The latest issue of The Dorchester Review contains my first little foray into this question of when Responsible Government began; I hope to expand this initial contribution into a larger project. For now, you can read my initial findings here.
The idea came to me when I noticed that Alpheus Todd, the Librarian of Parliament for the United Province of Canada and the Dominion of Canada, wrote in Parliamentary Government in the British Colonies that Responsible Government was granted to Canada in 1841. He stated it in a perfunctory way as a matter of fact, not in order to make an argument on a matter of controversy. In other words, the creation of the United Province of Canada itself marked the beginnings of Responsible Government. What made this observation so interesting, in my mind, is that Todd was a contemporary to the Rebellions of 1837 and the re-organization of Upper Canada and Lower Canada into the United Province of Canada and could therefore speak with some authority on the subject. Yet, most historians of the 20th and 21st centuries place the grant of Responsible Government to 1848, when Governor General Lord Elgin first applied the principles contained in his letters and instructions. Canadians elected the 3rd Parliament in January 1848; when it convened in March of that year, the Reformers, let by Baldwin and Lafontaine, used their majority to pass a vote of non-confidence in incumbent conservative administration, and Lord Elgin then commissioned Baldwin and Lafontaine to form a new government. (The custom that the incumbent government resigns before the next parliament meets, when the results and outcomes of the election are clear, did not emerge until the late 19th century).
I explore in this article what accounts for that discrepancy in the historiography of Responsible Government.
Bowden, James W.J. “1841: The Year of Responsible Government?” The Dorchester Review 6, no. 2 (Autumn-Winter 2016): 69-72.