For a country which gained its independence from the United Kingdom just 155 years ago, Canada has gone through a significant number of changes to its internal structure and boundaries. The relatively frequent shifting of jurisdictions among the oft-renamed areas has proven to be troublesome to genealogical researchers.
Before delving into the history of Canadian political geography, it is important to be aware of a few notable terms and concepts. First, is the difference between a Territory and a Province. A Province receives its power and authority from the Constitution Act of 1867, whereas Territories have powers delegated to them by Parliament. 1 Presently, Canada is composed of ten provinces and three territories, a count which changed most recently in 1999 with the creation of the Territory of Nunavut. Additionally, parts of modern-day Canada were once considered distinct Colonies of the United Kingdom, including the colonies of British Columbia (1858-1866), Prince Edward Island (1604-1873), and Newfoundland (1610-1907).
To answer the question posed by the title of this piece, Upper and Lower Canada were not named for their physical positions in relation to one another, but instead to the Great Lakes and the headwaters of the Saint Lawrence River. Upper Canada was above these headwaters, while Lower Canada was farther downriver—hence, their names.2 It should be noted that in 1841, the two colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were merged into the Province of Canada, which was then divided into two parts: Canada East (formerly Lower Canada, presently Quebec) and Canada West (formerly Upper Canada, presently Ontario).3
The first colonial division of the land that would become Canada took place in 1534 with the establishment of New France, although there were no permanent settlements until 1604.4 In 1670, the Hudson Bay Company founded Rupert’s Land, a territory developed in 1670 which lasted for two centuries before the company surrendered the land to the British Crown in 1870.5 Following the end of the Seven Years’ War, Quebec was ceded to Great Britain, who renamed it the Province of Quebec in 1763. This name would survive until 1791, when a constitutional act divided the province at the Ottawa River, establishing the Province of Upper Canada under the English legal system with mostly English speakers, while Lower Canada was populated largely by those with French ancestry.6 As previously mentioned, 1841 was a critical date in Canada’s evolution, as it saw the proclamation of the British North America Act which abolished the legislatures of Upper and Lower Canada and created a new United Province of Canada. Despite the union, two distinct colonies were retained, with Canada East observing French civil law and Canada West utilizing English common law. 7
The single most consequential event in Canadian history occurred on 1 July 1867 with the unification of the three existing Provinces—Canada (which was then divided into Quebec and Ontario ), Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick)—into the Dominion of Canada. 1870 saw the single largest formal addition to the dominion when the United Kingdom relinquished the unorganized land in the North-west Territory and Rupert’s Land into the North-west Territories (later spelled Northwest). 8 A small rectangular area around the newly-acquired city of Winnipeg was established as the Province of Manitoba.9 It was only one year later that a sixth province was founded, when the colony of British Columbia joined the dominion.10
Despite their initial resistance, Canada’s smallest province by land area and population, Prince Edward Island, which was facing a financial crisis, was united with Canada in 1873. 11 In 1876, the District of Keewatin, which consisted of the land north of Manitoba between the western border of Ontario and the North-west Territories was developed.12 This district would officially become one of the four districts of the North-west Territories in 1905, and would continue to exist until it was officially dissolved in 1999 with the creation of the Territory of Nunavut.
To complicate matters further, in 1882, the North-west Territories were divided into provisional districts including Alberta, Assiniboia, Athabasca, and Saskatchewan. They were classified as provisional to distinguish them from the District of Keewatin, which had a more autonomous standing. 13 In an effort to ease administration, four additional districts—Franklin, Ungava, Yukon, and Mackenzie—were created in 1895. 14
A massive growth in population as a direct result of the Klondike Gold Rush saw the Yukon District become the Yukon Territory in 1898.15 While the Gold Rush brought as many as 100,000 prospectors to the area, today, it is Canada’s second least populous province or territory, with a population of just under 44,000. 16 One of the final shifts in the political geography of Canada took place in 1905, when Alberta and Saskatchewan were formed as provinces when they absorbed land from the North-west Territories.17
In 1907, Newfoundland became a British Dominion, a status it would maintain until 1949 when it became Canada’s tenth province as Newfoundland and Labrador.18 Five years later in 1912, the 60th parallel north became the official northern terminus of the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, establishing a border which still exists today.19
At the turn of the 21st century, one final significant change was made when the Territory of Nunavut was created from the eastern portion of the Northwest Territories. Since that time, only names have been subject to change, as Newfoundland became Newfoundland and Labrador in 2001 and the Yukon Territory became simply Yukon in 2003.20
Over the course of the last four centuries, the geographic boundaries within Canada have shifted radically, leading genealogical researchers down a confusing path when trying to locate records for their ancestors. While the bounds of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories have long remained unchanged, it is important to remember that prior to the 20th century, shifting borders were an almost annual occurrence, which may affect where records can be found. With this in mind, when all else fails, historic maps can be the most helpful resource in your arsenal.
1 Government of Canada, “Provinces and Territories,” https://www.canada.ca/en/intergovernmental-affairs/services/provinces-territories.html.
2 Dodek, Adam, The Canadian Constitution, (2016).
3 “The Province of Canada” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/province-of-canada-1841-67.
4 Riendeau, Roger E., A Brief History of Canada, (2007), pg. 36.
5 Hudson’s Bay Company, “Deed of Surrender,” https://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/fur-trade/deed-of-surrender.
6 Hudson’s Bay Company, “Deed of Surrender,” https://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/fur-trade/deed-of-surrender.
7 “The Province of Canada” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/province-of-canada-1841-67.
8 Hudson’s Bay Company, “Deed of Surrender,” https://www.hbcheritage.ca/history/fur-trade/deed-of-surrender.
9 Begg, Alexander, The Creation of Manitoba: or, A history of the Red River Troubles , (Toronto, Ontario, 1871), pg. 306.
10 “Order of Her Majesty in Council admitting British Columbia into the Union, dated the 16th day of May, 1871,” Government of Canada, https://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/constitution/lawreg-loireg/p1t41.html#:~:text=Order%20of%20Her%20Majesty%20in,16th%20day%20of%20May%2C%201871.
11 “Dominion Day” The Patriot (Prince Edward Island), 3 July 1873.
12 Nicholson, Norman L., The Boundaries of the Canadian Confederation, (Toronto, Ontario, 1979), pg. 113.
13 Acts of the Parliament of the Dominion of Canada , (Ottawa, Ontario, 1886), pg. xviii.
14 Nicholson, Norman L., The Boundaries of the Canadian Confederation, (Toronto, Ontario, 1979), pg. 118.
15 “Yukon and Confederation” The Canadian Encyclopedia, https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/yukon-and-confederation.
16 Quarterly Population Estimate, Q3 2022, https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/t1/tbl1/en/tv.action?pid=1710000901.
17 Nicholson, Norman L., The Boundaries of the Canadian Confederation, (Toronto, Ontario, 1979), pg. 129.
18 “Newfoundland Act” https://www.solon.org/Constitutions/Canada/English/nfa.html.
19 Nicholson, Norman L., The Boundaries of the Canadian Confederation, (Toronto, Ontario, 1979), pg. 129.
20 “Yukon Act, SC 2002, c 7” https://www.canlii.org/en/ca/laws/stat/sc-2002-c-7/105007/sc-2002-c-7.html.
19 thoughts on “Why Was Lower Canada Above Upper Canada?”
Thank you for this! I had not realized that when my relatives moved from Wisconsin to Alberta, the latter had been a province for only eight or nine years. Interesting! A cousin enlisted in the Canadian Army soon after arriving and served in France. His cousins later joined him there with the AEF.
Thank you for explaining Canadian history so succinctly.
Very useful! I am hunting information on Brome, Lower Canada around 1800 and knowing that French law was in force will help, even though my person is of New England ancestry.
I have read that in 1840 Canada East and West were formed into the province of Canada. My 2nd great grandfather was born in Sherbrooke in 1845 but his birth certificate says province of quebec. He was of English and Scottish parents. Today the area is all French speaking. I have not seen how it transitioned from being English-speaking to French-speaking. Thank you for your article; it just underscored how ignorant I am of my own Canadian family’s history. It’s all I can do to keep Maine’s borders straight.
Since the first Parti Quebecois government under Réné Levesque in the 1970s, there has been a steady exodus of English-speakers, mostly to Ontario. Sherbrooke, as an urban area, has also attracted intra-provincial migration from rural areas (although Lennoxville, with Bishop’s University, retains official bilingual status). There are still pockets of English throughout the Eastern Townships.
A good summary, however, there is one error.
The Dominion of Newfoundland went bankrupt in 1919, as a result of debts incurred in World War I. As a condition of Britain bailing it out, it lost its independence and reverted to colonial government. In 1948, a referendum was held with a choice of renewed independence or confederation with Canada. Many of the proponents of independence saw it as an opportunity to seek to join the United States, with which Newfoundland had historic trade and emigration ties, and which had a substantial military presence. Confederation won narrowly, and Newfoundland joined Canada on April 1, 1949.
Control of Labrador, throughout history, was disputed by Quebec and Newfoundland, with the boundary only officially determined late in the 20th century, although some maps produced by the Quebec government still today assert Quebec claims to some of Labrador.
My brother-in-law, who died last month at age 75, spent his whole life, except for a few years in his 20s, in the same outport village. Yet he was born and died in two different countries, and held 3 nationalities (British, Newfoundlander, and Canadian). That border dispute would not, however, affect genealogical research, as the disputed areas are unpopulated except for traplines and hunting and logging camps.
on a much smaller scale the issues you address can be attributed to countie,towns in states which also suffered the same process. Land does not move but geo political boundaries do. the trick is finding maps or documents that use current (for the year in question) hope this helps- Rick
A further source of confusion for American genealogical researchers unaware of Canadian history is the existence throughout most of the 17th century of the French colony of Acadia, portions of which are now in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Maine, and the Gaspe peninsula. The various wars and invasions that led to Acadia’s end as a political unit were so violent that some towns, towns that were the birth and/or death places of persons with descendants alive today, were burnt to the ground and literally no longer exist.
Most informative article I’ve read on Upper and Lower Canada. My maternal lineage emigrated and settled at various places along the St. Lawrence River and New York between mid 1700s and 1800s. Equally interesting are boundaries between American colonies and early Canadian settlers.It complicates research, making it more interesting.
Excellent article and resource! Thank you.
So helpful! A lot packed into this post. My research is mostly United States, but there is a lot of back and forth activity with Canada, particularly in Michigan.
Zach, Many thanks for the much-needed geography tour. I haven’t done much Canadian work and am always afloat on that topic.
This was fascinating, Zack! How little I know about Canadian history, and how it is intertwined with the history of the US- especially the overlap between New England and Canada. A good introduction- Thanks for all the links.
Thanks for this. In my own tree, I do my best to record full place names for events such as births, marriages, and deaths according to the time of the event. This article not only helps with research. It also helps me show place names correctly. By my self-imposed rule, a child could have been born in Fleur de Lys, Newfoundland Colony in 1906, married in Fleur de Lys, Newfoundland [the Dominion] in 1925, remarried in Fleur de Lys, Newfoundland, Canada in 1950, and died in Fleur de Lys, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada in 2002. (I usually include counties, but Newfoundland doesn’t have any.)
Since I’m in New Brunswick, Canada, I take a particular interest in the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842, which helped define the disputed border between New Brunswick and Maine. Some cousins living before 1842 were in disputed communities/areas. They didn’t know whether they were American or British. This was before Canada came into existence in 1867.
The history of Canada is never complete without inclusion of the Irish invasions after the US Civil War aka the series of five Fenian Raids. Christopher Klein does a wee brilliant job of telling the story in his book “When the Irish Invaded Canada.” https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/554115/when-the-irish-invaded-canada-by-christopher-klein/
Thank you Zack. After 40 years of “okay, what was Upper and Lower, again?” I think this will help me remember, of course I will write it down for my bulletin board anyway.
Great +++ grandfather left St. Ours Canada in 1776 ,,to join the American French Cadets to fight the British. Had French name — but, the New York military could not understand . Ended up last name – St. Ores . He and brother survived the War — became NY Patriots .. Was tough to find this ancestry ..
So — lotsa ”mixing” going on in those days ..
I’ve been struggling with this a long time and now I know why! Now, if I can only figure out if and when the spelling of my ancestor surname changed. Born in Lower Canada in 1837. Found gravestone verifying but unable to find birth or death certificate. Child born in Massachusetts.