Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Thought About Stephen Harper from 1849

The day Canada became a democracy, a mob of angry Tories burned the Parliament Buildings down. They were mad because the Governor General — Lord Elgin — had just signed a new bill into law. The Tories opposed the new law, but that wasn't the worst part: the worst part was that Elgin had plenty of his own reservations about it, but he still signed it anyway. He could have vetoed the bill, but he didn't. That was a huge, nation-changing decision: it signalled the end of the British veto over laws passed by the Canadian parliament. It was the beginning of Responsible Government. From now on, when it came to domestic politics, Canadians ruled themselves. Parliament held the ultimate power.

The Tories and their supporters freaked out. To them, democracy was a dangerous thing: the stuff of blood-soaked rebellions, revolutions and guillotines. They'd spent decades opposing it. But the outrage wasn't only about the Tories' fear of democracy. It was also about fear-mongering and racism.

The bill was called the Rebellion Losses Bill. It paid compensation to people in Québec (called Canada East back then) who had suffered property damage during the rebellions in 1837. The previous Tory government had already done the same thing for the anglophone region of Ontario (Canada West), so it shouldn't have been controversial — but it was: the conservatives hated it.

To many Tory supporters, francophones weren't real Canadians. They couldn't be: they were Catholic; they spoke French. Real Canadians were British: they were Protestant; they spoke English. Anyone else couldn't possibly be a loyal subject. They were all automatically rebels.

The liberal Reform party had recently been elected in a landslide. But their government was an alliance between English- and French-speaking Canadians led by Robert Baldwin (a Protestant anglophone from Toronto) and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (a Catholic francophone from Montreal). Conservatives didn't trust that alliance.

The Tories saw an opportunity. If they could stoke enough fear among their supporters — if they could threaten enough violence and unrest — they might be able to keep the Governor General from ever signing the bill. And by doing that, they might keep Responsible Government from ever becoming a reality in Canada.

John Ralston Saul writes about the Tory strategy in his biography of Baldwin and LaFontaine. He argues that the Tory leader, Allan MacNab, realized that "his party would have to create a crisis of loyalty. Loyalty in populist rhetoric is always about patriotism... In this case, loyalty would be about the Crown, Britain, the Anglo-Saxon race... [The Tories] believed they could undermine democratic sympathies by simply setting anglophones and francophones at each other's throats."

And so, during the debate over the bill, the Tories used lies, misleading half-truths and racially-coded language to build fear in their supporters. The Tory leader called francophone Canadians "foreigners." His party claimed the Reformers were "dangerous, criminal and subversive of order... under the dominion of French masters... You laugh to see the Anglo-Saxons under your feet." One up-and-coming young Tory — John A. Macdonald — got so worked up that he challenged a Reformer to a duel by passing him note in parliament during the debate.

Elgin & two of the rocks thrown at his carriage
When Elgin finally did sign the bill, all that fear and hatred spilled over into violence. The conservative mobs began to gather before the ink was even dry; they were already waiting outside when the Governor General left the building, ready to pelt his carriage with rocks and rotten eggs. That evening, the Montreal Gazette — the city's big Tory newspaper — ran a special edition. "THE DISGRACE OF GREAT BRITAIN ACCOMPLISHED, CANADA SOLD AND GIVEN AWAY!" the editors raged. "Rebellion is the Law of the Land!" The paper openly called for violence: "ANGLO-SAXONS TO THE STRUGGLE NOW IS YOUR TIME."

That night, another torch-wielding mob of angry Tory supporters stormed the Parliament Buildings in old Montreal, burning them to the ground. They rioted in the streets and attacked the homes of leading Reformers. Guns were fired. "The city," according to Baldwin biographer Michael S. Cross, "was on the verge of civil war." And the unrest reached far beyond the borders of Montreal. As news of Elgin's decision spread, there were protests, riots, death threats, and Reformers being burnt in effigy all over the Province of Canada.

In Toronto, the Reform-friendly editors of the Globe published their own take on the events. "The Toryism of Canada," they wrote, "has ever founded its tactics on panics. To get up a good panic, and work it well has been the point of perfect in their political system... Let the panic be connected with a national crusade against the French Canadians, and the day might be won."

More than a hundred and fifty years later, those tactics still sound awfully familiar. Today, of course, the fear of francophones has been replaced by a fear of Muslims. Instead of rebellion, Stephen Harper talks about terrorism. Instead of Catholicism, it's Islamic extremists. Instead of the Anglo-Saxon race, it's the Anglosphere. Still, just like the Tories of 1849, today's Tory leader plays up the Canadian connection to the British Crown. He still glorifies the Loyalist exploits in the War of 1812. His ministers still talk about "demonstrating loyalty." And during the current election campaign, he's even hired an Australian political consultant famous for using racially-coded language to stoke fear among conservative supporters.

"Fear is not a policy. It is not an election platform," Stephen Lewis, the former NDP leader, recently declared during a campaign speech. "Using fear to get power suggests a deep and abiding cynicism."

It does. But it can also be an effective strategy. It has been for centuries. It distracts. The current federal election campaign has seen time spent talking about the niqab and "old stock Canadians" that could have been spent talking about other issues instead — like, for instance, the Harper government's efforts to undermine the supremacy of parliament and the foundations of Responsible Government.

"For Harper's Conservatives, playing the terror card is crucial," Toronto Star columnist Thomas Walkom argued back in May. "The more that terrorism can be made top-of-mind, the better the Conservatives will do."

Back in 1849, fear wasn't enough. The Rebellion Losses Bill was signed into law and Responsible Government was embraced by the vast majority. Canadians believed in democracy and diversity more than they believed in fear. On October 19, we'll find out if that's still true.


You can borrow John Ralston Saul's biography of Baldwin and LaFontaine from the Toronto Public Library here. Or you can buy it here. You'll find Michael S. Cross' Baldwin biography to borrow here and buy here.

Steven Paikin wrote about Stephen Lewis' speech — calling it "the best speech of the federal election campaign so far" — here. And Thomas Walkom's column is here.

Main image: "L'incendie du Parlement à Montréal" ("The Burning of the Parliament Buildings in Montreal") by Joseph Légaré (via the Wikmedia Commons here).

Second image: Elgin's wife kept the rocks hurled at the carriage and carefully labelled them; they are now at the Canadian Museum History in Gatineau. Photo by me.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Joe Carter's World Series-Winning Dream

The Blue Jays had won the World Series. For the first time in history, Major League Baseball's championship banner was flying north of the border. But winning again wasn't going to be easy. Many of the biggest stars of the 1992 championship team weren't going to be back with the Jays in 1993. Dave Winfield, Jimmy Key, David Cone, Tom Henke: they were all all free agents. None of them would end up returning to Toronto.

Joe Carter was a free agent too. In 1992, he'd been right at the centre of the Blue Jays line-up, hitting third in the order as he belted 34 home runs and racked up 119 RBIs (back in the days when runs batted in was seen as a more telling stat than it is today). He always seemed to be involved in the team's biggest moments. It was Carter's game-winning single that clinched first place in the division that year. And it was Carter who recorded the final out in the World Series: catching the ball at first base and then jumping up and down for joy as the team celebrated their very first championship.

But Carter wasn't sure where he wanted to play in 1993. He loved Toronto, but he lived in Kansas City. Going home to play for the Kansas City Royals was a very tempting proposition. He was torn: he knew he wanted to play for one of those two teams, but he wasn't sure which one to pick.

That winter, Carter met with the owner of the Royals, Ewing Kauffman. Kauffman was an old man now, and his health was failing. He only had a few months left to live. He wanted his baseball team to win — and to do it before he died. So he offered the slugger more money than the Blue Jays were willing to pay, plus an extra year and all the other contractual clauses that Carter was asking for.

Years later, the Kansas City Star asked Carter how close he came to singing with the Royals. The slugger held his finger and his thumb about an inch apart. "Closer than this," he told them.

But that night, after his meeting with Kauffman, Joe Carter had a dream. He told Sportsnet about it as part of an oral history of the 1993 Blue Jays season.

"I was walking to the ballpark with Devon White," he remembered. "It was kind of dark and we came up on the stadium. When I looked up, the lights lit up and it said, 'Welcome to the SkyDome.'"

As Carter woke the following morning, the dream lingered in his mind. And then he looked outside: his backyard was full of birds. They were all blue jays. It was, he thought, a clear sign from God.

That was all he needed. "The next day I signed with the Blue Jays... That's how I came back."

And so in 1993, Joe Carter returned to his familiar role at the heart of the Jays order, helping them get all the way back the World Series. In the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Six, he found himself right in the middle of history, with a chance to live another kind of dream — the kind of dream kids have been dreaming in sandlots and parks and backyards for more than a hundred years. To do something no baseball player had ever done before: to hit a game-winning, come-from-behind home run to win a World Series.

And that's exactly what he did:

You can read my Illustrated History of Baseball in Toronto here. Or my post about Toronto's very first championship team — the old-timey Toronto Baseball Club of 1887 — here

I first learned about Joe Carter's dream thanks to Sportsnet's oral history of the 1993 Blue Jays. And you can read the Kansas City Star article about the dream here.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Refugees & The History of Toronto

With the Syrian refugee crisis making headlines around the world and becoming a major issue in Canada's federal election campaign, I thought this might be a good time to share some thoughts on refugees and the history of Toronto. Our city, after all, was founded in the wake of the American War of Independence as the capital of a new province created very specifically to provide a home for Loyalist refugees from that war. So I wrote a Twitter essay — you'll find the Storify version embedded below.

You can also read more about the history of Canada and refugees in Stephanie Bangarth's piece for Active History. And in the Toronto Star, you'll find a story about the Harper government's billboard campaign, warning refugees in Hungary that Canada would reject their applications more quickly than other counties. 

Main image: Ireland Park by me.