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Elections in Upper Canada before 1837: The Rebellion of Upper Canada as Catalyst for Change

On October 24th, people across Ontario will go to the polls to elect mayors, members of council, and school board trustees. Voting in these elections is extremely important, as the councils we elect will help to ensure that garbage gets picked up on time; private residences and public buildings (such as the Health and Active Living Plaza) are able to be built; and fire departments are able to be maintained.

Voting is the way that you choose someone to represent you in government, on a municipal, provincial, or federal level. Your vote is also secret; no one can ask you for whom you voted or compel you to change your vote. This was not always the case, especially during the tumultuous period in Upper Canada shortly before the Rebellion of 1837.

During the decades of the 1820’s and 1830’s, the political system in upper Canada was essentially monopolized by a group of wealthy landowners known as the “Family Compact”. They were primarily interested in maintaining the status quo and were desirous of recreating an aristocratic class in Canada on a similar model to Britain, by collecting money in rent from the people working on farms. As such, they were wary of the suggestion of responsible government (a government which relies on an elected assembly, rather than being appointed by a monarch or their representatives).

Elections during this time were less stringent than by modern standards. For starters, only certain people were allowed to vote; you had to be a property owner, and an individual “had to own a freehold (land free of all duties and rents), and this freehold had to generate a minimum annual revenue or 40 shillings, or £2 sterling; this immediately excluded the majority of the population.”[1] Additionally, women, non-British immigrants, people of certain religious faiths, and Indigenous peoples were disallowed from voting.

There was no central place to vote; most voting was done in central community locations, like a local tavern. This meant that candidates could encourage people to vote for them by paying for their alcohol and food daily. Also, you had to stand on a box, and verbally declare your ballot openly; this could lead to violence against voters who favored one candidate over another, threatening to beat people up if they did not vote for the “right” person to stand for office.

For example, two candidates were running in the election for the representative for North York in 1826: Peter Robinson of Holland Landing and John Cawthra of Newmarket. Robinson’s base was at Phelps's Tavern, near his mills, while John Cawthra had set up at a tavern near the Upper Landing. One favored tactic of voters would be to feast all week on one candidate’s dime, and then on the last day, vote for his opponent. Peter Robinson managed to best Cawthra, both in 1826 and again in 1830.

Figure 1: Watercolor drawing showing "an election during the struggle of responsible government." No date, drawn by C.W. Jefferys. Image from Library and Archives Canada,

Many politicians advocated against the flagrant nepotism present in the family compact; they were known as Reform politicians, as they wanted democratic reform in Canada. William Lyon Mackenzie (1795 – 1861), who was a prominent Reform politician and former mayor of Toronto, wrote in 1833 in his newspaper called the Colonial Advocate that:

“The family connection rules Upper Canada. A dozen nobodies, and a few placemen, pensioners and individuals of well-known narrow and bigoted principles: the whole of the revenue of Upper Canada are in reality at their mercy; - they are paymasters, receivers, auditors, King, Lords and Commons.”[2]

However, due to the bureaucracy of the British Crown and the discontent brewing within the population at the time culminated in the Battle of Montgomery’s tavern in 1837, which did not turn out well for the Reform politicians involved in the skirmish.

By 1848, Ontario had received a mandate from the crown to implement responsible government: the colony would be governed by a House of Assembly, an elected premier, and executive and legislative councils. Canada enacted the policy of secret ballots in all levels of government in 1874.

To find out if you are registered to vote in the upcoming municipal election, head over to There, you can find out who the candidates are in this election, and in which ward they are running. If you have any trouble voting on-line or in person, please email us at

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