Mid-1800s Heroes of Canadian Democracy

Joseph Howe led his political party in the province of Nova Scotia to win the 1847 election and form the first “responsible government” in the British Empire (responsible to voters and the politicians they elected, instead of controlled by the British monarchy and its representative, the provincial Lieutenant Governor).

In the province of Canada (Upper Canada (now known as Ontario) and Lower Canada (now Quebec) combined), Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine led their political party to win the 1848 election, after years of struggles for reform by them and attempted revolts by others including the rebellions of 1837-38, and when the Governor General of Canada Lord Elgin approved a controversial bill proposed by their government, the practice of “responsible government” was established there as well.

These were the first responsible governments in history anywhere in the world formed through negotiation with an imperial power, instead of through violence.

April 30, 1849, after a mob has burned down Parliament (then in Montreal), the government of Baldwin and LaFontaine propose the controversial bill that is approved by Governor General Lord Elgin, establishing the practice of “responsible government” in the province of Canada (Upper Canada (now known as Ontario) and Lower Canada (now Quebec) combined) (1 min. 30 sec.).

RELATED VIDEOS:

  • To see the full video covering from 1815 to 1850 in Canada, click here (1 hour, 47 min.).
  • To see a National Film Board (NFB) short film about a court case that made Howe famous and boosted reform efforts in Nova Scotia, click here (31 min.).
  • To see an NFB short film about Baldwin's role during the Upper Canada (now Ontario) revolution of 1837 and years after, click here (32 min.).
  • To see an NFB short film about the events of 1849, click here (29 min.).

John Ralston Saul interviewed by Allan Gregg about Baldwin and LaFontaine, in which he summarizes their leading role in creating one of the first major steps toward democracy in Canada, the creation of responsible government, using tactics that Mahatma Ghandi would use in India, and that many other citizen advocates around the world would use in future decades, and centuries (16 min.).

On August 26, 1840, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine wrote a letter to the voters of his electoral district/riding (which was called Terrebonne) that set out a compelling vision of an egalitarian, bilingual, unified country with a responsible government. LaFontaine's letter was issued after Lord Durham (who had been sent by England to assess the situation in the Canadas) issued a report in 1839 that resulted in the Act of Union to establish the Province of Canada (combining the debt and legislatures of Upper Canada and Lower Canada into one government, with equal representation from each). The Act was passed in the British Parliament in July of 1840, and became law on Feb. 10, 1841, and banned the use of the French language by the government use, suspended specific French Canadian educational and civil law institutions, and overall was unfair to Lower Canada with its larger population and smaller debt. The united Reform Party led by LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin eventually repealed many of the Act's unjust clauses, and modified many of its financial and constitutional provisions, over the next decade.

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