Britain’s Grip Loosens

British soldiers or British-controlled militia fighting Canadian rebels.

In the early 1800s, Britain ruled her colony British North America through a British governor. The governor was chosen by the government in London, and together with his appointed council members he had final say on all important political matters in the colony. There were also provincial legislative assemblies where local representatives voted on various political matters, but the governor and his confidants could always block their proposals. This order, with power heavily skewed in favor of British colonial authority, seemed unfair to many Canadians and spurred discontent.

A failed rebellion

In the 1830s, public discontent with British colonial rule in the French Canadian-dominated eastern part of British North America had prompted a protest movement, which was reaching its crescendo. Unhappy with what they perceived as British arrogance and cronyism, groups of Canadians now brought their grievances to London, requesting more self-rule. When the Brits, the Canadians’ petition notwithstanding, left the Canadian system of government unchanged, fury ensued and the build-up to an armed uprising began. Echoes from the American Revolution some sixty years earlier could be heard, and anticipating a violent Canadian revolt, the British military pre-emptively targeted rebel strongholds, leading to armed conflict breaking out in 1837. Fierce fighting took place, and just as Britain had hoped, the rebels were too uncoordinated to gain real traction, and lost.

Nevertheless, despite the defeat, the rebels’ militant stance had instilled notable fear in decision makers in London. Shaken by the uprising and unwilling to continue on the course that had led to rebellion, British politicians, in spite of their previous aversion, soon decided to grant their colonial subjects more self-rule after all. Furthermore, as a measure to mitigate ethnic tensions, around the same time, the British politicians also united the rebellious, largely French-speaking eastern Canada with the English-speaking western Canada, naming the new majority English-speaking province Canada. In this way, they hoped, the abrasive French Canadians would be assimilated into loyal British subjects through submersion in a sea of English speakers and British-style culture.

Continued instability

However, the French speakers did not assimilate. With help from a group of English-speaking Canadian allies, they were able to continue to assert themselves both politically and culturally in the new united Canada, and by the mid-1800s, it became clear that the British attempt to create stability in their Canadian colony had failed. As a direct result of this failure, the political situation remained very contentious, the colony called for even more self-rule and French-British tensions within Canada persisted. Britain’s grip on its colony had now loosened, and soon London would see no other alternative than to allow Canada to become more or less independent.