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The American Response to the Canadian Rebellions of 1837–38

By December 1837 and January 1838, rebels from Upper and Lower Canada had suffered heavy defeats at the hands of British and Loyalist forces. (See: Rebellion in Lower Canada; Rebellion in Upper Canada.) They fled to the United States to seek financial and military assistance. The American public was aware that there had been armed conflicts in the Canadas. Many were even initially supportive. However, the presence of Canadian rebels on American soil forced many to question American involvement. The growing tensions with Great Britain over the Caroline Affair complicated matters. The creation of the Republic of Texas and the fight over the abolition of slavery were also factors. In January 1838, US President Martin Van Buren took steps to ensure America’s neutrality in the Canadian rebellions.

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Statute of Westminster, 1931

The Statute of Westminster is a British law that was passed on 11 December 1931. It was Canada’s all-but-final achievement of independence from Britain. It enacted recommendations from the Balfour Report of 1926, which had declared that Britain and its Dominions were constitutionally “equal in status.” The Statute of Westminster gave Canada and the other Commonwealth Dominions legislative equality with Britain. They now had full legal freedom except in areas of their choosing. The Statute also clarified the powers of Canada’s Parliament and those of the other Dominions. (See also Editorial: The Statute of Westminster, Canada’s Declaration of Independence.)

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Rebellions of 1837–38

In 1837 and 1838, insurgents in Upper and Lower Canada led rebellions against the Crown and the political status quo. The revolt in Lower Canada was more serious and violent than the rebellion in Upper Canada. However, both events inspired the pivotal Durham Report. It led to the Act of Union, which merged the two colonies into the Province of Canada. It also resulted in the introduction of responsible government. These were critical events on the road to Canadian nationhood.

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Quebec Act, 1774

The Quebec Act received royal assent on 22 June 1774. It revoked the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had aimed to assimilate the French-Canadian population under English rule. The Quebec Act was put into effect on 1 May 1775. It was passed to gain the loyalty of the French-speaking majority of the Province of Quebec. Based on recommendations from Governors James Murray and Guy Carleton, the Act guaranteed the freedom of worship and restored French property rights. However, the Act had dire consequences for Britain’s North American empire. Considered one of the five “Intolerable Acts” by the Thirteen American Colonies, the Quebec Act was one of the direct causes of the American Revolutionary War (1775–83). It was followed by the Constitutional Act in 1791.

This is the full-length entry about the Quebec Act of 1774. For a plain language summary, please see The Quebec Act, 1774 (Plain-Language Summary).

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Persons Case

The Persons Case (officially Edwards v. A.G. of Canada) was a constitutional ruling that established the right of women to be appointed to the Senate.

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Quebec Resolutions

The Quebec Resolutions are a list of 72 policy directives that formed the basis of Canada’s Constitution. They emerged from the Charlottetown Conference (1–9 September 1864) and the Quebec Conference (10–27 October 1864). Those meetings were held by politicians from the five British North American colonies to work out the details of how they would unite into a single country. (See also: Confederation.) The Quebec Resolutions were finalized at the London Conference (4 December 1866 to March 1867). They formed the basis of the British North America Act — the first building block of Canada’s Constitution — which established the Dominion of Canada on 1 July 1867.

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Manifest Destiny

The term Manifest Destiny was first used in 1845 by New York City journalist John Louis O’Sullivan. He used the term in the context of America’s annexation of the Republic of Texas. Manifest Destiny represented the idea that it was America’s right — its destiny, in fact — to expand across all of North America. Politicians and citizens in the United States called for the US to expand by claiming control of British territory. This included the Province of Canada (formerly Upper Canada and Lower Canada), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.

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Distribution of Powers

Distribution of powers refers to the division of legislative powers and responsibilities between the federal and provincial governments. The areas of distribution were first outlined at the Quebec Conference in 1864 (see Quebec Resolutions) and are enshrined in the Constitution Act, 1867. They have been a source of debate and tension between the provinces and the federal government for generations. (See Federal-Provincial Relations.) However, this part of the Constitution has remained remarkably unchanged since Confederation.

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Constitution of Canada

The Constitution of Canada is the country’s governing legal framework. It defines the powers of the executive branches of government and of the legislatures at both the federaland provincial levels. Canada’s Constitution is not one document; it is a complex mix of statutes, orders, British and Canadian court decisions, and generally accepted practices known as constitutional conventions. In the words of the Supreme Court of Canada, “Constitutional convention plus constitutional law equal the total constitution of the country.” The Constitution provides Canada with the legal structure for a stable, democratic government.

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Durham Report

In 1838, the British politician Lord Durham was sent to British North America to investigate the causes of the rebellions of 1837–38 in the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. Durham's famous Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839) led to a series of reforms and changes. These included uniting the two Canadas into a single colony, the Province of Canada, in 1841. (See also: Act of Union.) The report also paved the way for responsible government. This was a critical step in the development of Canadian democracy. The report played an important role in the evolution of Canada’s political independence from Britain.

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Charlottetown Conference

The Charlottetown Conference set Confederation in motion. It was held from 1–9 September 1864 in Charlottetown, with additional meetings the following week in Halifax, Saint John and Fredericton. The conference was organized by delegates from New BrunswickNova Scotia and Prince Edward Island to discuss the union of their three provinces. They were persuaded by a contingent from the Province of Canada, who were not originally on the guest list, to work toward the union of all the British North American colonies. The Charlottetown Conference was followed by the Quebec Conference (10–27 October 1864) and the London Conference (December 1866–March 1867). They culminated in Confederation on 1 July 1867.

Editorial

The Fraser River Gold Rush and the Founding of British Columbia

The year 1858 is the single most important year in British Columbia’s history. It was on 2 August of that year that an imperial act established the mainland colony of BC under the authority of Governor James Douglas. Beginning that spring, the Fraser River Gold Rush unleashed a chain of events that culminated a dozen years later in British Columbia joining the new Canadian Confederation (see British Columbia and Confederation). Without 1858, it is very possible there would have been no British Columbia, but rather an American state. Without 1858, Canada today might not extend from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

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Province of Canada (1841-67)

In 1841, Britain united the colonies of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada. This was in response to the violent rebellions of 1837–38. The Durham Report (1839) recommended the guidelines to create the new colony with the Act of Union. The Province of Canada was made up of Canada West (formerly Upper Canada) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada). The two regions were governed jointly until the Province was dissolved to make way for Confederation in 1867. Canada West then became Ontario and Canada East became Quebec. The Province of Canada was a 26-year experiment in anglophone-francophone political cooperation. During this time, responsible government came to British North America and expanded trade and commerce brought wealth to the region. Leaders such as Sir John A. Macdonald, Sir George-Étienne Cartier and George Brown emerged and Confederation was born.

(This is the full-length entry about the Province of Canada. For a plain language summary, please see Province of Canada (Plain Language Summary).)

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The Great Coalition of 1864

The politics of the Province of Canada in the early 1860s were marked by instability and deadlock. The Great Coalition of 1864 proved to be a turning point in Canadian history. It proved remarkably successful in breaking the logjam of central Canadian politics and in helping to create a new country. The coalition united Reformers and Conservatives in the cause of constitutional reform. It paved the way for the Charlottetown Conference and Confederation.  

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Peace, Order and Good Government

“Peace, order and good government” is a phrase that is used in section 91 of the British North America Act of 1867 (now called the Constitution Act, 1867). It offers a vague and broad definition of the Canadian Parliament’s lawmaking authority over provincial matters. Since Confederation, it has caused tensions between federal and provincial governments over the distribution of powers. The phrase has also taken on a value of its own with Canadians beyond its constitutional purpose. It has come to be seen as the Canadian counterpart to the American “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” and the French “liberty, equality, fraternity.”

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Responsible Government

Responsible government refers to a government that is responsible to the people. In Canada, responsible government is an executive or Cabinet that depends on the support of an elected assembly, rather than a monarch or their representatives. A responsible government first appeared in Canada in the 1830s. It became an important part of Confederation. It is the method by which Canada achieved independence from Britain without revolution.

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Patriation of the Constitution

In 1982, Canada fully broke from its colonial past and “patriated” its Constitution. It transferred the country’s highest law, the British North America Act (which was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867), from the authority of the British Parliament to Canada’s federal and provincial legislatures. The Constitution was also updated with a new amending formula and a Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These changes occurred after a fierce, 18-month political and legal struggle that dominated headlines and the agendas of every government in the country.

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Confederation's Opponents

Opposition to Confederation has existed since a union of British North Americancolonies was first proposed in the late 1840s. In the eastern parts of the country, opponents generally feared that Confederation would strip power from the provincesand hand it to the federal government; or that it would lead to higher taxes and military conscription. Many of these opponents ultimately gave up and even served in the Canadian government. In the West, Indigenous peoples in the Red River Colonywere never asked if they wanted to join Confederation. Fearing for their culture and land rights under Canadian control, they mounted a five-month insurgency against the government. Many Quebec nationalistshave long sought to separate from Confederation, either through the extreme measures of the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ), or through referenda in 1980 and 1995.

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Constitutional History of Canada

The Constitution of Canada is the country’s governing legal framework. It defines the powers of the executive branches of government and of the legislatures at both the federaland provincial levels. Canada’s Constitution is not one legal document. It is a complex mix of statutes, orders, British and Canadian court decisions, and generally accepted practices known as constitutional conventions. The Constitution has been in constant evolution from colonial times to the present day. The story of the Constitution is the story of Canada itself. It reflects the shifting legal, social and politicalpressures facing Canadians, as well as their choices as a society.