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 the House of 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).

Model 2: Representative and Responsible Government

In the past, attaining responsible government was considered a big deal. In the Canadas (West/ Upper/ Ontario, and East/ Lower/ Quebec), people fought — and died — for the right to have representative and responsible government. [i] 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.” [ii]


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.

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 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.[iii]

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/Stinking River, referred to themselves as the “parti Patriote,” and the “Patriot Army.”[iv]

A decade passed before the Patriotes of 1837–1838 realized their goal. Charles William Jefferys, well known to 20th-century Canadian school children for his historical illustrations in textbooks, depicted the achievement as a peoples’ struggle. In 1948, Canada issued a commemorative stamp celebrating the implementation of responsible government one hundred years earlier.

[i] 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.

[ii] 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,

[iii] 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 ResistanceProvisional Government of Assiniboia site, which notes, “Perhaps not coincidentally, Jean-Louis Riel (aka 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).”

[iv] 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.