In the years 1837 and 1838, civil rebellion broke out in both Lower and Upper Canada. The cause of the trouble was essentially the same in both of these provinces, the same cause that has driven revolutions through the generations the world over: a breakdown between those who had the power and those who did not. It was the same problem that we saw occur in Nova Scotia, but the matter was resolved, in time, with intelligent political leadership. Except, of course, with the occasional ruckus at election time when private rancour and personal revenge caused a few heads to get bashed. It is necessary, to put things in perspective and as a background to the eventual union that became Canada, to look at these troubles in Lower and Upper Canada.
Those with the power -- landowners, administrators, churchmen and businessmen -- monopolized public offices in both Upper and Lower Canada. The oligarchy, except for the cultural differences, was essentially the same in both British territories, though in Upper Canada it was known as "The Family Compact." Those leading the charge in Upper Canada had their leader, William Lyon MacKenzie; those in Lower Canada were led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and Robert Nelson.1 By the fall of 1837, fighting broke out in both colonies. The insurrection in Upper Canada, led by MacKenzie, was quickly put down. In Lower Canada, while the trouble was more widespread and more difficult to put down, the troops did prevail.
We cannot pass on without implicating the United States in these troubles that were experienced in both Upper and Lower Canada. There were strong feelings running in the States, especially the provinces which bordered on these British colonies. Scarcely a town of importance on the American side of the border was without its particular fraternity of republican supporters. They were like masonic lodges, called Hunters' Lodges the members of which (Hunters' Boys) had rituals, processions, and passwords. Though they pretty much thought that all they had to do is cross the border and a large number of Canadians would join in and promote republicanism, the Hunters' Boys who did pull-off raids into Canadian territory, soon found out there was no great support for their political aims; they were defeated with little effort by British regulars who treated these Hunters as brigands and banditti.2
With two of Her Majesty's dominions in North America in a state of civil rebellion, there was sent out from England John George Lampton, the Earl of Durham. The young queen, Victoria, had complete confidence in him. With "full power and authority ... by all lawful ways and means, to inquire into, and, as far as may be possible, to adjust all questions ... respecting the Form and Administration of the Civil Government ..."3
Durham reached Canada in May of 1838 and sailed back to England in November of the same year.4 While in Canada, Durham held the position of "Governor-General of the British North American Colonies."5
The Report, as described by Archibald MacMechan, consists of four parts. The first part dealt with the most pressing problem, the political storm that existed in Lower Canada6; the second, with Upper Canada7; the third with the Maritime Provinces and Newfoundland; the fourth set out an outline of the curative process suggested. Durham's principal recommendation was that there should be a federal union making the French province into a British province, so to find its place within the Empire. Many of the problems of the past would disappear, if, the Executive is made responsible to the elected assembly.8 Further, in order to bring the scattered provinces closer together, an inter-colonial railway should be built.
As to the third part Durham addressed, the Maritime Provinces, we might briefly state that in these provinces there were no such discontents as existed in Upper and Lower Canada "as to threaten the disturbance of the public tranquility."9 While there were political issues and hotly contested elections, there were no armed rebellions. "In Nova Scotia ... a struggle for responsible government was in progress, but with striking differences." Nova Scotia had Joe Howe and his "achievement must be compared with the failure of Mackenzie [William Lyon] and Papineau [Louis-Joseph]."10
George Macaulay Trevelyan:
"Durham's bold advice was to unite the two provinces in one, and to set up a single elective Assembly with full power over the executive, which would thus be in the hands of the English-speaking majority. This plan was carried out in the Canada Act of 1840. The French protested, but submitted. The new Canadian constitution functioned, with the help of Lord Elgin's shrewed and liberal guidance, until the next great crisis of Canadian history in 1867."11