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A History of the Vote in Canada

Chapter 1
British North America

In the colonies that would later form Canada, the vote was a privilege reserved for a limited segment of the population – mainly affluent men. Eligibility was based on property ownership: to be eligible, an individual had to own property or assets of a specified value or pay a certain amount in taxes or rent.

The law also prohibited some religious, ethnic and other groups from voting. Women were also excluded by and large, though by convention rather than statute. In short, only a fraction of the population could vote. Since then, the situation has improved markedly, and in the following pages we provide a brief history of its evolution.

Evolution of the right to vote was neither consistent nor ordered. The right to vote was not extended gradually and steadily to encompass new categories of citizens; rather, it evolved haphazardly, with the franchise expanding and contracting numerous times and each colony proceeding at a different pace. For example, the degree of wealth needed for eligibility changed several times, with the result that people who had been entitled to vote suddenly found themselves deprived of that right, only to have it returned sometime later. Similarly, laws were adopted from time to time that withdrew the right to vote from groups that had previously enjoyed it.

Illustration depicting a meeting of the first elected Council in 1658

First Elected Council Meets, 1658

Charles Walter Simpson used gouache, watercolour and oil to depict the Conseil de Québec, established in 1657. Four of its six members – one each from Trois-Rivières and Montréal, two from Québec – were elected by the small number of New France residents who qualified as habitants – perhaps 100 of the 2,000 residents. The council had limited powers and did not survive the establishment of royal government in 1663.

Moreover, there was often quite a discrepancy between legal provisions and reality. Having the right to vote did not – and does not now – guarantee that an elector could exercise that right. Early in Canada's history, voting conditions set out in the law opened the door to a host of fraudulent schemes that, in practical terms, restricted the voting rights of a significant portion of the electorate at various times. For example:

How many voters, living far from their riding's only polling station, relinquished their right to vote rather than travel long distances in often harsh conditions? We will never know. Oral voting made it easier for votes to be bought; it also opened the door to intimidation and blackmail, since bribers could easily tell whether the voters whose votes they had bought voted as instructed. Worse yet, the practice of closing polling stations when an hour had passed without any voters appearing led to numerous acts of violence. To win an election, an unscrupulous candidate could simply hire a gang of bullies to allow his supporters to vote, then bar the way to the polling station for an hour.

Photo showing police on guard during the election of 1860 in Montreal

Election Security, 1860

With electors casting their votes orally, intimidation and bullying were not uncommon. Dealing with election violence (which claimed at least 20 lives before Confederation) often required the services of the army or police, as in this scene near the Montréal courthouse in February 1860, captured by photographer William Notman.

Such tactics, coupled with the fact that most candidates supplied unlimited free alcohol to voters during an election, resulted in riots that claimed at least 20 victims before 1867: three in Montréal in 1832; nine in the Province of Canada in 1841; one in Northumberland County, New Brunswick, in 1843; one in Montréal in 1844; three in Belfast, Prince Edward Island, in 1847; two in Québec in 1858; and one in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1866.

Finally, in addition to voters killed while trying to exercise the right to vote, how many were injured? History does not say, but the following description of a brawl that broke out at a Montréal polling station in 1820 leaves no doubt that voting could often be a risky business:

Passions ran so high that a terrible fight broke out. Punches and every other offensive and defensive tactic were employed. In the blink of an eye table legs were turned into swords and the rest into shields. The combatants unceremoniously went for each other's nose, hair and other handy parts, pulling at them mercilessly ... The faces of many and the bodies of nearly all attested to the doggedness of the fighting.

Hamelin and Hamelin, 47–48, translation

Rather than expose themselves to such dangers, some voters, at least occasionally, no doubt relinquished the right to vote. As Canadian electoral law was amended to limit fraudulent practices and outbursts of violence, therefore, it ensured that a growing proportion of the population could exercise the right to vote.

Legislative Assemblies and Responsible Government

Canadian parliamentary institutions began to take shape in the latter half of the eighteenth century. Though this book discusses elections following European colonization, we cannot ignore the fact that Canada's Aboriginal peoples had developed their own systems of government long before the creation of parliamentary institutions in Canada. A well-known example is the Six Nations Confederacy, sometimes referred to as the oldest living participatory democracy on earth.Footnote 1 (Fenton, 68–73)

The first legislative assembly was elected in Nova Scotia in 1758; Prince Edward Island followed suit in 1773, New Brunswick in 1785, then Lower Canada (Quebec) and Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1792. Executive authority still eluded these assemblies, however, remaining in the hands of executive council members appointed by colonial governors, who were in no way accountable to elected members or to the electorate. The consent of an assembly was required for a bill to become law, but bills originating in the assembly could be vetoed by Crown-appointed legislative councillors, and assemblies had no control over executive councillors.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, then, recognition of the principle of responsible government – not extension of the franchise – sparked reform efforts in the colonies of British North America. Politicians known as Reformers endeavoured, first and foremost, to achieve responsible government, with ministers chosen by the majority in the house of assembly (and forced to resign if they lost the confidence of that majority) and accountable to it.

Image of a portion of the front page of the resolutions of Nova Scotia’s appointed Assembly in 1757

Struggle for Elected Assembly, 1757

When Nova Scotia Governor Charles Lawrence ignored his appointed assembly's advice (contained in resolutions reproduced above), four of its members published a pamphlet, which they sent to colonial authorities along with a letter of protest. London ordered Lawrence to hold an election, and the first elected assembly in what is now Canada met in Halifax on October 2, 1758.

In 1836, Joseph Howe, known as the voice of Nova Scotia, expressed succinctly the objective of the Reformers of his time: "[A]ll we ask for is what exists at home – a system of responsibility to the people." (DCB X, 364) In other words, Reformers demanded that governors not be able to do in the colonies what the king himself could not do in England: choose ministers.

Colonial governors' opposition to such a change was backed up in London by successive secretaries of state for the colonies, whose attitude was summed up in a remark by Lord Bathurst, who apparently told a new governor on the eve of his departure for North America, "Joy be with you, and let us hear as little of you as possible." (DCB VIII, xxiv) This directive seems to have been followed scrupulously, for until 1828, the colonial office had only a vague idea of the discontent brewing for years in some colonies, particularly Upper and Lower Canada, where rebellions broke out less than 10 years later.

London's response – the 1838 appointment of Lord Durham as governor general, with a mandate to investigate the causes of unrest – did not produce immediate change. Durham recognized that the main source of problems for colonial governments lay in the fact that their executive councils were not responsible to the legislatures. He therefore recommended responsible government for each colony.

Fearing the loss of its authority, the British government rejected Durham's recommendations, apparently on the ground that colonial governors would essentially become independent sovereigns if they began to act on the advice of a council of ministers.

London's inaction soon led to legislative impasse, as Reformers gradually gained control of colonial assemblies and refused to ratify legislation proposed by governors and their councils. The impasse was eventually resolved after Sir George Grey was appointed secretary of state for the colonies in 1846 and promised to grant responsible government to the largest North American colonies at the first opportunity.

The following year, Reformers won the Nova Scotia election; in February 1848 they took office, inaugurating the first responsible government in a British colony. Joseph Howe remarked that this victory had been won without "a blow being struck or a pane of glass broken," (DCB X, 365) forgetting the role of rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada a decade earlier. A month later, in March 1848, it was the turn of Reformers in the Province of Canada to bring in their responsible government. Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick did likewise in April 1851 and October 1854 respectively.

Among the chief architects of this fundamental change in the shape of Canadian parliamentary institutions were the following Reformers: Joseph Howe and James Boyle Uniacke of Nova Scotia; Charles Fisher and Lemuel Allan Wilmot of New Brunswick; George Coles of Prince Edward Island; Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, Augustin-Norbert Morin and Louis-Joseph Papineau of Lower Canada; and William Warren Baldwin and his son Robert, Sir Francis Hincks and William Lyon Mackenzie of Upper Canada. Thanks to them and other Reformers, Canadians acquired the right not only to elect assembly members but to choose their governments.

The England of George III

While allowing its colonies to have legislative assemblies, London was also deciding, through governors and their councillors, who would have the right to vote. The legislative assemblies of the Maritime colonies gained partial control in this area between 1784 and 1801, while Upper and Lower Canada did not do so until after their union in 1840. It was 1847, however, before London gave colonial assemblies the right to set their own rules on naturalization of immigrants, thereby giving them full authority to determine who had the right to vote. Thereafter, each colony had the authority to confer the status of British subject, but this status was valid only on its own territory; granted by London, such status was valid throughout the empire.

Initially, the rules governing the right to vote in the colonies of British North America tended to be modelled on those of the mother country. In the England of George III – the second half of the eighteenth century – several categories of individuals were denied the right to vote. First, the right to vote was based on property ownership: to be eligible to vote, an individual had to own a freehold (land free of all duties and rents), and this freehold had to generate a minimum annual revenue of 40 shillings, or £2 sterling; this immediately excluded a large segment of the population.

Of the other groups denied the vote, women undoubtedly represented the greatest number. There was no decree or law prohibiting them from voting; rather, they had not voted for centuries by virtue of a tacit convention of English common law. They did not acquire the right to vote in Canada until 1918. (Some women associated with the war effort gained the vote in 1917. For a full discussion of women and the vote, see Chapter 2.)

Nor could Catholics and Jacobites vote. Mostly Scottish and Irish Catholics, the Jacobites were supporters of James II, who had tried in vain to restore Catholicism in England in the late seventeenth century. Shortly after, in 1701, in an attempt to strengthen Protestantism, the English authorities devised three oaths of state designed to exclude Catholics and Jacobites from public office. The first oath was one of allegiance to the king of England; the second, known as the oath of supremacy, denounced Catholicism and papal authority; and the last, the oath of renunciation, repudiated all rights of James II and his descendants to the English throne. Not only was swearing these oaths necessary to hold public office, but electors could be required to swear them before voting.

What is more, the law forbade Catholics to practise their religion, to acquire property through purchase or inheritance, to sit in Parliament and to vote. The prohibition on owning property was removed in 1778, and a 1791 law allowed open practice of their religion again, but they would not be given the right to vote until 1829. Jews also experienced exclusion, though indirectly. They were not explicitly denied the vote, but they refused to take the oaths of state, because they were to be taken "in the name of the Christian faith."

Image of election results in the first by-election held in Nova Scotia, in 1759

First By-election, 1759

Governor Lawrence of Nova Scotia issued a writ, dated January 10, 1759, commanding a by-election. The seats of two members, John Anderson and Benjamin Gerrish, had been declared vacant. The colony, which included present-day New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island, consisted of a single constituency. Men over 21 who owned freehold land were eligible to vote. Here, the chief election official at Halifax reports the results to the governor, writing them on the back of the original writ.

Immigrants and other new arrivals who were not British subjects and had not been in the colonies long enough to become naturalized citizens were the other sizable group unable to vote. Once again, no law or decree prohibited them from voting; rather, common law prevented them from doing so and from owning property directly or through a lease or farm tenancy. In 1844, a law was passed, allowing them to hold property through a lease or farm tenancy, and in 1870, a second law allowed them to purchase landed property directly; but both laws also stipulated that they did not have the right to vote, even if they met the legal qualifications. Since 1740, however, immigrants had been able to become British subjects and thereby gain the right to vote if they met three conditions: they had lived in England for seven years, they had taken the three oaths of state and they had received communion according to the rite of a reformed church (which was, in practice, the Church of England). These conditions prevented Catholic immigrants, as well as immigrants belonging to certain Protestant sects, such as Baptists and Methodists, from becoming British subjects.

Candidate Wins Seat, Then Loses It

Forced to flee his Polish homeland after opposing Russian rule in the 1831 rebellion, Alexandre-Édouard Kierzkowski (1816–1870) reached Canada in 1842, becoming a naturalized British subject in 1847. Kierzkowski, right, was elected to the Province of Canada's legislative council on September 15, 1858, but opponents claimed that his property value was insufficient to qualify him for office. After a three-year investigation, a legislative committee declared the election void (not unusual in tumultuous nineteenth-century politics). His challenger at the ensuing by-election (proclamation, below) was Louis Lacoste (1798–1878), a political activist in Lower Canada. Lacoste defeated Kierzkowski, 2,042 votes to 2,013.

Image of the proclamation of the by-election of 1861 in the Montarville electoral division Image of a letter to police officers and process servers appointed to serve in the matter of the election challenge in the electoral division of Montarville
Photo of Alexandre-Édouard Kierzkowski

On the whole, these restrictions were applied only partially and erratically in the North American colonies because of the different socio-economic conditions prevailing there. The criteria also varied from colony to colony, with the result that those that formed Canada initially – Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia – joined Confederation with appreciably different electoral laws. The nature and evolution of these laws are the main focus of this chapter.

Nova Scotia: Cradle of Canadian Parliamentary Government

In 1713, under the Treaty of Utrecht, France ceded Nova Scotia to England but kept Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) and Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island). The following year, a small British garrison was established at Port-Royal, Nova Scotia, now renamed Annapolis Royal. The 2,000 Catholic, French-speaking Acadians living in the colony at the time agreed to swear an oath of allegiance containing a clause exempting them from bearing arms in the event of conflict with France. In the decades to come, despite every effort to attract them, very few colonists from New England settled in Nova Scotia, while the number of Acadians multiplied at a rapid rate. In the circumstances, the English authorities considered it imprudent to let the colony have a legislative assembly.

Nova Scotia
1758 First elected assembly. Eligible to vote: Protestants age 21 or older who own a freehold of any value.
1783 Assembly gains statutory control of representation and the franchise.
1789 Assembly removes religious restrictions on eligibility to vote.
1848 First responsible government in British North America inaugurated.
1851 Right to vote separated from land ownership, extending the franchise to men over 21 who have paid taxes in the year preceding an election; number of electors increases by 30 percent.
1854 Universal male suffrage adopted (though it does not include Aboriginal people or people receiving financial assistance from government); number of electors increases by 50 percent. Nova Scotia is first colony in North America to adopt male suffrage and the only one to do so before Confederation.
1863 Restrictive rules reintroduced – property ownership again a criterion for eligibility.
1867 Rules in place at Confederation: to vote in a federal election held in Nova Scotia, electors have to be male, age 21 or older, and own property of a specified value.

Following the War of the Austrian Succession (1744–1748), London finally decided to try to change the population makeup in Nova Scotia by encouraging emigration by non-English Protestants from Europe, mainly victims of religious wars there. Recruited mostly from Germany, but also from the Netherlands and Switzerland, about 2,600 such immigrants accompanied Colonel Edward Cornwallis, governor of Nova Scotia and founder of Halifax, when he sailed to Nova Scotia in 1749. That same year, Governor Cornwallis was given full authority to establish an elected assembly when he deemed it appropriate, but he delayed doing so indefinitely, as the colony was home to three to four times as many Acadians as Protestants.

Image of a notice by Moses Hart, the first Jewish candidate, in 1796, soliciting elector support

First Jewish Candidate, 1796

Moses Hart issued this announcement, asking for voters' support, but later withdrew his candidacy. Hart's younger brother, Ezekiel, elected in 1807, was prevented from taking his seat by the oath of office, which included the phrase "upon the true faith of a Christian." Jews were also excluded from voting by the oath designed to bar Catholics. Ezekiel's son Aaron was instrumental in having the oath changed in the 1830s.

In 1754, war broke out again between England and France. This time, the British demanded that the Acadians, who had previously remained neutral, take up arms. They refused. The British reaction was to deport them. In 1755, as their homes were burned down, about 7,000 Acadians were herded onto ships and dispersed among the Thirteen Colonies of New England and the West Indies; between 2,000 and 3,000 more met the same fate in the years that followed.

That same year, colonists from New England, particularly Massachusetts, began to settle on the land confiscated from the Acadians, while other immigrants arrived from the British Isles. Thus, on the eve of the American Revolution, Nova Scotia had about 20,000 inhabitants, nearly half of whom had come from New England, the rest being Acadians who had returned from exile or escaped deportation, or Irish, Scottish and English settlers.

The American Revolution changed the composition of Nova Scotia's population considerably. Following the Treaty of Versailles (1783), which recognized the United States, Loyalists – people living in the United States who had remained loyal to the English Crown – fled north by the tens of thousands. An estimated 35,000 settled in Nova Scotia, more than doubling its population. This massive influx led to socio-political tensions that would last for years, but it also prompted the establishment of new Maritime colonies in 1784: New Brunswick and Cape Breton.

When the governor of Nova Scotia called the 1758 election, which would lead to the formation of the first legislative assembly in Canadian history, the population was still quite small and made up of fairly recent arrivals. The conditions for eligibility to vote, therefore, had to be more liberal than in England to yield a sufficient number of voters. With the support of his councillors, the governor declared that any Protestant age 21 or older who owned a freehold of any value could vote. In addition, however, prospective voters could be asked to swear the three oaths of state; this ensured that no Catholics would try to vote and disqualified Jews at the same time. As for women, their status was the same as that of English women. In 1759, however, the governor and his council decided to restrict the vote to freeholders owning property generating an annual revenue of 40 shillings, as in England.

1755 map of the eastern part of New France

New France, 1755

The eastern part of New France, mapped in 1755 by Jacques-Nicolas Bellin, map-maker and engineer to the King in the employ of the French navy. The map is an etching on paper, embellished with ink and watercolour.

The arrival of the Loyalists prompted a change in conditions of eligibility. In 1789, the legislative assembly rewrote the rules of the game. Freeholders still had to meet the criteria established in 1759, but the right to vote was extended to anyone who owned a dwelling with his land, regardless of its value; to anyone who owned at least 100 acres of land, whether farmed or not; and to anyone who occupied Crown land by virtue of an occupancy permit. Finally, the legislative assembly abolished religious discrimination in the eligibility criteria, enabling Catholics and Jews to vote. These new measures favoured urban landowners, fishermen and Loyalists, a good many of whom had only an occupancy permit.

Compared to the rules prevailing in the England of George III, those established by the Nova Scotia assembly were quite liberal – perhaps even a little too liberal. In 1797, the assembly reconsidered and tightened the rules once again. In future, those occupying Crown land by virtue of an occupancy permit would no longer have the vote, nor would freeholders who had not formally registered their property at least six months before an election; owners of 100 acres of land or more would no longer have the vote unless they were farming at least five acres of it.

It was not until 1839 that the assembly changed the rules again. It upheld the right to vote of freeholders owning property generating an annual revenue of 40 shillings but withdrew it from owners of 100 acres of land and those who owned a dwelling with their land. However, property owners who met the same conditions as freeholders could now vote. In addition, mortgagors and co-owners were now eligible to vote, as were tenants, if they owned an interest in real property that earned them at least 40 shillings annually.

1855 photo of a group of Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, merchants

Universal Male Suffrage: Nova Scotia, 1854

If they were over 21 and had lived in the colony at least five years, these Yarmouth merchants (photographed by Wellington Chase in the spring of 1855) were eligible to vote under the 1854 electoral law. Property ownership entitled recent immigrants to vote as well. "Universal" male suffrage did not include "Indians," however, and it lasted only until 1863, when property ownership again became a requirement.

Twelve years later, in 1851, Nova Scotia took the significant step of detaching the right to vote from land ownership. The assembly declared that anyone age 21 or older who had paid taxes (in any amount) in the year preceding an election could vote. In ridings where taxes were not yet collected, only freeholders with property yielding 40 shillings a year could vote. The same law stipulated, however, that no woman could vote even if she met the legal requirements regarding taxes or property. The assembly added this clause because, during an election held in 1840, a candidate in Annapolis County had tried to get some 30 women who had the necessary qualifications to vote, common law notwithstanding.

In 1854, Nova Scotia became the first colony in British North America to adopt universal male suffrage – and it would be the only one to do so before Confederation. That year, the assembly adopted a law to the effect that British subjects age 21 or older who had lived in the colony at least five years could vote. It kept the rule allowing freeholders with property generating a minimum annual revenue of 40 shillings to vote; this enabled a number of immigrants of British origin to vote even though they had not lived in the colony for five years. Like the electoral law of 1851, the 1854 act contained a restrictive clause stating that "Indians"Footnote 2 and people receiving financial assistance from the government could not vote.

Further change, more conservative this time, came a decade later: the elimination of universal suffrage and a return to more restrictive rules. In 1863, Nova Scotia limited the right to vote to British subjects at least 21 years old who owned property assessed at $150 or more, or personal and real property assessed at $300 or more. The number of eligible British subjects was expected to increase, however, at least in theory, as immigrants now had to live in the colony for only a year to be declared British subjects.

Such were the rules that defined the Nova Scotia electorate in August and September of 1867, when the first Canadian federal election was held.

Prince Edward Island: A "Landless" Colony

In 1758, the British succeeded in taking possession of Île Saint-Jean, where it followed the same policy as had been pursued in Nova Scotia a few years earlier. Some 4,000 French and Acadian colonists were deported, but several hundred evaded capture by seeking refuge in the far corners of the island. In 1763, after the Treaty of Paris, the island was joined with Nova Scotia. Four years later, it was subdivided into 67 townships of about 20,000 acres each; these were distributed to individuals who had earned the gratitude of the British government for services rendered during the Seven Years' War. The lands were granted on certain conditions, one being that they be used for Protestant settlers, who were not to come from other British colonies. At the turn of the nineteenth century, some of these lands were joined, so that a few wealthy individuals, most living off the island, came to own vast expanses of land that they often refused to sell, preferring long-term leases to tenant farmers. By the middle of the century, not even a third of the farmers were freeholders, and it was not until 1895 that the government bought back the last estate from the remaining large landowner.

In 1769, the island was separated from Nova Scotia to form a distinct colony, and its first governor was instructed to establish an elected assembly when he deemed it appropriate. The population, almost exclusively Acadian, was still very small; the governor delayed. Between 1770 and 1773, about 800 Scottish settlers came to the island, increasing the population to more than 1,200, and it was at this point that the governor decided to exercise his prerogative. He restricted the vote to freeholders and planters, but there were practically none of these on the island; almost all the residents were tenants or squatters living on land belonging to absentee landlords. With the consent of his councillors, the governor gave the vote to all Protestants living on the island, imposing no further restrictions related to age, nationality or gender. It was understood, however, that the island would follow the prevailing electoral practice in England, where neither children nor women could vote. For the time being, however, only Catholics were explicitly denied the vote, although Jews were effectively excluded as well, as voters could be required to swear the three oaths.

The viva voce system was more in accordance with the institution of the empire to which we belonged and more congenial to the manly spirit of the British people; and he would not therefore consent to abandon it in favour of the underhand and sneaking system of a vote by ballot.

– C. A. Hagerman, Solicitor General
Kingston Chronicle
February 12, 1831

After the American Revolution, only a few hundred Loyalists joined the Acadians and colonists of British origin. However, a change that affected the electorate was made in 1787. Protestant residents of rural areas would continue to have the vote, but in Princetown, Georgetown and Charlottetown, only freeholders would be allowed to vote; this obviously excluded tenants.

In 1801, the island's legislative assembly gained control of the rules governing voting rights but did not change the criteria. It even reiterated the ban on voting by Catholics. Because of the growing number of Irish and Scottish arrivals, Catholics were beginning to outnumber Protestants, even though initially the colony had been intended to receive only Protestant immigrants. It was not until five years later, with a rapid rise in the number of immigrants from the Highlands of Scotland, many of whom were destitute, that the assembly decided to restrict the right to vote. In rural areas, Protestant residents remained eligible to vote if they owned a freehold yielding at least 20 shillings a year, leased land for 40 shillings a year, or occupied and maintained land and paid annual rent of at least £3. In Princetown, Georgetown and Charlottetown, freeholders retained their right to vote, while those who maintained and occupied property, regardless of its value, acquired the same right.

To prevent squatters, labourers and transients from voting, the assembly imposed further financial restrictions in 1830. In future, freeholders in rural areas would have to own property yielding annual revenue of at least 40 shillings, not 20, and individuals occupying and maintaining property would have to be paying an annual rent of £5 (up from £3). Unchanged was the requirement that tenant farmers or leaseholders be paying an annual rent of 40 shillings. Freeholders in Princetown, Georgetown and Charlottetown retained the right to vote, but individuals responsible for maintaining a property had to occupy a building commanding an annual rent of at least £10. In addition, owners of real property producing annual revenue of at least £10 would be eligible to vote.

Before agreeing to the new electoral law, London demanded the removal of all clauses restricting the right to vote to Protestants, thus giving Catholics the vote. Six years later, Prince Edward Island passed a law prohibiting women from voting. This decision was surprising, as there appears to be no evidence that women had sought to exercise this right.

Prince Edward Island
1773 First elected assembly. Eligible to vote: all Protestants on the island. There are no legislated restrictions, though convention dictates that women and children do not vote.
1785 Quakers enfranchised and allowed to stand for public office.
1801 Legislative assembly gains control of rules governing right to vote (but does not change them at this time).
1830 Restrictions on voting by non-Protestants removed.
1836 Law passed explicitly limiting the franchise to men.
1851 Responsible government achieved.
1853 The practical equivalent of universal male suffrage introduced.
1862 Elected legislative council secured.
1873 Prince Edward Island joins Confederation with the most liberal electoral law of all the former colonies (only British Columbia's franchise is broader), but significant numbers are still disenfranchised: women, men over age 60 who own no land and non-British arrivals who have lived on the island less than seven years.

Since the beginning of the nineteenth century, the assembly had been attempting to restrict the electorate by increasing the property requirements, mainly to bypass the Escheat party, which was calling for the lands of absentee owners to be confiscated and resold to those occupying and working the land. During the 1840s, Escheat supporters lost ground to the more moderate Reformers, who eventually achieved responsible government in 1851. Two years later, the assembly adopted a law authorizing the island government to purchase land from consenting landowners for resale in small parcels to their tenants.

Political tensions subsided, and in 1853, the assembly decided to broaden the electorate considerably. This time, the vote was extended to British subjects age 21 or over who had lived on the island at least 12 months before an election and who were subject to the statutory labour law.Footnote 3 As a result, all British subjects between the ages of 21 and 60 who had lived on the island for at least a year became eligible to vote. This was essentially the equivalent of universal male suffrage. In addition, the vote was granted to British subjects over age 21 who owned or had legal title to an urban freehold, or who owned rural or urban property producing annual revenues of at least 40 shillings. In other words, these landowners could vote more than once – in the electoral district where they lived (that is, where they were subject to the statutory labour law) and in the district where they owned property that met the eligibility requirements.

Moreover, like the other colonies of British North America, since 1847 Prince Edward Island had had the authority to enact regulations governing the naturalization of non-British settlers. Nearly all immigrants came from the British Isles and thus were already British subjects. It was not until 1863 that the assembly passed a law granting civil and political rights to non-British arrivals who had lived on the island for at least seven years.

Of the original colonies that formed Canada, Prince Edward Island had the most liberal electoral law when it joined Confederation in 1873, although a sizable fraction of its population was still prohibited from voting: women, anyone over 60 years of age who was not a landowner and immigrants who had been living on the island less than seven years.

Cape Breton: A Colony Without Voters

With the capitulation of the fortress of Louisbourg in July 1758, Île Royale came under the control of the British. Five years later, after the Treaty of Paris, London joined Cape Breton with the colony of Nova Scotia; now Nova Scotia's electoral laws applied to Cape Breton. To reserve the operation of the coal mines and fisheries for the Crown, authorities in England had decided to give residents of Cape Breton occupancy permits, not freeholds. Suddenly, no Cape Breton resident could vote, since only freeholders could vote in Nova Scotia.

Cape Breton
1763 Cape Breton is merged with Nova Scotia and becomes subject to its electoral law; no resident can vote, as no freeholds are permitted on Cape Breton, and only freeholders can vote in Nova Scotia.
1784 The colonies are separated again, but no legislative assembly is established.
1820 The colonies are rejoined; tenants on Crown land in Cape Breton gain the vote after 57 years without it.

By 1763, Cape Breton was still occupied by a handful of Acadians who had evaded deportation. Between then and the end of the American Revolution, however, immigrants from the British Isles, particularly Scotland, settled there. Then, in 1784, several hundred Loyalists arrived in Cape Breton, founding the city of Sydney. The same year, London separated Cape Breton from Nova Scotia, making it a separate colony with its own governor and executive council. No legislative assembly was established, apparently for two reasons. First, the population was deemed to be too poor to support such an institution. Second, the vast majority of Cape Breton's population was made up of Catholic, Gaelic-speaking Scottish settlers and Acadians, also Catholic, who spoke only French. To participate in the proceedings of a house of assembly under the British system of the time, an individual had to speak English and be a non-Catholic.

Cape Breton gradually became fairly prosperous. Early in the nineteenth century, residents began to demand a house of assembly, but London turned a deaf ear. In 1820, with the population of Cape Breton nearing 20,000, London decided to merge it with Nova Scotia again. The annexation occurred shortly after Nova Scotia's assembly had adjourned. As the laws of Nova Scotia did not yet apply to Cape Breton, the governor and his councillors decided who would have the vote in the newly annexed territory.

Giving the vote only to freeholders, as in the rest of Nova Scotia, would be tantamount to denying it to virtually the entire population of Cape Breton, as only a handful of speculators had been granted land under its system of tenure since 1784. Nearly all residents were therefore tenants or tenant farmers, leasing Crown land or land belonging to a land speculator. The governor and council finally decided to give the vote to tenants on Crown land, a decision that was subsequently ratified by the Nova Scotia assembly. Elsewhere in Nova Scotia, Crown land leaseholders would not obtain the right to vote until 1851, some 30 years later.

The people of Cape Breton were thus denied the right to vote for 57 years – from 1763 to 1820 – an unenviable record for a British North American colony.

New Brunswick: A Fragmented Colony

When the British took Louisbourg in 1758, several small Acadian communities lay scattered across the vast territory of New Brunswick. Some, situated along the southern shore of the Baie des Chaleurs, would become towns like Caraquet, Shippegan and Miscou. Others were situated at the mouths of rivers that emptied into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and still others on the north shore of the Bay of Fundy and in the Saint John Valley. As they had done elsewhere, the British conducted a deportation policy for several years, and, as elsewhere, many Acadians evaded deportation by fleeing to the bush, beyond the reach of English bayonets, particularly along the headwaters of the Saint John River.

New Brunswick
1785 First elected assembly in New Brunswick. Eligible to vote: white males over the age of 21 who have lived in the colony for at least three months and agree to take an oath of allegiance.
1786 Votes of Catholic Acadians disallowed in a disputed election.
1791 First electoral law adopted – one of the strictest in British North America; receives royal assent in 1795.
1810 Catholics and Jews gain the vote when oath requirement is lifted.
1848 Vote withdrawn from women.
1855 New electoral law extends the franchise to include tradesmen, professionals and senior clerks (in addition to landowners) but still excludes most labourers and workers (who make up some 21 percent of men over the age of 16 in 1861). Voting by secret ballot introduced.

In 1763, New Brunswick was merged with Nova Scotia, but the London authorities lost interest in the region. Over the years, several hundred Acadian families returned from exile, while only a few thousand British emigrants settled there, mainly in the Saint John Valley. By the end of the American Revolution, New Brunswick was still very sparsely populated.

The flood of Loyalists into Nova Scotia prompted profound change. The Loyalists dreamed of "a stable, rural society governed by an able tightly knit oligarchy of Loyalist gentry" (DCB V, 156), a dream that translated into a profound distrust of the innovative and democratic spirit of the Americans. Nova Scotia's existing population was largely of American origin and took a dim view of the massive influx of Loyalists. In 1784, to ease the political tensions caused by their arrival, London separated the territory of New Brunswick from Nova Scotia to accommodate Loyalist settlement. Between 15,000 and 20,000 Loyalists settled in New Brunswick and were later joined by immigrants of Scottish, Irish and English origin.

Until the mid-nineteenth century and even beyond, colonization of New Brunswick bore little resemblance to that of its sister colonies, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The colony consisted of a series of separate communities that had very little contact with each other, with the result that settlers in each isolated region were generally unaware of conditions elsewhere but vigorously supported any measure intended to meet their own needs. As a result, businessmen and politicians from the various regions represented conflicting interests and proposed divergent solutions. In this situation, the electorate tends to play a less significant role than when there are political parties promoting a platform or advocating specific measures affecting the population as a whole.

Illustration of a shipyard in 1830

Saint John, 1865

A record dating from 1865 shows the existence of some 20 shipyards in Saint John, New Brunswick, employing 1,267 men at an average wage of $1 a day. As shipbuilding is a seasonal occupation, these workers would have had an annual income of scarcely more than $250 or $300. To be eligible to vote in New Brunswick in 1865, individuals had to earn a minimum of $400 annually.

When New Brunswick obtained its status as a colony in 1784, the first governor was given the usual orders: to govern with the advice of his executive council until circumstances favoured establishment of a legislative assembly. In the fall of 1785, the circumstances were favourable. The number of freeholders was extremely small, so the governor gave the right to vote to any white male age 21 or over who had lived in the colony at least three months and who agreed to take the oath of allegiance. But these liberal criteria disappeared in a flash when, the day after the first election, the losing candidate in Westmorland County complained to the legislative assembly that he had been defeated by the Acadian vote. In January 1786, the assembly resolved that voting by Roman Catholics had been illegal, being contrary to the laws of England. The assembly then unseated the winning candidate and seated his opponent. In this way, the votes of Acadians were invalidated.

Five years later, the assembly adopted New Brunswick's first electoral law. It also reiterated its January 1786 resolution denying Catholics the vote, enabling sheriffs, who oversaw the elections, to discount the votes of anyone who refused to take the three oaths of state. Once again, Jews found themselves excluded by the same provisions that disenfranchised Catholics.

The requirements of the electoral law were among the strictest of any in the British North American colonies. To be eligible to vote in a given constituency, an individual had to be 21 or older and own property in the riding free of any duties or rents and assessed at £25 or more, or own similar property in another riding assessed at £50 or more. The requirements reflected the conservative mentality of the ruling class in New Brunswick, which had received a large proportion of the Loyalists who had previously held important civilian and military positions in New England. This class was inclined to restrict the vote to major landowners. At the time the law was enacted, a number of settlers owned enough land to be eligible to vote, but a steadily growing number of poorer immigrants swelled the ranks of those ineligible to vote.

These restrictive requirements remained in force for more than half a century, with one exception: in 1810, the assembly did away with the mandatory three oaths, enabling Catholics and Jews to vote. In 1848, however, the Assembly explicitly withdrew the vote from women who met the property requirements. The women's vote had been granted only once before, in the County of Kent in 1830. Had others attempted to have this repeated? From the legislative measure of 1848, it would seem so.

From about the 1820s, in the face of strict eligibility requirements, more and more people took to voting illegally, often going to the polling stations in such large numbers that election officials were unable to verify whether everyone was eligible. Following each general election, the ordinary business of the legislative assembly would often be paralyzed for days, even weeks, because members had to investigate contested elections, an increasingly common phenomenon.

The assembly procrastinated for several decades before adopting a new law in 1855 to extend the franchise. Still eligible to vote were all freeholders owning property assessed at £25 or more; they were joined by anyone whose annual income, combined with the value of his real and personal property, was at least £100. It was still necessary, of course, to be a British subject age 21 or older; a foreigner could obtain this status only after residing in the colony for seven years. In short, this legislation gave the right to vote to almost all property owners and to those in the upper income bracket, but it still excluded the vast majority of labourers and workers. At Confederation, New Brunswick's 1855 electoral law was still in effect.

Lower Canada: A British Colony Unlike the Others

July 1608: Samuel de Champlain founds Quebec. September 1759: Quebec surrenders to the English. In the intervening 150 years, a colony of French-speaking Catholics had put down roots in the St. Lawrence Valley and spread west and south into the land of the Illinois and to Louisiana. This was New France. Compared to its neighbour, New England, New France grew geographically by leaps and bounds; demographically, however, it moved at a snail's pace.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, New France consisted of four main colonies: at the periphery, Newfoundland, Acadia and Louisiana; in the centre, Canada, firmly entrenched in the St. Lawrence Valley but controlling a network of trading and military posts extending to Hudson Bay, the Great Lakes region and the Mississippi Valley. Because of its relatively large population, Canada dominated the rest of New France, but the total population was still only about 14,000. New England, by contrast, huddled along the Atlantic coast between Acadia and Spanish Florida, was already home to some 225,000 settlers.

Under the Treaty of Utrecht, France ceded present-day Nova Scotia, as well as Hudson Bay and Newfoundland, to England in 1713. Fifty years later, under the Treaty of Paris, France ceded the rest of New France. On that date, New England's population was nearly 1.5 million, while Canada's was only about 60,000. That population had already developed characteristics that distinguished it from its neighbours to the south, however, who had remained closer to their European roots.

Within two generations, the French settlers in the St. Lawrence Valley had become "Canadianized," blending their European heritage with traits borrowed from the Aboriginal world. Aware that they enjoyed far more freedom than their counterparts in France, they referred to themselves as habitants rather than paysans. Driven by a spirit of egalitarianism, they usually proved resistant to hierarchy. They were commonly called "Canadians" to distinguish them from French sojourners in the colony who had not joined settler society. The colonial authorities – civilian, military and religious alike – complained regularly of the rebellious spirit of the Canadians.

Illustration of a workman unloading a cart

Lower Canada, 1815–1850

Between 1815 and 1850 in the city of Québec, a day labourer working 20 days a month earned no more than £12 or £13 a year, and the purchase of a large loaf of bread cost him nearly 40 percent of his daily earnings. With such an income, day labourers, who accounted for about 15 to 20 percent of workers in Québec, certainly could not afford the luxury of voting.

In 1752, a French military engineer visiting Canada, like many other chroniclers of the time, was struck by their profound sense of independence: "Canadians generally are unruly, stubborn and act only according to their fancy and whim ...". (Franquet, 103, translation) In short, the French of the St. Lawrence Valley became Canadianized before the English of New England became Americanized, and this distinction became more pronounced over time.

In 1763, England was convinced, mistakenly, that it was inheriting a French society. English authorities did not fully understand the reality: that the former subjects of the king of France already formed a distinct people, more North American than European, and wanted to remain that way. By the Royal Proclamation of 1763, issued by George III, Canada became the Province of Quebec, and its first governor received the usual orders to call a legislative assembly when conditions allowed. This might be surprising at first glance, but less so when considered in light of the fact that London anticipated a strong influx of Protestant settlers from New England, who would quickly assimilate the Canadians.

Lower Canada 1821

In 1821, there were 468 tenants in Saint-Roch, a suburb of Québec inhabited mainly by artisans, day labourers and construction workers. Rents were quite low in Saint-Roch, and two thirds of housing fell below the average annual rental of £11. As a result, a corresponding two thirds of tenants could not vote, as a tenant had to be paying an annual rent of £10 to be eligible to vote.

In the meantime, a major problem arose in 1764: the legal status of Canadians. Colonial authorities sought the opinion of legal experts, who finally declared that the conquered people were not subject to the "Incapacities, Disabilities and Penalties" imposed upon Catholics in England. (DCB IV, xli)

Two years after the Royal Proclamation, only a few hundred English, mostly merchants and traders, had settled in the new colony, mainly in Québec and Montréal – nowhere near the influx expected. In late 1767, the governor was forced to note that, barring some "unforeseeable disaster," the numerical superiority of Canadians, far from diminishing, would increase. London therefore decided to revise its policy and, among other things, gave up the idea of permitting a legislative assembly. But the Canadians paid little attention, accustomed as they were to living by a precept common under the French regime: "Chacun parle en son nom et personne au nom de tous." ("Each one speaks on his own behalf and no one on behalf of everyone.")

Under the Quebec Act of 1774, the Province of Quebec was to be administered by a governor and an executive council. The act also reinstated the Coutume de Paris as the civil code, replacing the common law, and retained the seigneurial system. But 10 years later, the "unforeseeable disaster" occurred: a wave of Anglo-Protestant settlers, in the form of several thousand Loyalists, flooded the colony.

It was not a very big wave: some 10,000 to 15,000 immigrants. All the same, it was enough to shift the demographic balance; the English minority jumped from 4 or 5 percent of the total population to between 10 and 15 percent. Some took up residence on the southeast shore of the Gaspé peninsula or in the Eastern Townships, but most settled north of Lake Ontario. The Loyalists wanted neither the seigneurial system nor the Coutume de Paris; they demanded English civil law, the English system of land tenure and parliamentary institutions. London was forced to pay attention.

The Constitutional Act of 1791 established a new colony north of the Great Lakes: Upper Canada. The Province of Quebec became Lower Canada, retaining the Coutume de Paris and the seigneurial system. The act also established the English land tenure system wherever land had not yet been transferred under the seigneurial system, notably in the Eastern Townships. Finally, to satisfy the British minority in Lower Canada, London agreed to a house of assembly.

Having done this, however, colonial authorities could not restrict the vote to English-speaking settlers. The Constitutional Act therefore stipulated that anyone age 21 or older who had not been convicted of a serious criminal offence or treason, and who was a British subject by birth or had become one when Canada was ceded to England, was entitled to vote if he had the necessary property qualifications. In rural areas, this meant owning land yielding at least 40 shillings a year, less any rent or charges owing. In urban areas, this meant owning a lot with a habitable dwelling generating annual revenue of at least £5, less any rent or charges owing; tenants paying an annual rent of at least £10 were also eligible to vote. The act also stipulated that property conferring the right to vote could be owned or held under an occupancy permit issued by the governor and executive council.

Painting of a street scene in Montreal, 1825

Montréal, 1825

With its population of 22,540, Montréal was the most populous city in British North America in 1825. There were 2,698 assessed properties in the area, 2,085 of which were in the suburbs and 613 in the city. While the average revenue from these properties was £33, revenues could be as high as £82 in the city or as low as £18 in the suburbs. In the suburbs, some 522 properties earned only a modest £6 annually, well below the £10 annual rent a tenant had to be paying to be eligible to vote.

Unlike women in the other British North American colonies, women in Lower Canada who met the property requirements could vote. Nothing in the Constitutional Act prevented them from doing so, and they were not subject to English common law. They therefore took to voting, apparently without arousing comment, until a tragic event altered the electoral landscape. During a by-election held in Montréal between April 25 and May 22, 1832, illegalities and acts of intimidation and violence occurred almost daily. On the 22nd day of voting, the authorities asked the army to intervene. The result: three Canadians shot dead by British soldiers.

Until then, the Reformers, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, had supported women's right to vote; but they had a change of heart, believing that polling stations had become too dangerous for "the weaker sex." In 1834, the house of assembly adopted a law depriving women of the right to vote. Because of a legal technicality, however, London rejected the act, and the women of Lower Canada retained the right to vote.

The electorate of Lower Canada, as defined by the Constitutional Act of 1791, was not altered between then and the creation of the Province of Canada through the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840. Political life in Lower Canada proceeded along essentially the same lines as in the other colonies of British North America: reform-oriented parties that demanded major political change opposed conservative parties more satisfied with the status quo. In Lower Canada, however, unlike elsewhere, the struggle among political parties was played out against a cultural backdrop: reformers promoted the interests of French-speaking Canadians, while conservatives advanced those of the English-speaking minority. As a result, Lower Canada was a British colony quite unlike the others.

In 1810, Governor James Craig complained bitterly, as officials of the French regime had done before him, about Canadians' spirit of independence and insubordination. He wrote, "It seems to be a favorite object with them to be considered as a separate Nation; la Nation canadienne is their constant expression." (Ryerson 1973, 45) And following the rebellion of 1837–1838, Lord Durham in turn noted:

I expected to find a contest between a government and a people: I found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state: I found a struggle, not of principles, but of races ... The circumstances of the early colonial administration excluded the native Canadian from power, and vested all offices of trust and emolument in the hands of strangers of English origin.

Cornell et al., 211–212

Then the man known among his contemporaries as Radical Jack because of his liberal ideas concluded:

There can hardly be conceived a nationality more destitute of all that can invigorate and elevate a people, than that which is exhibited by the descendants of the French in Lower Canada, owing to their retaining their peculiar language and manners. They are a people with no history, and no literature.

Cornell et al., 214

Lower Canada was definitely a British colony like no other.

Upper Canada: The Era of the Family Compact

Established by the Constitutional Act of 1791, Upper Canada inherited the same rules as Lower Canada for determining its voters. Yet these rules were not applied in quite the same way because Upper Canada, a colony founded specifically for the Loyalists, inherited common law rather than French civil law. Thus, from the outset, women were excluded from the electorate. Also excluded were members of certain religious sects, such as the Quakers (members of the Society of Friends, who were relatively numerous in Upper Canada), Mennonites, Moravians and Tunkers, as their faiths forbade them from taking an oath. Under common law, an election officer or even a candidate for election could require a voter to take an oath of allegiance before casting a vote. This restriction would not be lifted until 1833, by an act of the British Parliament.

Upper and Lower Canada
1791 Constitutional Act establishes Upper and Lower Canada and sets voting rules. Eligible to vote: British subjects over 21 who have not been convicted of a serious criminal offence or treason and meet property ownership requirements. In Lower Canada, women have the vote, but in Upper Canada, the common law prevails, and women are excluded.
1792 First elected assemblies in Upper and Lower Canada.
1832 Election violence in Montréal results in three deaths.
1834 Polling stations deemed too dangerous for women; legislative assembly of Lower Canada adopts law denying them the vote; London disallows the law.
1840 Act of Union unites Upper and Lower Canada as the Province of Canada. Franchise remains as in Constitutional Act of 1791.
1841 First elected assembly in the Province of Canada.
Successive measures exclude from voting judges, bankruptcy commissioners, customs officials, imperial tax collectors, paid election agents, court clerks and officers, registrars, sheriffs and their deputies, Crown clerks and assistant clerks, Crown land agents, election officials.
1848 Responsible government in the Province of Canada.
1849 Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada standardizes electoral law of Upper and Lower Canada.
1853 First electoral law ordering preparation of electoral lists from property assessment rolls; measure abandoned in 1855, after lists remain unfinished; adopted again in 1859, after election fraud becomes widespread.
1861 First election held using registers (lists) of electors compiled through municipal assessment system.

Of all the eligibility criteria, however, the one concerning the definition of a British subject posed the most serious problem. It even started a kind of family quarrel among immigrants from the United States that would last several decades.

When the Constitutional Act came into force, some 10,000 Loyalists were living in Upper Canada. At the same time, westward migration in the United States was spilling over into territory north of the Great Lakes, where the authorities were offering Americans land free of charge or for a nominal sum. Over the years, immigrants from the United States flowed steadily into Upper Canada. These new settlers, unlike their predecessors, were not Loyalists and tended to support the Reformers in large numbers, whereas the Loyalists tended to favour the Conservatives.

Illustration depicting a torchlight election procession in Toronto in 1862

Campaigning, 1862-Style

Before the advent of public street lighting, torchlight parades were popular election events. This one, captured in a wood engraving, was held to honour George Brown, Reform politician and publisher and editor of The Globe, the Toronto weekly he founded in 1844. The parade took place in Toronto on December 26, 1862.

In 1800, the Conservatives, who controlled the legislative assembly, started to become alarmed at the situation and passed a measure to the effect that, to be eligible to vote, immigrants from the United States had to have lived in Upper Canada for seven years and have taken an oath of allegiance to the British Crown. In 1804, the Reformers won a majority in the assembly and tried to repeal the measure of 1800, but in vain. The legislative council, controlled by the Conservatives, opposed the move.

Repeated efforts by the Reformers became even more futile after an event eight years later. On June 18, 1812, the president of the United States declared war on England. The population of Upper Canada was by then close to 94,000. Eighty percent of the population was of American origin, but less than a quarter of them were of Loyalist descent. When the American army tried to invade Upper Canada, the Loyalists and British settlers defended the territory, but most non-Loyalists remained neutral. This no doubt aroused the distrust of other Upper Canadians, and because the Conservatives still controlled the legislature, the Reformers' efforts continued to be frustrated.

From 1815 on, a steadily mounting number of immigrants from the British Isles chose Upper Canada as their destination. As British subjects, they had the vote, provided they met the property requirements. This time, fearing a loss of political control, the old colonists of American origin – Loyalists and non-Loyalists alike – joined forces. In 1821, the assembly decreed that an occupancy permit issued by the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada was insufficient to obtain the vote.

Consulted on this point, legal experts in London concurred with the assembly's pronouncement. In their view, the Constitutional Act of 1791 was explicit: only an occupancy permit granted by the governor of Lower Canada could confer the right to vote. The governor had not granted such permits since the first general election, leaving this task to the lieutenant-governor. In addition, because it had become increasingly difficult since 1818 for immigrants to obtain a freehold, "annual batches of poor" (Ryerson 1968, 27) from the British Isles were swelling the ranks of the disenfranchised. Throughout the 1830s, settlers of British origin outnumbered even those of American origin, with the result that a sizable portion of the population of Upper Canada had no electoral voice.

Illustration depicting a voice vote in Perth in 1828

Rival Candidates, 1828

At Perth, Upper Canada, Alex Thom, William Morris (who was re-elected) and election officials survey the crowd from the "hustings." Originally the platform on which candidates were nominated for the British Parliament, the hustings was where Canadian voters had to stand and declare their electoral choices before the advent of the secret ballot (1874). Now the term is synonymous with the campaign trail. (Watercolour by F. H. Consett)

In the meantime, the squabble among Upper Canadians of American origin died down. In 1828, with London's consent, the assembly adopted a law stating that foreigners who had settled in Upper Canada before 1820 would automatically become British subjects. The same act stipulated, moreover, that foreigners who had come to Upper Canada between 1820 and March 1, 1828, could obtain the status of British subject after living in the colony for seven years and taking an oath of allegiance. This act superseded the 1800 law.

In short, on the eve of the union of the Canadas, the criteria for voting in Upper Canada had become considerably more restrictive than those in force in Lower Canada, even though those criteria had originally derived from the same legislation. Why? Reformer William Lyon Mackenzie denounced the culprit in plain terms in 1833:

This family compact surround the Lieutenant Governor, and mould him, like wax, to their will; they fill every office with their relatives, dependants and partisans; by them justices of the peace and officers of the militia are made and unmade; ... the whole of the revenues of Upper Canada are in reality at their mercy; – they are Paymasters, Receivers, Auditors, King, Lords and Commons!

Ryerson 1973, 93

Following his investigation of 1838, Lord Durham also did not mince words:

In the preceding account of ... Lower Canada, I have described the effect which the irresponsibility of the real advisers of the Governor had in lodging permanent authority in the hands of a powerful party ... But in none of the North American Provinces has this exhibited itself for so long a period or to such an extent, as in Upper Canada, which has long been entirely governed by a party commonly designated throughout the Province as the "family compact" ... For a long time this body of men ... possessed almost all the highest public offices, by means of which, and of its influence in the Executive Council, it wielded all the powers of government; it maintained influence in the legislature by means of its predominance in the Legislative Council ...

Cornell et al., 212

In short, the Family Compact effectively transformed Upper Canada into an oligarchy.

Annual Pay of Country Schoolteachers, British North America, 1848
  Male Schoolteachers Female Schoolteachers Comments
Upper Canada £30 £15 Without lodging
Lower Canada £36 £18 Without lodging
Nova Scotia £38-8s £19-4s With food and lodging
New Brunswick £40 £20 Without lodging

With such low annual incomes, it would be surprising if even one country schoolteacher was eligible to vote in British North America in 1848, since in rural areas, individuals had to own property of a certain value to be eligible to vote.

A Right in Jeopardy

Lord Durham was given the task of identifying the causes of political unrest in the colonies of British North America and proposing solutions. His first recommendation was to give each colony responsible government – an idea London did not accept until some 10 years later. Radical Jack also proposed a second solution aimed at the one colony decidedly unlike the others – Lower Canada. Here, according to Durham's diagnosis, the political problem was coupled with a cultural one. His solution could not have been simpler: to subjugate one of the two cultural groups to the other. The means also could not have been simpler: uniting Lower Canada with Upper Canada. Mathematically, Durham was quite right: every year since the end of the Napoleonic Wars, immigrants had been leaving the British Isles by the thousands to improve their lot in North America, while the inhabitants of Lower Canada could now depend only on themselves to increase their numbers. Durham calculated:

If the population of Upper Canada is rightly estimated at 400,000, the English inhabitants of Lower Canada at 150,000, and the French at 450,000, the union of the two Provinces would not only give a clear English majority, but one which would be increased every year by the influence of English emigration; and I have little doubt that the French, when once placed, by the legitimate course of events and the working of natural causes, in a minority, would abandon their vain hopes of nationality ...

Cornell et al., 214

The following warning accompanied Durham's recommendation:

I am averse to every plan that has been proposed for giving an equal number of members to the two Provinces, in order to attain the temporary end of out-numbering the French, because I think the same object will be obtained without any violation of the principles of representation, and without any such appearance of injustice ...

Cornell et al., 214

London finally accepted Durham's recommendation for unification and created the Province of Canada from the two provinces: Canada East, still commonly known as Lower Canada, and Canada West, or Upper Canada. But London ignored Durham's warning and gave each province the same number of representatives, even though Lower Canada had 150,000 more inhabitants than its neighbour. This measure would bear out Durham's prediction: it would tend to "defeat the purposes of union, and perpetuate the ideas of disunion." (Cornell et al., 214)

Vote for no man whose conduct in private and public life is not above suspicion, and inquire with due diligence before you give your suffrages.

– William Lyon Mackenzie
Address to the reformers of Upper Canada
Toronto, September 1834

All that remained was to have the union approved by the population affected, a task London entrusted to the governor general of British North America, Lord Sydenham, a highly ambitious and self-assured man – "the greatest coxcomb I ever saw, and the vainest dog," as one of his contemporaries wrote in his personal journal. (DCB VII, 855) Sydenham soon realized that the success of his mission depended on the election of a group of representatives supportive of the new regime. In Lower Canada, the largely French-Canadian population unanimously opposed the union, while in Upper Canada, ultra-Conservatives and extremist Reformers opposed it as well. But Sydenham knew that, under the terms of the act, the governor had the power to set the boundaries for certain ridings, appoint returning officers, select the location of polling stations and set the election date. Moreover, as governor, Sydenham was also commander-in-chief of the army and head of government. He was certainly not the type of person to trouble himself with scruples; in his view, the end justified the means.

Beginning in early 1840, he did everything possible to win the forthcoming election. "He plans and talks of nothing else," wrote his secretary. (Abella, 328) In Upper Canada, Sydenham acted like a party leader, naming most of the candidates he wanted to see elected. He made promises or threats, depending on the circumstances. For example, to persuade them to withdraw, he offered government positions to two candidates campaigning for votes in Bytown. He also threatened to deprive voters of government grants if his candidate was defeated. He called on officials to back his supporters and appointed returning officers dedicated to his cause. By the fall of 1840, Sydenham was assured of a victory in Upper Canada. In mid-October, the Toronto Herald reproduced the list of 26 candidates who were also government employees and concluded, "His Excellency should nominate the whole of the members and not beguile us with 'shadows of a free election'." (Abella, 332)

Portraits of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine

Allies in Reform

Robert Baldwin (left) and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine (right) were partners in the struggle to make governments responsible to the elected assembly. La Fontaine had been imprisoned briefly in 1838 for his active nationalism, while Baldwin belonged to Upper Canada's landed gentry. But both men considered the 1840 Act of Union unjust to French Canada, and they became friends and political allies. (Lithographs, 1848)

In Lower Canada, where he could hope to see only a few candidates elected, Sydenham resorted to other ploys. He shamelessly readjusted the boundaries of urban ridings. He cut off the mainly French-Canadian suburbs from ridings in the cities of Québec, Montréal and Trois-Rivières, keeping only the downtown English-dominated cores. Nearly all voters in the suburbs were thus deprived of the vote, since in the rural ridings to which the suburbs were now attached, tenants did not yet have the vote. To increase the anglophone vote in Sherbrooke, Sydenham added on the neighbouring town of Lennoxville. By this single boundary change alone, the governor guaranteed the election of six of his candidates in a community where he had previously been assured of just one seat.

Image of an 1841 election campaign poster inviting freeholders to meet Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin

Election Literature, 1841

Robert Baldwin, advocate of responsible government and a bicultural nation, supported the bid of fellow Reformer Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine for a Toronto-area seat in the legislature of the newly created Province of Canada (uniting Upper and Lower Canada). When the Province of Canada won responsible government in 1848, La Fontaine became its premier.

In each rural riding, Sydenham set up a single polling station, located not in the centre of the riding but at the perimeter and, where possible, in an English enclave. For example, in the riding of Terrebonne, the polling station was set up at New Glasgow, a small Irish and Scottish community at the northern extremity of the riding, a few days' travel from its centre, which had a strong French-Canadian majority. The same tactic was used in several other ridings, including Ottawa, Chambly and Berthier. Finally, by holding the election in early March, a time of year when the roads were virtually impassable, Sydenham could count on a low turnout among the French-Canadian electorate.

Not content with all these pre-election schemes, the governor intervened in the election itself. In Kingston, on the third day of voting, he dismissed an official named Robert Berrie, who the day before had voted against Sydenham's candidate. The other officials quickly got the message; most supported the governor, and the rest abstained from voting. In some ridings where the vote was close, such as London, the governor had land patents granted in extremis to his supporters but not to his opponents, thus ensuring victory. In the ridings of Beauharnois, Vaudreuil, Chambly, Bonaventure, Rouville, Montréal and Terrebonne, he sent gangs of ruffians armed with clubs and guns to take over the polling stations and prevent his opponents from voting. The toll: one dead in Montréal, two in Vaudreuil and three in Beauharnois. In Terrebonne, to avoid a bloodbath, the French-Canadian Reform leader Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine withdrew his candidacy. Riots broke out in Upper Canada, and there were deaths in Toronto and in the counties of Durham and Halton West.

As commander-in-chief of the army, Sydenham did not hesitate to use the army for his own ends. He refused to send troops to protect 15 opposition candidates who sought protection, while granting the same protection to any of his supporters who requested it.

Through these and other underhanded tactics, Sydenham managed to win the election. In June 1841, he wrote proudly to Lord Russell, "I have gained a most complete victory. I shall carry the measures I want." (Abella, 343) He did not savour his victory for long, however, as illness forced him to resign a month later. Lord Sydenham certainly did not invent election strong-arm tactics, but he used them to an extent never seen before. After his departure, election morals continued to decline in the Province of Canada. In this regard, the Canada of 1867 inherited an unenviable legacy.

The Province of Canada: Changing Rules Reflect Instability

In 1840, the Province of Canada entered a period of political unrest that would intensify from the mid-1850s on, resulting eventually in an impasse some 10 years later. One of the causes of this unrest was equal representation, which initially worked to Upper Canada's advantage and then soon worked against it. As early as 1850, the population of Upper Canada exceeded that of Lower Canada because of the heavy flow of immigrants. Ironically, what had been fair in 1840, when English Canadians were in the minority, became unfair in 1850, when they were in the majority.

Beginning in the early 1850s, Reformers in Upper Canada, led by Globe editor George Brown, demanded representation by population. Over the years, this demand gained popular support and played an important role during elections. At the same time, with the advent of responsible government, many assembly members adhered to the double majority rule: the government had to have a majority not only in the Province of Canada as a whole, but in each of the component colonies as well.

At first, this rule posed no problem, since the Reformers, soon to be called Liberals, held sway in both provinces. But in 1854, Lower Canada elected the Liberals while Upper Canada voted in the Conservatives. A coalition government was formed, made up of members from both parties. But this type of government was precarious, as its survival depended on a few moderate members who switched allegiance according to circumstances. In the years that followed, one coalition government after another fell, until the government machinery finally jammed in 1864. The system failed; it no longer truly met the needs of the people. Three years later, there would be a new constitutional compromise: Confederation.

Portrait of Louis Lacoste

From Political Prisoner to MP

Louis Lacoste, a notary public from Boucherville, Quebec, was 40 when Jean-Joseph Girouard did this charcoal sketch. A political activist since 1834, Lacoste had been imprisoned in 1837–1838 for his support of the Patriots, but he later won a seat in Parliament, defeating Alexandre-Édouard Kierzkowski in an 1861 by-election (see above). Lacoste held the seat until Confederation, when he was appointed to the Senate.

The political uncertainty inherent in the Union was reflected in electoral law. During its brief life – just over a quarter of a century – the Province of Canada passed no fewer than four major election laws affecting the right to vote, as well as numerous other subsidiary acts and regulations that either restricted or expanded the electorate.

There is no inalienable right in any man to exercise the franchise.

– Sir John A. Macdonald
Parliamentary debates on Confederation

Initially, the Act of Union in no way altered the eligibility criteria; it simply upheld those of the Constitutional Act of 1791. In time, however, these criteria underwent various changes in Upper and Lower Canada. In 1849, the Province of Canada passed a law intended to standardize the electoral law of Upper and Lower Canada. In rural ridings, British subjects age 21 or older who owned a freehold or land under the seigneurial system with an annual revenue, less charges, of 40 shillings were still entitled to vote. In urban ridings, owners of a plot of land with a dwelling yielding a net annual revenue of £5 could also vote, provided they were British subjects at least 21 years old. Tenants had the same right, provided they had lived in the city for the 12 months preceding an election and had paid an annual rent of £10.

On the face of it, this law reinstated the property requirements of the Constitutional Act, with one exception: in rural ridings, it no longer covered owners of property held through a permit issued by the governor. In urban ridings, the qualifications may have been held over from the early part of the century strictly for the sake of appearances: since the 1820s, there had been a general decline in the economic standing of labourers, artisans and workers, with the result that an annual rent of £10 in 1850 was proportionately higher than in 1800. Finally, the 1849 act prohibited women from voting – the result of a complaint by a defeated candidate in Halton West (Upper Canada) in an election four years earlier. The candidate protested that seven of the votes counted for his opponent had been from women, contrary to common law. The upshot was that women in Lower Canada, who had been able to vote since 1791 under French civil law, well and truly lost this right.

Also in 1849, the Province of Canada enacted legislation concerning voting by foreigners; it stipulated that all foreigners residing in the colony at the time of Union would now be considered British subjects and could exercise their political rights. Foreign immigrants who had come to the colony after Union could obtain the same status if they remained for seven years and agreed to take the oath of allegiance.

A new elections act affecting voters was adopted in 1853. In rural ridings, all British subjects age 21 or older could vote if they were on the assessment rolls as landowners, tenants or occupants of a property worth £50 or more or generating annual revenues of at least £5. In urban ridings, anyone whose name appeared on the assessment roll as a landowner, tenant or occupant of a property generating annual revenues of at least £7 and 10 shillings acquired the right to vote. This legislation was accompanied by a new measure: the preparation of electoral lists from property assessment rolls. The new qualifications became mandatory for all of Upper Canada and for the cities of Québec and Montréal; elsewhere in Lower Canada, they remained optional, as very few municipalities had assessment rolls.

While this law expanded the categories of voters, taking in tenants and occupants in rural ridings and occupants in urban ridings, it was still restrictive, as it raised the qualifications appreciably. In rural areas, it jumped by 250 percent, while in urban ridings, it rose by 150 percent. Moreover, the gap between the rural and urban qualifications was tending to narrow, an obvious indication of growing urbanization.

The next year, on the very eve of the 1853 act coming into force, the government found that there were still no electoral lists for Lower Canada and only a few for Upper Canada. It therefore passed a provisional act, extending the time allotted to prepare the lists by one year. This law made use of the qualifications established in the previous year's act optional in both provinces. But by 1855, compilation of the electoral lists still remained largely unfinished; the government therefore decided to make the provisional law of 1854 permanent but gave up the idea of electoral lists. To avoid fraud resulting from the absence of lists, the government introduced a multitude of oaths. But in fact, the act soon proved unenforceable.

In 1859 – after an election in which so many false oaths were sworn that in some ridings, the number of votes cast was as much as triple the number of eligible voters – the government decided to remedy the situation. The assembly adopted the fourth elections act in less than 10 years. The new law returned to the provisions of the 1853 act and abolished once and for all the optional revenue requirement of 40 shillings in rural areas. Again it became mandatory in both provinces to compile electoral lists from the assessment rolls. In rural areas, the vote was given only to British subjects age 21 or older who owned, leased or occupied landed property assessed at $200 or more or generating annual revenues of at least $20; in urban areas, the same categories of individuals had the vote, provided their property was assessed at $300 or generated annual revenues of at least $30.Footnote 4 In the same year, 1859, the residency period required of foreigners to become British subjects was reduced to three years.

But in Upper Canada, some considered these qualifications too permissive, believing that they extended the franchise too far down the social ladder. In 1866, the government decided to change the way property assessment was done in Upper Canada, while increasing the property requirements for voting. Only landowners and occupants of property assessed at $600 in cities, $400 in towns, $300 in incorporated villages and $200 in townships could vote. In ridings where workers were numerous, this measure eliminated eligibility for many voters – more than 300 in the county of London, for example, and about 900 in Hamilton.

Along with the several elections acts, the government adopted a series of statutory measures designed to exclude from the vote persons who, by their position, exerted some influence in society. Thus, between 1844 and 1858, members of a number of groups – no doubt because they were thought to exercise a degree of influence in society – successively lost the right to vote; they included judges, bankruptcy commissioners, customs officials, imperial tax collectors, paid election agents, court clerks and officers, registrars, sheriffs and their deputies, Crown clerks and assistant Crown clerks, Crown land agents and all election officials.

These were the statutes in force at Confederation. The same categories of voters existed in both parts of the Province of Canada, but the property requirements were higher in Upper Canada than in Lower Canada.

British Columbia: The Importance of Being English

When it was founded in 1849, the colony of Vancouver Island had virtually no independent settlers; it was still just a fur trading post inhabited by employees of the Hudson's Bay Company. Under the circumstances, the governor felt obliged not only to postpone election of an assembly indefinitely, but to administer the colony without the aid of a council. In subsequent years, only a few dozen colonists came to settle there, but in London's eyes, this did not matter: democracy carried obligations. In 1856, the secretary of state for the colonies ordered the governor to call an elected assembly. He was instructed to allow all freeholders with at least 20 acres to vote, including absentee landowners, who could vote through their agents living on the land. In August of the same year, after the colony's 40-odd electors had voted, the seven members of the smallest legislative assembly in the history of British North America held their first session.

British Columbia
1856 British North America's smallest legislative assembly (seven members) is established on Vancouver Island and meets after an election in which about 40 people voted. Eligible to vote: freeholders with at least 20 acres.
1863 First election for one third of the members of a legislative council (other two thirds appointed by the Crown); each electoral district sets its own criteria for voting eligibility.
1866 Vancouver Island joins British Columbia. At next election, no voting restrictions on the mainland except in New Westminster, where Chinese and Aboriginal people are excluded. Island districts allow voting only by landowners who are British subjects and meet three-month residency test.
1868 Governor extends New Westminster rules to island districts.
1870 London imposes restrictions on entire colony: eligibility restricted to male British subjects age 21 or older who can read and write English. Excludes Aboriginal people and immigrants of American origin.
1871 Voters approve joining Confederation. Just before British Columbia does so, new restrictions are added: six-month residency rule, minimum property requirements and no taxes owing.

In 1859, it was decided that new eligibility criteria were needed to increase the number of voters. However, the presence nearby of a band of adventurers, panning for gold in the Fraser River, prompted conservatism on the part of the legislature, which gave the vote to male British subjects age 21 or older who had lived in the colony for four months and who met at least one of the following conditions: ownership of 20 acres of land; ownership, for three months or more, of property assessed at £50; six months' occupancy of property generating annual rent of £12 or more; 12 months farming 20 acres of farmland as a sharecropper for at least one quarter of the crop; or the practice of surgery, medicine or law, or possession of a diploma from a British college or university. These selection criteria would still be in use when Vancouver Island joined British Columbia in 1866.

In 1857, the discovery of gold on land controlled by the Hudson's Bay Company prompted London to establish a new colony to protect its jurisdiction there. In August 1858, the territory of New Caledonia became a Crown colony known as British Columbia. More than 10,000 prospectors were already sifting feverishly through the gold-bearing sands along the Fraser River. They came mainly from the United States, but also from virtually every country in Europe. As they were a transient population, London postponed establishing parliamentary institutions in British Columbia.

In the meantime, in the hope of attracting British immigrants, land was sold cheap, but only to British subjects. In 1863, the authorities deemed that there were enough British colonists to warrant representative institutions for the colony. However, to ensure that the settled population outweighed the transient population, which had grown during the 1858 and 1862 gold rushes, the governor proposed to set up a legislative council with two thirds of its membership appointed by the Crown and the other third elected by the people. London agreed.

For the first election, the governor subdivided the territory into a number of electoral districts and allowed the residents of each district to define their own criteria for eligibility to vote. The citizens of the district of New Westminster decided that voters would have to be British subjects and have lived in the district at least three months; voters also had to own a freehold assessed at £20 or more, lease property for an annual rent of at least £12 or own land, freehold or by pre-emptive right, assessed at £20 or more. Two other districts, Douglas and Lillooet, adopted the same rules. In the other, more remote districts, there were no restrictions: anyone who wanted to could vote. The situation remained unchanged until Vancouver Island joined British Columbia in November 1866, a union prompted by the end of the gold rush.

The colonial government then decided to abolish the legislative assembly of Vancouver Island and retain the legislative council, extending it to include the new part of the colony. For the first election, the voter selection criteria varied from one electoral district to another. The three districts on Vancouver Island kept the rules established in the 1859 act, when the island was a separate colony. In the mainland districts, there were no voting restrictions. Only the district of New Westminster again took the initiative of setting conditions for exercise of the vote, though these were less restrictive than in 1863: voters had to have lived in the district for three months and be neither Chinese nor "Indian." In the other districts, anyone who wished to could vote.

Illustration depicting the first session of the Legislative Assembly of Vancouver Island, in 1856

Smallest Legislature

As a colony separate from British Columbia, Vancouver Island elected its own legislative assembly. At the first election in 1856, some 40 voters elected seven members to North America's smallest legislature. (Painting by Charles Walter Simpson for a book celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of Confederation)

In 1868, on the eve of another election, the governor decided that the rules in force in the district of New Westminster would also apply to the Vancouver Island districts. Two years later, it was London that imposed restrictions on the right to vote, applicable to the entire colony: the vote was restricted to male British subjects age 21 years or older who could read and write English. These conditions, particularly the last one, ruled out Aboriginal people (who constituted at least half the population), while the need to be a British subject excluded a large segment of the population of American origin. London imposed these restrictions on the eve of a referendum-style vote on whether British Columbia should join Confederation, clearly with a view to assuring British Columbia's approval.

The plan succeeded. In 1871, just before joining Confederation, British Columbia introduced further restrictions on the vote: to exercise the right, voters had to have been born British subjects, be at least 21 years of age, be able to read English and have lived in the colony for at least six months. They also had to own a freehold with a net value of $250 or a leasehold producing net annual revenues of $40, or occupy a dwelling generating net annual revenues of $40. Those who held a duly registered pre-emptive title on 100 acres of land or a duly registered mining licence could also vote. The same privilege was accorded to those who paid $40 or more annually for housing or $200 annually for room and board. In addition to meeting the conditions just outlined, the names of prospective voters had to have been published on an electoral list, and any taxes owing to the province had to be paid before a vote could be cast. Finally, the law prohibited from voting anyone convicted of treason or other serious crimes, unless they had been pardoned for the offence or had completed their sentence. Judges, police personnel and returning officers were treated the same way as criminals – they were deprived of the vote while in office.

Voters and Confederation

Ottawa, June 1864. All was not well. In less than four months, two successive governments had come to grief in the Province of Canada. No coalition government could rally or keep a large enough majority to establish its authority. To resolve the impasse, the leaders of the several political factions agreed to form a government whose first task would be to amend the constitution. One solution had been on the drawing board for several years: federating the various British colonies of North America. This solution would kill two birds with one stone: it would resolve the chronic political crisis in the Province of Canada and settle another problem, one of a financial nature.

Since 1850, British North America had been caught up in a frenzy of railway construction, particularly in the Province of Canada. Since 1857, however, Canada had had trouble paying the interest on money borrowed to pay for its railway system. Worse yet, the 2,000 miles of railway lines laid by 1860 – there had been just 66 miles a decade earlier – were not generating enough revenue to cover operating costs or interest on the borrowed capital. With federation of the British colonies, the railway system could be extended a mari usque ad mare, thus making it profitable. Another important advantage of a federation: it would stifle public objections in England to excess government spending on the military defence of the North American colonies.

Negotiations eventually dragged on for nine years, until 1873, when the last founding colony joined the federation. Unlike previous constitutions, Confederation was mainly the work of colonial politicians and businessmen, backed by a number of important London financiers and administrators. The plan was essentially drawn up in secret and without input from the electorate. John A. Macdonald, the plan's chief architect, did not hide his aversion to popular consultation. As he put it, "As it would be obviously absurd to submit the complicated details of such a measure to the people, it is not proposed to seek their sanction before asking the Imperial Government to introduce a Bill in the British Parliament." (Ryerson 1973, 354)

Delegates from the several colonies met in September 1864 in Charlottetown and again the next month in Québec, both times in camera. In the end, 72 resolutions were passed at Québec, and it was agreed that they should be approved by the local legislatures without consulting voters. But in March 1865, the government of New Brunswick was forced to hold a general election. The incumbent ministers, who favoured Confederation, suffered a crushing defeat.

The federal union plan marked time, as it was impossible to federate Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada without including New Brunswick. But there was still hope, as the cabinet formed in New Brunswick after the March 1865 election consisted of men whose only affinity with each other was their opposition to the Québec resolutions; they disagreed on most other political issues. Such a government would find it difficult to survive for long. In April 1866, after several cabinet members withdrew their support, the premier was forced to tender his government's resignation. Backed by the British and financed in part by politicians in the Province of Canada – and helped along by an attempted invasion by the Fenians, an Irish-American paramilitary group devoted to the liberation of Ireland – the Confederationist candidates won the subsequent election handily.

At the same time, the legislatures of the other Maritime colonies took a stand on the federal plan: Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island were opposed; Nova Scotia was in favour. But in Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe mobilized public opinion in favour of putting the question to the people. The Fathers of Confederation, fearing defeat, turned a deaf ear. That fall, delegates from the colonies, with the exception of Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island, met in London to put the final touches on the plan. In October, John A. Macdonald, still haunted by the prospect of failure, warned one Canadian delegate already in England:

It appears to us to be important that the Bill should not be finally settled until just before the meeting of the British Parliament. The measure must be carried per saltum [in one leap], and no echo of it must reverberate through the British provinces till it becomes law ... The Act once passed and beyond remedy the people would soon learn to be reconciled to it.

Ryerson 1973, 355

The British North America Act, uniting New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and the Province of Canada in a single political entity, was given royal assent on March 29, 1867, and came into force the following July 1.

John A. Macdonald and the other Fathers of Confederation had won their wager: they had established a new constitution without going to the voters. Nova Scotia struck back, however; in the September 1867 general election, Nova Scotia sent only one federalist candidate to the House of Commons in Ottawa, while at the provincial level, all but two of the new members were anti-federalists. A few months later, delegates from the would-be secessionist province travelled to London to try to have the British North America Act repealed. Their efforts were in vain, but London did agree to have the federal government revise its policy on taxation, trade and fishing for Nova Scotia.

Having learned a valuable lesson, Prime Minister John A. Macdonald modified his strategy and decided not to impose Confederation on another colony without consulting the people through the polls. In the years that followed, his government negotiated agreements with Newfoundland, British Columbia and Prince Edward Island for their entry into the Confederation. Once agreements had been reached with the leadership in each colony, Macdonald insisted that an election be held. In 1869, the Newfoundland electorate voted overwhelmingly against joining Confederation. Two years later, British Columbia voters had their turn, but given the presence of a strong movement for amalgamation with the United States, the province's electorate had been selected carefully by establishing eligibility requirements to ensure sufficient numbers of pro-federation voters. The ploy succeeded, and British Columbia joined the union. Finally, in 1873, the people of Prince Edward Island agreed to join Confederation.

The Man in Charge

Édouard J. Langevin (1833–1916) was appointed Clerk of the Crown in Chancery on January 4, 1865, and held the office through Confederation until October 20, 1873. The Clerk was the federal official responsible for assembling and reporting election results to the House of Commons. The position was replaced by the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada in 1920.

Photo of Édouard J. Langevin

In short, only a small fraction of the voters in the founding colonies had been given an opportunity to decide their political future; the others were presented deliberately with a fait accompli. Since then, as subsequent events have shown, the relative influence of voters in Canadian parliamentary institutions has grown appreciably – to the point where today, politicians would not likely venture to act as the Fathers of Confederation did without consulting the electorate.

Footnote 1 Many scholars date the beginning of the Six Nations Confederacy at the mid-fifteenth century, although a small number argue that the Confederacy began much earlier, even a millenium before the arrival of Columbus.

Footnote 2 The Aboriginal peoples known today as First Nations were referred to then as “Indians” in both federal and provincial law.We use that term here only for historical accuracy and to avoid confusion in discussing the legal provisions governing the franchise.

Footnote 3 This law required men between the ages of 16 and 60 to provide four days' labour (or the cash equivalent) each year for road building and maintenance.

Footnote 4 In effect, this was the same qualification as in 1853, but expressed in dollars instead of pounds sterling following a change in the currency system.