Definitions: Representative and Responsible Government

The issue of what form of government the People of Assiniboia would have after union with Canada was fundamental to the Resistance.[1]

To portray the Resistance as a ‘racial’/ ethnic/ cultural/ ‘civilized vs. savage’/ ‘agrarian vs. hunter’ event is to miss its political dimension and ignore the chronology of political history in Canada. The debates of Assiniboia councils, conventions, and the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, along with public pronouncements in the press at Red River, clearly show that the Resistance was a political event.

The people of Red River did what they could to ensure that they would have representative and responsible government. The issue was addressed during the Convention of Forty, while debating whether, in agreeing to confederate with Canada, they ought to demand that elected representatives have the power to override the veto of a Governor. Judge John Black pointed out,

This is, I believe, a great era in the history of this country [Assiniboia]; … What is the position in which we now stand? That of deriving at once the benefits of responsible government for the country — a boon obtained in other countries only after years — I may say generations — of toil and trouble … And, considering the conflict into which other peoples have been called upon to enter before they obtained … responsible government,– ought we not to be very careful how we risk our prospects?

The members of the Convention of Forty responded to Black’s observations with cheers.[2]

[1] Annexation was Canada’s original plan. Confederation came out of the Resistance. See definitions, “Annexation versus Confederation; Imperialism and Colonialism; Invasion,” this site.

[2] See “Convention at Fort Garry,” New Nation (4 February 1870),


Throughout the Resistance of 1869 – 1870, Louis Riel insisted that “the people” had the right to be considered as — and to be – the ultimate political authority in Assiniboia. The elected members of the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia viewed instituting representative and responsible government as the means of ensuring that governance by the people would prevail after confederation with Canada.


What is Representative and Responsible Government?

Put in simple/ simplistic terms, in Canada:

Representative Government means people vote to elect a person to represent their interests. Historically in Canada, people sought the right to be represented in an elected House of Assembly/ Legislative Assembly/ ‘lower house’ of the government.[2]

[2]See “Representative Government,” Canada in the Making,, but note that the site ignores the existence of representative government in Assiniboia during 1869 – 1870.


Responsible Government means that the ‘upper house’ / Executive Council that advises the head of the government (whether called governor, president, premier, or prime minister) is made up of people appointed from the elected ‘lower house.’ When the majority party in the elected House of Assembly/ Legislative Assembly/ lower house cannot carry a vote of confidence and is defeated by the minority party, then the entire government falls (except where there is an appointed governor — he retains his position until recalled by whomever did the appointing). All lower and upper house positions are lost and a new election must be held to fill them again.

Thus, because the upper house ‘responds’ to the elected lower house, the people/ electorates among the people have responsible government. (Or, think of it this way: ultimately, through their representatives, the people hold the higher levels of government accountable for decisions and the government is therefore responsible to them). In the Canadas (West/ Upper/ Ontario and East/ Lower/ Quebec), people fought — and died — for the right to have representative and responsible government.[3]

[3] See “Responsible Government,” Canada in the Making, For an extended explanation see Claude Bélanger, “Responsible Government” Quebec History, Marionopolis College,; See also Claude Bélanger, “The Constitution Act, 1867, the Confederation Debates and Provincial Autonomy,” Quebec History, Marionopolis College,, who includes a diagram “Unitary, Federal and Confederal Systems of Government,” that compares governance models.

On incarcerations, deportations, and deaths as a result of the Rebellions in Lower and Upper Canada, 1837-1838 see: Frank Murray Greenwood and Barry Wright, Canadian State Trials: Rebellion and Invasion in the Canadas, 1837-1839 (Toronto: Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History, 2002); and “Rebellions, 1837 – 1838,” From Colony to Country, A Readers’ Guide to Canadian Military History,, which notes that in Lower Canada, “according to historian Elinor Kyte Senior, approximately 300 insurgents were killed in action or died from wounds; [British] government forces suffered less than 30 fatal casualties. … Hundreds were arrested, and seven … were exiled to Bermuda. … twelve rebels in Lower Canada were hanged for their part in the rebellion, and when all the trials were completed in the fall of 1839, approximately 130 rebels were transported to the penal colony in Tasmania.” In Upper Canada, “more than 800” men were arrested as rebels. Most “were eventually released or granted amnesty,” but Samuel Lount (1791-1838) and Peter Mathews (1786-1838), were hanged for treason, and more than two dozen others were transported to a penal colony in Australia.


In the past, attaining responsible governments was considered a big deal.

A critical moment in Canadian history occurred when Louis-Joseph Papineau and the Parti Patriote strove to see responsible government instituted in Lower Canada. As historian Allan Greer explains, “In 1837-38 Canada came as close to revolution as ever it would. The parliamentary régime had ceased to function in Lower Canada, as a movement the ‘patriots’, pushing in the direction of democracy and independence, ran into a stone wall of British intransigence.”[4]

[4] Allan Greer, quoted by “Reference Material from the Patriot War 1837-38,” Thousand Islands; see also Allan Greer, The Patriot’s and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1993); and  CBC, “The Reformers and the Patriotes,” CBC learning,]


In Assiniboia, the rebellions during 1837-1838 did not go unnoticed. According to local chronicler Alexander Ross,

The Papineau rebellion … broke out in Canada about this time, and the echo of which soon reached us, added fresh fuel to the spirit of disaffection [with Hudson’s Bay Company proprietary governance, granted by way of its charter]. The Canadians of Red River sighed for the success of their brethren’s cause. Patriotic songs were chanted on every side in praise of Papineau. In the plains, the half-breeds made a flag, called the Papineau standard, which was waved in triumph for years, and the rebels’ deeds extolled to the skies.[5]

[5] Alexander Ross, The Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State: With Some Account of the Native Races and Its General History to the Present Day (London: Smith, Elder and Company, 1856), 239, see also 224; and Flags and the Red River Resistance, this site, which notes,”Perhaps not coincidentally, Jean-Louis Riel (a.k.a. Louis Riel Sr., the father of Louis Riel, President of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia), arrived at Red River from Lower Canada in 1838. It is not known whether he had participated in the rebellion (in which case he might have fled Lower Canada to avoid summary incarceration, execution, or deportation/ exile; though he might simply have been returning to a preferred homeland — he having been born a Île-à-la-Crosse.) Undoubtedly, however, Riel Sr. communicated information on the ideals of the political reform movement to people of Red River. He was a leading force (along with James Sinclair), in settler protests during the 1840s against the closed government of the HBC — which provided neither for a representative (meaning elected) legislative assembly, nor for a responsible council (chosen from an elected Assembly as opposed to being appointed by the HBC Governor).”


The Patriotes’ cause eventually succeeded. In 1848, responsible government was finally possible in Canada, when the Union Act of 1840 was amended and the governor general, Lord Elgin (a.k.a. Sir James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine), removed himself from the affairs of the legislature, setting the elected leaders of elected majority parties at the head of government instead.

  • In 1869, the members of the Comité National des Métis/ Métis National Committee, who were stationed at the barricade on the Pembina road, where it crossed the Rivière Sale/ Dirty River, carried remembrance of the struggle for responsible government in Canada forward, referring to themselves as the “parti Patriote,” and the “Patriot Army.”[6]

[6] Great Britain, Colonial Office, and Canada, Governor General, “Correspondence Relative to the Recent Disturbances in the Red River Settlement; Presented to both Houses of Parliament by Command of Her Majesty, August, 1870,” Blue Book Reports for 1869 and Journals of the House of Commons (London: William Clowes and Sons, 1870), 15.


  • In 1948, Canada issued a commemorative stamp to celebrate the achievement of responsible government (in pre-confederation Canada) one hundred years earlier.
  • Charles William Jefferys, well known to 20th-century Canadian school children for his historical illustrations in textbooks, depicted the achievement of responsible government as a peoples’ struggle for democracy — part of Canadian heritage that all citizens of the nation should know about and be proud of.

jeffrys, reponsible struggle

Charles William Jefferys, watercolour, “An election during the struggle of responsible Government,” (no date). Credit: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1972-26-1384. Copyright: Expired / Expiré. No restrictions on access or on use for reproduction or publication.


Comparing and Contrasting Systems of Representative and Responsible Government

Compare the two models of governance below:

representative but non-responsible government

Model 1: Representative, but not Responsible Government.

The policy making Executive relies on the Governor, not the voters, for its authority. It is, therefore, not responsible to the people. Note that the Governor is not connected to the elected Legislative Assembly.


responsible government canada

Model 2: Representative and Responsible Government


See Also:

Rick Mercer, “Canada Explained: Everything You wanted to Know about Canada, but were Afraid to Ask,” Mercer Report, CBC (3 February 2009), who describes the relation between the People, the Prime Minister, and the Governor General, and touches on other powers of the latter, including that of proroguing parliament.

Elizabeth May, “The Crisis in Democracy,” (Oct 17, 2013) [posted 15 Nov 2013]. Note: begins at 3 minute mark. May explains the meaning underlying traditional rituals of parliament (it is more than a show of silly manners) and points to ways parliamentary traditions in Canada have been subtly changing, to the point where obvious breaks are visible. She discusses the loss of understanding of “what our [Canadian] system actually is”; identifies disturbing trends in the political structure; and explains what the system used to (and ought to) be and do.

Andrew Coyne ‘The Alarming State of Canada’s Democracy,” Merv  Leitch Q.C. Memorial Lecture, University of Alberta Faculty of Law (Monday, 4 November 2013) [posted 8 Nov 2013]. Note: the lecture proper begins at the 12 minute mark. Coyne opens with the observation, “we no longer live with the system we think we do,” and proceeds to outline “the way that parliament works, or doesn’t work” in Canada today. He reviews ways in which the Canadian system is far less representative than true democracy demands — a condition he describes as “a glittering, bi-partisan achievement.”


In the Present [2014], Canadians ask: “Is Canada facing the end of Representative and Responsible Government?”

Scott Clark and Peter DeVries, “Why is this government so terrified of Parliament?” IPolitics (4 April 2014), decry the loss of Parliamentary power in Canada, under a majority government that “violates the spirit and intent,” of the legislative process, noting that “parliamentary debate is stifled, public opinion is ignored and the process by which we make public policy better is short-circuited. … This goes to the very core of the system through which we govern ourselves.”

Canadian Press, “Fair Elections Act: Ex-watchdog Sheila Fraser slams bill as attack on democracy: ‘It’s just astounding to me,’ former auditor-general says of Tories’ proposed election law overhaul,” CBC News (3 April 2014), describes objections to Bill-C23.



Other governance Models:

pre-1763, Colonial Governance in New England (later the ‘Thirteen Colonies’/ the United States):

colonial america

Note that representation is present at the local level. However, in 1773, the authority of the Parliament of Great Britain to govern from overseas without North American residents having elected representatives in the overseas parliament is rejected. All royal officials are expelled. A rallying cry is ‘No taxation without representation.’


1791, Political, British North America:

Model 1791

Governance under the Constitution Act (1791). [Click on image to embiggen.] Note the lack of direct connection between the Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council. Source: Wikimedia, “Hierarchy of power under the Constitutional Act of 1791 (Upper and Lower Canada),”


1840 Political, United Canada:

1840 United Canada model

“Political organisation under the Union Act (1840),” depicting representative but not responsible government. Source: Wikimedia,


1840, An optimistic cultural construct of a socio-political economic model (ie: a metaphor), of Britain:

British Bee Hive

George Cruikshank, etching, “The British Beehive,” designed 1840, printed 1867, “based on an idea developed by the economist Adam Smith in the 1770s which suggested that social status and social identity were primarily determined not by social, religious or political rank, but by occupation and by an individual’s relation to the means of production. So in this print the hierarchy of British society is presented as a pyramid showing each profession’s relative importance and status. Bees are a singularly industrious species in which there are clear divisions of labour, and have been used as a metaphor for human social structures since Roman times.” [Quoted from V&A Search Collections,]


1848, Political, United Canada:

United Canada 1848

“Political organisation under the Union Act (1848),” depicting representative and responsible government. Source: Wikimedia


1869, Political, HBC Proprietary Government of Assiniboia:

Proprietary Govt

Model of nonrepresentative and non-responsible government to which people of Red River Settlement objected [see also Definition: Proprietary Government, this site].

From 1670, the directors of the Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC], as the “‘true and absolute Lordes and Proprietors” of the  plantation of Rupert’s Land, held rights to govern that plantation (with minimal stipulations), Britain’s monarch having conferred that power by way of a royal charter. There was no governing connection to Parliament in Britain, or anywhere else in the Empire. Nor was there such a connection to the ruling monarch — until such time as the charter came up for renewal (which it did periodically), neither monarch nor parliament paid much attention to who was being governed by whom in Rupert’s Land.

By the time of the founding of Red River Settlement in the nineteenth century, the HBC operated as a political anachronism — being the last proprietary government in existence in the British Empire. At the settlement, an HBC Governor and council — the Council of Assiniboia — made laws, oversaw legal judgements, and levied taxes.


1870, Political, Provisional Government of Assiniboia:

corrected 1870 model

Model of representative government instituted at Red River Settlement in 1870. Note that, on the 14th Day of its debates, the Convention of Forty members determined that the President was not to be one of the voting members of the Legislative Assembly. In addition, the Assembly had the power to “over-ride the veto of the President of the Provisional Government” with a two-thirds majority vote. If confederation with Canada had not been achieved, conceivably the government would have demonstrated that it was also responsible by calling for new elections in order to see a new president and executive council installed, chosen from among the members of a new legislative assembly. At that point, it is possible that political parties would have formed, resulting in the majority and minority division in the legislative assembly that was typical of governments in North America.


1870, Community Governance and Balance, Assiniboia 1870:


Note the balance between ‘French’ and ‘English’ parish representation in the Legislative Assembly, and in appointments to the executive which advised the President.

The Red River cart is a symbol long associated with the Métis of Manitoba. In design and manufacture it was both functional and ingenious. As such, the cart may well have served as inspiration to Curtis James Bird, Thomas Bunn, Charles Nolin, Louis Riel, James Ross, and Louis Schmidt who made up the six member committee, appointed 8 February 1870, to “discuss and decide on the basis and details” of a new provisional government for Assiniboia. All of the committee members were educated (5 were Métis  — while Dr. C.J. Bird had Métis half-siblings). All were collectively familiar with formal government structuring through direct observation and experience, at home in the settlement and abroad in such locales as Montréal and Toronto. Analysis of the structure of the Provisional Government of Assiniboia suggests that, while the elements common to colonial governments of the time were incorporated, these elements were arranged not in strict imitation of other governments, but to serve the needs of the settlement. This arrangement is illustrated above using the structure of a Red River cart as a model, where the cart represents community development, while the wheel-base assembly represents the government.

In establishing the cart analogy, it may be noted that all of the parts of a wheel assembly for a Red River cart, though fashioned differently from a variety of locally obtained wood, were integral to the whole. To carry the analogy further, the president was situated at the axle point, to bear the weight of the endeavour. The executive acted as the hub, maintaining the president in proper relation to the members of the assembly — the spokes. The members of the Legislative Assembly, like the spokes of a wheel, were balanced in number, standing singly in place of what would otherwise be the mass of a solid wheel (too heavy to traverse the soggy terrain of springtime), yet maintaining the crucial connection between the central hub and the outer wheel. The people of the settlement, like the outer felloes of a wheel, carried the settlement forward. The guards of the settlement were analogous to the band, fashioned of buffalo hide, which wrapped the outer rim of the wheel, protecting it from damage, whether it rolled over dry prairie or through sodden sloughs. The various functionaries of the settlement, from the Clerk of the Assembly to the Justices of the Peace and the Postmaster, were like the wooden pegs (no nails were used) and the rawhide straps which fastened and bound all of the parts in proper tension.

Even the number of representatives — councillors — to be chosen by the various parishes to sit in the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia corresponds with number of spokes normally found in one strong wheel: from twelve to fourteen. There were two sets of representatives chosen to form the Legislative Assembly of Assiniboia, in keeping with designing a ‘two-wheeled’ conveyance that was equally dependent on a French and an English wheel to carry it forward. Finally, it may be observed, the axle of a Red River cart was not greased, as this soon would have resulted in a wheel seized with prairie dust. Consequently, the wheels of Red River carts were renowned for making a noise of a singular timbre that carried a great distance across the prairies.[7]

[7] See: Lawrence J. Barkwell, “Red River Cart,” Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America online,; Préfontaine, Paquin, and Young, “Traditional Métis Transportation,” 10-14; Alexander Begg, The Creation of Manitoba; Or, a History of the Red River Troubles (Toronto: A.H. Hovey, 1871), 270; Knox, “Red River Cart,” reports learning from her informant that “the immense hubs of the carts were usually made of elm because elm was hard to split. The felloes, which I had always called the rims, were made from white ash or oak, because it could be bent into a curve. The axle was made from hard maple, because there was no spring to hard maple. The bow, for the oxen, was cut from ash or oak, that had been boiled and pressed into the desired shape. … He pointed at the rim of the wheel. ‘Sometimes they wound rawhide around the rims,’ he said. ‘A sort of tire’”; and A.-A. Taché, Separate Schools, Part of the Negotiations at Ottawa in 1870. 3.


1871, Imperial Britain:

Imperial 1871

Outline of the Imperial structure, 1871. Note that Prince Edward Island is not explicitly named, but instead subsumed under ‘Crown Colonies.’


1958, Political, France:

france governance model

“French Government,” from 1958 [See “Government of France,”  which notes that in the above diagram, “The main processes of the French national government (most of the justice system excluded for clarity)”]. Source: Wikimedia Commons


2012, Political and Economic Bureaucracy, Great Britain:


Diagram showing structure of British Government, including non-elected bureaucracy, described as an “Organogram of Government,” posted with commentary by the Telegraph (Wednesday 26 December 2012), with links to full resolution version (JPG | PDF).


Published: 5 December 2012


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