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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Responsible Government

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

One of the important legacies of the British system of Government, cabinet or responsible government contains three main principles:

  • The first component concerns who will be called to form the government. The Lieutenant-Governor (or the Governor General in the government of Canada) when forming the government (the cabinet or the executive council as it is sometimes called) appoints only such people that have the support of the majority (the confidence) of the House. Thus, in Quebec, the appointed individuals must have the support of the National Assembly. Ordinarily, the Assembly is organised around political parties and the leader of the party that has obtained the majority of the seats in the elections to the National Assembly will be asked by the Lieutenant-Governor to form the government. A list of other individuals will be drawn up by the appointed premier and be submitted to the Lieutenant-Governor so that they will also be appointed to the cabinet.
  • The second principle of Responsible Government defines how long a government may stay in power. Under its provisions, a government may stay in power as long as it continues to enjoy the confidence of the National Assembly. Thus, as long as a government is supported by a majority in the National Assembly, it may stay in power. As elections to the National Assembly are called at least every five years, if not sooner in many instances, the issue of the acceptability of the government to the new assembly is automatically raised every five years. If the result of the election is that another political party has obtained the majority of seats, then the first principle outlined above is applied: the defeated government will resign and the Lieutenant-Governor will call the leader of the new majority to form the government. While in power, a government must maintain the support of the majority in the National Assembly on all non-confidence votes, on all money bills, especially on its budget, and all other tax bills, as well as on all pieces of legislation deemed important. In this respect, if the government allows a free vote in the National Assembly, and then all members may vote as they wish without necessarily following party lines, then the issue of confidence in the government is not raised by this vote. If the government is defeated on a confidence vote in the National Assembly, then either it must resign so that the Lieutenant-Governor will call on the leader of the new majority to form the government, or else elections will be called. The latter is the preferred course of action of most governments defeated on one type or another of a confidence vote.
  • The last principle of Responsible Government is that the Lieutenant-Governor shall follow the advice of the government. In this manner, most of the discretionary powers that were once in the hands of the monarch or its representative have been removed.

In the absence of Responsible Government, such as in the period of 1791 to 1848, the Governor General called on anyone he wished to be appointed to their council, as the government was then called. Favourites of the Governor were inevitably appointed and they had not necessarily the support of the elected house, and even less the support of the people. Usually the people referred to these appointees as the Chateau Clique or, in Upper Canada, the Family Compact. These individuals did not have to account for their actions to anybody but the Governor who had appointed them. They frequently abused their position and influence, granted themselves privileges, cumulated functions and income, and were deemed to disregard the public welfare. They held their positions essentially for life. Calls for reform inevitably arose and the reformers of both Upper and Lower Canada demanded the application of the remedy of Responsible Government. In Lower Canada, the problem was further complicated by the fact that the majority in the elected assembly was inevitably French while all the councils appointed by the governors between 1791 to 1840 had an English majority. Thus, power always remained in the hands of anglophones although, seemingly, a francophone province had been created. This issue fuelled nationalism in the province prior to the Rebellions of 1837-1838.

Responsible Government was first applied in Nova Scotia in 1847. In the United Province of Canada, Lord Elgin granted Responsible-Government in 1848. On this occasion, he called on Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine to form the government. Thus, Lafontaine became Canada’s first premier.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College