The Politics of Cultural Accommodation: Baldwin, LaFontaine and Responsible Government | The Canadian Encyclopedia


The Politics of Cultural Accommodation: Baldwin, LaFontaine and Responsible Government

One of the great, unheralded events in Canadian history took place in September 1841 at an annual feast and ceremony of Illumination at Sharon Temple, meeting place for the Children of Peace.
Sharon Temple c. 1920

One of the great, unheralded events in Canadian history took place in September 1841 at an annual feast and ceremony of Illumination at Sharon Temple, meeting place for the Children of Peace. William Warren Baldwin officially ceded his nomination in the elected Assembly of Canada West (Ontario), recommending in his place Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, a politician and lawyer from Canada East (Québec).

The nomination that night of a francophone politician in the anglophone half of the colony led to the establishment of responsible government in Canada — a government responsible to the people who elected it, the people it represents. But for one reason or another, this event’s renown doesn’t match its legacy or significance.

The same can be said of the Sharon Temple, which was built by the Children of Peace, an offshoot of the Quakers, just north of Newmarket, Upper Canada (Ontario), in 1832. Though it is a National Historic Site, its historical value is not as much a part of Canadian lore as, say, the Plains of Abraham or Province House, Charlottetown. But the temple — one of the few remaining landmarks of Canada’s democratic foundations — was built to embody the values of a co-operative and self-sufficient society based on fair dealing and democratic equality. The building’s square design, for example, represents the group’s desire to “deal on the square,” and the large doors on each side demonstrate that everyone enters “on equal footing.”

All the Reformers wanted was a fair deal — and they knew they could find it at Sharon.

Baldwin, LaFontaine and the Reform Movement

The two main Reformers of this era, LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, William Warren’s son, came to maturity at a time when Canada was governed by the governor general. Though elected assemblies existed, the government was run by a group of elites appointed to the Executive Council. Known as the Family Compact, or the Château Clique in Lower Canada, this group was put under pressure by a growing group of Reformers in the 1830s, who demanded that the executive be made accountable to the elected legislature.

Simmering amid those political tensions was economic depression, one that hit particularly hard in rural Upper and Lower Canada, where farmers had been dealing with a string of crop failures. Tensions between the Reformers and the Château Clique in Lower Canada were particularly acute, given the added complication of language and religious difference (see Francophone-Anglophone Relations).

Robert Baldwin
Baldwin was the first popularizer of responsible government and one of the first proponents of a bicultural nation (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library).

The well-educated son of a wealthy man, Robert Baldwin became a gifted attorney at a young age, and is said to have had a talent for strong and broad arguments. That eventually caught the attention of the Reform movement, of which his father was a part.

The Reformers were a varied group that included the Baldwin family, William Lyon Mackenzie and Egerton Ryerson, among others. Together, they opposed the Family Compact. They weren’t as much a political party as a bloc or movement; in fact, they sometimes had vastly different ideas among themselves about political change and how to create it. Be that as it may, they established a majority in the elected Assembly in 1828 and quickly brought Baldwin into the fold.

Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine
Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, joint premier of the Province of Canada, 1848-51, oil on canvas, by June Forbes McCormack (courtesy Government of Ontario Art Collection).

Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine was born on the shores of the St. Lawrence to habitants — peasant farmers. When he was just six years old, his father died suddenly, and his mother quickly remarried. But at 13, he was selected to board at the Collège de Montréal, where he excelled. He was called to the Bar when he was just 21, and only a few months later he was elected to public office as a Patriote in Terrebonne, a riding north of Montréal. Though he was at first a follower of Louis-Joseph Papineau, he grew wary of the movement’s more radical wing, and turned to moderation during and after the Rebellions of 1837–38.

Rebellions of 1837–38

Baldwin and LaFontaine were against violence and opposed radical members of the reform movements who broke out in open rebellion. In Lower Canada, the rebellions killed more than 300 people (see Rebellion in Lower Canada). In Upper Canada, the revolt was less violent, but its leadership, including William Lyon Mackenzie, was just as serious as their francophone counterparts in their demands for democratic reform (see Rebellion in Upper Canada).

William Lyon Mackenzie
The fiery and principled Scot was the catalyst for the turbulent politics of the 1830s in Upper Canada.

Mackenzie was a friend of the Children of Peace and their founder, David Willson. They had previously helped him secure a seat in York (Toronto), and Hugh Willson, David’s son, joined Mackenzie on his ill-fated, armed march from Montgomery’s Tavern in December 1837. He was jailed for nearly a year. (See A Short-Lived Rebellion.)

In 1836, Baldwin was appointed to the Executive Council and provided legal defence for many of the rebels. Two of those men, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, were found guilty and hanged for treason by the very Council on which Baldwin served. (Lount’s family were Children of Peace. The Sharon Temple has in its collection an axe and two bear traps made by Lount, as well as a chair that belonged to his wife, Elizabeth.)

Many historians see the rebellions as unnecessary bloodshed. But though both rebellions failed, historians tend to agree that the conflicts paved the way for more careful political change.

Building Responsible Government

In the wake of the crisis, Lord Durham was appointed governor general and asked to investigate colonial grievances. According to him, the problem was that Canada represented “two nations warring in the bosom of a single state.” His major recommendation was therefore to unite the Canadas in order to assimilate the French Canadians (see Durham Report; Act of Union).

Lord Durham, politcian
Two nations warring in the bosom of a single state was Lord Durham's assessment of the relationship between Lower Canada's two linguistic communities (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-121846).

Durham also recommended the implementation of responsible government. But though Britain agreed to unite Upper and Lower Canada — renaming them Canada West and Canada East, respectively, within the newly christened Province of Canada — they said no to responsible government. Instead, democratic reform grew from a political partnership forged between anglophone and francophone political leaders.

But there were obstacles to overcome. Though both regions were represented equally in the legislature, English-speaking Canada West had a much smaller population, meaning that French Canadians were under-represented. As a result, separate sections developed inside of the same political framework, splitting government along cultural lines.

French Canadians quickly understood that the Union would damage them. But Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine saw beyond that, feeling that an alliance with Anglo Reformers could provide French Canadians with a means to responsible government. This is why he was responsive to a proposal made by Francis Hincks.

Sir Francis Hincks, politician
Hincks was briefly head of the government of the Province of Canada, but was defeated amid accusations of corruption (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-3160).

Hincks, a Toronto journalist and shrewd political strategist, was already backing Baldwin's campaign for responsible rule. Hincks was bilingual and conversant in the French Canadian reform movement. He first reached out to LaFontaine in a letter dated April 1839, in which he laid matters bare: if you desire French Canadian nationhood, he wrote, “union would ruin you.” But, if it’s “liberal institutions and economical government [you seek], the Union would… give you all you desire, as an united Parliament would have an immense Reform majority.”

This wasn’t an ultimatum; Hincks was addressing a like-minded politician and he knew it. “If we combine as Canadians,” Hincks wrote to LaFontaine, “to promote the good of all classes in Canada, there can be no doubt that under the new constitution Lord Durham proposes, the only party which would suffer would be the bureaucrats.”

A Partnership of Biblical Proportions

Shortly after, Baldwin and LaFontaine began a lifelong correspondence and became the best of friends. Some called them the David and Jonathan of Canadians politics — a reference to Biblical rivals of different tribes who formed a deep, platonic friendship.

Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine
Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine by Walter Seymour Allward, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 25 April 2010 (Creative Commons/D. Gordon E. Robertson).

LaFontaine was 34, Baldwin 38. Neither man was talkative, nor a great orator. But as John Ralston Saul, one of the foremost authors on this subject puts it, “They were introverts driven into the public place by their ideas.”

In a deeply divided society, this friendship represented something truly great — bridge building, cooperation, consensus. The question was not whether these two men could achieve responsible government, says Saul, “but whether they could imagine and deliver the sort of society that could make Responsible Government mean something.” They could only do this if they grounded their politics in cultural accommodation, argues Saul.

It was an understandably slow process. But when LaFontaine withdrew his candidacy in his Canada East riding because members of the Protestant Orange Order violently blocked French voters from the polls, Baldwin immediately offered him a seat in Canada West, in the 4th Riding of York, where his father, William Warren, was nominated. William was happy to cede to Louis, and they hit the campaign trail together.

The symbolism of nominating a French Canadian to a seat in Canada West was not lost on the Children of Peace, who released a statement in the local paper that read, “Let us show the world our disapprobation to elections obtained by riot, and such parliamentary measures as refuse to grant equal justice to every representative of Canada.” In other words, they were telling the unelected branch of government that they would pick and choose their candidates for themselves — and without violence or government intervention.

LaFontaine later returned the favour. After Baldwin lost his seat in Hastings that October due to an Orange Order mob that barred Baldwin and his supporters from the polls, LaFontaine quickly helped Baldwin secure a seat in Rimouski, a deeply francophone part of Canada East.

Years later, in 1848, Reformers swept the election and formed a government. Responsible rule was plainly confirmed when an all-reform cabinet took office, with LaFontaine and Baldwin as co-premiers. This was a great parliamentary moment: the majority-elected party now controlled cabinet after triumphantly demonstrating that they could in fact “deal on the square.”

See also The Friendship that Brought Responsible Government.