Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bond Head The Bonehead

The House of Commons, 1833 by Sir George Hayter
This is the third in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here and part two here.

This is a painting of one of the important moments in all of British history. It's in the House of Commons. On the right-hand side are the Duke of Wellington and his super-conservative, monarchy-loving Tory Party.  On the left are the reform-loving Whigs, led by the Earl of Grey, the guy the tea is named after. While the Canadian Tories and Reformers were battling over democracy down on Front Street, the British Tories and Whigs were having their own massive political brawl over in England.

The Whigs were determined to get rid of the "rotten boroughs". They were ridings left over from the dark ages that still had seats in parliament but nobody living in them anymore. The Tories controlled the land they were on. And they gave the land to friends so that they could vote Tory. The Tories, of course, loved this system; the public, not so much. When the Prime Minster, the Duke of Wellington, openly declared his support for the system, his government fell. The Whigs took over. And when the House of Lords — kinda like our Senate but waaaay worse — tried to stop the Whigs from getting rid of the rotten boroughs, things went all to hell. Prime Minister Grey resigned in protest. The English people rose up in an angry wave of strikes and riots they called the Days of May. Hundreds of thousands of people showed up at rallies. Angry mobs attacked the homes of the Lords. There was talk of revolution. The Queen was sure she was going to lose her head. In the end, the King was forced to convince the Tories to back down. The Whigs had won. This painting commemorates the moment they handed the Tories' asses to them and passed the Reform Act of 1832. The rotten boroughs were gone forever. The Tories were so thoroughly beaten that they would soon have to re-brand themselves as the Conservative Party. And for the first time in 25 years, since the days when Toronto was a tiny, tiny, tiny little town of a few hundred people, the Whigs were calling the shots in London.

So: this all meant that the Family Compact had lost one of their main sources of support. It looked liked William Lyon Mackenzie might finally get somewhere with the British government. And things started off pretty darn well, too. When the Family Compact tried to have Mackenzie tossed out of the Legislative Assembly, he travelled to London to meet with the Whigs. And they listened. A letter was sent to Canada ordering the Canadian Tories to back off. And then, a couple of years after the cholera crisis had passed, the Whigs went even further: they fired the Lieutenant Governor, John Colborne. He'd been appointed when the Tories were running England and the Whigs intended to replace him with someone with a reputation for reform. That's when Sir Francis Bond Head was sent to Toronto.

Sir Francis Bone Head
As the new Lieutenant Governor, Bond Head had a clear mandate to make concessions and find a solution. This, they told him, was the most important moment in the history of Upper Canada. On his month-long journey across the Atlantic, he studied the list of grievances they'd asked Mackenzie to write up. All 553 pages of them. When he rode in town, there were triumphant banners welcoming him as "FRANCIS BOND HEAD, A TRIED REFORMER". And his very first act was to appoint big-name Reform leaders to his Executive Council. He even included Robert Baldwin, son of the famous, liberal, cholera-fighting doctor, William Warren Baldwin. Things were looking up for Canadian democracy.

Except that actually, Sir Francis Bond Head was a super conservative and not a reformer at all and the Whigs had accidentally fucked everything up. 

Apparently they got the impression that he was a big reform guy because he'd written some vaguely reformish-sounding things while he helped to oversee the implementation of the Whigs' totally-batshit right-wing plan to force people on welfare to live in "workhouses". They'd do manual labour there and live in conditions the Whigs made terrible on purpose in order to encourage them to stop being such lazy poor people and get jobs already. About 6.5% of the British population ended up living like this. Men and women and children were all separated. They got bread and gruel. This is the shit Dickens wrote Oliver Twist about. Bond Head had been good at that stuff. At being the kind of guy who would be a villain in a Dickens novel. And at having the army put down the riots that broke out when the Whigs started handing out welfare in coupons instead of real money.

Other than that, Bond Head had shown no interest in politics whatsoever. Before working on the poor law, he'd been a travel writer in South America. (He was the author of such hits as Rough notes taken during some rapid journeys across the pampas and among the Andes and Bubbles from the Brunnens of Nassau.) He'd gotten his knighthood because the King was impressed by his ability to do tricks with a lasso. He, like the most recent Lieutenant Governors before him, had fought at Waterloo. But he'd never joined a political party. He'd never gone to a political event. He'd never even voted. Ever.  He described his knowledge of what was going on in Toronto as "a gross ignorance of everything in any way related to the government of our colonies." And when he rode into town and saw those welcome banners, he was stunned. "I was no more connected with human politics than the horses that were drawing me," he wrote. To this day there are people who think the Whigs must have confused him with his cousin, Edward, and appointed the wrong guy.

Elmsley House, where Bond Head lived, years later
But here he was, living in the Lieutenant Governor's mansion at King and Simcoe (where Roy Thompson Hall is now). They'd sent him out across the ocean, so far away it took months to send messages back and forth, under the impression that he was the Government of Canada. And he wasn't about to do any reforming. This is a guy who wrote glowingly about the Family Compact. About their "abilities and character" and their "industry and intelligence". William Lyon Mackenzie, on the other hand, he called a "low-bred, vulgar man" and "an unprincipled, vagrant grievance-monger". Bond Head had put Reformers on his Executive Council, but he wasn't planning on listening to his Executive Council. And when they demanded that he consult with them on things, he just plain told them no. The whole Council resigned in protest. Even the Tories.

Bond Head had only been here for three weeks and things were already falling apart. Politicians in both parties were outraged. The Legislative Assembly demanded an explanation, denounced him as a despot and refused to pass any bills that had anything to do with money. In retaliation, he prorogued parliament like a punk. A month later, he dissolved it completely and called for new elections. And he was planning to do everything he could to make sure the Reform Party got crushed.

The Upper Canada elections of 1836 have been called one of the most corrupt in Canadian history. (Which, given how corrupt early Canadian elections were, is saying something.) Bond Head threw his entire weight behind the Tories. There were bribes. Threats. People got beat up. There were riots. Bond Head and the Tories made sure that all the returning officers were on their side. And that the polls were placed in Tory neighbourhoods. It was a choice, Bond Head said, between "the forces of loyalty, order, and prosperity" on one side and the "selfish and disloyal" on the other. Even worse, he claimed, Mackenzie and his friends were in league with the French Canadians and the Americans. They might very well invade if the Reformers won.

The results weren't even close. The Tories were back in power. Even Mackenzie had lost his seat. As far as Bond Head was concerned, he'd proven his point: "The people of Upper Canada detest democracy". The Whigs got another letter. "Nothing can be brighter than the moral and political state of the Canadas," he wrote them. "All is sunshine and colour of rose."

A year after he wrote that, he'd be fighting rebels in the streets of Toronto. William Lyon Mackenzie had had enough. He'd tried to bring democracy to Canada by working within the system. He'd tried reasoning with the English. But even with Whigs in power, it had failed. The time had come to try a new tactic. It was time to raise an army.

Continue reading with Part Four, An Army Gathers on Yonge Street, here.

Bond Head wrote a few hundred pages about his experiences in Toronto, which you can read here. You can check out the declaration he released when he dissolve parliament because they didn't like him here. You can read about the riots in Kent, where he was helping bring in that dumbass poor law here. There's also a lot of information about him here, at Historical Narratives of Upper Canada, which tells lots of neat stories about our early pre-Ontario years. I've been visiting it a lot as I put together these Mackenzie posts.

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

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