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Responsible Government Timeline

Responsible Government in Nova Scotia

1808 – The elected House of Assembly gains control of deciding how public money is spent.  His Majesty's Council could accept or reject but not amend money bills passed by the House of Assembly.

1828 – Jotham Blanchard, editor of the Pictou Patriot, and Joseph Howe, editor of the Novascotian, engage in a series of spirited exchanges in their newspapers.

Blanchard calls for reform and responsible government and Howe defends the current government. Through these exchanges, Howe eventually changes his position from mild conservative to reform.

1830 – The Brandy Dispute starts over disagreements about the brandy tax. It is sometimes considered the start of the reform movement in Nova Scotia.

His Majesty's Council didn’t want the tax, but the House of Assembly did. When the Council refused to accept the bill, the Assembly saw this as an attempt to control money bills, which were under their power.

1832 – The United Kingdom passes the Great Reform Act, which clarifies the principles of responsible government.

1834 – Politicians from Lower Canada demand that their Executive Council be made responsible to the people.

They publish 92 resolutions requesting control of revenue by the Legislative Assembly, a responsible Executive Council, and an elected Legislative Council. The British Parliament was very aware that an improper response could result in calls for independence.

1836 – Political parties begin to emerge before the Nova Scotia election. Joseph Howe campaigns for a responsible government and wins the election.

Howe said: “responsible government – such an administration of our municipal affairs as will give the lower and middle classes the influence in society to which they are entitled, and place all - the officers who collect and expend the people’s money under the people’s control … In England, one vote of the people’s representatives turns out a ministry and a new one comes in, which is compelled to shape its policy by the views and wishes of the majority.” (Speeches, vol. 1, p. 104)

1837 – Joseph Howe introduces his Twelve Resolutions in the House of Assembly on the unrepresentative nature of His Majesty’s Council.

Howe claimed that the people of Nova Scotia were being deprived of their right to self-government. The solution was either to elect its legislative council or to find another vehicle to ensure “satisfaction to the people.” (Resolution 1)

1837 – While rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada were violent, the move toward responsible government in Nova Scotia continues without violence.

1838 – Nova Scotia’s constitution is amended to abolish His Majesty’s Council and create separate Executive and Legislative Councils. Both are appointed, with some on the Executive Council from among the elected Assembly.  The Legislative Council was part of the legislative branch and served as the upper house.  It was distinct from the Executive Council.

In December of 1837, the Chief Justice had been removed from His Majesty’s Council and was not provided a seat on the new Legislative Council.  This removal solidified the independence of the judicial branch of government and marked the beginning of the process of establishing an executive branch that was, for the first time, composed of Members from both parties. James Boyle Uniacke and Herbert Huntington represented the Reformers.  The Lord Bishop of the Church of England was also removed from His Majesty’s Council, but maintained a seat on the Legislative Council. 

1839 – The British Colonial Office communicates to the Lieutenant Governor that the colonial government should reflect local public opinion as much as possible. 

  • Lord Durham’s Report on the Affairs of British North America is published. This response to the 1837 rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada details the problems of irresponsible government in the British Colonies and the benefits of a responsible one. It convinced Joseph Howe and the reformers that a British-style executive branch was possible in Nova Scotia.
  • Howe writes a series of letters to Lord Russell in which he supports Lord Durham’s conclusions:
    The Report has circulated for some months in the colonies, and I feel it a duty to state the grounds of my belief that his Lordship in attributing many if not all of our colonial evils and disputes to the absence of respon­sibility in our rulers to those whom they are called to govern, is entirely warranted by the knowledge of every intelligent colonist ; that the remedy pointed out, while it possesses the merits of being extremely simple and eminently British,—making them so responsible, is the only cure for those evils short of arrant quackery ; the only secure foundation upon which the power of the Crown can be established on this continent, so as to defy internal machination and foreign assault.

1840 – The House of Assembly passes a motion of “no confidence” in the Executive Council on February 5. 

  • The motion read: “… that the House of Assembly, after mature and calm deliberation, weary of seeing the Revenues of the Country and the time of its Representatives wasted-the People of Nova-Scotia misrepresented to the Sovereign-and the gracious boons of the Sovereign marred in their transmission to the People, do now solemnly declare, that the Executive Council, as at present constituted, does not enjoy the confidence of the Commons."
  • The Lieutenant Governor replied that: “Justice, however, to the Executive Council, leads me to say, that I have had every reason to be satisfied with the advice and assistance which they have at all times afforded me.” He did not dismiss his Executive Council.  As a result, the Reformers wrote a letter to Her Majesty the Queen asking for the removal of Lieutenant Governor Campbell, who then resigned before he was removed from office. 
  • Partially due to this refusal to accept the resolution of the House, James Boyle Uniacke, one of the leaders of the Reform Party, announced in the House of Assembly on February 10, 1840, that he had resigned from the Executive Council. He was reinstated on October 6, 1840, when some members of the Conservative Party on the Executive Council resigned to make room for the leaders of the Reform Party, which included Uniacke and Joseph Howe. This move marked the beginning of a “coalition government” in Nova Scotia. 

1841 – On February 5, the British Parliament proclaims the Act of Union, which unites Upper and Lower Canada to create the Province of Canada and signals the British Government’s willingness to accept responsible government in the colonies.

1843 – The three members of the Reform Party, now being referred to as the Liberal Party, on the Executive Council object to the appointment of a Conservative member, which would reduce their influence. The Liberal members resign on December 23, leaving the Lieutenant Governor with only six members, all Conservatives, on his Executive Council.

1846 – The British Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, son of the tea guy, effectively provides the necessary approval from the British Government for responsible government in Nova Scotia in a dispatch to Lieutenant Governor Sir John Harvey on November 3. 

It read: “I have therefore to instruct you to abstain from changing your Executive Council until it shall become perfectly clear that they are unable, with such fair support from yourself as they have a right to expect, to carry on the government of the province satisfactorily, and command the confidence of the Legislature.”

1847 – The Liberal Party wins the Nova Scotia general election on the promise to bring a responsible executive (government) to Nova Scotia. Twenty-nine Liberals and twenty-one Conservatives are elected.

1848 - The Assembly passes a no confidence motion on January 26 stating that the Executive Council no longer has its support. The Executive Council resigns over the next two days. 

  • January 22 – At a meeting of the House of Assembly, Lieutenant Governor Falkland gave the following instruction in his Speech from the Throne: “It will be the occasion of much gratification to me if your deliberations shall lead to a final and satisfactory adjustment of this long pending negotiation.” The question being negotiated was “that of the surrender of the Crown Estate in Nova Scotia to the control and management of the Local Legislature.”
  • January 24 – James Boyle Uniacke introduced a non-confidence motion. It read:
    While we are fully sensible of the importance of the various subjects submitted by Your Excellency for our consideration, we feel that in the course it may be advisable to pursue, with reference to measures so intimately connected with the interests of the people, it is essential to the satisfactory result of our deliberations on these and other matters of public concern, that Her Majesty's Executive Council should enjoy the confidence of the Country ; and we consider it our humble duty respectfully to state, that the present Executive Council does not possess that confidence so essential to the promoting of the public welfare, and so necessary to insure to Your Excellency the harmonious co-operation of this Assembly.
  • January 26 – The above resolution passes with 28 for the amendment and 22 against it.
  • January 27 – Conservative Lewis M. Wilkins resigned from the Executive Council.
  • January 28 – Conservatives Simon Bradstreet Robie, Sir Rupert D. George Bt., James William Johnston, Edmund Murray Dodd, and Mathers Byles Almon resigned from the Executive Council.

1848 – The Lieutenant Governor advises James Boyle Uniacke, leader of the Liberal Party, to choose his own Executive Council. He selects only from among his fellow Liberals and establishes the first Responsible Government in what is now Canada.

February 2 – Liberals James Boyle Uniacke, Michael Tobin, Jr., Hugh Bell, Joseph Howe, James McNab, Herbert Huntington, William Frederick DesBarres, Lawrence O’Connor Doyle, and George Renny Young are sworn in as Members of Her Majesty’s Executive Council in the Province of Nova Scotia.

1948 – On its 100th anniversary, the First Responsible Government in the British Empire Overseas is recognized as an historic event by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada and a commemorative plaque is unveiled in the Legislative Chamber by His Honour, the Honourable John Alexander Douglas McCurdy, the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia.

2023 – The 175th anniversary of Responsible Government.

Responsible Government in Select Jurisdictions

1832 – United Kingdom (The Reform Bill clarified the principles of responsible government)
1848 – Nova Scotia and Canada
1851 – Prince Edward Island
1854 – New Brunswick
1855 – Newfoundland and most Australian colonies (Tasmania, New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia)
1856 – New Zealand
1859 – Queensland (created from New South Wales)
1867 – Isle of Man
1870 – Manitoba (upon confederation)
1871 – British Columbia (upon confederation)
1872 – Cape of Good Hope
1890 – Western Australia
1893 – Natal
1905 – Alberta and Saskatchewan (upon confederation)
1906 – Transvaal
1907 – Orange River Colony
1922 – Irish Free State
1979 – Yukon
1987 – Northwest Territories
1999 – Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Nunavut