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.

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