The Constitution Act of 1791 set up the
system of government of the British North American colonies: a governor appointed by
the Crown and responsible to
Britain; an appointed council whose
role was to confirm laws; an elected assembly whose role was to pass
laws and especially to vote taxes (this assembly could be dissolved by the governor). This
was consistent with the social organization of Britain at the
time: crown, aristocracy, commoners. The Canadian history from the
1790s to the 1840s was characterized by the emergence of the
democratic principle and government by local people.
In Lower Canada the system worked at first.
Most elected representatives were English merchants and
conservative French seigneurs who supported the British
crown. Little by little, however, the Assembly
passed under the control of the French-speaking middle class,
while the appointed council was controlled by the English. The
ethnic division was worsened by divergent economic
interests (merchants/seigneurs versus small farmers). The
English merchants, unable to push their programs in the
assembly, because of the French majority there, concentrated on
the appointed council and governor. The Assembly was controlled
by the French upper middle class, mainly lawyers, doctors, who
were rivals of the old elite of seigneurs and merchants. A new
view emerged in the Assembly, who wanted a government fully
responsible to the people (the French Canadian people). This led
to many conflicts between the legislative assembly and
council/governor and the Assembly was dissolved many times. In
the early 1830s, a new political movement called the "Patriotes"
emerged in the Assembly under the leadership of Louis Papineau.
In November 1837, after yet another dissolution of the Assembly,
the Patriotes rebelled. The rebellion was broken by British
troops, 70 Patriotes were killed, the leaders deported. The
Assembly was suspended until 1841.
In Upper Canada, there no ethnic divisions but
other problems existed. The American loyalists and the new American immigrants
who came later were used
to more self-government. There was also the problem of the established church of
England, which did not exist in the old American colonies and
benefited from land reserves. In addition, the Crown attempted to create an aristocracy
on the British model through huge grants of lands to a few
selected aristocrats. Little by
little, the appointed council passed under the control of aristocratic
conservatives, supporters of the established church, called the
Family Compact, while the elected Assembly was controlled by the
Reform Party, made up of recent
immigrants from the US, used to democracy and opposed to
established churches, who wanted the land to be redistributed.
This caused frequent conflicts in the 1820s and 1830s. The Reform leader,
William Lyon Mackenzie, was expelled several times from the
Assembly. In fall 1837, Mackenzie and 1,000 partisans influenced by
rebellion in Lower Canada, marched on York (the future Toronto).
The demonstration was quickly dispelled, Mackenzie escaped to the US where he
was greeted as a hero, and the