The Canadian system of government was created by an act of the British Parliament. It is, essentially, a copy of the British Parliament, and there is even a Canadian figurehead to stand in for the figurehead British monarch. One important difference, though, is that there are limits on the Canadian Parliament’s power with respect to local issues, and there are provincial governments, Parliament copies again, assigned these local responsibilities. Another important difference is that Canadian parliamentarians almost never break party ranks. When they do, the repercussions are swift and serious; dissenting members are expelled from the party and this schism is permanent. This does not happen in the United States or Great Britain. In these more mature countries, political parties impose discipline, but parties are also a collection of like-minded individuals. Members of the same party can sometimes disagree publicly, and will, on some issues, vote against each other. There may be angry words, but party unity is maintained. In general, it is expected, and is almost always the case, that the two groups will reunite to work together again in the near future. A political party is, after all, a collection of like-minded individuals, except in Canada, where a political party is like a cult.
I am going to suggest that the reason this is so is because our fractal copy of the British Parliament was superimposed on a collection of 19th century Canadian societies whose members had a very different perspective than did people in 17th century Britain, when the British parliament became the dominant political institution of that land, and was the venue in which British political parties evolved. This lead to political parties in the Canadian Provincial and Federal Parliaments working differently than political parties in the British Parliament.
The people of the early 1800’s who lived in what was then called the Canadas had seen some dramatic political changes. Within living memory the fall of the fortress at Québec in 1759 had turned New France from a colony of the French Empire to the British Province Québec, completely changing the balance of power in North America. The American Revolution, in the name of freedom, had, by 1780, ended Britain’s brief hegemony, again completely changing the balance of power in North America. Those American colonists who had taken Britain’s side in the war, or had not supported the revolution with sufficient fervour, were killed or driven from their homes. As families fled north, the victorious Americans called these people “Tories” as a term of derision, and the name stuck. Also running for their lives were families from the several Iroquois tribes who had backed the British side in the war, for the American Revolution had split the ancient Haudenosaunee Confederacy. These various refugees found their way to the north shores of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, where they were given compassion and land grants by the British Empire. This western end of the Province of Québec came to be called Upper Canada, while the downstream lands where the descendants of the French colonists lived was called Lower Canada.
Then, in 1789, the French in Europe had a transcendent revolution in which, in the name of freedom, they executed their King Louis XVI. The fury and ferocity of the revolution gave monarchs, and those who supported them and those who did not, quite a lot to think about. In 1798, people in Ireland, inspired by events in France, and with some French military backing, rose in the name of freedom against the British. The brutal crushing of the rebels ushered in a new phase of Irish colonial history. Britain’s parliament decided that it was time to fix the Irish problem once and for all; the people of Ireland were to be divided, assimilated, and so broken in spirit that they would never again challenge British rule. This policy was carried out with enthusiastic rigour, and many Irish families left their demoralized homeland and settled in the Canadas.
Inspired by the American and French revolutions, European and colonial philosophers challenged the legitimacy of the institution of slavery. In some of the newly independent British colonies where slavery was not an important part of the economy, slavery was outlawed. But the antebellum compromises needed to keep united the United States of America included treating slaves as property throughout that land. There were few good places in North America for black people, but if you were escaping slavery and made it to the British colonies of Canada, at least you would not be forcibly returned to your former owner. The Canadas came to be “the Promised Land” in slave code language.
With the rise of Napoleon in Europe, war came again to British North America in 1812, and with his final defeat in Europe in 1815, the war here soon ended. Both sides claimed victory, but the reality was that the United States of America had proved itself the mightiest force in North America. The British Empire would never again engage America in war. Focused on the titanic struggle with Napoleon in Europe, Britain had very little left for the conflict in North America. The British forces here proved incapable of protecting their Native allies in the war, and incapable of safe-guarding British territory. American military might crushed the Indian Confederacy in the Ohio, swept the British naval forces off the Great Lakes, and later, at the battle of Moraviatown, deep in Upper Canada, annihilated Tecumseh’s last army as it covered a beaten British army’s retreat. For good measure American troops occupied and burned the village of York, the once and future Toronto, and the largest settlement in Upper Canada. For the remainder of the war Britain’s colonial forces were (just) able to hang on. In the Treaty of Ghent Britain was allowed to keep the Canadian colonies, but effectively ceded all but the harsh northern part of the continent to America. The balance of power had changed again.
To defend against America, the British colonial office hoped to increase the population in Upper Canada, so they made farmland available at low prices. The policy brought many people from the British Isles and Europe to settle. Somewhat ironically, it also encouraged a great many American families facing tough financial times to go where the land prices were better. So by 1830 many of Upper Canada’s farmers were first or second generation Americans.
We learn, as Canadian school children, about something in our history called the Quest for Responsible Government in British North America. I confess that, as a youngster learning about those times, I didn’t really understand what the struggle was about, who had won and who had lost, what exactly had been at stake, and why it was a big deal. It seemed we were studying Canadian minutiae, and I was bored. Part of what makes it interesting for me now, as I write about democracy, is that this bit of Canadian history is important today exactly because of it’s ambiguity; there is an important lesson (that I did not at all grasp in junior high) that is not easy to teach in the Canadian context. My present understanding of those historic times also leads me to suspect that the foundation of our rigid partisan political culture was laid in those stormy times, that we behave as we do today in our parliaments and legislatures because of the strangely inconclusive results of that struggle nearly two centuries ago.
I will try not to be too boring.
setting the stage
Our ancestors, the people living in the British North American colonies in the 1830’s, who would shortly adapt to a British style of parliament, these people were not like the victorious British Parliamentarians of two centuries before who had overthrown their king, nor like the proud and independent Americans who had recently cast off their colonial masters. Our ancestors were not the shakers and movers of history, but rather those shaken and moved around by it. In the 1830’s Canada was a collection of British colonies, with no parliaments, but run by a Governor appointed by the British parliament in London. He (always a man was chosen) was the commanding officer of the British military forces stationed in that colony, and he was also the absolute authority in civil and legislative affairs. As such, he was to appoint a council of local men (always men) to advise him in community matters. The Governor reviewed his councils’ proposals and ratified them as long as they did not hinder his military agenda or harm the greater interests of the British Empire. If the council’s plans involved spending money the colonists paid in taxes, the proposals were supposed to be ratified by an Assembly elected by the colonists.
This echoed the principle the British parliament had fought for with the British monarchs before the time of Cromwell. However, getting approval for taxes from the elected assembly was not difficult in the colonies. Council members worked together getting people they liked into the assembly. It was hard for someone not favoured by the council to get elected, because it took money and publicity and connections. By the 1830’s, though, it was happening more and more, because people were angry about paying taxes to fund the business schemes of the friends and members of the Council. Therefore, the Council members, with the support of the Governor, intimidated or bribed key assembly members as required to get passage of Council bills in the assembly. The coercion was overt, and successes openly celebrated.
The group of people from whom Council members were selected were known as the Family Compact in Upper Canada, le Château Clique in Lower Canada, or collectively, as the Tories, wearing now with pride the taunt with which their fleeing fore-bearers had been derided. To the Tories the assembly was an ill-advised sop to pacify radical members of society in those tumultuous times. The Tories denied the whole idea that people are more than subjects of the monarchy. People were to do their duty to society, the Empire, and their betters. As the Tories were wealthy, this might seem a self-serving philosophy, but recall that their forebearers had paid a steep price for that belief after the American revolution. To many Tories it was a personal and genuine conviction. The Canadian assembly stank of Americanism and was, as such, a threat to the very existence of the colony. Anyone who thought to use the assembly to promote a popular agenda was, by indulging the institution’s pretense to legitimacy, philosophically a traitor to Britain.
Serving in the assembly, and leading rallies in the colony’s villages and towns, were a group of frustrated people who’s perspective was antithetical to that of the Tories. They were called Radicals as an insult, but they too took up their adversaries’ putdown with pride. Radicals looked around their world and saw parliamentary democracy as the best way to be governed. The people in America lived in a modified version of that system and look how great they had become. The people in Britain lived under that system and had built the British Empire. But that same British Empire was not willing to allow that same freedom to people living in her colonies. That was a glaring and indefensible hypocrisy, a wrong knowingly committed; no persuasive argument was going to change Britain’s mind. For the colonists the only choices were to live as slaves or fight for freedom. Their times showed them that if you were strong, and lucky, you could seize freedom, and it was worth it to do so.
Treading a delicate line between Tories and Radicals were the Reformers. Reformers elected to the Assembly would not co-operate with the appointed Council, would not allow any taxation and would hinder all the colonial business they could, by legal means. Their administrative obstruction would inspire the British government to revise the colonial system. The specific reform that the Reformers demanded, their line in the sand, was that the Governor’s Council must be made up only of people who had the support of the majority in the elected Assembly.
The Reformers drew their ideas for passive resistance from the political experiences of the French Canadiens, the Irish, former Black slaves, and the Aboriginals, all of whom had lost the struggle for dominance and had now to live on the political periphery. Reformers had to be hugely dedicated to their cause. Each elected Reformer must be proof against patronage appointments and bribes offered by the Governor when his Council wanted some item passed by the elected Assembly. When Reformers resisted those bribes, they were denounced by the Tories as rebels. That the Reformers insisted the cause of freedom be fought only by legal means infuriated the Radicals, who saw them as puppets, enablers and gatekeepers for those in power. The Reformers had to win majorities in the Assembly at election time, and then maintain party unity, and they had to do this while being condemned from either side as traitors to the crown or to democratic principle. They had to resist the carrots and endure the sticks. They had to walk that tightrope between the Radicals and the Tories who had each staked out much more easily defined political ground, and to walk that tightrope took party discipline. In Lower Canada the Reformers were lead by Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine. The Reformers were lead by Robert Baldwin in Upper Canada.
They were exciting times in British North America. Colonists were divided into many camps, French against English, businessmen against farmers, new immigrants against old immigrants, American families against Loyalist families, Catholic against Protestant, imperialists against democrats, all squabbling, and no one group able to attain total mastery. Sound familiar?
What happened is much as one might expect. In 1834 in Lower Canada the Reformers and Radicals won a majority in the elected Assembly. As well as blocking all tax bills, they presented a list of 92 Resolutions, improvements, as they saw them, that the British government could make to the colonial system. They sent the 92 Resolutions to the Colonial Office in London, over the head of the Governor and his appointed Council. The British Government ignored the issues till 1837, at which time they reviewed the matter with the Governor and his council, shared a chuckle and threw the letter out. Instead, they passed legislation in Britain that took away the right of the Lower Canada Assembly to block taxes proposed by the Governor’s Council, giving the elected Assembly a strictly advisory role.
For the British Government across the sea, listening to the Governor and his council, the decision was easily justified. Reformers were just Radicals in sheep’s clothing. The Reformers’ promise to use only legal means in pursuit of their goals was not a sign of principle, but a cheap political gesture; anyone could see the British army could easily crush any armed insurrection. Since the Reformers offered nothing, why should the establishment compromise? And, even better, those complaining were the sons and daughters of France, the recently-vanquished enemy. To ignore their complaints was both emotionally satisfying and a public display of the new order of the world in the British Imperial paradigm. The Tories were British and the Tories were loyal. Give that faction everything they wanted. It was really quite simple.
In Lower Canada the decision proved the futility of the Reform approach. It galvanized the Radicals. That summer they raised the standard of rebellion, declared Lower Canada independent of Britain, and fielded Patriote armed militia to fight the British forces. The heartland of Lower Canada was the earlier colony of New France. Most of the people there were French-speaking descendants of those earlier French settlers. The ruling establishment in Lower Canada was exclusively British. Each side viewed the other with utter contempt. The underlying ethnic division amplified the political struggle. But it should be understood, there were wealthy French-speaking Canadien families who worked well within the colonial establishment and who abhorred the revolt. Also, Canadien Reformers spoke out against the rebellion. The Catholic Church preached against the rebellion, ingratiating itself with the Colonial establishment to such a degree that the Church attained great political influence from that time till the Quiet Revolution in the province of Québec more than a century later. And on the other hand, there were English-speaking American and British families farming in Lower Canada, whose menfolk joined the rebellion and fought beside their Canadien neighbours against the British army.
The suddenness and fury and extent of the rebellion startled the Colonial administration of Lower Canada. British forces from Upper Canada were called in to help. With time the British army was, as predicted, victorious. During the winter of 1837 – 1838 British forces routed the Patriote militias in a few sharp battles around Montreal. Radical leaders escaped to America or were captured. As a collective punishment and as a warning to other communities, British troops burned down the hometowns of rebels, and torched nearby towns as well for good measure.
While this was happening, a rebellion of sorts began in Upper Canada. Inspired by the Canadien Radicals and emboldened by the absence of British troops, the Radicals in Upper Canada called out for independence from Britain. Just over a hundred people gathered in Montgomery’s Tavern, just north of Toronto and another group gathered at a village in western Upper Canada (ironically called London). Because of the spontaneous circumstances, they were woefully ill-prepared, and some of them got the date of the rebellion wrong. When the Reformers in Toronto learned of the revolt, they went to the tavern to talk the rebels out of their madness, but the Radicals had been drinking and both sides were a bit testy, so the Reformers left. Meanwhile, Tories hastily organized local loyal militias that marched on the rebels. Shots were fired, a Tory named Robert Moodie was killed, and there was no going back. When the rebels understood that they could not win the people of Toronto to their cause they retreated back to the tavern. Within a few days, the rebels, vastly outnumbered by the local militia, were routed. The Radical leaders were caught or escaped to America.
The Upper Canada rebellion, such as it was, is often portrayed as a struggle based on ideas. William Lyon Mackenzie’s Scottish heritage notwithstanding, it should be understood that the rebellion was most popular in areas settled by Americans and their descendants, and that those who took up arms on behalf of the Empire, forming local militia, were mainly British settlers or their descendants. If not properly an ‘ethnic divide’, there was certainly a divide along family traditions in this struggle of ideas. And, there were at least some people in Upper Canada, sympathetic to Radical ideas to one degree or another, who nevertheless would not at this time take up arms for the cause.
With informal American help, Radicals from both the Canadas, who had escaped across the border, launched more small-scale raids into the summer of 1839. We would call them ‘acts of terrorism’ today. Some people were killed and some property damaged. In the end, the American government worked with the British government (neither side really wanted another war) and closed down the rebel operations in America and jailed some of the troublemakers for a few years. In each of the Canadas over a thousand people thought to be involved in the rebellions were jailed or hanged or sent to the prison colony in Tasmania.
The Tories seemed triumphant: their adversaries crushed, discredited, exiled. Yet total victory eluded them. Belatedly, the British government came to see that its goals and the Tories’ goals had not really been the same. London took the position that it had thrown out the 92 Resolutions and gutted the Lower Canadian assembly’s powers, on the recommendation of the colonial Governor and his Tory council. Taking a hard line was supposed to solve the problems. Instead, British troops had been needed to put down the insurrection, the insurrection had garnered some American sympathy, and then the British had to ask the Americans for help in closing the rebel outposts down. The British Government was not happy with the expense and the embarrassment. It wanted to know what had happened and wanted to ensure that it did not happen again. The assurances of the Canadian Tories were no longer accepted at face value. The newly appointed colonial Governor, Lord Durham, was also to be a special investigator, and was charged with submitting written recommendations to prevent future uprisings.
five short reigns
For the Tories in the Canadas, the appointment of Lord Durham was a shock. Whatever Durham was to write would not suit their aims; he was well known to have liberal leanings. That a man of Durham’s reputation had been chosen by the British Parliament for this important task showed how upset London Conservatives were with Canadian Tories. But that in itself showed the way forward. The Canadian Tories correctly assessed that Durham’s appointment was made in a fit of pique; yes, London Conservatives were pissed about the rebellions, but, in the end, London Conservatives and Canadian Tories shared a common paradigm and Durham’s liberal ideals made him the natural enemy of both. So the Tories in the Canadas worked with Conservatives allies in England to undermine Durham.
They were soon successful. The Colonial Office, declaring Durham had over-stepped his authority, reversed some of his decisions. He had pardoned some colonists arrested as rebels, and commuted the sentences of others, before their trials. Since he had been appointed Governor General of the Colonies, he had a level of authority that he could hardly over-step. Durham saw the charges as spurious, and felt they signaled a lack of confidence in him as Governor. He immediately resigned. He returned to Britain and finished up and submitted his report. He died shortly thereafter of tuberculosis.
Durham’s famous report made the observation that Lower Canada could not continue to be run as it had been, because of the stark ethnic division. Sooner or later, the French Canadiens would rebel, and, with official or unofficial American assistance, overthrow the British establishment in Montreal and then create an independent state based on the American political model. Once that had happened, Britain’s hold on Upper Canada would be irrevocably weakened and it, too, would fall into the American orbit and the British Empire would be shut out of the North American interior. Although Britain might maintain the maritime colonies, they would also come under strong American influence. In the report’s patriotic view this was a grim future and unacceptable. Changes must be made now to avoid so dismal an outcome. Two things must happen. First, the French-speaking Canadiens must be assimilated into the English-speaking community to weaken their potentially damaging nationalistic drive and make them loyal British subjects. Second, the colonists in the two Canadas must be given a measure of “democratic” control over how their taxes were spent, to remove this grievance from the communities. These two goals could be accomplished with one administrative stroke; make of the two Canadas a single colony, with a single parliament like Britain at the time had, limited only in that the colonial parliament would not act to harm other British interests. He didn’t use the phrase in his report, but he was describing what Reformers were calling Responsible Government.
There are famous passages in Durham’s report in which he describes the French Canadiens in unflattering terms. Durham had liberal leanings, but he was a man of his time. He grew up in a British culture that had feared and hated the French across the channel. Yet, we also knew he stood apart from mainstream British culture on important issues that alienated him from the majority of his peers. Was his view coloured by the prejudice of his times? We can imagine that most Canadiens were, justifiably, not happy about their recent circumstances. The already-stripped Lower Canada assembly had been indefinitely suspended after the rebellion; Canadiens were without political representation in their own land. Many friends and relatives had been lost in the fighting and in the subsequent wave of arrests, hangings and deportations. The countryside around Montréal was scattered with burnt out town sites. In the five months that he was in British North America, Durham may indeed only have seen a surly side to the Canadiens, and reflected that in his report. Then again, Durham was not a fool. He may well have been considering his audience. His report was a political document. It was not that long ago that Napoleon had held Britain in terror, and he knew antipathy toward the French ran high. He knew his recommendations were controversial; he was telling the very people who ran the British Empire that the Empire had erred and must make concessions, that the Colonial Office must treat colonists, including and especially French colonists, as citizens rather than subjects, for those colonists to be loyal. If he had not parenthetically and patriotically deprecated French Canadiens, predicting their culture’s eventual demise, that might have subtly discredited him in the eyes of those in London who could take actions based on his report.
Whatever his intent with those now famous passages, his overall solutions were not embraced by the Colonial Office. The British Government did like the idea of assimilating the French Canadiens, but could not bring itself to make any concessions to them. Instead, something similar to what the Empire was doing in Ireland was tried in Lower Canada. English speaking immigrants from other parts of the British Empire were settled in Quebec City, in Montreal, and in the areas today called the eastern townships of the province of Quebec. To the extent that London did go along with Durham’s institutional recommendations, the two colonies were made one. By the Act of Union, the new single colony, called Canada, would have a single assembly and council, with the former colony of Upper Canada now called Canada West, and the former colony of Lower Canada now called Canada East. Canada East and Canada West were each awarded 42 seats in the new assembly, although there were only about 2/3 as many people in Canada West, for the most part English-speakers, as there were people, most of whom were French-speaking, living in Canada East. This was specifically not what Durham had recommended. His report called for French and English-speaking colonists to be treated equally in a single assembly. There was even more bad news for the taxpayers of Lower Canada. Before unification, Upper Canada had run deep into debt subsidizing Tory commercial ventures, building infrastructure that had not been needed in Lower Canada. The taxpayers of formerly Lower Canada would now be helping carry that financial burden. For French Canadiens the only positive aspect to the Act of Union was that now at least they had an elected assembly, albeit one they must share as second class participants, whereas before they had none.
The relationship between this new elected Assembly and the Governor and his appointed Council was as it had been in Upper Canada. It was not Responsible Government. But in 1839 the Colonial Office instructed the new Governor, Lord Sydenham, (who had worked with the many factions in the Canadas during the negotiations for the terms of the Act of Union) to appoint some Reformers to his council to pacify that faction. The new Governor may have genuinely believed that this kind of patronage would be acceptable to the Reformers. He seemed genuinely outraged when Baldwin, the leader of the English-speaking Reformers, after first accepting his appointment to council, took note of all the Tories also on council, and quickly tendered his resignation.
Originally accepting the appointment may have been a genuine error on Baldwin’s part. He may have thought that, through a back door approach, Responsible Government was to come to the colony. When he saw he was wrong, he swallowed his own frustration and did what was proper to correct the situation. But, then again, Baldwin was a wily and dedicated politician. It served his purposes to cause trouble for the colonial administration, demonstrating to the voters and the Governor the futility of the present system. He may have just been stirring the pot to make his point. But, by resigning, Baldwin made of the formidable Lord Sydenham an implacable foe. Sydenham seems to have seen Baldwin’s actions as a challenge to his authority, a challenge that had to be answered. During the first general election after the Act of Unity, Sydenham bent his considerable influence and organizing talent to ensuring the Tories won a majority in the elected Assembly. He appointed vote counters over whom he had influence in all the ridings, he adjusted the times the polls were open, had Tory thugs go to key ridings and intimidate and beat up Reformers and their supporters. He had the police turn a blind eye to this, but had them arrest known Reformer hooligans just before the election, on miscellaneous flimsy charges, so they would not be available for the election. (These young men would have offered Reform voters physical protection, and would have beat up Tory voters to discourage their participation.) He threw legal challenges at Reformer candidates. Sydenham used threats and bribes to control the newspaper coverage. By means legal and extra-legal (for he was the ultimate law in the colony; there was no over-stepping-of-authority nonsense this time) he made sure the Tories won a majority in the Assembly. Then he appointed an all-Tory advisory council whose members were, of course, ratified by the Tory Assembly. If the Reformers wanted Responsible Government, he would give it to them, in spades.
The Reformers had no effective response; their futile cries of “that’s not fair!” were as a tonic to Lord Sydenham, who openly boasted he’d do it again every election. Canadian history might have unfolded much differently than it did, but Lord Sydenham had a terrible horse-riding accident and died of his injuries in 1841.
The new Governor, Sir Charles Bagot, arrived in the colony, just after his 70th birthday, with instructions to follow his predecessor’s successful policies in the colonies. Sir Charles was married to the niece of the famous Duke of Wellington, but was in his own right an able diplomat for the British Empire; among his many assignments he had been one of Britain’s chief negotiators with the Americas following the war of 1812, setting up what came to be famously known as the longest undefended border in the world.
When he came to the Canadian colony and took stock, he quickly realized it was a powder keg. There was a potential for widespread revolt more serious than the revolts of 1837. The British army would probably be victorious again, but it would cost more than last time and it would not look good on his watch. And, there was that unchecked powerhouse to the south. America might consider two revolts in quick succession a sign of British weakness and again take up seriously the idea of liberating and acquiring the northern half of the continent, throwing away all Bagot’s earlier work as a diplomat. He had read the Durham report; he understood what was intended by Responsible Government. Sydenham’s council was falling apart. Many in the former governor’s council had worked with him in return for patronage, and with Sydenham’s passing, these deals, and the council’s unity, were starting to unravel. Bagot made it clear that he would work with the elected Assembly, and would not break the existing party alliances, and turned to the Reformers for candidates to replace the defecting councilors.
He was chastised back in England for taking this position, by such worthies as his famous uncle, the Duke of Wellington, hero of Waterloo and no friend of the French. The Duke assessed that the colonial regiments could handle another rebellion and the French Canadiens should be hammered again to break their will, and stated publicly that his own nephew was a fool. But Wellington was not in charge of this campaign, Bagot was, and while he was as deferential to his famous uncle as he felt he should be, he followed his own strategy. With the Reformers a plurality in the Assembly in both Canadas, he allowed them to choose many of the members he appointed to his council.
By working with the Reformers, Bagot had greatly reduced the political tension in the colony of Canada. Yet he had not caved to the Reformers either, despite his detractors’ claims. Baldwin and Lafontaine at first demanded that all members of the Council be Reformers. Bagot played political hardball shrewdly, eventually persuading the Reformer leaders to grudgingly accept some Tories in key positions on his Council so it was not all made up of Reformers, although they were the majority. He referred to this approach as his “great measure”, although he conceded in his personal notes that it was functionally Responsible Government. Yet it was not the Responsible Government of a single party council that the Reform leaders Baldwin and La Fontaine demanded. Both sides had to compromise to get what they wanted, but the system worked.
However, Bagot’s health deteriorated soon after. As he was less able to spend time on the affairs of the colony, he came to rely more on Baldwin and La Fontaine and they, reasonably enough, took advantage of his diminished circumstances to make patronage appointments for their own benefit. Bagot resigned his post due to ill health in March 1843 and, too ill to return to England, died in Kingston in May of that year. Again, I would suggest that Canada’s history would have been significantly different had Bagot lived and been able to maintain his post for a few more years.
The Conservative British Government was not pleased with Bagot’s legacy as Governor General of Canada. Grudging admitting Bagot’s positive contributions, London demanded of his successor, Sir Charles Metcalfe, that the colony be run as a colony, that the French be assimilated, that this whole unpleasant ‘responsible government’ thing be shut down. Somehow! London had no specific solutions to offer, but the intent of the vague directive was clear. From our vantage 170 years later this position might seem so obviously against the flow of history as to be absurd. Surely some in the Colonial Office thought defending the Empire-as-it-was as a rearguard action, and simply sought to delay the inevitable. Yet intelligent, patriotic people at various levels in the British government were deeply concerned by events in Canada. There was, of course, British antipathy towards French, but beyond that, Bagot and the Reformers had succeeded in ruling the colony; their positive achievement set an awkward precedent. To the defenders of the British Empire it seemed to portend Empire’s end, and perhaps they were right in their assessment. They did not want Responsible Government catching on in the other colonies.
Metcalfe saw quickly that his orders would put him in conflict with the Reformers. He was not personally concerned with this because he disagreed with them philosophically as well. He believed the British Empire a force for good around the world. Being above local politics, a colonial governor brought stability, and more important, freedom from local tyranny and local corruption. Colonial administration should be a meritocracy that served as an example for the rest of the colony to follow. He wanted the best people in his council to advise him, not political hacks. He disdained the Reformers recent patronage appointments. (He did not fully appreciate the impression Lord Sydenham’s policies, just five years before, had left on Reformers). He found the Reformer leaders, especially La Fontaine, dictatorial. So, he smiled and worked with them at first, and then, at a time when the economy was strong, he strategically broke with the Reformers on an administration issue over which the colonial voters were not concerned. He appointed a new council of moderate conservatives and called a election for the assembly. During the election he played a strong role promoting his conservative team, though he did not go to the extremes to which Sydenham had famously gone; he wanted to be seen to have won fairly.
Metcalfe’s plan succeeded. There were enough moderate conservatives elected in the Assembly to back his chosen council. However, Baldwin was comfortably re-elected in his riding and with him sat a rump of loyal Reformers from Canada West. And La Fontaine and the Reformers from Canada East were re-elected. Metcalfe’s conservatives won ridings where English-speaking colonists had been brought into Canada East, and won in English-speaking Montreal. But the rest of Canada East, 29 of the 42 seats, went solidly to the Reformers.
This election is the first instance I have found where later historians refer to La Fontaine’s ‘political machine’. His organizational talent and good judgement of character and fierce tenacity (the quality Metcalfe had characterized as dictatorial) paid off. Metcalfe had made serious efforts in Canada East; he had supported moving the colonial capital from Kingston to Montreal, he spoke out (perhaps deceptively) against the policy of French assimilation, he recruited some big name Francophones to the conservative cause. Yet La Fontaine’s Reformers were able to quite shut them out of the French ridings. Technically defeated, La Fontaine sat in opposition with his Canada East double-majority, a symbol of defiance. When Metcalfe tried to get some of them to join the council, they unanimously refused, denying his council the colony-wide multi-lingual legitimacy he sought. (It was in this election of 1844 that a young John A. Macdonald first won the riding for Kingston and sat with the Tories in the Assembly.)
Metcalfe proceeded with the council he had chosen. The Reformers remained in opposition. London was delighted with Metcalfe’s results, and rewarded him with a Barony. But the astute Metcalfe saw that in his success the Reformers had been equally victorious. In governing with the support of the Assembly, Metcalfe was, despite his efforts, following the path of Responsible Government; in staying out of the Council, the Reformers were denying him any choice but a one party council, what the Reformers saw as Responsible Government. Further, the Governor General ideally should be above local politics as he rules the colony, but, to win, Metcalfe had needed to become a big part of that politics he had sought to eschew. Worse still, Metcalfe was very sick with cancer. His strength was failing and he could not participate in governing as he wished. He saw the bitter irony that more and more he relied on his ministers for day to day decisions, another feature of the Reform platform. Eventually he had to resign his post due to ill health. He moved back to England, nearly blind and dumb from his affliction, and died several months later.
The Empires of Britain and America were at odds again, this time on the Columbia River, on the Pacific coast, far away from Canada. (See the British North America 1825 map above.) The newly appointed Governor of Canada was Earl Cathcart, a soldier of the Napoleonic wars. He was no diplomat, knew little of constitutions and Assembly procedure, but he was conscientious and hard working. It was apparent to him that if war broke out between Britain and America over Oregon, the weak point for Britain was Canada, and he rigorously inspected the border fortifications throughout Canada East and West. He stayed away from the politics of the Assembly and Council, as his predecessor had wished to, though he did promote legislation regarding organizing of local militia, in preparation for the coming war. His hands-off approach to politics won him some respect with all factions. Unfortunately for him, the Oregon Boundary dispute was settled peacefully, and he was abruptly dismissed. He was the first of five governors of Canada to leave and live a relatively long and happy life afterwards. (He became a geologist.)
In 1848 the Conservative government in London was replaced by a Liberal government. The new government was backed by a British business community that wanted free trade. Defending and administering the wide flung British colonies was coming to be seen as a drain on British society. The idea of Responsible Government, as per Durham, fitted the new paradigm. The new Governor, Lord Elgin, was sent with the directive to work with the Reformers in Canada to establish responsible government. With this sea change, the fortunes of La Fontaine and Baldwin rose, and, with Lord Elgin’s guidance, they governed Canada together till the system was established and then, tired by their long service, they left politics a few years later. The structure of parliament they had forged lasted and was the template for most of the other British colonies around the world, and the foundation of federal Canada and its provinces in 1867. The French-English alliance they had started eventually foundered (and this collapse led to Confederation), but it was the inspiration for many later French-English political alliances that arose and were successful over the next century and a half. Through the work of Baldwin and La Fontaine, we are told, Canada was forever after run for the benefit of the the people of Canada, and the struggle for Responsible Government was won. We can all heave a sigh of relief.
tactic and strategy
This above is not the complete story. There were many others who contributed to the quest for Responsible Government. Joseph Howe fought eloquently for the cause in Nova Scotia, providing moral support for Baldwin and La Fontaine in, at the time, distant Canada. I recommend to you Howe’s writing, especially his amazing libel defense, and his letters on Responsible Government after Lord Durham’s report became widely available in 1839 . There was Francis Hinks, friend and supporter of Baldwin, financial manager, both shifty and honest, a pragmatic hero in the background throughout the quest for Responsible Government. There were many others playing important, if less well-known roles. Also, in the years when they worked together, La Fontaine, Baldwin, and Lord Elgin were key actors in many seminal elements of the story of pre-confederal Canada. They eventually broke the power of the Family Compact. The Tories were shattered into two bitter camps. One group, betrayed and frustrated, denounced Britain and her Empire and called for Canada’s annexation to America. The other camp sat in the Assembly as an ineffectual also-ran opposition party, sullenly licking its wounds and studying the techniques that had made La Fontaine and Baldwin so successful. This group was destined for greatness as the future Conservative Party of Canada. I have set aside all those other people, and all those other adventures, to focus on the lessons of the historical vignettes relayed in the notes above.
First, there is ‘Responsible Government’. This evocative phrase once inspired many people in Canada and around the world, and dismayed Empire’s guardians. Like Democracy, the phrase has a particular and simple definition, but Responsible Government does not mean the same thing as Democracy; it does not mean that the people rule. The phrase Responsible Government implicitly concedes that there are two groups, governors and the governed. It means that, in performing the act of governing, the governors have a responsibility to those they govern.
But what is that responsibility? For the Reformers, the responsibility was that colonial Governors were obligated to select Councilors who had the confidence of the people that the colonists elected to the Assembly. That idea, that definition of the obligation, was developed in Canada, and eventually became the template around the world for British Colonies. We may take some pride in this contribution made by our ancestors, a genuine contribution to world peace.
My confusion as a young history student was in mixing up the general with the specific; I mixed up the idea of Responsible Government (meaning: there is an obligation between governor and governed) with the Reformers’ specific definition of that obligation (the membership of the Governor’s Council must be acceptable to the colony’s elected Assembly) which for Baldwin and La Fontaine signified Responsible Government. I was confusing strategy and tactic.
Back in the time of La Fontaine and Baldwin the British Empire ruled as the absolute authority over each of her wide-flung colonies. A Colonial Governor was a dictator, a warlord in the strictest sense of the word. Each British colony, and its colonists, were there to help Imperial Britain fight the global struggle against Imperial France. Except, of course, that Imperial France had died in that struggle, and Imperial Britain did not know how to adapt to the changed circumstances; twenty years after Napoleon’s defeat, all British colonies continued to be run as military outposts, valuable pawns in some great game Britain could not stop playing.
It has never been a secret that the relationship between governor and governed is symbiotic. Successful dictators have always known that they need to pay attention to the needs of those over whom they rule. That’s why the Scandinavian warlords had Things and why Edward set up Parliament. Canadian Reformers did not discover this symbiotic relationship; they presented it as the ‘duty’ of a good ruler, and they explicitly defined that ‘obligation’ in the context of the 19th century British Empire. It was a master stroke of repackaging. Their definition was exactly what the Empire and the colonists both needed in order to move forward, and that’s why it caught on and became so ubiquitous as to become difficult to notice today.
And that is the point. The Refomers’ strategy was specific to their time and place. We aren’t facing the British Empire today, we are facing quite different institutions. Today, it is no surprise that people in the Federal cabinet have the support of the majority of members of the House of Commons, and that the Provincial cabinets have the backing of their various Legislatures. It doesn’t even make sense that it should be otherwise, so right were La Fontaine and Baldwin and Elgin. Of course today we have responsible government – in the tactical sense. The more important question is, do we have Responsible Government in the deeper strategic sense, in the meaning of the actual words? Is the duty today’s government has, to those it governs today, fully discharged, really, just by having partisan Cabinets?
Any one who supported the Triple E Senate would answer ‘no’. There are many Canadians today, though maybe not a majority, who, while never supporting the Triple E Senate, would also answer ‘no’. If you think to answer ‘yes’, then consider the case of Lord Sydenham’s Council. For all that he was an opponent, and for the most part a successful opponent, of Baldwin and La Fontaine, his administration followed the tactical definition of Responsible Government that Baldwin and La Fontaine advocated. Sydenham’s ‘party’ won that Assembly election using the powers available to him. He then governed with a Council that had the confidence of the elected Assembly. Why were the Reformers unhappy?
I will suggest that they were unhappy (and Lord Sydenham is popularly classed as a kind of ‘bad guy’ in high school Canadian history) because there really was more to the ‘obligation’ than the Reformers had explicitly spelled out. It was all very well for Reformers to say “that’s not fair!”, but I put forward that the first serious failing on their part was that they could not clearly articulate why it was not fair. Sydenham certainly played to win. The rules of engagement had not yet been clearly defined back then, so we cannot say Sydenham unequivocally cheated. But a symmetry was broken. We may say that if the elected Assembly is to endorse the Governor’s Council, then, in that same spirit, the colonists should endorse the elected Assembly. Sydenham took the initiative to prevent that from happening; those who would support his team got a good opportunity to say their piece in public, to cast their ballot and have it counted, and those who opposed him did not have those opportunities. The Reformer’s second serious failing was that, beaten by Sydenham at their own game, they chose to adopt his tactics going forward rather than refine their agenda.
But if we can stretch the concept of Responsible Government to exclude Sydenham’s council, if we say the the Reformers’ tactical definition was not quite enough, for them and for us, then we may also wish to reassess Metcalfe. He had wished to be a Governor above local politics, handing down to the colony wise and unbiased decisions, but the Reformers truly defeated him, literally forcing that principled man to act against his own principles. Isn’t Metcalfe’s ideal Governor the epitome of Responsible Government in the deep sense? He felt he had an obligation to rule fairly. Isn’t that a Responsible Government’s real responsibility? Metcalfe judged, rightly or wrongly, that the best way to rule fairly was to undermine the Reformers, who had the upper hand when he arrived in Canada, and whom he saw, not without cause, as corrupt. He simply could not undermine them sufficiently in the time he had.
Now, one could make the argument that all politics is local, that Metcalfe was naive, that the Reformers were realists, that there is no deeper sense to Responsible Government. This is not an easy position to defend; Metcalfe was an accomplished Imperial administrator before coming to Canada, and it was during his successful career as a Governor in India that he refined his Platonic Republican philosophy. There is, too, the problem of how to look critically at Sydenham’s administration in this light. Also, there is the challenge of teaching such a stark view of Responsible Government to Canadian students in a public school system established by the historic champions of Responsible Government and run by their philosophical descendants.
But, perhaps the biggest problem with that realpolitik view is what to make of Bagot’s successful non-partisan administration, which included both Reformers and Tories. Bagot was the only one of those Governors who crossed the Reformers’ line in the sand and made them come to him. The old negotiator took a lot of heat from London, and was treated dishonourably by the Canadians he had to work with as his health failed, but he took the principled stand, that both Sydenham and Metcalfe had not, of respecting the alliances within the Assembly, and he succeeded, where Metcalfe tried and failed, in setting up a multi-partisan, meritocratic Governor’s Council that the elected Assembly endorsed. His contribution to Canadian politics was to demonstrate Responsible Government in the strategic sense that was specifically not Reform’s tactical Responsible Government. Circumstances were such that we did not take his path, and I think we have paid a price for that choice.
In fact, if you look at all the Governors after Durham, they all worked with Councils that had the approval of their elected Assemblies. What more did the Reformers want? Really, all Elgin did was make tactical Responsible Government official colonial policy rather than a policy of expedience.
I am not intending to judge the Reformers when I say that their eventual victory was a mixed blessing for those of us who came after. Give them their due; they tilted at the biggest windmill on their horizon, and they won. Let us consider the good to which their actions led.
Firstly, the public finances of the colony were at last put towards things other than the ventures of the Tory businessmen. That long-term investment helped the colony grow economically by making it more pleasant for people to live here and work here. And the idea was carried to many other British colonies, and made them also more pleasant places to live and work.
Secondly, it cannot be doubted that ‘Responsible Government’ saved many lives because it was a way for the British Empire to relatively peacefully evolve beyond a collection of military bases. The Empire might instead have chosen to crush its many internal detractors in an effort to maintain a united front against the rest of the world, and those would have been bloody and eventually futile affairs. As the years went by, many people in many lands died with the British Empire. But it would have been much worse without the example of Responsible Government as a way forward.
The British colony of Canada was perhaps the necessary venue for the birth of the idea of Responsible Government, because of its proximity to the United States of America. Our little colonies had proved almost indefensible against acquisitive America’s rising power. On the other hand, American generals knew that their determined advances in the war of 1812 had been blunted by the British army’s second string, they knew that Britain had, while staving off defeat here, at the same time crushed forever once-mighty France. No competent American leader of the day saw the British Empire as an adversary to be taken lightly. There was a close balance of power between these two giants. Anyone making a strict assessment of the facts on the ground would conclude that, in that balance, the tiny Canadian population could be the difference between Britain holding her colony or America liberating it. (Do you recall the necessary counting from chapter 1?)
Let’s look one more time at the philosophical framework of the term ‘Responsible Government’. Let us say that those governing us wish to be good, and, to be good governors, must recognize and discharge certain obligations they have towards us, the governed. I have dwelt (at length!) on what the obligations might be, but there is another aspect to ‘Responsible Government’ that we can deconstruct. What does it mean to be a ‘good’ Governor? At the very least, a good Governor doesn’t create the conditions for rebellion. In any other British colony the need for good governance was not keenly felt; British troops could crush any insurrection and no harm done (to the Empire). But in Canada, with its unique placement on America’s border, and with recent rebellions fresh in everyone’s memory, no; in Canada rebellion was just not something the British Empire could let happen. And so Reformers stood up to the Governors, and the Governors actually had to listen, had to make at least some accommodation. Reformers commanded no armies, and that made them strong. Reformers had denounced the rebellions back in 1837, and that made them stronger still.
And that is ironic, for those rebels, the frustrated, poorly-led townsfolk and farmers of Lower Canada, the angry mob in Upper Canada, who took up arms in a futile cause against the deadliest military force on the planet, those rebels long dead in the field or on the gallows, or rotting in the penal colonies of the Antipodes; like guardian angels, those rebels followed and protected the Reformers, allowed the hicks from our tiny backwater to treat with the Empire that bestrode the globe. To the extent that the Reformers laid the foundation for modern Canada, and the good that did in the world, we owe the rebels of 1837 a great debt of gratitude.