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McVICAR, KATE – Volume XI (1881-1890)

d. 18 June 1886 at Hamilton, Canada West


Responsible Government

Sir John A. Macdonald

From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

Sir Wilfrid Laurier

Sir George-Étienne Cartier


The Fenians

Women in the DCB/DBC

The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

The Acadians

For Educators

The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The Idea of Responsible Government in Lower and Upper Canada before 1839
Original title:  Historical Maps of Toronto: 1834 Alpheus Todd Engraved Plan of the City of Toronto

Source: Link


The principle of responsible government was established in Great Britain in the second quarter of the 19th century, but the idea of individual and subsequently collective, ministerial responsibility emerged as early as the 17th century and evolved over the course of the following century. In British North America the concept took shape in Whig political thought. Canadian historians, such as the biographer of lawyer, politician, journalist, and judge Pierre-Stanislas BÉDARD, have at times neglected this context and therefore exaggerated the contribution of early exponents of the idea in Lower and Upper Canada, Bédard among them:

“Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, whose name is closely linked with the birth of political parties in Lower Canada and of Quebec nationalism, was the first person in the British empire to formulate in a coherent manner the theory of ministerial responsibility.”

Similar importance has been attributed to the thought and initiatives of William Warren BALDWIN (father of Robert) who was, among other things, a doctor, lawyer, and politician:

“William’s outstanding contribution to Canadian and imperial history is assumed by many historians to have been the idea of responsible government. Others have stressed his role in the transition from the idea of ministerial responsibility (that is, the legal responsibility of the king’s ministers to the legislature enforced by impeachment) to the idea of responsible government (which meant the political responsibility of individual ministers or the cabinet to the elected house), a change which supposedly took place in the thinking of Canadian reformers between 1822 and 1828.”

The possibility of using the procedure of impeachment (public indictment) motivated the early demand for individual ministerial responsibility [see Robert NICHOL]. Yet fear of breaking the connection with the British empire was one of the sources of later opposition to the form of responsible government as advocated by the Baldwins, father and son. The Methodist minister, author, and editor Egerton RYERSON rejected their views:

“To him, the ‘responsible government’ of Robert Baldwin* was but a first step to independence. Its logic was to destroy the mixed constitution by eliminating the independent prerogative of the crown, the most palpable link between colony and parent state.”

For further information about the idea of responsible government and debates about its meaning before 1839, please consult the biographies in the following lists.

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