Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine on self government, 1840

Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine agitated for on responsible government in the Canadas in the 19th century
Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine

The British were embarrassed by a rebellion against their colonial administration in Lower Canada (now Quebec) in 1837. Lord Durham was sent to Canada to study the situation and he decided assimilation of the French Canadians was the best solution. He proposed a single government for Upper and Lower Canada, which would have only English as the language of government. He also recommended a measure of self-government, but Great Britain responded with the Act of Union in 1841, which accepted a united Canada and assimilation of the French, but rejected responsible government. Lafontaine had earlier been elected as a deputy in Lower Canada, but now found himself in limbo. There was to be no elected assembly and no responsible government. He decided to continue to struggle in a peaceful and pragmatic fashion, and significantly, to build an alliance with Reformers in Upper Canada, who were also agitating for responsible government. He believed that would allow Quebec to protect its French institutions, language, and culture within Canada. His address to the electors of Terrebonne on 25 August 1840 was seminal to the development of Canada as a democratic and multicultural state. His remarks obviously resonated in Upper Canada, because the address was quickly translated and published in the Toronto Examiner in September 1840.

“The habits of a poor people are stronger than the laws imposed upon it”

The Speech: 

The union is at length decreed: Canada in the opinion of the imperial Parliament must henceforth be but one province . . . History will say that it was thrust by force upon the inhabitants of Lower and Upper Canada. To render the measure legitimate, their consent and approbation must be obtained. Their voice can make itself heard in the House of Assembly alone, where, nevertheless, the Imperial Act with its numerous injustices, will permit no more than a portion of their legitimate representatives to take their places in the first session of that new legislature.

The exercise of arbitrary power granted to the governor in chief may retard for a length of time the general election, as it may alike suddenly and unexpectedly call you to the hustings. Whether the event be near or distant, I shall not lose sight of my old engagements. Having been deputed to represent you in the Assembly of Lower Canada during two Parliaments if you have approved of my conduct and principles, as I have reason to believe, I proffer you once more my services in the united legislature . . .

Social equality

The events which the future has in preparation for this country are of the highest importance—Canada is the land of our ancestors; it is our country as it must be the adopted country of the various populations which come from diverse portions of the globe, to make their way into its vast forests as the future resting place of their families and their hopes. Like us their paramount desire must be the happiness and prosperity of Canada, as the heritage which they should endeavour to transmit to their descendants in this young and hospitable country. Above all their children must be like ourselves, Canadians.

The greatest blessing enjoyed by the inhabitants of America is the social equality which reigns throughout this continent. If, in some of the old countries of another hemisphere, that equality should seem to suffice for the satisfaction of the wishes and wants of the inhabitants, it is insufficient alone to satisfy the vigorous populations of the new world. In addition to social equality, we must possess political liberty. Deprived of the latter, we might renounce all hope for the future; our wants would necessarily remain unsatisfied; and in vain would we strive to attain that state of well-being which the abundant resources of nature in America would seem to warrant . . .

Responsible government

But through what means is this political liberty, which is so essential to the peace, to the happiness and to the development of the vast resources of these colonies, to be obtained? Through the sanction of the popular will in the adoption of the laws; through the consent of the people in the voting and appropriation of the taxes; through the efficacious participation of the people in the action of government; through its influence legitimately exercised over the machinery of the administration, and its effective and constitutional control over those individuals to whom the direction of that administration is more immediately entrusted—in one word to the great question of the day: responsible government, such as it was recognized and promised to the Assembly of Upper Canada for the purpose of obtaining the consent of its members to the principle of the union, but not such as, in certain places, it may now perchance be defined . . .

For my part, I have no hesitation in declaring that I am in favour of this British principle of responsible government. I see in its operation the only guarantee we can have of a good and effective government. The colonists must possess the management of their own affairs. All their efforts must be directed toward this object in order to obtain which it will be necessary that the colonial administration be formed and controlled by and with the majority of the representatives of the people . . .

No consent

Another question not less important, is that which arises out of the union of the provinces—the union is an act of injustice and despotism; it is imposed upon us without our consent; it deprives Lower Canada of the legitimate number of its representatives; it wrests from us the use of our language in the legislature, contrary to the faith of treaties and the word of the governor general; it complies us to pay, without our consent, a debt which we have never contracted; and it empowers the executive to take illegal possession of an enormous portion of the revenues of the country, under the name of a civil list, without the consent of the representatives of the people.

Does it, therefore, follow that the representatives of Lower Canada should pledge themselves beforehand and unconditionally to demand the repeal of the union? No, they should not do so. They should wait before they adopt a determination, the immediate result of which might be to replace us, for an indefinite period under the legislation of a special council and leave us without any representation whatever . . .

Reformers unite!

The Reformers in the two provinces constitute an immense majority. Those of Upper Canada, or at least their representatives, have assumed the responsibility of the Union Bill, and of all its unjust and tyrannical conditions, by confiding, for all its details, in the discretion of the governor general. They will not, they cannot, approve of the manner in which the inhabitants of Lower Canada are treated by the bill. If they have been deceived in their expectations, they must protest against enactments which subject their political interests as well as ours to the caprice of the executive—if they should not do so, they would place the Reformers of Lower Canada in a false position in reference to them, and would thus incur the risk of retarding the progress of reform for long years to come.

They, as well as ourselves, would have to suffer from the internal divisions which such a state of things would inevitably give birth to. And yet theirs and ours is one common cause. It is the interest of the Reformers of both provinces to meet on the field of legislation, in a spirit of peace, of union, of friendship, and of fraternity. Unity of purpose is more necessary now than ever. I entertain no doubt that the Reformers of Upper Canada feel this necessity as deeply as ourselves, and that in the first session of the legislature, they will give us unequivocal proofs of that feeling, as a pledge of mutual and enduring confidence . . .

Such are my views of the leading features of our political position. If they are yours you will prove it on the day when, in common with your brother Reformers, you will be called upon to choose a member to represent you in the united legislature.


Lafontaine formed an administration with Robert Baldwin, an Upper Canadian Reformer in 1842, and again in 1848, when the British finally accepted responsible government for the Canadas. Lafontaine became the first prime minister of Canada, albeit of only two provinces.


Source: Toronto Examiner in September 16, 1840. Speech translated and republished.
Photo source: Library and Archives Canada.
More information:
Canadian Encyclopedia, Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine
Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine
National Film Board, 26-minute documentary, 1962
Dennis Gruending is an Ottawa-based author and blogger and a former Member of Parliament. See his website for his latest book, Speeches That Changed Canada.






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