Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Day Canada Became A Democracy

Lord Elgin, looking like a badass
This is the eighth 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. Part seven here.

Yup, here it is. A really really really really really big deal. People in Toronto had been living under authoritarian British rule since the day the city was founded — Canadians in older parts of the country even longer than that. Lieutenant Governors and Governors General had acted like puppet dictators with the power to ignore our elected legislatures. And they did. But now, Toronto's Robert Baldwin and Montreal's Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine had banded together to win an overwhelming majority on a platform demanding real democracy. They had a new idea: Responsible Government. The Prime Minister and his cabinet wouldn't answer to the Governor General, but to parliament itself. To the Canadian people.

Meanwhile, in England, the liberal Whig Party was back in power yet again. And this time, it looked like they might finally be ready to give in. They sent a new, liberal Governor General to the Canadian capital in Montreal: Lord Elgin. He was the son-in-law of Lord Durham — author of the super-important Durham Report, which had famously recommended that the British embrace Baldwin and LaFontaine's idea. Even better: Elgin realized just how much support Responsible Government had with ordinary Canadians. "I am presiding over one of the most democratic communities that ever existed," he wrote in a letter back home to his bosses in London, "[Canada's] constitution is most popular in character". Momentum was building. Over in Nova Scotia, liberals had just won their own battle for Responsible Government. And as Baldwin and LaFontaine's Reform Party began to pass bills dismantling our British-style class system in favour of diversity and inclusion, Elgin signed them all into law.

But the real test was still to come. Would Elgin sign a bill that conservatives vehemently disagreed with? Would he turn his back on the Protestant, monarchy-loving, democracy-hating Tories, who had always had British support? Did the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique still run the country? Or was Canada now a true democracy?

We wouldn't have to wait long to find out. In February, Baldwin and LaFontaine introduced the Rebellion Losses Bill. This was it.

Really, the bill shouldn't have been controversial at all. It was just going to help pay people in Lower Canada whose property had been damaged during the Rebellions of 1837. That seemed fair. When the Tories were in power, they'd already done the same thing for Upper Canadians. Thing is, in Upper Canada, most people were anglophones; in Lower Canada, they spoke French. And since French-Canadians weren't loyal to the British Crown or to the Church of England, as far as the racist Tory Party was concerned, French-Canadians weren't really Canadians at all. Paying them for damages was as good as paying the rebels themselves.

And so, the Tories were outraged. As the bill was debated in parliament, things got vicious. The payments would be "an open encouragement to rebellion," the conservatives claimed. The Reform Party was "under the dominion of French masters". They were "dangerous, criminal and subversive of order". If Baldwin and LaFontaine had their way, Canada would be "ruled by foreigners". (By which, of course, they meant: the wrong kind of foreigners.)

Inside parliament in old Montreal
And if hurling insults wasn't going to do the trick, the Tories were more than willing to hurl fists. When one important Reformer, William Hume Blake, got up in parliament and denounced the conservatives by calling them the true rebels, the Tory leader, Allan McNab, lost it. He'd fought in 1837, marched up Yonge Street against William Lyon Mackenzie and then, after the rebel leader escaped to the States, took a couple thousand men down across the border to continue the fight. Once he got back, he put down another small rebellion outside London. He'd been knighted for it. And he did not bloody well appreciate being called a rebel himself. He and Blake had to be restrained from attacking each other on the floor of parliament. Fighting broke out in the galleries. Women had to be lifted down out of the balconies to safety. And when the debate resumed the next day, Blake was in thick of things again. This time he faced off against John A. Macdonald. Our future Prime Minister was a Tory backbencher back then, so insulted by Blake's arguments that he challenged the man to a duel. He'd already headed outside, ready to fight,  by the time others managed to calm him down.

It was that same month, as tempers flared, that William Lyon Mackenzie was allowed to come home for the first time in more than ten years. Baldwin and LaFontaine's government had granted amnesty to the exiled rebel, who had continued his work as a newspaperman in the United States. He showed up in old Montreal, in parliament, watching the debates from the gallery. He was so loathed by the conservatives that when a Tory ran into him in the library, it nearly caused a riot. When he travelled to Upper Canada, there was a riot in Belleville. They burned him in effigy in Kingston. In Toronto, they burned him in effigy again and attacked the house where he was staying, pelting it with rocks. Fearing for his safety, Mackenzie asked city council for protection. They answered by passing a motion in support of the rioters. One councilor said that the law against murder was the only reason he didn't kill Mackenzie himself.

After nine days in Toronto, it was clear to our city's first mayor that things weren't safe for him here. Mackenzie abandoned his plan to move his family home to Canada and headed back south. He would wait for things to calm down — for a time when he could live in Toronto without fearing for his life.

Meanwhile, back in Montreal, the debate over the Rebellion Losses Bill raged on for the rest of the month and into March. The Tories filibustered their asses off. Every hour of every day, they were on the floor of the legislature, denouncing the bill, killing time while right-wing newspapers printed inflammatory headlines. Anger among Tory supporters grew. They called on Lord Elgin to do what the appointed Governors had always done when they were backed into a corner: step in on the side of the conservatives and dissolve parliament, snuffing out the bill — and with it, our democracy. "The Tory party," Elgin wrote in another letter home to England, "are doing what they can by menace, intimidation and appeals of passions to drive me to a coup d'etat."

But Elgin did nothing. On March 9th, the Rebellion Losses Bill passed. Now all it needed was his signature.

For nearly two whole months after that, it wasn't clear what Elgin would do next. He literally just stayed home, at the Governor General's residence outside Montreal. While Baldwin and LaFontaine waited for his signature, Tories and their supporters begged and pleaded and threatened, demanding that Elgin not sign the bill. It would doom the country, they claimed. But in the meantime, dozens of other laws had been passed by parliament. They needed signatures, too. One way or another, the Governor General was going to have to decide.

Elgin gets into his carriage
It was on a Wednesday – on April 25th – that Lord Elgin stepped outside his home, climbed into his carriage and headed into the capital. He pulled up to the parliament buildings around four o'clock in the afternoon. He was escorted upstairs, where he signed every single one of the bills that was waiting for him. Including the Rebellion Losses Bill.

The fight had taken nearly fifty years. Canadians had died for democracy. They had been hanged for it, rotted in jail for it, been banished from the country they loved. But now, Baldwin and LaFontaine and the thousands upon thousands upon thousands of English- and French-speaking Canadians united behind them had won. The head of the British government in Canada had just acknowledged the people of Canada as the true rulers of our country.

Canada was a democracy.

The exact timing came as a bit of a surprise; it seems Elgin hadn't told anyone he was coming. But news travelled fast. By the time the Governor General got back outside, an angry mob of conservatives was already waiting for him. He climbed into his carriage under a rain of insults, boos, eggs and tomatoes. He was drenched. But that was just a faint hint of things to come. Tories were pissed the fuck off. They weren't ready to give up – they were ready to get violent. The fight wasn't quite over yet, and the next stage of the struggle would begin that very night, as the parliament buildings burned.

I'll tell that part of the story in my next post in this series. 


A whole heck of a lot of this comes from John Raulston Saul's amazing Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin book, which, if you're at interested in this stuff, you should absolutely totally definitely check out. You can buy it here, or get it from the library here. I also got some of the info about Mackenzie's brief trip home from here

Kind of an interesting footnote on the Rebellion Losses Bill: the Reformers did compromise with the Tories a bit. Originally, the bill paid damages to any Lower Canadians, regardless of their involvement in the Rebellions. But eventually, the Reformers agreed to deny funds to anyone who was convicted in the wake of the violence. That was controversial since the courts that convicted them weren't impartial – they were headed by John Colborne, the very same Governor General who had laid the government troops against the rebels. Not exactly the most unbiased jurist. So guys like the amnestied Lower Canadian rebel, Louis-Joesph Papineau were outraged by the compromise and caused real trouble for Baldwin and LaFontaine as they tried to the pass the bill.

And, finally, as I mention briefly in the body of the post, Responsible Government, actually came to Nova Scotia before it came to the Province of Canada. There, the fight was led by a reformer by the name of Joseph Howe. There, the British government began to relent by the end of 1847. The Colonial Secretary, John Grey (sort of the liaison between the English government and the colonies – who also happened to be Lord Elgin's uncle-in-law (is that a thing?)) wrote to the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia in November of that year: "It is neither possible nor desirable, to govern any of the British provinces of North America in opposition to the opinion of its inhabitants."

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

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