It is surprising, in a way, to discover that life was not always the same as it is now; that boundaries and laws and structures have changed, often dramatically, over the years. Canada, 170 years ago, was going through such a time of dramatic change, and some of those changes remain relevant to us still.
In the 1830’s, there had been a great deal of unrest in what were then the two provinces of Canada, Upper Canada and Lower Canada, where political power lay in the hands of a few wealthy families, and even those elected representatives in the Assembly had no control over laws and decision-making. In the United Kingdom, home of the British Empire, similar unrest and agitation had led to a significant change in the laws in 1832, with the Great Reform Act, and those demanding more democracy in the Canada’s drew encouragement from that victory.
In this part of the Empire, people were unhappy with the legal and administrative structures.
Upper Canada was divided into Districts, which were administered by the district court of General Quarter Sessions of the Peace, the judges who made up these Quarter Sessions were appointed by the Governor, and met only four times a year. Frequently, these Sessions were held in places like Brockville, far away from the farms and homes of the majority of the population, who found it difficult to get to the courts, much less to get justice there.
So meetings were held to demand a reorganisation of the Districts in order to make them more fitted to the needs, and the homes, of the people. For instance, a series of meetings were held in Grenville County to draw up petitions to be presented to the Governor, seeking the division of the Johnstown District. It asked that a new District be formed, with Kemptville as its capital. Townships to be included were Edwardsburg and Matilda, Mountain and Osgoode, North and South Gower, Oxford and Marlborough, Montague and Wolford.
The first meeting took place in December, 1835, and was attended by many of the families whose names are associated with the region at the time. The venue was Thomas Beckett’s Hotel, which stood on the corner of Clothier and Sanders Streets, where the parking lot is today. Col. Stephen Burritt was Chair, and resolutions were made by W. H. “Squire” Bottom and Milo McCargar. The main resolution, passed unanimously, stated:
“That it is expedient and highly necessary, for the convenience and general interests of the people inhabiting the townships of Montague, Wolford, Marlboro, Oxford, North and South Gower, and Edwardsburgh of the Johnstown District – Mountain & Matilda of the Eastern, and Osgoode of the Ottawa District, that the said townships be formed into a separate District, and that Kemptville, in the township of Oxford, be the place selected for the transacting of the public business of the said proposed District.”
Hundreds of signatures had been received on previous petitions to this end, but with no immediate result. Other meetings, and more petitions, followed in 1836, but the project was overtaken by the rebellions which took place the following year in both Upper and Lower Canada. Although these risings were soon put down, they had made it clear that some reforms were needed, though they did not turn out to be the ones requested.
In July, 1840, was passed An Act to Re-unite the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, and for the Government of Canada. The new United Province of Canada reorganised the Districts, and the Johnstown District consisted of what is now the United Counties of Leeds & Grenville, as well as North Burgess, North Elmsley, Montague, Marlborough and North Gower. In was not until the following year, 1841, when the District Council’s Act was passed, establishing a District Council, which took on the administrative powers of the magistrates of the Quarter Sessions, becoming effective on 1 January, 1842. Each District Council was composed of a warden, councillors, clerk, district treasurer, surveyor and two auditors. The Governor appointed all members with the exception of the elected councillors.
This Act removed North Burgess, Montague and North Elmsley from the Johnstown District, adding them to the District of Bathurst; and removed Marlborough and North Gower and added them to District of Dalhousie.
The legislation was amended in 1849, to establish municipalities, towns, and villages, with the authority to raise taxes and enact by-laws. It also established a hierarchy of types of municipal governments, starting at the top with cities and continued down past towns, villages and finally townships. And that system has remained basically unchanged, ever since.