsible for their actions and policies.

Durham Report

French Canadian opposition to the system of government established by the Constitutional Act of 1791 spilled over into rebellion in the French heartland of Lower Canada in 1837. As a result the new governor-general, Lord Durham, recommended that Upper and Lower Canada be merged into a new single province with responsible government.

Parliament's Act of Union of 1840 united the two provinces into Canada, with a single legislature and the then governor-general, the Earl of Elgin (1847-54) oversaw the introduction of responsible government.

The British Parliament agreed that a responsible colonial government had the right to make laws for its own territory when in 1849 it refused to intervene to challenge the Rebellion Losses Act. This was a controversial measure passed by the Canadian provincial government which had led to rioting among the British inhabitants.


In March 1867 Parliament passed the British North America Act which was originally drafted by colonial politicians themselves. It created a new state - Canada - by uniting the provinces of Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. The new federation was made up of four provinces: Ontario (formerly Upper Canada), Quebec (formerly Lower Canada), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. 

It established a federal structure dividing authority and responsibilities between provincial governments and legislatures, and the new federal government and Parliament in Ottawa. All were under the ultimate sovereignty of the British monarch in the person of the governor-general.

The subsequent British North America Acts of 1871 and 1886 provided for the creation of other new provinces formed from the vast North American continent.

Dominion of Canada

In a few short years Manitoba (1870), British Columbia (1871), Prince Edward's Island (1873), Saskatchewan and Alberta (both 1905) all joined the Dominion of Canada, as it was called after 1907. Newfoundland remained a separate dominion until it joined the federation in 1949.

Did you know?

Did you know?

Most of what is now northern and western Canada was once claimed by the Hudson's Bay Company, a British trading enterprise chartered in 1670. Parliament passed an Act in 1868 by which transferred these territories to the Canadian Confederation.