PDF Version | Word
Version | Rich Text Format |
Representative and responsible government are the foundations of
our democratic system today. Representative
government had been won in Upper and Lower Canada and the Maritime
provinces by 1791. The next battle, for responsible government,
was fought and won over the next 57 years.
The Struggle for Responsible Government
The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council
Common Law and Civil Law
The Written and Unwritten Constitution
Responsible government, in general terms, refers to a system in
which the government is responsible to the electorate. In Canadian
terms, however, it has a specific context and meaning. The term
gained popularity in Upper Canada early in the 19th century and
came to mean a government responsible to the elected representatives
of the House of
Under responsible government, members of the Cabinet
are collectively responsible to the elected House (today, the House
of Commons). If they lose the confidence of the House, it is
an important unwritten constitutional convention
that the government resign or call an election to win a new mandate.
The principles of responsible government are fundamental to the
functioning of our constitution. As used in Canada, the term refers
to a government responsible to the elected representatives of the
This has its roots in British government, but was not the practice
in Canada until after 1840s.
According to the principles of responsible government, the
powers of the governor general are limited - a fundamental concept
which exists nowhere in any legal document.
Responsible government is based on the notion that the executive
is accountable to the House of Commons.
Those who exercise executive power must obtain the support
of the House for the use of that power.
For responsible government to be achieved, certain rules must be
1. Title to executive power rests with the Crown.
2. The Crown will only appoint Ministers who as members have the
confidence of the House.
3. The Crown will only act on the advice of its ministers.
4. Ministers will act as a team or ministry.
5. If the ministry loses the confidence of the House it must resign
or seek new elections.
These conventions severely constrain the legal powers of the Crown
to the point where the Crown's power is exercised, almost exclusively,
on the advice of its ministers.
Even today members of the Cabinet
need not be - and usually are not - all members
of the House of Commons. For example, the house
leader of the Senate
is usually in the Cabinet. In theory, none of
the members of the Cabinet need be members of
the House of Commons: they only need to have its
The Struggle for Responsible Government
The Status Quo
Before responsible government was granted, the Legislative
Council of each of the British North American colonies was appointed
and reported to the governor. The elected assemblies had little
or no say in who was appointed.
In Upper Canada a ruling elite formed that was called the Family
Compact by its critics. A similar group was called the Château
Clique in Lower Canada. These groups ensured that important
positions went to members of the same social, political and economic
circles. Because they benefited from the status quo, they resisted
As the colonies matured, many people - and especially those in the
houses of assembly - became increasingly frustrated. Some sought
radical changes that would lead to a republican government as in
the United States. Louis-Joseph Papineau was not quite so radical:
he sought change through constitutional means, and drew up a list
of demands called the Ninety-Two Resolutions. These were rejected
by the colonial authorities, which contributed to his views becoming
more extreme and his leadership in the rebellions
of 1837 and 1838.
Others, notably reformers
such as William
Warren Baldwin, his son Robert
Baldwin, and Louis
LaFontaine, sought moderate changes that followed the British
model and that would make the councils responsible to the elected
Rebellion and Lord Durham's Report
The rebellions of 1837 and 1838 were fought in part because of the
frustration caused by the resistance of the ruling elites to change.
The British government dispatched Lord
Durham to investigate and report on the 1837 rebellions. The
report which he produced made four main recommendations:
A union of Upper and Lower Canada.
Responsible government, dominated by the English inhabitants
of the Canadas.
Colonial control of internal affairs (but in a very limited
- Assimilation of the French-speaking population.
A Constitutional Difficulty Prevents
A constitutional difficulty, however, stood in the way of change:
what was a colonial governor to do when he received conflicting
advice from his superiors in the Britain and his subjects in the
colonies? The solution some suggested was to retain a few important
matters - including external relations and constitutional change
- in the hands of the British, and for all the rest require the
colonial governors to take their advice from an executive that was
responsible to - and that had the confidence of - the elected assembly.
The British colonial authorities were not ready to do this, however,
and so the Union
Act, 1840, did nothing to advance responsible government.
Responsible Government Won
In 1846 a change in government in Britain appointed a more reform-minded
governor to British North America: Lord
Grey, the new secretary of state for war and the colonies, made
it clear to Elgin that Britain had no interest in exercising any
more influence in the colonies than was necessary to prevent one
colony from injuring another or the empire as a whole.
The First Cabinet Governments
Nova Scotia was the first to take advantage of this new policy.
In 1847, the government was defeated and a new one, led by Joseph
Howe, formed in February 1848. In Canada, reformers Robert Baldwin
and Louis LaFontaine formed a new council in March, 1848.
Responsible Cabinet Government Tested
The first serious test of the new system came in 1849. The Rebellion
Losses Bill sought to compensate those in what had been Lower
Canada for damages that resulted from the rebellions. It was controversial
because the Tories objected that many of the claimants were former
rebels. Lord Elgin opposed it personally, but passed it on the advice
of his cabinet. French Canadians were pleased, but British elements
of the population were so outraged that they attacked Elgin and
burned down the parliament building (which was in Montreal at the
Responsible government was again tested, and proven, in 1859, when
a proposed protectionist duty
passed in Canada threatened British commercial interests. It was
allowed to pass.
Malcolmson, Patrick N. and Myers, Richard M. The Canadian regime.
Canada: Broadview Press, 1996.
Memorial University of Newfoundland and the C.R.B. Foundation.
Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage. St. John's: Memorial University
of Newfoundland, 1999. (Online: <http://www.heritage.nf.ca/home.html>,
accessed November 8, 2002).
National Library of Canada. Canadian Confederation. Ottawa,
Government of Canada, 2001.
accessed November 8, 2002).
Privy Council Office. The History of Canada's Constitutional
Development. Ottawa: Government of Canada, 2001. (Online: <http://www.pco-bcp.gc.ca/aia/default.asp?Language=
November 8, 2002).