The victory of the Reform Party on 24 January 1848 was one of the most significant in Canadian history. For almost a year before the election, the lifeless Tory ministry of William Henry Draper limped to its end. It seemed to the new governor general, Lord Elgin, that there was no real political life in Canada at all.
The Reform (that is to say, liberal) Party swept the constituencies like a broom. However, the principle that the majority party controls parliament was not yet established. (See also: Reform movement in Upper Canada.) Colonial government was still firmly in the hands of the governor, who was appointed by London. The governor, in turn, appointed members of the legislative council (today’s Cabinet). He chose or dismissed advisors and vetoed legislation at will.
The dramatic change from this autocracy to responsible government was achieved by the most remarkable political partnership in Canadian history — that of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine. When the new parliament assembled in Montreal on 25 February, Baldwin rose to insist that the new speaker be fluent in both English and French. He nominated Auguste-Norbert Morin. The motion, seconded by LaFontaine, was carried to loud cheers from the chamber. It was not the first or the last time that the two men collaborated.
In the early days of the Reform movement in Lower Canada (now Quebec), some French Canadians distrusted LaFontaine. They believed he was “selling out” by cooperating with the English-speaking Reformers. Some gesture was needed to show that his policy of survival through cooperation could work. In August 1841, Baldwin supplied it. When LaFontaine was shut out of the Lower Canada Assembly, Baldwin nominated him in his own riding of York. LaFontaine accepted the generous offer and was elected. (See also: The Politics of Cultural Accommodation: Baldwin, LaFontaine and Responsible Government.)
It was a dramatic embodiment of the idea of a reform alliance. Later, when Baldwin lost his seat, LaFontaine returned the favour. He helped Baldwin secure a seat in Rimouski in 1843, even though Baldwin spoke no French.
The issue of the bilingual speaker brought about a confidence vote. When the old government was defeated, Lord Elgin turned to LaFontaine to form a new ministry in 1848. The principle of responsible government was acknowledged for the first time. The government was formed based on the will of the people through election results, not on the will of an appointed governor. LaFontaine accepted on condition that his friend and ally Baldwin be co-premier.
Robert Baldwin was anything but a typical Canadian politician, then or now. He was raised by his father Dr. William Baldwin to hold political ideas that were ahead of their time. Baldwin’s actions were always dictated by a moral sense of duty. If he was not the actual author of responsible government, he spent the best years of his life fighting for it. “This is not a mere party struggle,” he wrote. “It is Canada against her oppressors, the people of Canada claiming the British constitution against those who would withhold it.”
Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine stands out among Canadian politicians of the past 175 years. He was the first to understand how the power and flexibility of the British Constitution could be used to ensure the survival of French Canadians. He was a brilliant and ambitious leader who entered the Lower Canada Assembly at the age of 23. (He was so Napoleonic in his appearance and bearing that he was once taken for the reincarnation of the dead emperor by Napoleon’s own guardsmen.)
LaFontaine was too prudent to identify himself with the violent aims of the Patriotes during the rebellions in Lower Canada in 1837–38. He sympathized with their goals. But he was more focused on achieving change through democratic means, rather than violent revolution. Under suspicion nonetheless, he went to England and France until the dust cleared.
LaFontaine and Baldwin were of one mind. They saw that the most important issue in the Canadas was the achievement of responsible government. The two men had the highest possible opinion of one another. They enjoyed a deep friendship for the rest of their lives.