The Arrival of the Loyalists in Canada

With America declaring its independence, Great Britain lost 2.5 million subjects in one fell swoop. However, over 100,000 settlers who remained loyal to the Crown — hence the name "Loyalists" — left the Thirteen Colonies that had become the United States, since they were no longer welcome there, to return to England or settle in other British colonies. In 1783, some 8,000 of these Loyalists sought refuge in the "Province of Québec", while another 35,600 fled to Nova Scotia. Since at the time the combined population of Québec and Nova Scotia totalled 166,000, with Québec accounting for 113,000, one can imagine the extent to which the Loyalists transformed the demographic makeup of British North America, especially in the colony of Nova Scotia, and, as a result, the languages commonly spoken there. Apart from a few rare exceptions (for example, the French Huguenots), all the Loyalists who migrated to Canada were English speakers.

The authorities in both the Province of Québec and the colony of Nova Scotia granted the new refugees between 200 and 1,200 acres of land for each family, as well as farm implements and sufficient food and clothing for two years. In addition to this assistance, an Order in Council by the government of the Province of Québec dated November 9, 1789, provided for the settlement of the children of Loyalists as follows:

The Council concurring with His Lordship, it is accordingly ordered that the Land Boards take means for preserving a register of the names of all persons falling under the description above mentioned (Loyalists), to the end that their posterity may be discriminated from future settlers in the parish registers and rolls of the militia of their respective districts and other public remembrances of the Province, as proper objects by their perseverance in the fidelity and conduct so honourable to their ancestors for distinguished benefits and privileges. And it is also ordered that the Land Boards may, in any such case, provide not only for the sons of those Loyalists as they arrive at full age, but for their daughters also of that age, or on their marriage, assigning to each a lot of 200 acres more or less.

Most Loyalists, that is, 80.4% of all refugees, settled in Nova Scotia (which, prior to 1784, included the territory of what is now New Brunswick and the island of Cape Breton), lured by the economic potential of the colony, its British common-law system, and the fact that it was English-speaking. Only 18% of them took up residence in the Province of Québec.


Number of Loyalists


Nova Scotia 21,000 48.1%
New Brunswick 14,000 32.1%
Cape Breton (Cape Breton Island) 100 0.2%
St. John Island (now Prince Edward Island) 500 1.1%
Québec (St. Lawrence Lowlands) 2,000 4.5%
Québec ("upper country" or Ontario) 6,000 13.7%
Total Loyalists 43,600 100%

The population of Nova Scotia consequently doubled, while the Province of Québec became, for the first time, home to a large contingent of English speakers. These new refugees would forever change the political face of what was to become modern-day Canada.

The Loyalists of Nova Scotia

As mentioned earlier, 80.4% of the American Loyalists who came to Canada chose to settle in Nova Scotia, drawn by the English language and common-law system. At the time, Nova Scotia also comprised the territory of present-day New Brunswick (mainland Nova Scotia) and Cape Breton, but not St. John Island (the former name of Prince Edward Island), which had been a separate colony since 1769. Before the arrival of these 35,000 Loyalists, there were some 12,000 inhabitants of British origin in the colony. However, as of 1783, according to the letters of Irish-born John Parr (1725–1791), Governor of Nova Scotia, the population promptly swelled to 20,000.

Among the new arrivals were some 3,500 Black Loyalists, former slaves who had been freed or who belonged to well-heeled White Loyalists or disbanded soldiers. Black Loyalist settlements in Nova Scotia were established in Annapolis Royal and in the areas of Cornwallis/Horton, as well as in Weymouth, Digby, Windsor, Preston, Sydney, Parrsboro, Halifax, Shelburne, and Birchtown. Some settled in New Brunswick, particularly in Saint John and along the Saint John River. It is estimated that some 5,000 Blacks left New York for Nova Scotia, Québec, the West Indies, Germany, and Belgium. In January 1792, roughly 1,300 Black Loyalists departed Halifax for Sierra Leone aboard a fleet of 15 vessels. This number accounted for just under one-third of the Black Loyalists who had arrived in Nova Scotia in 1783.

In general, the Loyalist refugees had little contact with the Nova Scotians, among whom Celtic influences were still strong, as witnessed by their language, traditions, music and culture. The Loyalists preferred not to mingle with the original inhabitants, yet complained about the latter's monopoly on the colony's administrative jobs. Most Loyalists (approximately 12,000) settled north of the Bay of Fundy, at the mouth of the Saint John River, while another 1,500 chose Chaleur Bay. The new settlers were not convinced of the Nova Scotians' allegiance to the Crown, given that they had remained neutral during the war. They thus demanded that the British government separate Loyalist establishments in the area of the Saint John River (mainland Nova Scotia) from those located on the island, which were under the jurisdiction of the Government of Halifax. In 1784, Nova Scotia and the island of Cape Breton counted 32,000 inhabitants who were considered English-speaking (Englishmen, Scotsmen, Germans, and Americans), as well as 10,000 French-speaking Acadians.

Map of eastern Canada in 1784 Unhappy with Halifax's colonial rule, the Loyalists managed to convince the British government in 1784 to divide Nova Scotia into three separate colonies: Nova Scotia (capital: Halifax), New Brunswick (capital: Saint John), and Cape Breton Island (capital: Sydney).

As for the colony of St. John Island, it had already seceded from Nova Scotia in 1769. Obviously, this initiative on the part of the British government did little to improve the lot of the Acadian people, who were subsequently dispersed among four independent colonies. 

New Brunswick

The new colony of New Brunswick was established by a royal charter granted by King George III on June 18, 1784. The entire area to the north of the Bay of Fundy, from the Missaguash River to Chignecto, i.e., all of continental Nova Scotia, was henceforth to be called New Brunswick, in honour of the reigning king, George III, a descendant of the Hanover line of the royal House of Brunswick. The English sovereigns (George I, George II, and George III) also bore the title of Duke of Brunswick and Luneberg. New Brunswick was given its own elected government, situated in Saint John, although Fredericton (formerly known as St. Anne's Point) later became the capital city.

The first Governor of New Brunswick, Irish-born Thomas Carleton (1735–1817), played an active role in organizing the new province. He insisted on making St. Anne's Point the future seat of government (renaming it "Frederick's Town" in honour of Frederick, Duke of York , the second son of King George III), claiming that the location was less vulnerable in the event of attack by the United States. New Brunswick was immediately dubbed the "Loyalist province," even though its demographic makeup was actually quite diverse. In 1784, the fledgling colony's population was largely English-speaking (some 14,000 inhabitants), but there were also 4,000 Acadians, as well as people of non-British origin who had fled America (Germans, Danes, Dutchmen, and Blacks). Governor Carleton ensured that new land grants were issued not only to Loyalists, but to Acadians as well.

Cape Breton Island

Only about one hundred Loyalists settled on the island of Cape Breton, at the time a separate colony. Most of them hailed from the State of New York, from where they had been evacuated by the British government. The first governor of the colony, Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres (1721–1824), born to a French Huguenot family, had made generous promises to encourage them to emigrate to Cape Breton and work the land. Upon their arrival, they settled mainly in Louisbourg and St. Peter's. It was thought that Louisbourg would become the capital of the colony, but in 1785, DesBarres chose to establish it near Spanish Bay, now Sydney Harbour, so named in honour of Thomas Townshend (1733-1800), first Viscount Sydney and home secretary in the British cabinet from 1783 to 1789. 

However, due to its sparse population, the colony did not thrive. In a letter dated 1785, the government of St. John Island recommended that the Cape Breton authorities grant land to the 100-odd Acadians who had remained on the island after the fall of Louisbourg. This was done, but the Acadians were forced to move northwest and resettle in the relatively isolated coastal area of Cheticamp. It was not until many years later that the arrival of immigrants from Scotland boosted the island's population. During subsequent decades, the languages spoken on the island were English, Scottish Gaelic, and Acadian French.

The Loyalists of the Province of Québec

The 8,000 Loyalists who migrated to Québec did not want to settle in the St. Lawrence Lowlands, because the population was largely French-speaking and occupied almost all the available land. Moreover, these Loyalists refused to be governed by the Napoleonic code of law and the province's seigneurial system, and demanded access to freehold "Crown lands" subject to English common law. The colonial government thus granted new lands further west (in the region beyond the Ottawa Valley, known as the "pays d'en haut" or upper country), so that the Loyalists could move to an area not ruled by French civil law.

Loyalist settlements in Canada. Only 1,500 Loyalists settled in what was then called the Eastern Townships, southeast of Montréal, a sort of buffer zone between the seigneurial lands of the St. Lawrence and the fledgling United States, formerly the Thirteen Colonies. This vast territory, divided arbitrarily into townships, was created in 1792 further to a royal proclamation by Major-General Alured Clarke, Lieutenant-Governor of Lower Canada from 1790 to 1796, in the absence of Lord Dorchester, Governor of British North America, who had been detained in London.

The name "Eastern Townships" appears misleading, given that they are located in the western portion of the province of Québec, but it should be noted that at the time they were situated to the east of the "upper country" (Ontario), and were so called to distinguish them from Upper Canada's Western Townships.

It was also Alured Clarke who named most of the counties of Lower Canada (a total of 21, plus four districts) after those in the motherland (Buckingham, Bedford, Dorchester, Devon, Effingham, Huntingdon, Kent, Leinster, Northumberland, Surrey, Warwick, York, etc.), leaving a few French names such as Gaspé (an Amerindian place name), Montréal, Saint-Maurice, Orléans and Québec. If he could not successfully assimilate his French-Canadian subjects, the Lieutenant-Governor was bound and determined to anglicize, at the very least, the map of the colony.

Three decades later, as of 1820, some 5,000 British, 3,000 Irish, and several hundred Scottish immigrants (who settled in Scotstown and Stornoway) swelled the ranks of the original Loyalist settlers in the Eastern Townships. The French term Estrie, suggested by Sherbrooke historian Maurice O'Bready in 1940, was officially adopted in 1981 by the Québec government when the province's administrative regions were created.

Overall, approximately 6,000 United Empire Loyalists settled along the banks of the St. Lawrence River, from Lake Saint-François to Lake Ontario; on the shores of Lake Ontario itself, including the Bay of Quinte; in the vicinity of the town of Niagara, then called Newark; and along a portion of the Detroit River. The English-language settlement of western Québec—first known as the "upper country", then Upper Canada, and finally Ontario—had begun. In their quest for a compromise, the authorities ultimately set aside a separate district for these English speakers so that they could put in place a British common-law system, while allowing the French population to retain its own civil law code.

However, some of the Loyalists who had settled in the St. Lawrence Lowlands resented not only having to obey French law, but also being forced to answer to French-speaking seigneurs (even though one-quarter of all seigneuries belonged to English speakers). The situation was not always simple, and tensions flared further when the Loyalists added the establishment of Protestant schools and churches to their list of demands. In addition, the Loyalists had become accustomed to self-government in the Thirteen Colonies, and there was no elected assembly in the Province of Québec. The Loyalists decried the colony's lack of a House of Assembly and the fact that the decision makers were not elected officials. Although the authorities yielded to the demands of the new settlers, they nonetheless submitted them to the will of the French Catholic majority. But the Loyalists and other English speakers exerted increasing pressure on the government of London to reform the administration of the colony in their favour, and finally, in 1791, Québec was divided into Lower Canada in the east and Upper Canada in the west.

The Loyalists of St. John Island

Since St. John Island belonged to a few dozen English landowners who had little use for the Government of Halifax (Nova Scotia), the island seceded from Nova Scotia in 1769, and was established as a separate colony under the direct authority of the British government. According to a census conducted by surveyor Alexander Morris in 1768, there were still 203 Acadians on St. John Island, but only eleven Englishmen! This is because most of the landlords did not live on the island, but had remained in England.

Little by little, small groups of English-speaking settlers arrived, followed by Scottish immigrants, most of whom came from Uist and settled in the former parish of Saint-Louis-du-Nord-Est, which they renamed Scotchfort. In 1773, the colony of St. John Island was granted the right to elect its own Legislative Assembly, but the Acadians and Irish were excluded on account of their Catholic faith, and were likewise forbidden to vote or own land until 1789. Frequent debates raged at the Legislative Assembly between the Scottish reformists, who were massively "anti-landlord," and the English conservatives, who generally supported the landowners' rights. Most of the Acadian settlers were driven off their property, which was subsequently divided among the landlords.

As of 1784, another 500 Loyalists, many of them soldiers discharged from the King's Rangers, settled on St. John Island. The following year, Loyalists founded Summerside, which to this day is the island's second largest city. Along with Irish and Scottish settlers, they witnessed the growth of the colony's modest population and its increasing prosperity, thanks to the timber trade, naval construction, fishing, and farming. The most commonly spoken languages were English, Scottish, Irish, and French.

In 1798, the name St. John Island was replaced with Prince Edward Island in honour of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent (1767–1820), son of King George III and father of Queen Victoria. At the time, the Prince was commander of the British troops in Halifax.