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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

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The War of 1812 

Canada’s Wartime Prime Ministers

The First World War

The British Connection

The movement towards responsible government in the Province of Canada initially caused consternation for conservatives such as John A. MACDONALD. To George-Étienne CARTIER, who would become Macdonald’s long-time political partner, the union of Upper and Lower Canada and the possibility of responsible government offered hope that Lower Canadians could pursue their goals through the political system rather than armed resistance [see Return to Politics: The Reformist Route]. Macdonald had a different perspective:

“[In] his early years in the Legislative Assembly Macdonald proved to be a genuine conservative, opposing responsible government, the secularization of the clergy reserves, the abolition of primogeniture, and extensions to the franchise, because such measures were un-British and could weaken the British connection or the authority of the governor and also the necessary propertied element within government and society.”

Between 1848 and 1854 Macdonald adjusted to the idea of responsible government, and lost his fear that it would damage Canada’s attachment to Britain, saying in November 1854, “You must yield to the times.”

And the times offered new possibilities. Thomas D’Arcy McGEE, Reformer turned Conservative, put forward the following argument in 1863:

“British America and the United States ... both enjoyed a freedom native to their continent and unknown in Europe. Americans had developed their freedom into a republican system of government, and, although it was a magnificent experiment, it had many shortcomings. British Americans, on the other hand, had not separated from Britain and had developed their institutions along different lines. By retaining a system of constitutional monarchy, they had achieved a better balance between their natural freedom and the need for authority. Their society was more orderly and more free. ‘To the American citizen who boasts of greater liberty in the States, I say that a man can state his private, social, political and religious opinions with more freedom here than in New York or New England. There is, besides, far more liberty and toleration enjoyed by minorities in Canada than in the United States.’”

The Quebec resolutions of 1864 envisioned strengthening the central government by building on Britain’s own governance of North America [see The Constitutional Project: The Quebec Resolutions]. During deliberations in Quebec City, Cartier explained his position:

“At the session of February and March 1865, the Quebec resolutions, containing the details of the plan for federalism, were discussed and approved. Cartier defended them in a long speech on 7 Feb. 1865, first quoting certain texts at length, to prove that the French Canadians had preserved their institutions, their language, and their religion by their adhesion to the British crown, and that furthermore, by not responding to invitations from Washington at the time of the revolution, they had made it possible for British power to continue in America. He concluded: ‘These historical facts teach us that French-Canadians and English-speaking Canadians should have for each other a mutual sympathy, having both reason to congratulate themselves that Canada is still a British colony.’ ‘If we unite,’ he added, ‘we will form a political nationality independent of the national origin and religion of individuals.’ He was opposed to the ‘democratic system which prevails in the United States,’ proclaiming that ‘in this country we must have a distinct form of government in which the monarchical spirit will be found.’”

Macdonald believed that the British connection was essential for Canada’s political and economic well-being and independence from the United States. But his attitude was nuanced:

“Macdonald’s famous remark in his electoral address on the 7th of [February 1891], ‘I am a British subject and British born, and a British subject I hope to die,’ has to be read more as an expression of Canadian nationalism than as any lofty imperial sentiment. Indeed as early as 1884 he was looking to the day when Britain (now a rather ‘shaky old Mother,’ as he saw her) would be taken care of by her growing children.”

For more information on Macdonald and his beliefs about the relationship between British North America (and later Canada) and the British empire, consult the following biographies.

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