British Journal of Canadian Studies

John Stuart Mill and the liberal idea of Canada

British Journal of Canadian Studies (2021), 33, (1), 31–46.


The writer and politician John Stuart Mill played an important role in the two greatest constitutional moments of nineteenth-century Canada: he publicly supported Lord Durham’s 1838 report on Canada and he voted for the British North American Act (1867) that formed the Dominion of Canada. Mill had a part, in his own mind an important part, in Canada’s evolution from colony to self-governing dominion. I argue that his attitude to Canada was broadly consistent across these three decades and was consistent with his principled defence of liberal imperialism. But it was complicated by Mill’s relatively low opinion of the French Canadians who, he thought, lagged behind the rest of Canada in their development. That is why Mill supported Durham’s recommendation that they be assimilated into the English-speaking mainstream. I conclude that French Canada exposed the limits of Mill’s form of liberalism, which gave priority to the ‘civilising’ imperative over cultural diversity. And it remains questionable just how capacious Millian liberalism really is in accommodating cultural diversity.

L’écrivain et homme politique John Stuart Mill a joué un rôle important dans les deux plus grands moments constitutionnels du Canada au XIXe siècle : il a publiquement appuyé le rapport de 1838 de Lord Durham sur le Canada et il a voté pour l’Acte de l’Amérique du Nord britannique (1867) qui a formé le Dominion du Canada. Mill a joué un rôle, à son avis un rôle important, dans l’évolution du Canada de colonie à un dominion autonome. Je soutiens que son attitude à l’égard du Canada était globalement la même au cours de ces trois décennies et était conforme à sa défense de principe de l’impérialisme libéral. Mais cela a été compliqué par l’opinion relativement faible de Mill sur les Canadiens français qui, pensait-il, étaient à la traîne du reste du Canada dans leur développement. C’est la raison pour laquelle Mill a appuyé la recommandation de Durham d’être assimilés au grand public anglophone. Je conclus que le Canada français a exposé les limites de la forme de libéralisme de Mill, qui donnait la priorité à l’impératif « civilisateur » sur la diversité culturelle. Et on peut se demander à quel point le libéralisme millien est vraiment vaste pour accueillir la diversité culturelle.

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Author details

Garrard, Graeme