Friday, October 21, 2011

Like Washington And Jefferson Only Better

The Durham Report
This is the seventh in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie, Robert Baldwin and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here. Part four here. Part five here. Part six here.

So where was I? Right, the Durham Report! After the rebellions, sick of all the turmoil in Canada, the British had sent Radical Jack Durham here as Governor General to see what could be done. By the time he returned to England a few months later, he'd been convinced by Canadian liberals like Robert Baldwin and his father William Warren Baldwin that we should have Responsible Government. Democracy. Power over own own affairs. But the British Prime Minister thought it was a crazy idea. "A logical absurdity," he called it. 

There was, however, one thing about the Durham Report that the British government did like: the racism.

Durham thought French people sucked — French Canadians included. In his report, he famously claimed that Canada was really "two nations warring within the bosom of a single state". So in addition to the whole Responsible Government thing, Radical Jack suggested that the British should try to stamp out the French influence in Canada. He recommended an overwhelming flood of English-speaking immigrants. That Francophone rights should be limited. That some of them should be taken away entirely. And that Lower Canada (Québec) should be forced to join with Upper Canada (Ontario) so that anglophones could out-vote francophones on everything. 

The British might have thought the democracy part of the Durham Report was ridiculous, but they were all over this anti-French stuff. In 1840, they passed the Act Of Union. This was a big deal. Upper and Lower Canada were combined as the Province Of Canada and renamed Canada West and Canada East. Both new provinces were given the exact same number of seats in the legislature — even though there were waaaay more people in Québec. The French were getting screwed. And it didn't stop there.

New provinces meant new elections. And the British weren't about to let French Canadians just go ahead and vote. Not without making it as difficult as humanly possible. Polls were set up in English neighbourhoods instead of French ones. Sometimes they were in completely different towns. And when francophone voters travelled those long distances in order to cast their vote, they found organized mobs of violent Tory anglophones waiting for them. If violence broke out, the army was ready to step in to protect the people who spoke English and voted conservative. A lot of people would get beaten up during this election. Eight people would die.

One of those screwed-over francophones was Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine. LaFontaine was born just outside Montreal and grew up to become one of the leading voices in the Parti Patriote, the left-leaning, democracy-loving party in Lower Canada. (He was also a dead ringer for Napoleon — they say even Napoleon's own guardsmen once mistook him for a taller reincarnation of the diminutive dictator.) But he wasn't as radical as some of the other big name Québecois reformers. He hadn't supported the violence of the rebellions — arguing instead in favour of passive resistance and the boycotting of British goods. And while that didn't stop the Tories from driving him into exile and then throwing him in jail for a while — without a warrant or any proper charges — he was eventually released. Since the more radical Patriotes were still in prison or in exile or hanged, the job of leading the party in the new elections was left to him.

Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine
But not even LaFontaine was going to be allowed to vote. His poll was on the far side of his riding, in a town called New Glasgow — not exactly the most francophone place in the province. When LaFontaine and hundreds of his supporters marched the ten kilometers across his riding to record their votes, one of those angry mobs of Tory anglophones was there to block the way. Some of the reformers carried clubs for protection. Some of the Tories had rifles. On the walk over, there were skirmishes. Blood in the snow. And at New Glasgow it became obvious: if LaFontaine and his supporters wanted to vote, they were going to have to fight their way through.

This, they say, was one of the defining moments in the history of our country. Electoral violence was the norm back in those days. People used to hire gangs of thugs to clear the way through the mobs in order to record their votes. And LaFontaine had hundreds of men at his side ready to do just that. But he hadn't supported violence before the rebellions and he sure as hell didn't believe in it now. He chose not to fight. Instead, he calmed his supporters down and they left without any further bloodshed, avoiding what would have been, in his words, "a massacre". Unwilling to kill for it, LaFontaine lost his seat. One of the most important supporters of Responsible Government had no voice in the new legislature.

That's when Robert Baldwin came up with a plan.

See, in those days, you were weirdly allowed to run in two ridings at the same time. It was apparently supposed to be an insurance policy for party leaders, just in case they happened to lose one. If you won both of the ridings, you could pick the one you wanted to represent; there was a by-election in the other one. And in that election, Robert Baldwin had ended up with two seats in Upper Canada. The plan was for his father, William Warren Baldwin, to run in the by-election in the extra riding, which was just north of Toronto. It had a strong base of Reform supporters — having been held by William Lyon Mackenzie back before the Baldwins ran there. But Robert Baldwin had an idea. He wrote to his father and asked him to stand aside so that LaFontaine could run there instead. His father agreed. A francophone was going to try to win an election in rural, Protestant, anglophone Ontario.

To prepare, LaFontaine moved to Toronto, into the Baldwins' house on Front Street (on the north-east corner of Bay, diagonally across from where Union Station is now). Before long, he was like a member of the family. Together, he and William Warren travelled the riding giving speeches. They argued for Responsible Government. For democracy. Against the old European idea that loyalty should mean loyalty to your race, your religion, and your Crown. The Tories and our British overlords were still fighting for that belief, but Baldwin and LaFontaine argued that our ultimate loyalty should be to be to the greater good — to our fellow human beings regardless of what language they spoke or what god they worshiped. They believed that whether you spoke English or French, you were first and foremost Canadian. And that we were all going to have to work together in order to win our freedom, our democracy and our nation away from one of the most powerful empires the world had ever seen

The voters agreed. LaFontaine won in a landslide. And Baldwin insisted that his new BFF become the leader of the new government. LaFontaine's official title would be Premier of Canada. But people called him Prime Minister.

Together, the two men set to work. The march toward democracy would be a slow one. They spent much of the next eight years building the trust between English- and French-speaking Canadians. The government was made bilingual. Baldwin sent his children to school in Québec City. Later, when the Tories pulled the same election mob bullshit with him that they had pulled with LaFontaine, Baldwin would run for election in Rimouski, in eastern Québec — and win.

Still, it wouldn't be easy. Canadian conservatives hated them — even burned Baldwin in effigy outside his home on Front Street. And in England, the liberal Whig party had just lost their election to the conservative British Tories, who hated the idea of Canadian democracy even more. When they sent a new Governor General to Canada, he had clear orders to ignore any demands for Responsible Government.

Robert Baldwin
Even worse, Robert Baldwin had begun a slow spiral into a severe, crippling depression.

He had always seemed a strange politician. He was quiet and reserved. An introvert. He mumbled his way through speeches. His skin was pale. His eyes were described as dull and expressionless. He was tall and stooped over.  They say he had "a funereal bearing". When he was young, he had fallen head over heels in love with his fifteen year-old cousin, Eliza, and their families — or, um, family — had been appalled. They sent her away for two years, but the young lovers waited and were married when she got back. For nine years, they lived a happy, love-filled life. But then Eliza died, slowwwly and painnnfully after childbirth. Baldwin was devastated. He became obsessed with her death. For the rest of his life, he carried her letters with him wherever he went. Every day, he would spend time alone in her room, which no one else was allowed to enter. Every year, around the anniversaries of their wedding and of her death, he could barely function, sorrowfully wandering the streets of Toronto, visiting the places they had shared special moments together, from their home on Front Street up to their estate, Spadina House, where she lay waiting for him in the family tomb. And now, just as Baldwin and LaFontaine were beginning to make progress, his father William Warren died too. Baldwin got worse. There were headaches. He was known to burst into tears in public. Soon, he was thinking about quitting politics altogether.

At the same time, LaFontaine was going through his own personal misery. William Warren's death had hit him hard too, but that was only the beginning. For years, he and his wife had longed for a child of their own but had never been able to conceive. They had been overjoyed when they finally adopted a daughter. But not long after William Warren died, she did too. So did LaFontaine's niece. The inflammatory rheumatism he had long been suffering from began acting up again. It kept him in bed with fevers and chest pains and excruciatingly swollen joints for weeks at a time. Sometimes months. At times, he said, he was surprised to still be alive.

But the two men carried on the fight. Even after they lost the next election. They dragged their tired bodies across the two provinces, meeting people, giving speeches, hand-writing letter after letter after letter. Baldwin outran an angry mob of club-wielding Orangemen one day; spent another being carried triumphantly through the streets of Rimouski. And it paid off. The election after that, in 1848, Baldwin and LaFontaine won a massive majority. The Tories were crushed. The time had finally come.

History remembers their government as The Great Ministry. In just a few short years, Baldwin and LaFontaine laid the groundwork for the Canada we know today. They brought in public education. An independent judiciary. Our jury system. A system for appeals. The made sure that everyone — not just the rich — had access to the courts. And that anyone — not just the rich friends of Tory politicians — could be appointed to  the civil service. They brought democracy to municipal governments. Opened our ports to ships from all over the world, instead of just British ones. They helped build our railways. Won amnesties for many of the rebels of 1837, including leaders like Wolfred Nelson and Louis-Joseph Papineau, who were finally allowed to come back home. And they took the religious King's College away from Bishop John Strachan and turned it into the secular University of Toronto.(Though they did, sadly, totally fuck up when it came to a woman's right to vote.) The impact these few years had on the history of Canada is hard to even imagine.

But none of that was as important as what they would pull off in the spring of 1849. That's when democracy finally came to Canada.

And I'll finally tell that part of the story in my next post.


There are, I think, two more posts to go in this story of the birth of Canadian democracy, so I'll save some of my sources and added little tidbits for then. But a quick spoiler: though I hadn't read it until I'd written most of this post, John Ralston Saul's book on Baldwin and LaFontaine is absolutely freaking amazing and will have a deep influence on the rest of what I write about these guys. There are lots of copies of that book in the Toronto Public Library system and you can buy it right here. The fact that we don't all know this story by heart is absolutely dumbfounding. There's not even so much as a plaque at the site of Robert Baldwin's grave in St. James Cemetery. Or on the site of the house at Front & Bay. Yeesh.

I believe I shared this at the bottom of my last post, too, but you can read the full text of the Durham Report here.

No comments:

Post a Comment