A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #3: TOC
The Road To Being Canada
Chapter 39, Union Act, 1840

Lord Durham's advice to the British parliament, was, that "no time should be lost in proposing to Parliament a bill for restoring the union of the Canadas under one legislature, and reconstructing them as one province." In the result the Union Act, 1840, was passed by the British parliament; it provided for "most liberal concessions, which would never have been thought of under the old system of restrictive colonial administration." However, there was one part of the 1840 act which gave great offence to the French Canadian population, it was the clause restricting the use of the French language in the legislature. The British policy was plain, but unacceptable, "without effecting the change so rapidly or so roughly as to shock the feelings and trample on the welfare of the existing generation, it must henceforth be the first and steady purpose of the British government to establish an English population, with English laws and language, in this province, and to trust its government to none but a decidedly English legislature."1

"The passage of the Union Act of 1840 was the commencement of a new era in the constitutional history of Canada, as well as of the other provinces. The statesmen of Great Britain had at last learned that the time had arrived for enlarging the sphere of self-government in the colonies of British North America; and, consequently, from 1840 we see them year by year making most liberal concessions, which would never have been thought of under the old system of restrictive colonial administration. The most valuable result was the admission of the all important principle that the ministry advising the governor should possess the confidence of the representatives of the people assembled in parliament."2
Earlier in this work we reviewed the passing, in England, of The Reform Bill of 1832. In the course of that review we but merely mentioned the passing of the English Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. One of its principal provisions was that those who ran the municipality should be popularly elected and their meetings should be open to the public. Durham had to be familiar with the institution of corporate municipalities in Great Britain, but I am not aware that he made any recommendations for a similar setup for any of the British North American colonies. The importance of municipal institutions was emphasized by T. S. Ashton:
"Men lived their lives in a provincial or parochial setting. The territorial aristocrat wielded more power over his neighbours than the sovereign state operating from London; the justice of the peace, on the spot, mattered far more than the civil servant in the metropolis. The market town where local produce was sold, local incomes spent, and local prices determined, was of more account than Smithfield or Mark Lane [the middle of the city of London]. If men wanted to improve a road or a river, construct a harbour, build a hospital, or initiate a new business enterprise, it was on local, rather than central, resources that they drew. Loyalties attached to the country house, the county regiment, and the regional hunt; affections were centred on the parish church, the village green, and the local inn."3
The English Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 only applied to larger towns in England and only where they applied for incorporation. "The rural districts were still left under the administrative control of the Justice of the Peace until the establishment of elected County Councils by Lord Salisbury's ministry in 1888."4 So we might see why, scarcely any attention was given to setting up municipal institutions in the colonies. There were similarly no large towns, indeed Durham made reference to the "scanty population" to be found at that time, especially in the wilds of Upper Canada.5

Before departing from the subject of municipal government, we should observe what, in 1848, the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia, Sir John Harvey, reported: "Halifax is the only incorporated City in Nova Scotia, but the townships and districts of each county are invested by law, with a certain modified municipal character, enabling the rate payers to meet half yearly, appoint local officers and assess themselves for the support of the poor."6

NEXT: [Chapter 40, Halifax, A Description Through The Years]


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Peter Landry