Upper Canada

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This territory passed into British hands with the Treaty of Paris (1763). It was incorporated into the Province of Quebec by the Quebec Act of 1774. Upper Canada became a political entity in 1791 with the passage, in 1790, of the Constitutional Act by the Parliament of Great Britain. The Act divided the Province of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada. The division was effected so that Loyalist American settlers and British immigrants in Upper Canada could have British laws and institutions, and the French-speaking population of Lower Canada could maintain French civil law and the Catholic religion.

The colony was administered by a lieutenant-governor, legislative council, and legislative assembly. The first lieutenant-governor was John Graves Simcoe. On February 1, 1796 the capital of Upper Canada was moved from Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) to York (now Toronto), which was judged to be less vulnerable to attack by the Americans.

Local government in Upper Canada was based on districts. In 1788, four districts were created:

Additional districts were created from the existing districts as the population grew until 1849, when local government mainly based on counties came into effect. At that time, there were 20 districts; legislation to create a new Kent District never completed.

Up until 1841, the district officials were appointed by the lieutenant-governor, although usually with local input. A Court of Quarter Sessions was held four times a year in each district to oversee the administration of the district and deal with legal cases.

Land settlement

Land had been settled since the French regime, notably along the Detroit River and the Saint Lawrence River. However, impetus to land settlement came with the influx of Loyalist refugees and military personnel in 1784 after the American Revolution. As a result, prior to the creation of Upper Canada in 1791 as a separate colony, much land had been ceded by the First Nations to the Crown in accordance with the Royal Proclamation of 1763. This land was surveyed by the government of the Province of Quebec, particularly in eastern Ontario along the Saint Lawrence River, as the Western Townships, while the Eastern Townships were in Lower Canada.

Rudimentary municipal administration began with the creation of districts, notably Western (including present day Brantford), Eastern, Gore (including present day Hamilton) and Home (including present day Toronto).

The Act Against Slavery passed in Upper Canada on July 9, 1793.

The British garrisons withdrew from Detroit, Upper Canada to Amherstburg, and from Michimillimackinac to Drummond Island, in 1796. The lower peninsula of Michigan thus became American, initially (through 1805) as part of Indiana Territory. The upper peninsula, although claimed by the United States, remained nominally part of Upper Canada until 1818. Drummond Island, which was also part of the American claim and was formally awarded to the United States by a joint border commission in 1818, was finally released by the Province of United Canada and incorporated into the State of Michigan in 1847.

Meanwhile, during the War of 1812, following General Isaac Brock's capture of Detroit on August 16, 1812, then-Michigan Territory was again part of the Province of Upper Canada. British/Canadian troops found it necessary to withdraw from Detroit in 1813, however, as they were needed elsewhere. The British attempted to renegotiate the boundary at Michigan during the Congress of Vienna in 1815, but the Americans refused to consider any change and then Napoleon escaped. The first order of business was to recapture the resurrected French leader and defeat him once and for all. After that was accomplished at Waterloo, the British were too tired to worry whether Michigan was American or Canadian.

Upper Canada ceased to be a political entity with the Act of Union (1840), when, by an act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom, it was merged with Lower Canada to form the Province of United Canada. This was principally in response to the Upper and Lower Canada rebellions of 1837 and 1837-38, respectively. At Confederation in 1867, the Province of Canada was re-divided along the former boundary as the provinces of Ontario and Quebec.

The name 'Upper Canada' lives on in a few fossilized forms, most notably the Law Society of Upper Canada, Upper Canada College and the Upper Canada Brewing Company.

When the capital first moved to Toronto in 1796, the Parliament of Upper Canada was located at the corner of Parliament and Front Streets, in a building that was eventually abandoned. In 2001 the remains of the original Parliament building were found during preparations to build a car dealership on that site.


Population of Upper Canada, 1806—1840
Year Census estimate
1806 70,718
1811 77,000
1814 95,000
1824 150,066
1825 157,923
1826 166,379
1827 177,174
1828 186,488
1829 197,815
1830 213,156
1831 236,702
1832 263,554
1833 295,863
1834 321,145
1835 347,359
1836 374,099
1837 397,489
1838 399,422
1839 409,048
1840 432,159

(see Province of Canada for population after 1840)
Source: Statistics Canada website Censuses of Canada 1665 to 1871.


  • Armstrong, Frederick H. Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology. Toronto : Dundurn Press, 1985. ISBN 0-919670-92-X
  • Craig, Gerald M. Upper Canada : the formative years 1784-1841. Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1963.
  • Dieterman, Frank. Government on fire : the history and archaelogy of Upper Canada's first Parliament Buildings. Toronto : Eastendbooks, 2001.
  • Dunham, Eileen. Political unrest in Upper Canada 1815-1836. Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1963.
  • Errington, Jane. The lion, the eagle, and Upper Canada : a developing colonial ideology. Kingston, Ont. : McGill-Queen's University Press, 1987.
  • Johnston, James Keith. Historical essays on Upper Canada. Toronto : McClelland and Stewart, 1975.
  • Lewis, Frank and Urquhart, M.C. Growth and standard of living in a pioneer economy : Upper Canada 1826-1851. Kingston, Ont. : Institute for Economic Research, Queen's University, 1997.
  • McCalla, Douglas. Planting the province : the economic history of Upper Canada 1784-1870. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1993.
  • McNairn, Jeffrey L. The capacity to judge : public opinion and deliberative democracy in Upper Canada 1791-1854. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 2000.
  • Winearls, Joan. Mapping Upper Canada 1780-1867 : an annotated bibliography of manuscript and printed maps. Toronto : University of Toronto Press, 1991.

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