Report on the Affairs of British North America

The Report on the Affairs of British North America,[1] commonly known as the Durham Report, or Lord Durham's Report is an important document in the history of Quebec, Ontario, Canada and the British Empire.

The notable British Whig politician John Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, was sent to the Canadas in 1838 to investigate and report on the causes of the rebellions of 1837–38. Durham arrived in Quebec City on 29 May.[2] He had just been appointed Governor General and given special powers as high commissioner of British North America.

On the first page of his report he stated that "While the present state of things is allowed to last, the actual inhabitants of these Provinces have no security for person or property--no enjoyment of what they possess--no stimulus to industry."[1] He would return to that theme repeatedly throughout his report.


In Upper and Lower Canada, he formed numerous committees consisting of essentially all the opponents of the Patriotes and made many personal observations of life in the colonies. He also visited the United States. Durham wrote that he had assumed he would find that the rebellions were based on liberalism and economics, but he eventually concluded that the real problem was the conflict between the traditionalistic French and the modernizing English elements. According to Durham, the French culture in Canada had changed little in 200 years, and showed no sign of the progress British culture had made. His 1838 report contains the famous assessment that Lower Canada consisted of "two nations warring within the bosom of a single state".

The Report

Durham had previously been the Governor General in Lower Canada in 1837, but soon afterward submitted his resignation due to conflict with British Parliament. These conflicts were vastly due to Lord Durham's progressive nature, believing British Parliament should give the colonies more power in their government, namely, a responsible government. Lord Durham was sent back to Canada in 1838 by British Parliament and the Crown to investigate the cause behind the rebellions of both Upper and Lower Canada, and propose suggestions to fix any remaining problems and lessen the chance of future rebellions.

Lord Durham found that although the rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada were over, peace and unity were yet to be found in Canada. The people living in both colonies in Canada were struggling as the economic situation in both areas all but collapsed. Poor farming conditions that year led to reduced harvests and increased poverty for farmers. As well as increased political tension and bitterness between parties and races of people, in particular in lower Canada. Upper and Lower Canada were in a state of distress.

Lord Durham's report entitled, "Report on the Affairs of British North America." The report at the time was considered controversial as it suggested radical ideas for the time, such as British Parliament granting Upper and Lower Canada a responsible government.

The two most well known suggestions from Lord Durham's report were the fusion of Upper and Lower Canada, to become a single, unified colony, entitled The Province of Canada, ruled under a single legislature. The second, was to introduce a responsible government into place. A government Durham already believed to be inevitable due to the progressive nature of the colonies neighbour, The United States of America. He believed as these ideas were already available to the people and understood, nothing less would be accepted or tolerated, and so must be embraced as to satisfy the people and maintain the peace. We see this in a quote from his report, "... establishing representative government in the North American Colonies. That has been irrevocably done and the experiment of depriving the people of their present constitutional power, is not to be thought of."[3]

Durham also recommended the creation of a municipal government and a supreme court in British North America. He was interested in not only unifying Upper and Lower Canada, but including Nova Scotia and New Brunswick as well. He also wanted to resolve the issue of land over Prince Edward Island. However, these suggestions never came to fruition as the maritime provinces were uninterested in the proposition at the time.[4] These suggestions would not be put into place until decades later, due to the Confederation of Canada.

Important Passages

"The French complained of the arrogance and injustice of the English; the English accused the French of the vices of a weak and conquered people, and charged them with meanness and perfidy. The entire mistrust which the two races have thus learned to conceive of each other's intentions, induces them to put the worst construction on the most innocent conduct; to judge every word, every act, and every intention unfairly; to attribute the most odious designs, and reject every overture of kindness or fairness, as covering secret designs of treachery and malignity."[5]

"At first sight is appears must more difficult to form an accurate idea of the sate of Upper than of Lower Canada. The visible and broad line of demarcation which separates the parties by distinctive character of race, happily has no existence in the Upper Province. The quarrel is one of an entirely English, if not British population. Like all such quarrels, it has, in fact created, not two but several parties; each of which has some objects in common with some one of those to which it is opposed. They differ on one point and agree on another; the sections, which unite together one day, are strongly opposed the next; and the very party, which acts as one, against a common opponent, is in truth composed of divisions seeking utterly different or incompatible objects. It is very difficult to make out from the avowals o the parties the real objects of their struggles , and still less easy is it to discover any cause of such importance as would account for its uniting any large mass of the people in an attempt to other throw, by forcible means, the existing form of Government."[6]

"We are not now to consider the policy of establishing representative government in the North American Colonies. That has been irrevocably done; and the experiment of depriving the people of their present constitutional power, is not to be thought of. To conduct their Government harmoniously, in accordance with its established principles, is now the business of its rulers; and I know not how it is possible to secure that harmony in any other way, than by administering the Government on those principles which have been found perfectly efficacious in the Great Britain. I would not impair a single prerogative of the Crown; on the contrary, I believe that the interests of the people of these Colonies require the protection of the prerogatives, which have not hitherto been exercised But the Crown must, on the other hand, submit to the necessary consequences of representative institutions and if it has to carry on the Government in unison with a representative body, it must consent to carry it on by means of those in whom that representative body has confidence."[3]

"A plan by which it is proposed to ensure the tranquil government of Lower Canada, must include in itself the means of putting an end to the agitation of national disputes in the legislature, by settling, at once and forever, the national character of the Province. I entertain no doubts as to the national character of the Province. I entertain no doubts as to the national character which must be given to Lower Canada; it must be that of the British Empire; that of the majority of the population of British America; that of the great race which must, in the lapse of no long period of time, be predominant over the whole North American Continent. Without effecting the change so rapidly or so roughly as to shock the feelings and trample on the welface 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."[7]


Durham recommended that Upper and Lower Canada be united into one province, with equal representation even though the English Upper Canada had a smaller population. He also encouraged immigration to Canada from Britain, to overwhelm the existing numbers of French Canadians with the hope of assimilating them into British culture.[8] The freedoms granted to the French Canadians under the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Quebec Act of 1774 should also be rescinded; according to Lord Durham this would eliminate the possibility of future rebellions. The French Canadians did not necessarily have to give up their religion and language entirely, but their culture could not be allowed to hinder the progress of British culture.

The proposed merger would also benefit Upper Canada as the construction of canals led to a considerable debt load; while access to the former Lower Canada fiscal surplus would allow that debt to be erased. He also recommended responsible government, in which the governor general would be a figurehead and the legislative assembly would hold a great deal of power. In the responsible government, the legislative assembly would be elected by the people. The party with majority would hold power and as long as they held support, they would keep power. However, this recommendation was not accepted in London and the Province of Canada would not get responsible government for another decade. The Report did not reshape British policy, but it opened years of debate inside Canada.


In exile in France, Louis-Joseph Papineau published the Histoire de la résistance du Canada au gouvernement anglais (History of the resistance of Canada to the English government) in the French La Revue du Progrès in May 1839. In June, it appeared in Canada in Ludger Duvernay's La Revue canadienne as Histoire de l'insurrection du Canada en réfutation du Rapport de Lord Durham (History of the insurrection of Canada in refutation of the Report of Lord Durham). Lord Durham believed to eliminate the possibility of rebellions, they must overwhelm the French Canadians with British culture.

The assertion that the so-called "French" Canadians had no history and no culture and that the conflict was primarily that of two ethnic groups evidently outraged Papineau. It was pointed out that many of the Patriote leaders were of British or British Canadian origin, including among others Wolfred Nelson, hero of the Battle of Saint-Denis; Robert Nelson, author of the Declaration of Independence of Lower Canada, who would have become President of Lower Canada had the second insurrection succeeded; journalist Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan; and Thomas Storrow Brown, general during the Battle of St-Charles. It was also pointed out that an uprising had occurred in Upper Canada where there was only one "race". According to Papineau and other Patriotes, the analysis of the economic situation of French Canadians was biased. Indeed, from 1791 to the rebellions, the elected representatives of Lower Canada had been demanding the control over the budget of the colony.

Impact outside Canada

The general conclusions of the report (Report on the Affairs of British North America) that pertained to self-governance were enacted in Australia and New Zealand and other mostly ethnically British colonies. The parallel nature of government organisation in Australia and Canada to this day is an ongoing proof of the long-enduring effects of the report's recommendations.

The report did not see any of its recommendations come into force in the African and Asian colonies, but some limited democratic reforms in India became possible that otherwise would not have been.


Durham resigned on 9 October 1838 amid controversy excited in London by his decision of the penal questions[9] and was soon replaced by Charles Poulett Thomson, 1st Baron Sydenham, who was responsible for implementing the Union of the Canadas. The report of Durham was laid before Parliament in London on 11 February 1839.[9]

See also


  1. Durham, 1839: "Report on the Affairs of British North America", bound with several appendices that do not appear on this particular link
  2. Canadian Encyclopedia article on Durham
  3. Craig, Gerald M., ed. (1963). Lord Durham's Report. Toronto: The Canadian Publishers. p. 139.
  4. "Durham Report | The Canadian Encyclopedia". Retrieved 11 December 2019.
  5. Craig, Gerald M., ed. (1963). Lord Durham's Report. Toronto: The Canadian Publishers. p. 33.
  6. Craig, Gerald M., ed. (1963). Lord Durham's Report. Toronto: The Canadian Publishers. pp. 77–78.
  7. Craig, Gerald M., ed. (1963). Lord Durham's Report. Toronto: The Canadian Publishers. p. 146.
  8. David Mills. "Durham Report". Historica Foundation of Canada. Archived from the original on 30 March 2006. Retrieved 18 May 2006.
  9. Lambton, John George, 1st Earl of Durham, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, University of Toronto, Université Laval, 2000

Further reading

  • Bradshaw, Frederick (1903). Self-Government in Canada, and How it was Achieved: The Story of Lord Durham's Report, London: P.S.King, 414 p. (online)
  • Brown, George W. "The Durham Report and the Upper Canadian Scene." Canadian Historical Review 20#2 (1939): 136-160.
  • Cameron, David R. "Lord Durham Then and Now." Journal of Canadian Studies 25.1 (1990): 5+
  • Henderson, Jarett. "Banishment to Bermuda: Gender, Race, Empire, Independence and the Struggle to Abolish Irresponsible Government in Lower Canada." Histoire sociale/Social history 46#92 (2013): 321-348. online
  • Mills, David. Durham Report, in The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historical Foundation, 2008
  • Martin, Ged (1972). The Durham Report and British policy: A Critical Essay, Cambridge University Press, 120 p. (ISBN 0521085306) (preview)
  • Smith, William. "The Reception of the Durham Report in Canada." Report of the Annual Meeting. Vol. 7. No. 1. The Canadian Historical Association/La Société historique du Canada, 1928. online

Primary sources

  • Lucas, Charles Prestwood (1912). Lord Durham's report on the affairs of British North America, Oxford: Clarendon Press (Volume 1, Volume 2, Volume 3)
  • Lambton, John George, Charles Buller, Edward Gibbon Wakefield. The Report and Despatches of the Earl of Durham, Her Majesty's High Commissioner and Governor-General of British North America, London: Ridgways, Piccadilly, 1839, 423 p. (online)
  • Papineau, Louis-Joseph. "Histoire de la résistance du Canada au gouvernement anglais", in La Revue du Progrès, Paris. May 1839 (online in French, online in English)
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