Reform Movement in Upper Canada

After the War of 1812, Upper Canada began to develop rapidly. This resulted in social and economic tensions and political issues. These included the expulsion of Robert Gourlay, the Alien Question, the Anglican monopoly of the Clergy Reserves and education, and Tory control of patronage.

Robert Baldwin
Baldwin was the first popularizer of responsible government and one of the first proponents of a bicultural nation.

A group that called itself the Reform movement ran against the ruling Family Compact. The Reformers included William and Robert BaldwinBarnabas and Marshall Bidwell, William Lyon Mackenzie, John Rolph and Egerton Ryerson. By 1828, the Reformers held a majority in the assembly. However, their reforms were blocked by the Tory-controlled councils.

In the early 1830s, the Reform movement split. The moderates were led by Robert Baldwin. They were committed to the British constitution, the British empire and a stable, hierarchical society. They wanted to limit the power of the ruling elite by introducing responsible government.

Radical reformers, on the other hand, wanted the colony to adopt republican principles. Men such as Charles Duncombe and John Arthur Roebuck wanted to create a social and economic democracy like the one in the United States. They also called for greater colonial independence. Mackenzie led a third, more extreme faction of radicals. They called for violent revolution to achieve these aims.

William Lyon Mackenzie
The fiery and principled Scot was the catalyst for the turbulent politics of the 1830s in Upper Canada.
Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-1993

In 1836, Robert Baldwin entered the executive council. Lieutenant Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, however, refused to accept responsible government. The administration resigned and the moderates were squeezed out of the political process. Mackenzie’s group was devastated in the next election. They became more revolutionary and were crushed in the rebellion of 1837–38. (See also: Rebellion in Upper Canada.) The moderates, led by Robert Baldwin and Sir Francis Hincks, re-emerged as a political force in the Province of Canada. The radicals who did not take part in the rebellion faded from view.


Further Reading

  • R.W. Langstone, Responsible Government in Canada (1931).
  • J.M.S. CarelessThe Union of the Canadas (1967).
  • J.M.S. Careless, ed., The Pre-Confederation Premiers (1980).
  • William Killbourn, The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada (2008).
  • Colin Read and Ronald J. Stagg, The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada (1985).
  • M.S. Cross and R.L. Fraser, “’The Waste that Lies Before Me’: The Public and the Private Worlds of Robert Baldwin,” Historical Papers (1983).