Our Hidden History

Why do we downplay the seminal moment in Canadian democracy?

The colleague who brings the cups of coffee to our table has been reading John Ralston Saul’s elegant double biography, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, and she is perplexed. She seeks historical guidance. She sees that in his entwined lives of these 19th-century parliamentarians, Saul is asserting large claims about the meaning of Canada. The book is an argument about the foundation of the country and the origins of Canadian political culture. It has flashes of violence, clashes of incompatible political philosophies, threats of ethnocultural war and the spectacle of politicians making subtle choices for the highest of stakes. It is not only a dramatic story, that is, but one that addresses fundamental questions about our political inheritance from the distant 1840s.

My perplexed colleague is a veteran of the Canadian literary-cultural-political scene. She has good reason to consider herself widely read and well informed. (Okay, she is the editor of this magazine.) Why, she wonders, with all her knowledge of this country, is this story so damned unfamiliar to her? If this is the central story of Canadian political history, and as dramatic as Saul’s telling makes it, why has she known so little about it? And if she does not know about it, whose fault is that?

Well, not John Ralston Saul’s, I think.

LaFontaine and Baldwin is Saul’s own contribution to Extraordinary Canadians, the series of short, readable biographies of which he is general editor. His choice is no random one: John Ralston Saul has been writing and talking about Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin for years. Almost 15 years ago, Saul was virtually alone in insisting on a public commemoration on March 11, 1998, the 150th anniversary of the ascension to power of the LaFontaine-Baldwin government. He has been the prime mover of the LaFontaine-Baldwin Lectures, an annual series. His first book on the Canadian condition, 1997’s Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century, cited the two men as “the original Siamese twins,” the founders of the “inclusive society” based on “social complexity” and “fairness” that he celebrated there. They turned up again as role models for his second essay on this theme, 2008’s A Fair Country: Telling Truths about Canada, in which “a Métis nation” became Saul’s metaphor for social complexity. Now he comes at the two men directly in a double biography.

Saul easily pairs these two Canadians born in the first decade of the 1800s: LaFontaine fatherless and childless, Baldwin the dutiful son of a powerful father. Both became successful lawyers, one in Montreal, the other in Toronto. Both were beset by ailments more associated with Victorian women than powerful men: LaFontaine often bedridden with mysterious ailments, Baldwin crippled by grief over the death of his young wife. Neither seemed a natural for public life, but both became career politicians.

In the 1830s, they and their societies faced a political problem that should be familiar in the 21st century: unaccountable executive power imposed on people unwilling to accept autocratic rule. They spoke of “responsible government.” We call it “the democratic deficit.”

LaFontaine and Baldwin came to maturity in a Canada where the governor general actually governed. Elected legislatures existed, but the government held broad powers independent of them, and governors took advice where they chose. One Canadian response was radical—and opposed by both LaFontaine and Baldwin: armed uprisings in 1837 and 1838. Saul suggests that Canadians tend to treat these rebellions as comic opera. He prefers to underline their consequences for political moderates like LaFontaine and Baldwin: a “rogue government,” fierce repression, “friends … hanged, shot, exiled, in and out of prison,” and the radicals’ failure used to discredit moderation.

It was in those circumstances that LaFontaine and Baldwin met, built their alliance and fought a decade-long battle. It was a political battle: they rejected violence as unnecessary and self-defeating. As a result, their platform may seem a modest and counter-revolutionary one. Baldwin in Upper Canada and LaFontaine in Lower Canada focused Canadian political aspirations on a single principle: that Canadians were entitled to the same rights Britons held in Britain. In Canada, this demand was summed up as responsible government, meaning that in each Canadian jurisdiction the actions of the Crown had to be guided by advisors who were endorsed by, and constantly accountable to, a majority of the elected representatives of the Canadian people.

Much of this was already available in theory in Britain, through the parliamentary system. Saul, however, is at pains to emphasize the un-Britishness of the LaFontaine-Baldwin platform. He dismisses the notion that the coming of Canadian self-government can be credited to the radical aristocrat Lord Durham and magnanimous British governments. Durham’s solution, Saul argues, remained rooted in the ethnic nationalism of the existing British and Canadian oligarchies: the government could be accountable, but only if francophone Canadians were politically marginalized, denied their language and history, and assimilated. “There would be democracy, but for the anglophones only,” is Saul’s dismissive précis of Durham’s plan, which the LaFontaine-Baldwin alliance confronted directly.

The question, Saul observes, was not whether LaFontaine and Baldwin “could achieve Responsible Government, but whether they could imagine and deliver the sort of society that could make Responsible Government mean something.” Social equality, declared LaFontaine in his Address to the Electors of Terrebonne in 1840, was “the characteristic feature of the population as well of Upper Canada as of Lower Canada.” This was unimaginable in the Britain of that time, where even voting remained the prerogative of the landowning “Ten Thousand.”

The LaFontaine-Baldwin alternative was rooted in two Canadian innovations: something close to universal manhood suffrage (largely achieved in Canada, unknown in Britain) and a politics that depended more on political rights than ethnic homogeneity. Political accountability was half the answer; the other half was a politics grounded in toleration of diversity and in ethnocultural accommodation.

The LaFontaine-Baldwin program was slowly, hesitatingly assembled early in the 1840s, as anglophone and francophone reformers debated whether they could work together for mutual benefit. When LaFontaine was defeated by violence in his Montreal-area constituency, Baldwin arranged to have him elected by the anglophone farmers of York riding; not long after, LaFontaine returned the favour and Baldwin was elected by pure lain Rimouski. Throughout the 1840s, in the aftermath of ethnically based political cleansings and assimilationist British policies, LaFontaine and Baldwin struggled to sell consensus politics to divided societies. LaFontaine had to persuade French Canada it was not suicidal to pin the survival of francophone, Catholic Lower Canada on an alliance with anglophone, Protestant Upper Canada. Baldwin had to persuade proud and ambitious Upper Canadians that their political success would be inseparable from a government dependent on francophone majorities.

In counselling non-cooperation even with sympathetic British governors, the reform alliance led by LaFontaine and Baldwin had to overcome deep habits of social deference. In counselling unity even at the price of political office, they had to overcome the counter-example of such notables as the Upper Canadian preacher and intellectual Egerton Ryerson, the old francophone radical Denis-Benjamin Viger and the rising young politician John A. Macdonald, all of whom found cooperation with the autocratic governors more attractive than responsible government principles.

Saul declares repeatedly that the building of a reform consensus was a domestic Canadian achievement: “the great leaders of England … were unanimously against democracy” in the colonies. In the late 1840s, however, the British cabinet conceded, although naturally announcing its concession as an original discovery. Henceforth, governors in British North America were bound to lead governments acceptable to the colonials’ elected representatives. In February 1848, Joseph Howe’s reformers in Nova Scotia were first to take office on this principle. A month later, following a reform sweep in elections in the united Canadas, the newly elected legislators worked through the formalities of democratic accountability in a parliamentary system. The governor’s advisors met the newly elected House, they lost a confidence vote, they sent in their resignations. Then the governor invited LaFontaine, as leader of the new majority, to form a new cabinet acceptable to the legislature.

Saul acknowledges the importance of this parliamentary moment, the confirmation of legislative authority. But he opens LaFontaine and Baldwin with a vivid set piece evoking a more dramatic test of ethnocultural cooperation and responsible government. The LaFontaine-Baldwin ministry, committed to ending resentments that still lingered from the Lower Canadian rebellions and repression of 1837–38, brought in a bill to compensate for property damage that citizens had suffered in the conflict. Similar payments had already been approved for Upper Canada, but here the majority of the beneficiaries would be francophones. This was a Canadian political choice, not an imperial one, and therefore a bold display of the new rules: the governor general no longer governed. Like it or not, his duty was to sign the bill into law.

The first result of Governor General Elgin’s signing of the Rebellion Losses Act was fresh rebellion, this time by the loyal elite of anglophone Montreal. In April 1849, those most committed to the British connection and British ethnic superiority attempted to kill the British governor general and his cabinet. They succeeded in putting the Canadian parliament building to the torch and began talking about joining the United States. Parliament burned, and so did LaFontaine’s house, but the LaFontaine government chose not to turn its troops on the mobs, and so a bloodbath was averted. “At key historic moments,” Saul declares, “every society burns into its unconscious the outline of patterns for agreement and disagreement … The spring of 1849 was the defining moment for modern Canada.”

With the weight of Saul’s whole book marshalled behind it, this seems a sufficiently large statement about the enduring influence of 1848–49 upon the nature of Canadian political culture to justify the question from my perplexed editor: why is this not a history we hear about?

It is true, of course, that there are many questions in Canadian history that we “don’t hear about.” Indeed the question “why is X not better known/taught in our schools?” (where X stands for anything in Canadian history) seems infinitely applicable. Inevitably we compare ourselves unfavourably to the Americans. But Americans think themselves to be uniquely ignorant of their own past, looking to the British—where the new Cameron government recently appointed celebrity historians Niall Ferguson and Simon Schama to revive the dying subject of British history. The British look to France for models, although in France ignorance of the national epic is perpetually une crise nationale.

But I do not think my editor’s complaint is of that universal variety. Saul himself effectively documents not just lack of interest but active dismissal of the story he seeks to revive here. Throughout LaFontaine and Baldwin he neatly grounds the events of the 1840s in the physical places in the hearts of our cities where they happened—the homes of the protagonists, the governors’ gardens, the legislative buildings—and then describes them today: a parking lot, an office tower, unmarked, unknown, forgotten. It is not just the places but the ideas, he writes:

The common interpretation built up over the past 160 years tends to ignore their ideas and to rush over these events, as if our stable, middle-class democracy didn’t and doesn’t want to think of itself as an intentional and controversial project … We have ended up thinking that Canada stumbled into democracy.

Why this neglect? Historians do not exist outside of society. Their choices of subject matter often reflect contemporary realities and societal concerns. Is their—our—neglect of the origins of Canadian parliamentary democracy perhaps a reflection of how Canadians imagine parliamentary democracy today?

Consider, as a way into this question, the ending of the parliamentary careers of Saul’s two protagonists. Despite great achievements and an extensive legislative record, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin each relinquished power in 1851, resigning their seats even before the term of the 1848 parliament had expired and ending their political careers while still in their forties. Their reasons for doing so are instructive.

LaFontaine and Baldwin’s victory was a parliamentary one. Although it was rooted in principles of ethnic tolerance, social equality and negotiation, as Saul emphasizes, the heart of their achievement lay in establishing that leaders must be constantly accountable to the people’s elected representatives. To impose that principle upon powerful governors who stood outside and above the legislature, LaFontaine and Baldwin had built a very broad parliamentary caucus; Saul notes that it was the ancestor of both the Liberal Party and the Progressive Conservative Party of modern times.

But by 1851 their large caucus was growing restive. Baldwin found his policies questioned by his Upper Canadian colleagues, and LaFontaine was overruled by his Lower Canadian supporters. Their resignations were the result, and therefore confirmed that the principle of 1848 imposed accountability not only on governors and their cliques, but on party leaders as well. By 1851 LaFontaine and Baldwin’s parliamentary caucus wanted to move in new directions they themselves disliked. Accepting their accountability, the two men yielded party leadership to colleagues more in tune with the emerging caucus majority.

On this central question of parliamentary accountability, we today live once again in something like pre-1848 conditions. What Canadian party leader ever cedes power because his or her caucus is changing its mind? Today we accept that any party leader who wins a majority has, not constant accountability, but a four-year free hand, during which any caucus member who doubts or disagrees will be put out of caucus and probably out of politics. We have replaced LaFontaine and Baldwin’s hard-won achievement of leadership accountability with the perverse idea that legislators are once more accountable to leaders, rather than the other way around. Where the backbenchers concluded in 1851 that they could dispense in mid term with the services of the two greatest leaders of a generation—and did—today’s members of Parliament accept that they must be the only people in the country with no political opinions of their own, just passive supporters for whatever leader extra-parliamentary processes have imposed on them.

When the country does not take parliamentary accountability seriously, we should not be surprised that our historians do not trouble themselves to write about its origins. Why should we take the events of 1848 seriously when everything about our politics suggests we have actually regressed to a lower standard of parliamentary practice? This provocative, readable little book might just suggest to some Canadians and their elected representatives that holding their leaders accountable is what members of Parliament are there for, indeed the only thing they are there for. I’d say: from JRS’s mouth to your MP’s ear.