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Born: 1724, Strabane, Co. Tyrone, Ireland

Died: 1808, Maidenhead, England

Author: Denis McKim

A product of the Protestant Ascendancy, Guy Carleton was born in Strabane, County Tyrone, in 1724. He entered the military in 1742 and, a decade later, became military tutor to the Duke of Richmond. Carleton’s ties to eminent individuals –he was also a favourite of James Wolfe and George III – accounts for why, despite a lack of administrative experience, he was appointed to positions of prominence in Quebec, the mostly French-speaking colony over which Britain gained control after the Seven Years’ War. Carleton was named Lieutenant Governor of Quebec in 1766; and, following the departure of James Murray, the colony’s first governor, he became Governor-in-Chief in 1768. 

Carleton initially attempted to curry favour with members of Quebec’s English-speaking minority, especially the clutch of merchants who served as the community’s unofficial leaders. Yet he came to feel that it would be wiser to cultivate the colony’s French-speaking community, the Canadiens, a group constituting the overwhelming majority of Quebec’s 70,000-strong population. The administration’s hope of an influx of English-speaking settlers into the colony from British-controlled territories to the south did not materialize. This unrequited expectation, in conjunction with the Canadiens’ famously prolific birthrates, prompted Carleton to conclude that they would predominate in Quebec “until the end of time.” 

Given such circumstances, British imperial policy pivoted away from efforts to “anglicize” and toward attempts to accommodate a French Catholic society within an English Protestant empire. In pursuing this objective Carleton looked to the Canadien elite, the clergy and the land-holding seigneurs. He reasoned that, if he could win these groups over, they could, in turn, persuade the French-speaking masses, whom Carleton pigeonholed as a docile peasantry, to revere their British rulers. Carleton recognized that the British regime in northern North America faced potential threats: from a resurgent France; from the increasingly restive Anglo-American colonists to the south; and, of course, from the Canadiens themselves. With few British troops at his disposal, he would need to promote loyalty among the masses via the clerics and landlords from whom they supposedly took their cues.

This policy of accommodation was manifest in the Quebec Act. Introduced in 1774, this law courted powerful elements in Canadien society by affirming the Catholic Church’s right to collect tithes and perpetuating the seigneurial system. The act represents a watershed in British imperial history, for it reflected a shift away from heavy-handed assimilationism and toward subtler efforts to co-opt colonized powerbrokers. Predictably, it appealed to the colony’s landholders and clergy, a number of whom steadfastly backed the British regime while Quebec was assailed by the Continental Army during the American Revolution. But the act was much less effective in winning over the masses, probably because it ensured that they would be required to pay seigneurial dues and ecclesiastical taxes ad infinitum. That the Quebec Act failed to diffuse loyalty across the colony can be seen in the Canadiens’ tepid reaction to the American invasion, which revealed that they were far more autonomous than Carleton had assumed. Consequently, he grew disillusioned with this group and their capacity for bolstering the British regime. 

In 1776, Carleton was both knighted for his defence of British interests in North America, but was also informed by metropolitan authorities that one of his subordinates, John Burgoyne, would be tasked with leading a strategically important assault on the American revolutionaries instead of himself. Dismayed by the latter decision, which stemmed from the perception that Carleton’s response to the opening phases of the revolution had been insufficiently assertive, he tendered his resignation and returned to the British Isles, where he spent the next few years employed by the Commission of Public Accounts. 

Carleton returned to North America in the early 1780s, when he was made responsible for evacuating tens of thousands of British Loyalists from New York at the end of the Revolutionary War. In what was perhaps the most fulfilling phase of Carleton's life he painstakingly arranged for the Loyalists to be dispatched to various parts of the British Empire, including modern-day Canada; and he urged officials who governed territories to which they were sent such as Nova Scotia’s John Parr to furnish them with land and supplies. 

In a bid to weaken their slave-owning former subjects during the Revolution, imperial officials adopted a policy of granting freedom to people who fled bondage and pledged to support Britain. Several thousand of these “Black Loyalists” were among the throngs of people for whom Carleton hoped to find new homes. His attempts to resettle Black Loyalists met with resistance from George Washington, who, in 1783, cited a provisional peace agreement from the previous year that obliged the British to leave American territory immediately, and to refrain from taking Americans’ property, including their human property, with them. Carleton demurred, insisting that the Black Loyalists shed their enslaved status when they sided with Britain. Carleton added that breaking faith with them would violate “the Faith and honour of the [British] Nation,” something he felt duty-bound to uphold “with People of all Colours and Conditions.” Because of his promise that ex-slaveowners would be compensated for their losses, Carleton succeeded in resettling roughly 3,000 Black Loyalists in Nova Scotia, where many of these individuals continued to experience acute racism. 

In 1786, in recognition of his prodigious efforts on the Loyalists’ behalf, Carleton was proclaimed Baron Dorchester and made Governor-in-Chief of British North America, a position he occupied for nearly a decade. Carleton’s career came to an end in 1794, when, amid escalating tensions between the United States and Britain’s Indigenous allies in the lower Great Lakes region, he informed a First Nations delegation that he anticipated war with the United States. The provocative remark was leaked to the American press, and Carleton was reprimanded by Henry Dundas, Britain’s Home Secretary, for his indiscretion. Disappointed by what he interpreted as Britain’s lukewarm support for its Indigenous allies, and deeply offended by Dundas’s rebuke, Carleton asked to be “relieved of his governorship.” He returned to the British Isles – for good this time – thereafter, dying near Maidenhead, England, in 1808.


Further Reading:

G. P. Browne, “Carleton, Guy, 1st Baron Dorchester,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 5, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 5, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/carleton_guy_5E.html.

A.L. Burt, Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester, 1724-1808, Revised Version (Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association, 1968). 

Ollivier Hubert and François Furstenberg, eds., Entangling the Quebec Act: Transnational Contexts, Meanings, and Legacies in North America and the British Empire (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2020).

Robin W. Winks, The Blacks in Canada: A History (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2021).

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