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17th - 18th century
Path to independence
Emergence of Canada
     British North America
     Northwest Canada
     Rival companies
     British Columbia
     Rebellion and reform
     Conference and Dominion

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British North America: from1783

Under the terms agreed in Paris in 1783, the regions historically settled by the French now become the only remaining part of the British empire in America.

The territory along the St Lawrence, from Nova Scotia in the east to the Great Lakes, has been won by Britain from France at various stages during the 18th century. Known previously as New France, the official name for this region now becomes British North America - even though the population is predominantly French. However a more neutral name, Canada, also comes into informal use during the 18th century.


The first major immigration of British people into Canada occurs as a result of the American Revolution. The Loyalists, who have taken Britain's side in the war, have no future in the newly independent United States. In the years up to 1783 about 40,000 flee north into Canada. The majority (among them 1000 freed slaves) go to Nova Scotia, where there has been a British presence for several decades. About 10,000 choose the province of Quebec.

From 1784 Britain reorganizes her remaining north American colonies on a more practical basis. Because of the sudden influx of Loyalists, Nova Scotia is divided into three separate colonies by the formation of New Brunswick and Cape Breton (the latter is reunited with Nova Scotia in 1820).


More significant are the changes brought about by the Canadian Constitutional Act of 1791. This divides the province of Quebec into two halves - Upper Canada (equivalent to modern Ontario) and Lower Canada (modern Quebec). These two provinces are at the same time given a new constitution, with power shared between the governor (representing the crown), an appointed legislative council and an elected legislative assembly.

Lower Canada is the province with by far the highest proportion of French inhabitants. It soon becomes, and remains, the centre of French political aspirations within British North America.


Northwest Canada:1789-1793

The four years from 1789 bring much new knowledge about northwest Canada, particularly from two great journeys carried out by a Scottish fur trader, Alexander Mackenzie. By the 18th century Canada has already been well explored, mainly by fur traders, to some considerable distance west of the Great Lakes and Hudson Bay. Mackenzie has been living for some years at the extremity of the known region, with his base at the Indian trading post of Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca.

A great river flows northwest out of Lake Athabasca. In early June 1789 Mackenzie sets off with a small party in birch-bark canoes to discover where it leads.


A week brings them to the Great Slave Lake, which they find covered in ice too solid for their canoes but too fragile to walk on. They carry the canoes round its edge until they come to a river (now the Mackenzie) emerging from its western extremity. They follow this to its outlet, at Mackenzie Bay, into the Beaufort Sea - a part of the Arctic Ocean beyond the as yet undiscovered northwest passage. Mackenzie and his party are back in Fort Chipewyan in mid-September, having canoed about 3000 miles in not much more than three months.

With an unsated appetite for adventure, Mackenzie sets off again from Fort Chipewyan in 1792 on an even more ambitious undertaking - to reach the Pacific.


There has as yet been no recorded crossing of the continent north of Mexico, and it is unlikely that any unknown American Indian was ever tempted by the task which Mackenzie undertakes in July 1792. From Fort Chipewyan he travels along and between a succession of rivers, and then through the Canadian Rockies, to reach the coast at the mouth of the Bella Coola river in June 1793.

Mackenzie is unaware of it, but another explorer is in the region at exactly this same moment. Mackenzie reaches the sea about 100 miles north of Vancouver Island, named after George Vancouver who is spending two years surveying the coast from California to Alaska. In 1792 he becomes the first captain to sail round Vancouver Island.


Vancouver has begun his career as an able seaman on Captain Cook's second voyage (1772-5) and has graduated to midshipman for the third voyage (1776-80). Now, leaving Britain in 1791 in command of his own expedition to the Pacific, he takes pride in applying Cook's high standards of surveying and cartography. Indeed on occasion there is a humorous delight in upstaging the master. On the chart for Dusky Bay in New Zealand where Cook, lacking time to investigate, has written 'Nobody knows what', Vancouver now fills in the coastline and the words 'Somebody knows what'.

Thanks to Mackenzie and Vancouver, by 1793 somebody knows a great deal more than before about northwest Canada. The next question is who will develop and govern the region.


North West and Hudson's Bay companies: 1783-1821

Alexander Mackenzie, whose explorations open up northwest Canada, is an employee of the North West Company. This is an enterprise founded in 1783 by traders in Montreal to develop the French fur trade, the profits of which can now accrue in British hands after France's loss of her American empire.

For more than a century the Hudson's Bay Company, trading furs from northern Canada by the sea route from Hudson's Bay, has competed with French traders sending their furs to Europe through Montreal and down the St Lawrence river. Now this same competition continues, often with considerable violence, between two British enterprises.


Of the two the North West Company is the more vigorous, opening up the western territories after Mackenzie's initiative. It derives a considerable advantage during the 1812 war between Britain and America, of which one casualty is the American trading post of Astoria at the mouth of the Columbia river.

Astoria is the creation of John Jacob Astor, son of a butcher from Waldorf in Germany, who has arrived in America as a 20-year-old immigrant in 1783. Specializing in the fur trade between the Great Lakes and the Pacific, he soon makes the first of many Astor fortunes. In 1811 he establishes Astoria so as to extend his trade across the Pacific to China.


Astor's timing is for once unfortunate. British blockades in the war of 1812 make Astoria useless to his American Fur Company, but by the same token of considerable interest to the North West Company. Astor sells them his new trading post in 1813.

This gives the North West Company's members (known as the Nor'Westers) a virtual monopoly of the rich fur trade in the western half of British America. The problem is that their line of communication with the Atlantic ports is now overstretched, as well as seeming to be threatened by a new initiative of their Hudson's Bay rivals in 1811.


In this year the Hudson's Bay Company brings in Scottish immigrants to establish an agricultural colony on the Red River in the region of modern Winnipeg. The site is close to Fort Gibraltar, built in 1804 by the North West Company to protect their trade route east to Montreal.

Employees of the North West Company attack the Red River Settlement in 1816, killing its governor and nineteen of his men. The Hudson's Bay Company retaliates by seizing and destroying Fort Gibraltar (which they subsequently rebuild as Fort Garry). This unseemly war between two British companies leads eventually to a merger, imposed by the government in 1821.


Hudson's Bay Company and British Columbia: .1821-49

The Nor'Westers predominate in the merged group, but it continues to trade under the more venerable of the two names as the Hudson's Bay Company. The company now has administrative responsibility for an enormous region, stretching from the western boundary of Ontario (Upper Canada in the language of the time) to the Pacific.

The southern border of much of this British territory has recently been established in the peace-making process after the war of 1812 (during which American troops burn the parliament buildings in Toronto). A virtual ban on warships in the Great Lakes, agreed in 1817, is the first sign that both sides are ready to compromise.


This first precautionary peace-keeping measure is followed a year later, in 1818, by the agreement which has held good ever since - that the frontier between the two nations will run west from Lake of the Woods along the 49th parallel.

At this stage the border is drawn only as far as the Rockies. The region west of the continental divide (as yet virtually unsettled at this latitude by Europeans) is regarded for the moment as shared territory between the two nations. In 1846 it is ceded to the USA by Britain, recognizing as a fait accompli the human reality of the Oregon Trail. Since then the frontier has continued along the 49th parallel all the way to the Pacific coast.


With American pressure building up in Oregon, the British government takes steps to ensure that the line is indeed held at the frontier agreed in 1846. The valuable Vancouver Island, offshore but nicked at its southern end by the 49th parallel, is given in 1849 the protective status of a British crown colony.

A gold rush to the Fraser river in 1858, mainly by prospectors from America, underlines the importance of the entire region between the Rockies and the coast. This area too is proclaimed a colony, as British Columbia (united from 1866 with Vancouver Island). The Hudson's Bay Company territory now stretches only from Hudson's Bay to the Rockies. But it is still a very large region.


Rebellion and reform: 1837-1864

The circumstances of French and then of British North America have meant that war and trade have demanded more of men's attention than politics. But in the 1830s political change is in the air in all the nations with which Canada is most closely connected. In Britain the Reform Bill is passed. In France a revolution has brought to the throne a Citizen King. In the USA Andrew Jackson is seen as the representative of a new and more popular form of democracy.

In this atmosphere it becomes painfully evident to the citizens of Toronto and Montreal that they are enduring an old-fashioned colonial status more stifling even than the kind rejected by Britain's American colonies in 1776.


It is true that there are elected legislative assemblies in Toronto and Montreal for Upper and Lower Canada, but they have no executive power. This is wielded in each province by a governor, an executive council and a legislative council, all of whom are appointed by the crown in London (and in the case of the councils the appointment is for life).

Moreover the councillors favoured in London seem far from representative in Canada. They are almost exclusively Anglican, whereas many of the British in Upper Canada are nonconformist. And they are almost exclusively English, even though almost all the inhabitants of Lower Canada are French.


These circumstances, combined with the effects of economic recession in America in 1837, result in a minor rebellion in December in Upper Canada and a much more serious one at the same time - led by Louis Papineau and his Patriots - in Lower Canada. The latter is rapidly and harshly suppressed by British troops, but it sends a sufficiently strong signal for the government in London to react.

A new governor-general, the earl of Durham, is appointed in 1838. His name immediately suggests reform, for he is son-in-law to Earl Grey and was closely associated with him in pushing the Reform Bill through parliament.


In his Report on the Affairs of British North America, ready for publication in 1839, Durham makes two proposals which are acted upon during the 1840s. The first, resulting from his perception that Canada's main problem is racial antagonism, is that British Upper Canada and French Lower Canada should be merged as a single Province of Canada with equal representation in a joint asssembly. The second is that an executive council shall be responsible, like the cabinet in Britain, to the elected assembly.

The first proposal is put into immediate effect, in 1840. The second has to wait until 1848. Both apply only to the two most populous provinces (and the only two known at this stage as Canada), but others soon follow the same route.


However, over the next two decades, the arrangement made for the united Province of Canada comes to seem increasingly unworkable. The reason is that there are far more British than French immigrants to Canada, and they naturally go to the British region (now known as West Canada within the united province). By the early 1860s the population of West Canada is seriously under-represented in the joint assembly, leading to much political unrest.

One clear option is for the British and French provinces of Canada to separate again. But this naturally raises the often discussed question of a federal union of some kind. It is the subject of a conference planned for the autumn of 1864.


Quebec Conference and Dominion of Canada: 1864-67

The Atlantic provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have been considering a union of their own. Arranging a conference to discuss it, at Charlottetown in Prince Edward Island in September 1864, they invite representatives from the province of Canada. When these representatives propose the broader plan of a federal union of all the provinces of British North America, there is immediate interest. The conference is transferred in October to Quebec.

A scheme of federal union is decided upon without much difficulty. But when it is put to the various assemblies during 1865, only the province of Canada accepts it.


The British government, reacting with enthusiasm to a practical solution for a familiar colonial problem, exerts pressure on New Brunswick and Nova Scotia to join the scheme. So when the British North America Act is passed at Westminster, in 1867, four former colonies (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the province of Canada now separated again into Ontario and Quebec) unite to form a new Canadian state - which formally comes into existence on 1 July 1867, with Ottawa as the capital city.

Since Queen Victoria is still to be head of state, the new nation is in effect a kingdom linked to the British crown. The Canadian suggestion is that it should be known as the 'kingdom of Canada'.


Parliament in Westminster, aware of American republican sensibilities, rejects this proposal and calls the new state the Dominion of Canada.

Thus 'dominion status', a device later used to give independence to other British colonies, comes into existence.


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