Constitutional Act, 1791

Original Post: Constitutional Act 1791 – Group Project


Cause and Consequence


The American Revolution, taking place 15 years before the Constitutional Act of 1791, was an underlying cause for the formation of the Act. During this war, Loyalists were persecuted. Congress placed repressive measures against the loyalists, such as severe taxation and strict laws. By 1776, 100,000 loyalists had already fled into exile.  Many went to Canada because the British government had provided them with asylum and was offering financial compensation. An increase of Anglophones was the first pressure that contributed to the creation of the Act. In 1784, the Loyalists created the new colonies of New Brunswick and Cape Breton Island, outnumbering the locals. An influx of English speaking Loyalists increased tensions between Anglophones and francophone Canadians. This tension, along with the pressure the Loyalists placed on the government due to their sheer number, were immediate causes of the Act. The French feared that the Anglophones would overpower them and take away from the privileges they’d obtained in the Quebec Act, whereas the Loyalists wanted government reform to be ruled as British citizens.

The Act was created in 1791, to accommodate the 10,000 loyalists and separate the francophone Canadians from the Anglophones.



The Act had many consequences, some intended and others unintended.


Intended consequence:

The Act separated Canada into two different sections: Upper and Lower Canada. Anglophones, like the loyalists, resided in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) and francophone Canadians lived in Lower Canada (present-day Quebec). Both areas developed different systems of governance to express their interests.


Unintended consequence:

This only increased conflict and tension between the two groups. The division reaffirmed that there were differences between the two groups. The variation in governance lent inequalities, which spurred conflict when one side felt as though hey were being treated unfairly. This division also did not satisfy the French. They saw the English and the Protestants as a threat to their autonomy and when the English gained more power in Canada, the French’s fears materialized. The English held more political and economic dominance than the French and for that, the French wanted reform. Upper Canada was frustrated with Lower Canada for its demands. This conflict eventually fueled the Rebellions of 1837 and has contributed to the divide between French and English Canada that exists today, as Quebec still has its own political party (Bloc Quebecois) and has threatened to split from Canada.


Intended consequence:

The Act stated that 1 seventh of all land would be used as Clergy Reserves in Upper Canada. As expected, many Protestants ended up using the land.


Unintended consequence:

These Clergy Reserves were land set aside for the Protestant Clergy, yet it was perceived to be land for the Church of England. The land gained no money, as people used it for its resources and left once they were gone. Other land was free, so there were few barriers stopping people from moving. The allocation of the land also limited road development, which was costly. Various Protestant denominations demanded a share on the basis that the Reserves were to support a clergy to which they belonged; yet others, believing that the land was for the clergy of the Church of England, demanded their share. William Lyon Mackenzie once stated that the Clergy Reserves were one of the biggest contributors to the Rebellion of 1837.


Intended consequence:

The Act stated that “persons” (people who were 21 years old or older, with no criminal record and had land ownership/ rented property) were given the right to vote. The government stated that in order to vote, you had to own land/ rent property of a certain monetary value. This number was set low on purpose, in order to have broad representation of the populous. Voting did increase, as more had the right.


Unintended consequence:

Because women were not specifically excluded in the Act, women with property in Lower Canada were given the right to vote. This is because in Lower Canada, inheritance rights were determined under French Law, which allowed women to receive half of her husband’s property after his death. Women in Upper Canada, however, were unable to vote because English Common Law did not grant them property. This only added to the tensions between Upper and Lower Canada, since people felt unjustly treated.


Unintended consequences:

Corruption in the government became an issue because the friends and relatives of governors controlled the executive. These were people who often served their own interests. Because they were in relation to the governors, they usually had similar ideologies and mindsets, so the government did not vary. In Lower Canada, the Chateau Clique blocked reform and in Upper Canada the Family Compact was blamed for many financial scandals


Ethical Judgment

Ethical Judgment is difficult to apply in the case of the Constitutional Act of 1791, because the Act itself was adopted by the will of the people, yet it has contentious aspects.

The concept of the Act itself was not unethical. Tensions growing in Canada between the French and the English were mounting. Both groups were unsatisfied with the current living situation and division of powers. The French wanted to be governed differently than the Loyalists who wanted to be governed as British citizens. As the Loyalists began to outnumber the local population, their power posed a threat to the French, so at the time, it was a viable solution to the problem. Upper and Lower Canada were each given their own governing bodies and they adopted different systems which reflected, on average, their interests. The people were not forced or coerced in any way to adopt this Act; on the contrary, both groups were more satisfied with it. The English and many French saw it as an improvement to the Quebec Act. While we can look back today and suggest other methods to accommodate the two groups, the government’s choice wasn’t unethical, even if it didn’t work, because the people supported it and thought it to be an improvement from their current situation.

A contentious aspect to the Act was the right to vote it granted women. As mentioned in the Cause and Consequence section, women in Lower Canada were allowed to vote because they were under French Law. After the Act was passed, however, New Brunswick passed laws forbidding women in Upper Canada from voting. Some believe that the government should have specified that women in in both Lower and Upper Canada would have had the right to vote. While this certainly seems reasonable from today’s standards, we can’t judge them for not giving all women the right to vote. The culture at the time was a misogynistic one, where women were barely allowed to do anything without a man’s consent. Even women in Lower Canada lost their ability to vote in the 1830’s due to laws passed at a later date. While we can look back and say that women should have been given the right to vote, we can analyze the culture at the time to understand why it didn’t happen.

Clergy Reserves were also another contentious aspect to the Act. As referenced in the Cause and Consequence section, they were areas of land set up for the Protestant Clergy. The Constitutional Act however, wrote it strangely so that the phrase “a Protestant clergy” signified the clergy of the Church of England. This meant that other religious groups, defining themselves under the Church of England, demanded their share of land. Even the Church of Scotland was entitled land since it was an established church under the Act of Union between Scotland and England. This increased conflict between these groups and meant that people who were originally entitled land had to compete for it. It was incorrect for the Government to label a specific religious group under such a large umbrella term. Even though the government realized their mistake and suffered the consequences (this was a contributing factor to the Rebellion of 1837 and even before the Rebellion tensions between groups had to be dealt with), they still did not change the wording.


Historical Significance

When looking at historical significance we have to interpret the role the Constitution Act of 1791 has had on present day Canada and it’s impact at that time. The act was made by the British to create upper and lower Canada. Lower Canada is what is now lower Quebec, and this land mostly contained the French. Upper Canada, which was made up of mostly the British, took place in present day southern Ontario. This act contains significance to the country of Canada.

  • One impact the Constitution act of 1791 had on Canada was it was a start to Canadian Confederation. By creating a constitution and caring about Canada, Britain took their first stride to creating Canada. This is obviously something significant to present day Canada because if this Act had not existed in Canada than the Country may not even exist to this day.
  • The division of Canada was significant in 1791 because it resolved issues between the French and British. It resolved issues by separating the two groups while creating a province for each other. It was the best of both worlds for the two groups.
  • Something else significant about this act is that it gave equal rights to all races and genders across Canada. The act only stated that you had to be a land owner 21 and older with little criminal activity to vote. The act said nothing about any race or sex to be restricted to vote. This is significant because this took place in a very unequal, “white men” age. This was a start to the end of racism and gender inequality.
  • “Provinces,” and “Canada” were two terms used the process of the act which of course leads to the present day words used for our country. This was the first time that two colonies were called “provinces,” this term would lead to present day provinces like Manitoba. Also “Canada” was put on an act for the first time in almost 30 years. (and it was a big act too)
  • The constitution introduced legislature to Canada as both provinces added a parliament in 1792. This is significant in 1792 because this was the first time that legislature and parliament had been added to Canada. This led to laws and rules being made which would overall lead to an increase in peace.
  • Britain added a governor general who held the most power in Canada, including control over both provinces and the maritimes. His main job was to look over and veto passed laws if needed, also he would maintain peace throughout all of  Canada. This was important at the time and significant now as there is still a governor general in Canada now.


Historical Perspective 

When looking at historical perspective while looking at the Constitutional Act of 1791 we can see that many people had different views of the event. The event was widespread and affected a large population of several different groups of people living in Upper and Lower Canada. We can interpret what French and English thought about the Constitutional Act and the life they lived after the event. The Parliament of Great Britain carried out the constitutional act. The act was bad for both English and French speakers at the time. The English-speaking settlers felt the Canadiens had too much power. While the French felt they might be outdone by Loyalist settlements. All that being said, both French and English groups preferred the act and over the Quebec Act. The Constitutional Act granted land reserved for the support of the Protestant clergy. These reserves created many difficulties later on, sabotaging economic development and creating anger against the Anglican Church. We can see that the Constitutional Act of 1791 affected people in Upper and Lower Canada politically and religiously. Dividing an area of land is controversial no matter what era in history it takes place in, but using primary research we can see what people thought at the time.


Continuity and Change

How have things stayed the same? How have they changed changed?

Lower Canada was the area where french people lived when the Constitutional Act was created, Lower Canada has become Quebec. This is a good example of what has stayed the same because Quebec is the province in Canada that is primarily french people. Quebec is hasn’t changed a lot because of the concentration of French Canadians, the french language is the provincial official language in Quebec. Upper Canada is known as Ontario, where loyalists immigrated to upper Canada after the American Revolution. The province of Ontario is still a English dominated province.


Changes that have occurred throughout history are the amount of power the government had in Upper Canada and Lower Canada, compared to Ontario and Quebec. When the Constitutional Act was started the Queen had more power in how these provinces were governed. Although through the Constitutional Act Upper Canada and Lower Canada were there own political entities England was still had a lot of power. Quebec and Ontario have provincial governments but are influenced mainly by the federal government, not the Queen. England has little to do with Canada now because it is an independent  country whereas in 1791 Canada was not an independant country.


Were the continuities and changes positive or negative?

The continuities and changes of Upper Canada and Lower Canada had a positive impact on Canada. Positive impacts of the continuities are the two official languages of Canada, English and French are taught throughout Canada today. This is important because it connects people to Canadian history. Canada started with English and French fur traders and explorers travelling here. England and France have had a huge impact on Canadian history. Changes that have impacted Canada in a positive way are Canada has formed its own government instead of being ruled by English monarchy. This change has been the reason Canada is an independant country today and has enabled Canada to make decisions without consent from the Queen.


How rapid or slow were the changes?

Upper Canada and Lower Canada became Ontario and Quebec in 1867, this transition from dividing one province, Quebec, into two provinces, Upper Canada and Lower Canada, into Ontario and Quebec occurred in less than one hundred years. This change is rapid because Quebec was originally founded in 1763 through the Royal Proclamation, designed to organize this new North American empire. In one hundred and four years provinces started forming out of New france and began the transition into two separate canadian provinces, this change was rapid considering the timeline of people traveling to North America from Europe.


Did any of the changes mark turning points in the course of history?

The change from Upper Canada and Lower Canada to Ontario and Quebec represents a huge turning point in Canadian history. The Constitutional Act started the transition from New france into a country with multiple provinces, with more British and French people immigrating to Canada. The three provinces, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Province of Canada were the beginning of Canada becoming a country and mark the start of Canada day which is celebrated on July 1 each year. The Constitutional Act represents the beginning of transition and development of Canada.


Evidence and Interpretation

The Primary Source that we used was the Constitutional Act itself. Since we used the direct Act, I don’t think that another source could have been as relevant or as trustworthy in order to analyze the Act.

We made various inferences, which were proven in the text. For example, we talked about how the Constitutional Act effected voting in Canada by its new voting restrictions, which are clearly laid out in section IV.

We can also look at other primary sources to support our claims, such as this painting:


Painted during the Rebellion of 1837, this depicts the fighting between the French and English. In our project we stated that tensions between the English and French, propagated by the Act, led to the Rebellion of 1837. This picture, not only shows clear fighting between the French and English, it depicts a power imbalance. The French have much less people and are less uniform than the British who appear to be an impermeable wall of uniforms and weaponry that continues all the way over the bridge in the distance. We know that the British did win this particular battle (Battle of St. Eustache) yet the picture seems too swayed to one side to be an accurate representation. An Upper Canada citizen probably painted it


Another picture painted in 1787, shows a loyalist camp:

This picture shows a group of Loyalists that have just settled in Canada and are already working the land around them. In the distance, many other tents and even wooden homes have been built. Trees have been cut down and farm animals are grazing. In the project we stated that many Loyalists came to Canada in exile and were quick to settle in the country, overpowering local populations. This supports the inference that we made and the source is reliable since many other pictures from the time, created by other people, depict a similar scene.


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