Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Corn Laws



[This text was written in 1948 by A. H. U. COLQUHOUN. For the full citation, see the end of the text.]


In 1846 abolition of the Corn Laws in Great Britain directly affected Canada by (1) removing the preferential duties on wheat, timber, etc., and (2) producing the discontent with imperial relations which culminated in the famous Annexation Manifesto of 1849. Tariff preference on colonial produce had existed as early as 1828; but the subject came more prominently into view after 1841, when the government of Sir Robert Peel first revised the list of customs duties in 1842, and then rather abruptly in 1846 adopted free trade. The revision had reduced the preferences, but left them as a feature of tariff policy, Peel declaring: "It is desirable that we should act on the principle of treating Canada as if it were an integral part of the Empire." This hint of an imperial tariff was followed in June, 1843, by the Canada Corn Act. The Act imposed a sliding' scale of duties on wheat which, for the next three years, gave Canada a preference, varying, according to the market price, from 13s. to 15s. a quarter. The exports by the St. Lawrence route greatly increased during this period. Abolition of the Corn Laws, however, taking effect in 1849, but wiping out preferences at once (except that on West Indian sugar), checked exports. The resultant agitation in Canada was, therefore, both commercial and political. Dispassionate review of the conditions indicates that the Act had too brief an existence to develop a large trade, and that other factors contributed to the Canadian alarm. These were an increase in ocean freight rates, low prices in Great Britain, and the setting up of the bonding system by the United States Congress. The last-mentioned was a device to switch Upper Canada exports for shipment at New York. Popular opinion, however, attributed commercial depression wholly to free trade, ignoring the other causes, and the Galt tariff of the fifties, with its duties on British manufactures, drew support from this feeling. What expansion along imperial lines might have resulted, had the preferences continued, is matter for conjecture only. Free trade passed the House of Commons on May 11, 1846 , by 98 majority, and in the House of Lords, after a majority of 47 for the second reading, received third reading without a division. So definite a verdict buried hopes of preference for fifty years until the Fielding tariff of 1897, with its voluntary preference on British imports, re-opened the question. See D. L. Burn, Canada and the repeal of the Corn laws (Cambridge Historical journal, 1928).



Free trade

Imperial Preference

National Policy



Source : A. H. U. COLQUHOUN, "Corn Laws", in W. Stewart WALLACE, ed., The Encyclopedia of Canada ,   Vol. II, Toronto , University Associates of Canada , 411p., pp. 131-132.



© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College