Making History: The Ten Most Consequential Events in Canadian Political History

Professor Nelson Wiseman
Magazine Section: 

Canada’s sesquicentennial offers an opportunity to look back at some pivotal moments in the country’s development. For different observers, different landmarks will stand out. For an Acadian, the deportation of her people by the British in 1755 is of particular significance; for Ukrainian and Japanese Canadians it might be the internments of 1914 and 1942 respectively; for status Indians, there is the Indian Act of 1876, which governs how the federal government interacts with them; for others, it could be the right to vote gained by women in 1920.

Any list of critical landmarks in Canada’s evolution will be subjective. Here is one such list of decisive events.


1. The Royal Proclamation of 1763

The Royal Proclamation of 1763 came after France ceded its North American territories to Britain, with the exception of Louisiana west of the Mississippi and two islands near the Newfoundland coast. The Proclamation established the rules for administration of the territory and set aside North America’s interior for the indigenous peoples. Referred to in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Proclamation states that all land is Aboriginal land until ceded by treaty to the Crown; it has been termed an "Indian Magna Carta." The Proclamation directed Québec’s first British Governor to encourage the establishment of Protestant schools and churches so that the French Canadian “inhabitants may by degrees be induced to embrace the Protestant religion." He failed.


2.  The Québec Act of 1774

Britain’s parliament passed the Québec Act of 1774 partly out of fear that French Canadians might ally themselves with the brewing rebellion by British Americans to the south. The Act removed reference to the Protestant faith from the oath of allegiance, restored the French civil code for private law matters, permitted the Catholic Church to impose tithes, and maintained a feudal land regime that growing numbers of French Canadians disliked. The recognition of a continuing French community served as a template for the modus vivendi negotiated later in the establishment of the Canadian state. Québec’s boundary, which had barely stretched beyond the Ottawa River, was extended southward to the Ohio River, westward to the Mississippi River, and just beyond Lake Superior.


3. The Constitutional Act of 1791

Britain’s Constitutional Act of 1791 came on the heels of the American Revolution, which had produced a flood of refugees, the Loyalists, the founding settlers of two new British provinces, New Brunswick and Upper Canada. The Act provided for elected assemblies in both Upper and Lower Canada (formerly Québec) and designated a special status for the Church of England by reserving a seventh of Crown lands for the “Protestant clergy” in those provinces. Reformers, arguing this was inconsistent with the New World’s religious heterogeneity, secularized the Church reserves when they later formed a government. Upper Canada’s 1793 statute limiting the further importation of slaves is notable as Canada’s first piece of human rights legislation.


4. The Institution of Responsible Government in 1848

Canada escaped Europe’s revolutions but the two Canadas nonetheless experienced some bloody unrest in 1837-38, which led to institutional evolution: responsible government was instituted in 1848. The Governor became obliged, except in unusual circumstances, to act on the advice of an executive drawn from the popularly elected legislature. Responsible government came first to Nova Scotia in January and spread to the Province of Canada a few months later. It came after the rebellions in the two Canadas led Governor General Lord Durham to recommend a united Province of Canada with a view to assimilating the French, "a people,” in his estimation, “with no literature and no history." His design failed. Robert Baldwin of Canada West and Louis H. LaFontaine of Canada East, the new designations for Upper and Lower Canada respectively, jointly headed a ministry that signalled an incipient federalism.


5. Confederation in 1867

Confederation in 1867 came after a series of conferences among various British North American colonies—the Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland. The latter two remained aloof; the promise of an Inter-Colonial Railway could do nothing for their island economies. Various interests had been pressing Washington to acquire Canada and the United States had the largest standing army in the world at the end of its Civil War. The Americans terminated a free trade agreement with the British North American colonies, the British pushed their colonials to take more responsibility for their own defence, and the dual ministries in the Province of Canada proved to be unstable. Pesky raids by Fenians were also unsettling—some 28 University College students saw military action and three were killed in combat against these Irish-American Catholics, who sought to seize Canada and use it to bargain with Britain for Ireland’s independence (the stained-glass window in East Hall memorializes the fallen UC students). British Governors promoted a federal union of the colonies, business interests saw union as facilitating their expansion into the North-West, and federalism appealed to the French Canadians for it promised them a province with substantial autonomy.


6. The Métis Resistance of 1885

After Rupert’s Land and the North-Western territory were transferred to Canada in 1869, Louis Riel, the founder of Manitoba, led a failed Métis resistance that ended with his flight. In response to pleas by the Métis of the North-West, Riel returned from the United States and led another resistance in 1885 in what is now Saskatchewan. A force of some 500 officers of the North-West Mounted Police, which later became the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including some University College students (a photo of them hangs in the College’s Alumni Lounge), put down the North-West rebellion. Riel was tried and hanged for treason on a Regina scaffold that same year. Prominent statues of him now stand on the grounds of the Manitoba and Saskatchewan legislatures.


7. The Battle of Vimy Ridge in 1917

The 1917 victory at the Battle of Vimy Ridge has entered Canadian mythology to symbolize national pride and sacrifice. Fighting together as a distinctive Canadian Corps, more than 10,000 Canadians were killed or wounded. By-products of Canada’s participation in the war effort were the introduction of income tax, Canadian control of Canada’s forces overseas, and membership in the Imperial War Cabinet. The War Cabinet acknowledged Canada as an "autonomous nation” in an Imperial Commonwealth with a "right ... to an adequate voice in foreign policy and in foreign relations."


8. The Statute of Westminster in 1931

The 1931 Statute of Westminster confirmed Canada’s legal independence. The groundwork had been laid at the Imperial Conference of 1926, which declared that Canada, as a Dominion, was autonomous in its domestic and external affairs. The Statute provided that no British law would henceforth apply to Canada unless Canada’s parliament requested and consented to such a law. On the insistence of some provinces, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, its members drawn from the British House of Lords, continued as the supreme arbiter of Canada’s 1867 Constitution. Moreover, since the federal and provincial governments could not agree on a formula to amend the Constitution, Canada’s parliament continued to have to turn to Britain’s parliament to have its own Constitution amended.


9. The Quiet Revolution of the 1960s

In 1959, exactly two centuries after Wolfe’s muskets had prevailed on the Plains of Abraham, Québec’s long-time conservative premier Maurice Duplessis died. This opened the gates for the province’s Quiet Revolution, a nationalist revolution with the slogan maître chez nous; Québec’s finance ministers had always been English and the economy had been dominated by English Canadians and Americans. The new regime reduced the influence of the Roman Catholic clergy and promoted economic and political modernization. Some industries were nationalized, some new Crown corporations were created, and a Department of Education was created. The promotion of the primacy of the French language received special attention. By steering Québec toward greater autonomy, the Quiet Revolution forced the federal government and the other provincial governments to deal with the issue of Québec’s distinctiveness and its special position in Confederation.


10. The Patriation of the Constitution and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982

In patriating Canada’s Constitution in 1982, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and a domestic amending formula were added to the country’s constitutional architecture. Equalization payments to “have not” provinces and Aboriginal rights were also entrenched, and the courts were directed to interpret the Charter “in a manner consistent with the preservation and enhancement of the multicultural heritage of Canadians.”    


Nelson Wiseman is a Professor of Political Science and the Director of the Canadian Studies program at University College.