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British North America in United Kingdom

Elections in British North America: 1758–1866

In the colonies that would later form Canada, the vote was a privilege reserved for a limited segment of the population – mainly affluent men. Eligibility was based on property ownership: to be eligible, an individual had to own property or assets of a specified value or pay a certain amount in taxes or rent.

The law also prohibited some religious, ethnic and other groups from voting. Women were also excluded by and large, though by convention rather than statute. In short, only a fraction of the population could vote. Since then, the situation has improved markedly, and in the following pages we provide a brief history of its evolution.

Evolution of the right to vote was neither consistent nor ordered. The right to vote was not extended gradually and steadily to encompass new categories of citizens; rather, it evolved haphazardly, with the franchise expanding and contracting numerous times and each colony proceeding at a different pace. For example, the degree of wealth needed for eligibility changed several times, with the result that people who had been entitled to vote suddenly found themselves deprived of that right, only to have it returned sometime later. Similarly, laws were adopted from time to time that withdrew the right to vote from groups that had previously enjoyed it.

Moreover, there was often quite a discrepancy between legal provisions and reality. Having the right to vote did not – and does not now – guarantee that an elector could exercise that right. Early in Canada’s history, voting conditions set out in the law opened the door to a host of fraudulent schemes that, in practical terms, restricted the voting rights of a significant portion of the electorate at various times. For example:

  • each electoral district usually had only one polling station
  • votes were cast orally
  • election dates differed from one riding to another
  • no polling station remained open if a full hour had passed without a vote being cast

How many voters, living far from their riding’s only polling station, relinquished their right to vote rather than travel long distances in often harsh conditions? We will never know. Oral voting made it easier for votes to be bought; it also opened the door to intimidation and blackmail, since bribers could easily tell whether the voters whose votes they had bought voted as instructed. Worse yet, the practice of closing polling stations when an hour had passed without any voters appearing led to numerous acts of violence. To win an election, an unscrupulous candidate could simply hire a gang of bullies to allow his supporters to vote, then bar the way to the polling station for an hour.

Such tactics, coupled with the fact that most candidates supplied unlimited free alcohol to voters during an election, resulted in riots that claimed at least 20 victims before 1867: three in Montréal in 1832; nine in the Province of Canada in 1841; one in Northumberland County, New Brunswick, in 1843; one in Montréal in 1844; three in Belfast, Prince Edward Island, in 1847; two in Québec in 1858; and one in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1866.

Finally, in addition to voters killed while trying to exercise the right to vote, how many were injured?. (…) Rather than expose themselves to such dangers, some voters, at least occasionally, no doubt relinquished the right to vote. As Canadian electoral law was amended to limit fraudulent practices and outbursts of violence, therefore, it ensured that a growing proportion of the population could exercise the right to vote.


In 1836, Joseph Howe, known as the voice of Nova Scotia, expressed succinctly the objective of the Reformers of his time: “[A]ll we ask for is what exists at home – a system of responsibility to the people.” (DCB X, 364) In other words, Reformers demanded that governors not be able to do in the colonies what the king himself could not do in England: choose ministers.

Colonial governors’ opposition to such a change was backed up in London by successive secretaries of state for the colonies, whose attitude was summed up in a remark by Lord Bathurst, who apparently told a new governor on the eve of his departure for North America, “Joy be with you, and let us hear as little of you as possible.” (DCB VIII, xxiv) This directive seems to have been followed scrupulously, for until 1828, the colonial office had only a vague idea of the discontent brewing for years in some colonies, particularly Upper and Lower Canada, where rebellions broke out less than 10 years later.

London’s response – the 1838 appointment of Lord Durham as governor general, with a mandate to investigate the causes of unrest – did not produce immediate change. Durham recognized that the main source of problems for colonial governments lay in the fact that their executive councils were not responsible to the legislatures. He therefore recommended responsible government for each colony.

Fearing the loss of its authority, the British government rejected Durham’s recommendations, apparently on the ground that colonial governors would essentially become independent sovereigns if they began to act on the advice of a council of ministers.

London’s inaction soon led to legislative impasse, as Reformers gradually gained control of colonial assemblies and refused to ratify legislation proposed by governors and their councils. The impasse was eventually resolved after Sir George Grey was appointed secretary of state for the colonies in 1846 and promised to grant responsible government to the largest North American colonies at the first opportunity.

The following year, Reformers won the Nova Scotia election; in February 1848 they took office, inaugurating the first responsible government in a British colony. Joseph Howe remarked that this victory had been won without “a blow being struck or a pane of glass broken,” (DCB X, 365) forgetting the role of rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada a decade earlier. A month later, in March 1848, it was the turn of Reformers in the Province of Canada to bring in their responsible government. Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick did likewise in April 1851 and October 1854 respectively.

Source: “A History of the Vote in Canada” (Ottawa, Office of the Chief Electoral Officer of Canada, 2007)


See Also

  • Elections
  • Vote


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  • Article Name: British North America
  • Author: International
  • Description: Elections in British North America: 1758–1866 In the colonies that would later form Canada, the vote was a privilege [...]

This entry was last updated: July 10, 2017

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