Responsible Government - Canada

Canada

In the history of Canada, responsible government was a major element of the programme of development towards independence. The concept of responsible government is associated in Canada more with self-government than with parliamentary accountability; hence the notion that Newfoundland "gave up responsible government" when it withdrew its dominion status in 1933.

In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the British government was sensitive to unrest in its remaining colonies with large populations of British colonists. After the Lower Canada Rebellion led by Louis-Joseph Papineau in 1837, and the Upper Canada Rebellion led by William Lyon Mackenzie, Lord Durham was appointed governor general of British North America and had the task of examining the issues and determining how to defuse tensions. In his report, one of his recommendations was that colonies which were developed enough should be granted "responsible government". This term specifically meant the policy that British-appointed governors should bow to the will of elected colonial assemblies.

The first instance of responsible government in the British Empire was achieved by the colony of Nova Scotia in January–February 1848 through the efforts of Joseph Howe. The plaque in the Nova Scotia House of Assembly erected by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada reads:

First Responsible Government in the British Empire.
The first Executive Council chosen exclusively from the party having a majority in the representative branch of a colonial legislature was formed in Nova Scotia on 2 February 1848. Following a vote of want of confidence in the preceding Council, James Boyle Uniacke, who had moved the resolution, became Attorney General and leader of the Government. Joseph Howe, the long-time campaigner for this "Peaceable Revolution", became Provincial Secretary. Other members of the Council were Hugh Bell, Wm. F. Desbarres, Lawrence O.C. Doyle, Herbert Huntingdon, James McNab, Michael Tobin, and George R. Young.

The colony of New Brunswick soon followed on May 1848 when Lieutenant Governor Edmund Walker Head brought in a more balanced representation of Members of the Legislative Assembly to the Executive Council and ceded more powers to that body.

In the Province of Canada, responsible government was put to the test in 1849, when Reformers in the legislature passed the Rebellion Losses Bill. This was a law that provided compensation to French-Canadians who suffered losses during the Rebellions of 1837-1838 in Lower-Canada. The Governor General, Lord Elgin, had serious misgivings about the bill but nonetheless assented to it despite demands from the Tories that he refuse to do so. Elgin was physically assaulted by an English-speaking mob for this, and the Montreal Parliament building was burned to the ground in the ensuing riots. Nonetheless, the Rebellion Losses Bill helped entrench responsible government into Canadian politics.

In time, the granting of responsible government became the first step on the road to complete independence. Canada gradually gained greater and greater autonomy over a considerable period of time through inter imperial and commonwealth diplomacy, including 1867's British North America Act, 1931's Statute of Westminster, and even as late as the patriation of the British North America Act in 1982 (see Constitution of Canada).

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