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How did Canada’s system of government come to be?

Canada's system of government is built on foundations that stretch far back in history. Explore some of the events, people and decisions that shaped Canada into what it is today.

Canada’s Government Through the Years

1608 — Je me souviens — Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec City, the first permanent settlement of Europeans in New France, and the second-oldest permanent European community in present-day Canada. (St. John's in Newfoundland and Labrador was settled before 1583, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert declared the island of Newfoundland an English colony.) Earlier French attempts to establish colonies in North America had been unsuccessful: Fort Caroline, in Florida (1564); Sable Island, off Nova Scotia (1598); Tadoussac, in Quebec (1600); Île Sainte-Croix, in Maine (1604); and Port-Royal, in Nova Scotia (1605).
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
2Library and Archives Canada
1621 — The Scottish "Plot" — Sir William Alexander, a Scottish poet and friend of King James I of England, received a land grant. The territory handed over to him would eventually become Nova Scotia (New Scotland, in Latin), New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and the Gaspé Peninsula in Quebec. In 1629, his son established a Scottish colony at Port-Royal, Nova Scotia, but a treaty between France and England returned the settlement to France in 1632.
Picture 1Wilfred Campbell, The Scotsman in Canada
Toronto: Musson Book Company, 1911
1713 — Acadian Hot Potato — Great Britain and France signed the Treaty of Utrecht in the Netherlands, ending the 1702–1713 War of the Spanish Succession. The war saw bloody raids between the mainly English-speaking New England colonies and Acadia, as large French-speaking parts of the three Maritime provinces were then known. France returned the Hudson Bay drainage basin (the area where rivers flow into the bay), gave up all claims to Newfoundland and handed over most of Acadia.
Picture 1Peter Bond, 300 Years of British Gibraltar 1704-2004
Gibraltar: Peter-Tan Publishing, 2003
2Courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives and Record Management
1758 — Representative Government Comes to Canada – Nova Scotia's first elected Legislative Assembly opened in Halifax, marking the beginning of representative government in Canada. Until then, the British colony had been ruled by an appointed Governor and his appointed Executive Council. The members of the new assembly were elected by qualified voters: men over 21 years old who owned property. The Thirteen British Colonies which later joined to form the United States, had elective assemblies or houses of representatives by the middle of the eighteenth century.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
Accession number 1991-35-21
1763 — The Calm after the Seven Years' Storm — The Treaty of Paris ended the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), the first global war, fought in North America, Europe, the Caribbean, India, Southeast Asia and West Africa. The North American campaign (1754–1763), sometimes called the French and Indian War, actually began two years before fighting broke out in Europe. Under the treaty, France gave up its territories in present-day Canada and in the area east of the Mississippi River to Great Britain, and in turn, Great Britain agreed to protect the French language and Roman Catholicism in the new colony of the Province of Quebec.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
Accession number 1993-326-1
2Senate of Canada 3Senate of Canada
1773 — No Small Potatoes — The first representative House of Assembly was elected on the Island of St. John (modern-day Prince Edward Island). Originally known as Île Saint-Jean, it was transferred from France to Great Britain in 1763, when it became a British colony. The tiny population of the island was estimated to include only about 1300 people by 1775.
Picture 1Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island
Accession number 2230/54-7
1784 — Loyalist Refuge — Nova Scotia was divided into two colonies, creating the colony of New Brunswick. By 1785, the arrival of 15,000 refugee Loyalists had bumped the population of New Brunswick to about 20,000. Loyalists opposed the American Revolution (1775-1783) in the Thirteen Colonies, and as a result, they were forcefully persecuted by their rebelling neighbours. Elections for the first representative Legislative Assembly were held in 1785, and the Assembly met for the first time in 1786.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
Accession number 1996-282-7
1791 — Colonial Divide — Following the arrival of about 10,000 English-speaking Loyalist refugees in the Province of Quebec, the British Constitution Act divided the colony into Lower Canada (now southern and eastern Quebec), which kept French law and institutions, and Upper Canada (now southern and western Ontario), which had English law and institutions. Representative legislatures were created in both new colonies. Elections were held in 1792 for Lower Canada's Legislative Assembly, which first met in 1793 in the Chapel of Bishop's Palace (now Montmorency Park) in Quebec City. Members of Upper Canada's Legislative Assembly were elected in August 1792, and the assembly first met later that year in Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario).
Picture 1Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario
1832 — Goodbye to the Fishing Admirals — Political agitation by William Carson (a Scot who practiced medicine in St. John's despite never having graduated from medical school), Patrick Morris (an Irish merchant) and others led the United Kingdom to grant Newfoundland an elected representative House of Assembly. Elections were held in 1832 and the Assembly met the next year. Before that, Newfoundland had been governed by Proprietary Governors, who ruled under a charter issued by the King (1610–1728); Commodore-Governors, senior Royal Navy officers who administered law and order through three non-resident "Fishing Admirals" – the first ships' captains to enter harbour each year (1729–1825); and Civil Governors (1825–1855).
Picture 1The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, A 23-91 2The Rooms Provincial Archives Division, C 1-97
1841 — Radical Jack's Prescription — Following the failed rebellions in Lower and Upper Canada in 1837, John Lambton ("Radical Jack"), First Earl of Durham, was appointed Governor General and High Commissioner of British North America in January 1838. After investigating the causes of unrest, he completed his Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839), recommending the union of Lower Canada with Upper Canada. The Act of Union came into effect on 10 February 1841, uniting the two colonies and forming the Province of Canada. Both sides of the new province were represented equally in a new Legislative Assembly: co-premiers Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin led Canada East (southern and eastern Quebec) and Canada West (southern and western Ontario), respectively.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
Accession number 1995-134-2
2Library and Archives Canada 3Library and Archives Canada TV Icon VideoHistorica-Dominion Institute
1848 — Responsible Trendsetters — In January, Nova Scotia became the first colony in the British Empire to achieve responsible government. The Cabinet of the new Premier, James Boyle Uniacke, depended for its authority on the votes of a majority of members elected to the Legislative Assembly. If the government lost the support of a majority of elected members, it would have to resign or call for an election. Colonists now had control of their domestic affairs. In the Province of Canada, co-Premiers Baldwin and LaFontaine achieved responsible government in March, as did Edward Barron Chandler, leader of the government of New Brunswick, in May.
Picture 1Courtesy of the Nova Scotia Legislature 2Canada Patent and Copyright Office / Library and Archives Canada
3Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario 4Miscellaneous Collection/Library and Archives Canada
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1851 — PEI is Ready for Responsibility — After a decade of debate, the British Secretary of State for the Colonies, Henry George Grey, 3rd Earl Grey, decided that Prince Edward Island was ready for responsible government. In 1850, he gave clear instructions to the new Governor, Sir Alexander Bannerman, a Scot whose wife was a Prince Edward Islander. As a result, in April 1851 George Coles announced that he had formed a new Ministry possessing the confidence of a majority of the Assembly's members. Coles became Premier, and at last, Prince Edward Island had responsible government.
Picture 1Public Archives and Records Office of Prince Edward Island
Accession number 2755/120
1855 — "Newfound" Responsibility — After a general election returned a Liberal majority led by Philip Little, a Prince Edward Island-born lawyer, responsible government came into effect in Newfoundland. Little and others had lobbied the Secretary for the Colonies in London, who agreed in 1854 that responsible government could be brought in after the colony revised its electoral ridings to better reflect the population. Little became the first Premier, with a Ministry responsible to the House of Assembly.
Picture 1Courtesy of the Centre for Newfoundland Studies, Memorial University Libraries
1857 — The Wandering Parliament — The Province of Canada (1841–1867) had no permanent capital city, largely because of political jealousies between Canada East and Canada West. The Legislative Assembly first met in Kingston, then moved to Montreal, Toronto, Quebec City, back to Toronto, back to Quebec City, and finally to Ottawa. Deadlocked about a permanent location, in 1857 the Assembly petitioned Queen Victoria to choose for them. Victoria was advised by the Governor General, the British Cabinet, her husband Prince Albert and many others, and she chose Ottawa for its several advantages. In 1867 Ottawa became the new nation's capital.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
Accession number R11188-3
2Library and Archives Canada
Accession number 1970-188-31
1864 — Uniting the Three Maritime Colonies — Uniting Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island was a hot topic in 1864, when the three colonies decided to hold a conference in September in Charlottetown. Pleasantly surprised that the Province of Canada also wanted to attend, the three colonies dropped their plans in favour of a larger four-colony union. The following month, they met again in Quebec City, this time with Newfoundland observers present. After long and difficult debates, the delegates prepared 72 resolutions for their legislatures to consider. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada then agreed on a final meeting in London in 1866.
Picture 1Jules I. Livernois / Library and Archives Canada
2Library and Archives Canada
1866 — On the Road to Confederation — The London Conference that met in the Westminster Palace Hotel in December 1866 was the third and final set of negotiations leading to the British North America Act and Confederation in 1867. Chaired by John A. Macdonald, co-Premier of the Province of Canada, the meeting was small – only 16 delegates from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Canada attended (Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland had decided not to take part). Their focus was the 72 resolutions prepared in Quebec City in 1864. By February 1867, they finished the text of the Bill that was passed by the House of Commons and House of Lords as the British North America Act.
Picture 1The Fathers of Confederation at the London Conference of 1866Library and Archives Canada
1867 — One Canada, One Country — On 1 July 1867, the British North America Act came into effect, and Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada confederated as the Dominion of Canada. Under the Act, Canada East and Canada West became the provinces of Quebec and Ontario, the institutions and officers of the new nation were established, and the powers of the federal government and the governments of the four provinces were set out. Charles Stanley Monck, 4th Viscount Monck, was appointed as the new Governor General. The first federal election in the new Dominion of Canada was held in August and returned the Conservatives under Sir John A. Macdonald (he was knighted on 1 July, Dominion Day), who became the first Prime Minister. (Macdonald was the driving force behind the British North America Act.) He served three terms as Prime Minister, and died while in office in 1891.
Picture 1House of Commons of Canada 2Library and Archives Canada
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1870 — Rebellion on the Red — In the 1860s, the Hudson's Bay Company agreed to transfer sovereignty over the vast North-West to Canada. Louis Riel and the Métis population – French-speaking people of mixed European and First Nations ancestry – were concerned that their land rights and culture would be ignored. In the Red River Rebellion (1869-1870), Riel established a representative provisional government in the Red River settlement (the present-day Winnipeg area). In 1870, the Canadian government passed the Manitoba Act, and on 15 July the tiny province of Manitoba joined Confederation, with Adams George Archibald as its first Lieutenant Governor. Archibald acted as his own Premier.
Picture 1Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada
2Library and Archives Canada
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1871 — All aboard in British Columbia — After Confederation in 1867, British North America's West Coast colony of British Columbia (the colony of Vancouver Island had joined it the year before) debated joining the new Dominion. In 1871, when the federal government promised to build a railway connecting the coast to Canada (a promise it kept in 1885), the 12,000 non-native residents of the colony agreed to request its admission to Canada. By a United Kingdom Order in Council, British Columbia became the sixth province on 20 July 1871. Sir Joseph Trutch was appointed the first Lieutenant Governor, and the Legislative Assembly elected John Foster McCreight as the first Premier.
Picture 1Office of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia 2Library and Archives Canada
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1873 — PEI Joins the Fold — Following Prince Edward Island's rejection of Confederation in 1864, the Dominion government became concerned about the colony's growing ties with the United States. Canada offered new terms in 1869 (including steamer service to the mainland), but the colony's government refused once again. Facing bankruptcy by 1873, the colony approached Canada for even better terms of union, which were granted. By a United Kingdom Order in Council, Prince Edward Island entered Confederation on 1 July 1873 as the seventh province. Sir William Robinson was appointed Lieutenant Governor, and James Colledge Pope became Premier of the new province.
Picture 1Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada
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1875 — Supremacy Can Wait — Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald and others wanted to create a Supreme Court for Canada after Confederation, but political opposition stalled the passage of the Supreme and Exchequer Courts Act until 1875. The first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, William Richards, had been a senior judge in the Province of Canada and later Ontario for more than 20 years. The six judges began sitting in 1876, but heard only three cases that year. Until 1949, the court was less than supreme, because many kinds of cases could be appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, one of the highest courts in the United Kingdom.
Picture 1Topley Studio / Library and Archives Canada
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1898 — A Golden Opportunity — The Yukon Territory was separated from the Northwest Territories by the federal Yukon Territory Act. The Northwest Territories, including Yukon, had entered Confederation in 1870, when the British government transferred sovereignty over Rupert's Land and the North-Western Territory to Canada. The Yukon Territory was created because of the sudden influx of people during the Klondike Gold Rush, starting in 1896. It was administered by an appointed Commissioner – the first was James Walsh in 1897 – who was answerable directly to the federal government and a four-member appointed Council.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
2Library and Archives Canada
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1905 — Wheat and Iron Horses Help Canada Grow — The newly created provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta joined Confederation on 1 September, in response to massive immigration made possible by railway expansion and fast-maturing wheat. The provinces had originally been a part of the Northwest Territories, which had entered Confederation in 1870. Now, each had its own officials, institutions and elected Legislative Assemblies. The first Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan, Amédée Forget, had been Lieutenant Governor of the Northwest Territories. He asked Thomas Scott, a journalist and newspaper owner, to form the first provincial government. In Alberta, Lieutenant Governor George Bulyea asked Alexander Rutherford, a lawyer, to become the first Premier of the province.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada 2Saskatchewan Archives Board
3By permission of the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta 4C.M. Tait / Molson Archives Collection / Library and Archives Canada
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1918 — To the Polls, Ladies! — Women were given the right to vote in federal elections, provided that they were aged 21 or over, not "alien-born," and met property qualifications in provinces where they lived. In fact, some 2,000 military nurses (the Bluebirds) were eligible to vote federally — and did so — under the Military Voters Act of 1917. That same year, the Wartime Elections Act extended the voting lists to about 500,000 close female relatives of men serving in the armed forces. Nellie McClung (1873–1951), a teacher, author, lecturer and politician, became well known at the time for promoting women's suffrage — the right to vote — in Western Canada.
Picture 1Cyril Jessop / Library and Archives Canada
2William Rider-Rider / Canadian Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada
TV Icon VideoCredit: The Historica-Dominion Institute Map Icon Map
1919 — A Seat for Agnes — Women received the right to be candidates in an election for the House of Commons under the Dominion By-Elections Act. The next year, the Dominion Elections Act provided universal access to the vote without requiring ownership of property. The first woman Member of Parliament — Agnes Macphail of the Progressive Party — was elected in the 1921 general election; three other women candidates were defeated.
Picture 1New Paramount Studio / Library and Archives Canada
TV Icon VideoAgnes MacphailCredit: The Historica-Dominion Institute Map Icon Map
1929 — Does Anyone Have a Dictionary? — On 18 October Lord Sankey, Lord Chancellor of Great Britain, delivered the decision of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council that a woman could be a "qualified person" for appointment to the Senate. By deciding that a "person" meant both a man and a woman, the Committee cleared the way for Cairine Wilson's appointment as the first woman Senator four months later. The case had been spearheaded by five women activists who would come to be known as the Famous Five: Henrietta Edwards, Nellie McClung, Louise McKinney, Emily Murphy and Irene Parlby.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada
TV Icon VideoEmily MurphyCredit: The Historica-Dominion Institute Map Icon Map
1931 — Independent at Last — The United Kingdom Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster, 1931 at the request of the Dominion of Canada and the five other dominions: Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, the Irish Free State and Newfoundland. ("Westminster" is shorthand for Parliament and the major government departments, located within the City of Westminster in the centre of London). The statute clarified three main issues: that United Kingdom law no longer applied to the Dominions, that the Dominions could make their own laws concerning external affairs, and that the United Kingdom Parliament could not nullify the Dominions' laws. The Canadian government could not agree on how to amend the British North America Acts, 1867–1930, and left the amending power with the United Kingdom Parliament.
Picture 1Courtesy of K. Frost Map Icon Map
1949 — Smallwood is Big in Newfoundland — At midnight on 31 March, Newfoundland became the 10th province to join Confederation. After the Second World War, anti-Confederation sentiment in Newfoundland seemed to have subsided. At a 1946 national conference on the colony's future status, Joey Smallwood emerged as a powerful spokesman for Confederation. Two referendums resulted: the first did not result in union with Canada, but the second, in July 1948, approved union with a slender majority of 52.3 per cent. Canada and Newfoundland negotiated and signed the Terms of Union, which were then incorporated in the British North America Act, 1949 of the United Kingdom Parliament.
Picture 1National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada
2Yousuf Karsh / Library and Archives Canada Map Icon Map
1958 — First Nation firsts — On January 1, 1958, the Honourable James Gladstone, a member of the Blood Tribe in the Blackfoot Nation of Alberta, became the first First Nations person appointed to the Senate. His appointment came two full years before all Aboriginal peoples in Canada were afforded the unconditional right to vote in Federal elections, and ten years before the Honourable Len Marchand became the first First Nations person elected to the House of Commons.
Picture 1Senate of Canada 2Senate of Canada Map Icon Map
1960 – Unconditional right to vote — On August 10, 1960, the Canadian Bill of Rights received Royal Assent, becoming the first federal human rights law in Canada. That same year, the government extended the right to vote in federal elections to all Indigenous persons. Some Aboriginal people were able to vote before this and did exercise the right; however, First Nations could do so only if they gave up their status under the Indian Act.
Picture 1© Government of Canada Library and Archives Canada
2© Government of Canada Library and Archives Canada/Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development fonds
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1965 — MacDonald marks the end of an era — Under the British North America Act, 1965, passed by the Canadian Parliament, Senators appointed after June 1965 were required to step down at the age of 75 rather than serving for life. The last Senator who served for life was the Honourable John Michael MacDonald, a lawyer and school principal from Nova Scotia. Appointed in 1960, MacDonald served in the Senate until his death at the age of 91.
Picture 1Senate of Canada Map Icon Map
1969 — Parlez-vous français? — The first Official Languages Act came into force on 9 September, following recommendations in a portion of the final report of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism entitled The Official Languages (1967). The Act recognized English and French as the official languages of all federal institutions in Canada, established the right to receive federal services in either language and created a federal Commissioner of Official Languages.
Picture 1Duncan Cameron / Library and Archives Canada
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1981 — Constitutional Conversations — In November, following the failure of the 11th round of federal–provincial conferences on the constitution that had been held since 1927, hectic informal meetings among the provincial premiers resulted in a constitutional accord (agreement on making changes to the Canadian constitution). Nine premiers and the Prime Minister agreed with the accord, but Quebec's Premier refused to sign it. After several revisions, it became the basis of the United Kingdom's Canada Act 1982.
Picture 1Robert Cooper / Library and Archives Canada
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1982 — The Queen Makes it Official — The Canada Act 1982 received Royal Assent on 29 March 1982, ending the United Kingdom's role in amending Canada's constitution. The Act incorporated Canada's Constitution Act, 1982 and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and established procedures and requirements for amending the constitution in Canada. In Ottawa, Canada's Queen Elizabeth proclaimed the Act in force on 17 April 1982. The original British North America Act, as amended, became known as the Constitution Act, 1867.
Picture 1Robert Cooper / Library and Archives Canada e008300499 Map Icon Map
1983 — Addressing Aboriginal Concerns — A constitutional conference on issues affecting Aboriginal peoples was convened in March, leading to the Constitutional Amendment Proclamation, 1983 by the Governor General in 1984. The proclamation provided for further conferences on Aboriginal and treaty rights and for Aboriginal participation in any future amendments to the Constitution Act concerning land claims agreements.
Picture 1Library and Archives Canada Map Icon Map
1985 — Speaking in Secret — The House of Commons always decides who will be its Speaker. In 1985, the procedure was changed from a voice vote (or rarely, a counted vote) to a secret ballot system. The Honourable John Fraser was the first Speaker elected by secret ballot, on 30 September 1986.
Picture 1Credit: House of Commons Collection, Ottawa, Catalogue no.: O-4555 2House of Commons Map Icon Map
1999 — This Land is "Our Land" — The territory of Nunavut ("Our Land," in Inuktitut) was separated from the Northwest Territories under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act (1993), which came into force in July 1993, and the Nunavut Act (1993), which came into force on 1 April 1999. Nunavut's federal government representative is the Commissioner of Nunavut; its head of government is the Premier, and its Legislative Assembly operates by consensus rather than through political parties.
Picture 1Courtesy of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut 2Courtesy of the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut Map Icon Map
Today — Our system of government continues to change and evolve along with the needs of the people of Canada.

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The Shape of Canada in 1867
The Shape of Canada in 1870
The Shape of Canada in 1871
The Shape of Canada in 1873
The Shape of Canada in 1875
The Shape of Canada in 1898
The Shape of Canada in 1905
The Shape of Canada in 1918
The Shape of Canada in 1919
The Shape of Canada in 1929
The Shape of Canada in 1931
The Shape of Canada in 1949
The Shape of Canada in 1958
The Shape of Canada in 1960
The Shape of Canada in 1965
The Shape of Canada in 1969
The Shape of Canada in 1981
The Shape of Canada in 1982
The Shape of Canada in 1983
The Shape of Canada in 1985
The Shape of Canada in 1999
The Shape of Canada Today