British North America at the End of the 18th Century

At the end of the 18th century, there were seven colonies in British North America: Lower Canada (Québec), Upper Canada (Ontario), Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, St. John's Island (which would become Prince Edward Island in 1798), and Cape Breton Island (which would be incorporated into Nova Scotia in 1820). Rupert's Land was not a colony but a vast territory that the Crown granted to the Hudson's Bay Company. It was like a "private colony," having hardly any ties with other British settlements. At the time, Canada was not yet a country but more an "archipelago of British colonies" that were relatively isolated from each other.

The political divisions of Canada in 1791

The Population of the Colonies

At the very end of the 18th century, the seven British colonies had some 350,000 inhabitants, not counting the aboriginal peoples. In addition to the 200,000 descendants of the French colonists in the St. Lawrence Valley, there were 140,000 British (70,000 in the Maritimes, 25,000 in each of the Canadas, and about 20,000 in Newfoundland). In the West, there were probably more than 40,000 people for a grand total of about 390,000 to 395,000 inhabitants.

The population of Lower Canada numbered 225,000 inhabitants, 25,000 of whom were anglophone. Thus, at the end of the 18th century, the francophones constituted not only the vast majority of Lower Canada (88.8%) but, in fact, the majority of the population of British North America (51 - 56%). There were anglophones and francophones in all the colonies, but the francophones were in the minority everywhere except in Lower Canada. The smallest number of inhabitants (0.5%) were found in the colony of Cape Breton Island.


Number of Inhabitants


Sources: David J. Bercuson, ed., Colonies: Canada to 1867 (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1992) 242.
Douglas McCalla, "The 'Loyalist' Economy of Upper Canada," Histoire sociale/Social History, 16.32 (November 1983): 285.
Lower Canada (Québec) 225,000 56 %
Upper Canada (Ontario) 46,000 11.6 %
Nova Scotia 40,000 10.1 %
New Brunswick 25,000 6.3 %
Newfoundland 14,000 3.5 %
St. John's Island 3,000 0.7 %
Cape Breton Island 2,500 0.5 %
The West 40,000 10.1 %
Total 395,000 100 %

The "West" designated the territories located to the west of Upper Canada. It was no longer the terra incognita of 1763 at the time of the British conquest. Merchants and explorers had gained geographic knowledge of the continent at a surprisingly quick rate. Samuel Hearne (1745-1792) left the Hudson's Bay Company to explore the lands of the West as far as the Great Slave Lake, and Matthew Cocking (? - 1779) travelled into Blackfoot lands and pushed the fur trade territory further west. At the time, it was known that, besides the Blackfoot, several thousand other Amerindians—including the Ojibwa, Assiniboine, Cree, and Athapascan—lived in these regions of the Plains (currently the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). The approximately 40,000 Amerindians had already been affected by their contacts with the Europeans. Alexander Mackenzie (1764 - 1820) ventured as far as the Arctic in 1789 to reach the Pacific in 1793. In 1778, the great English navigator James Cook (1728 - 1779) embarked from Vancouver Island (which would get its name in 1792 in honour of Captain George Vancouver, dispatched by the United Kingdom) in order to reach the Bering Strait that connects Alaska to Asia.

The Colonial Administrative Framework

Theoretically, the seven colonies in British North America—Lower Canada, Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, the island of Newfoundland, St. John's Island, and Cape Breton Island—had a relatively simple administrative framework. At the summit of the hierarchy was the British Parliament, which was the supreme authority. The British government passed its directives on to the Governor General, who lived in Québec City. In each of the colonies there was a lieutenant-governor, known locally as the "Governor," who ensured the link between the British authorities and the local populations. In theory, the colony had a House of Assembly (or Legislative Assembly) elected by the people. An Executive Council and a Legislative Council, whose members were appointed by the Crown (Governor), completed the picture. The councils had the authority to draw up budgets and spend government money without being accountable to the elected members.

In reality, the colonial government proved to be more complex. First, the Governor General had discretionary power—he was as powerful as the British sovereign because the distance between London and North America gave him independence. As a New Brunswick official reported to London, "The empire is so vast and we are so far away that our matters are but a chore." The Governor General controlled the Executive and Legislative Councils, and, by his right of veto, he could reject any bill presented by a Legislative Assembly, dissolve the House of Assembly, and call elections. However, since his career was often at stake, he had to act with caution and take a generally conservative approach.

In addition, the colonial system showed serious shortcomings. The Governor General ran the province of Québec (or Lower Canada), the only predominantly French-speaking colony, which did not have a Legislative Assembly until 1791. Newfoundland did not get one until 1832. Only landowners and certain tenants had the right to vote, and did so orally in just one polling station per riding.

In time the balance of powers swung in favour of the legislative assemblies, which brought about resentment and confrontation between the Reformers and the Conservatives, especially in Lower Canada, where an English governor and a Council dominated by the British decided to flout the Legislative Assembly composed of a francophone majority. The inhabitants of all the colonies became less and less tolerant of the discretionary power of the Governor General and the lieutenant-governors, as well as the privileges of the conservative cliques that gravitated around the Governor.