Role and functions of the British colonial governors

Saint-Louis Forts and Châteaux National Historic Site

British administration

In 1763, France lost Canada to England. Henceforth, British governors presided over the colony on behalf of the English king.


Although British custom was to have an elected assembly, the small number of English subjects and large number of Catholics in the colony thwarted this approach. In his management of the colonial administration, the governor therefore called on a council of eight people exercising legislative and executive powers. All governors, with the exception of James Murray, continued to act as military chief and oversee diplomatic relations.


The Quebec Act adopted by the British parliament in 1774 changed government of the colony. Henceforth, Catholics, who had been excluded from the colony's civil government due to British law, were able to participate in the colony's administration. The legislative and executive councils were separated and the number of councilors increased to 23. The governor presided over judicial and executive powers and the legislative council.


With American independence came many Loyalists to what was then known as the Province of Quebec. They added their voice to the many English-speaking merchants who had for 30 years been calling for a legislative assembly. In 1791, with the Constitutional Act, the colony was divided in two: Upper and Lower Canada.

The governor was responsible for managing the legislative assemblies in Upper and Lower Canada, but remained the only British authority in force in North America. He held civil and military powers and managed revenues from crown lands. He chose members of the legislative and executive councils, which continued to exist. Although laws were voted by the legislative assembly and legislative council, they were to be sanctioned by the governor, who could veto certain legislation. The governor could also review judicial sentences. At any time, he could convene or dissolve the legislative assemblies.

These responsibilities belonged to the governor until the advent of responsible government in 1848, seven years after the union of the two Canadas. As of that date, the governor general named a prime minister from a member who held the confidence of the elected majority.

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