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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Letting go


A Quebec sovereigntist association is demanding an apology for a tract published in 1849 by the Montreal Gazette that the group contends incited 1,500 anglophone Montrealers to burn down the city's parliament.

The St-Jean-Baptiste Society commemorated the fiery episode yesterday in the very place where the three-storey parliament once stood -- now a parking lot ringed by grey stone buildings in a popular tourist districts.

The arsonists were protesting a bill introduced by Louis Lafontaine meant to compensate Canadians who had lost property in armed political uprisings of 1837 and 1838. 

Publius, of course, relishes any mention of obscure details in Canadian history. Burning down parliament sounds like a very unCanadian thing to do. Cliches of polite deferential Canadians are mostly American stereotypes reimported into Canada. Victorian Canada was a violent, unstable and dangerous place, like all frontiers. Most Canadian cities experienced riots -- real riots, not a bunch of professional agitators throwing rocks at well protected police -- and ethnic and religious tensions were always just below the surface. Not just English and French, and Protestant and Catholic, but today half-forgotten sects of Protestants quarreled with one another.  

The burning of the legislature -- this was the Province of Canada's legislatures, not the Dominion Parliament created in 1867 -- culminated in a two day riot, itself provoked by the Rebellion Losses Bill. Generations of Canadian students, back when history was still taught, were compelled to memorize that name and the date, 1849. The granting of assent, by the GG Lord Elgin, has been seen by historians as the moment in which responsible government came to Canada. 

Responsible what now? Previously the Governor General, and the respective Lieutenant-Governors, could refuse to grant assent to bills passed and could appoint cabinets regardless of the composition of the legislature. In other words, just because a party won a majority of seats in the legislature did not mean that it would form the actual government -- i.e. the cabinet or ministry -- or that its legislation would become law. Elgin's decision, despite his personal reservations, established the precedent that bills passed by the Canadian legislature would be granted assent (made law). Elgin's decision marks the beginning of liberal democracy in Canada and our path toward independence.  

The Bill in question compensated those Lower Canadians (residents of modern day Quebec) who had lost property during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, including rebels against the crown. This naturally annoyed many anglophones, especially in the Montreal area where fighting had been the greatest. The legislation was modeled on an earlier act to compensate the participants of William Lyon Mackenzie's Rebellion in December of 1837. That act had provoked far less hostility, the suggesting being that the riots which took place in Montreal were basically anti-French in character. After the fire, the capital was moved from Montreal, alternating between Toronto and Quebec until 1867.

Posted by Richard Anderson on April 28, 2009 in Canadian History | Permalink


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