Economically, these voyages were of small importance; so far west did the trail lead from Montreal that the company overextended itself and was forced to capitulate to the Bay and John Jacob Astor. But politically the importance of these voyages was immense. By right of exploration, British North America was able to lay claim to the Canadian West and subsequently to build British Columbia.

But still there was no Canadian nation. Forest industries supplanted the fur trade in central Canada; in the Maritimes a superb seafaring tradition augmented the fisheries and culminated in the founding of the Cunard Line by a Haligonian in 1840, and the development of great port facilities at St. John, New Brunswick. But politically British North America was stagnant. The colonies of Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Lower Canada, and Upper Canada were each ruled by a governor appointed in London, who was advised by a local council. West of the Great Lakes the prairies were nominally the possession of the Hudson’s Bay Company. They were inhabited by buffalos, Indian tribes, and a nomadic race of half-breeds known as Métis, the descendants of the mariages à la façon du nord between Montreal fur traders and Indian women. But democracy, as the Americans understood it, was to be unknown in Canada for another forty years.

Benjamin Franklin had cogently argued, in 1754, that all British subjects were entitled to the same rights, and that colonials of that race were as thoroughly British as those who lived in the motherland. During the long, cautious (perhaps the mot juste would be “dutiful”) struggle for democratic government in British North America, which went on approximately from 1830 until just before the establishment of Confederation in 1867, the consensus of Canadian thought echoed these sentiments almost precisely. Just as Franklin had warned the British government before the Revolution that separation would occur unless the principle of self-government were adopted, so now the Canadian progressives warned a later British government that only in this way could overseas communities of English speech be held within the Empire.

At first there was resistance both from British governors and from local cliques of rich merchants who profited by the colonial status of the people. But in 1832 the Reform Bill was passed in England, and this was a mighty weapon in the hands of the Canadian reformers. In Nova Scotia, Joseph Howe obtained responsible government without violence. But in Upper Canada and Lower Canada open rebellion broke out in the year 1837, the reformers in Upper Canada being led by William Lyon Mackenzie (grandfather of William Lyon Mackenzie King) and in Lower Canada by the seigneur Louis Joseph Papineau. In Ontario the rebellion was easily crushed; in Quebec there was more serious fighting because passions were inflamed by French-Canadian nationalism. But once the fighting stopped, the British government acted intelligently. They sent out a commission of enquiry led by the famous radical reformer, Lord Durham.

Though Durham was a Whig peer with grand tastes (he is said to have remarked that if one were careful, one could jog along on fifty thousand pounds a year), he was sympathetic to the aims of the colonists and a shrewd judge of men of the English race. He consulted the best minds in Upper Canada and listened to what he was told. As a result, he was able to contribute much toward the evolution of Canadian nationhood. His failure—as serious as it was understandable—was his inability to comprehend the French-Canadian character. Like many an Anglo-Canadian after him, he could not imagine that a people whose semi-feudal institutions had kept them backward would not leap at the chance of becoming progressive, even if the price of progress was assimilation. He sincerely believed that he was doing the French a favor when he proposed an arrangement in which he hoped that the sheer pressure of development within a liberal society would make a single united people out of the Canadians within a generation or two. Complaining that he had found “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state,” Durham recommended that Upper Canada should unite with Lower Canada and should do so on such terms that Anglo-Canadian society would ultimately prevail over the French. In 1841, as a direct result of the famous Durham Report, Ontario and Quebec were joined together to form a single province called Canada and were at last granted responsible government. It was typical of nineteenth-century liberalism that the progressives should have assumed that desire for political equality is a more potent force in human society than ethnic nationalism.

But not even democracy within the colonies meant that there was a Canadian nation. The individual colonies were still separately governed. British garrisons lingered, and the colonists wanted them as a protection against the United States, which was very menacing during the administration of President Polk. Once again, American pressures forced the Canadians to take a crucial step on the road to political nationhood.