Our neglect of our history being what it is, March 11 won’t signify much to most Canadians. It’s March 17 that gets all the notoriety and all the boozing. But while there’s no problem with raising a glass to the patron saint of Ireland, Tuesday’s date should be a greater day of celebration in this country.
March 11, 1848, was the day when Canada’s united colonies got responsible government. You might go so far as to call it our independence day – the day real democracy arrived.
It followed decades of struggle against British rule, the rebellions of 1837 and 1838 being foremost examples. Power passed from colonial elites to citizens when a Reform government headed by Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin was sworn in that day by governor-general Lord Elgin. The Reformers had won an election over conservative forces aligned to the monarchy.
Baldwin and LaFontaine, leaders of the territories now known as Ontario and Quebec, convinced their colonial masters that allowing power to reside with an elected assembly instead of a governor’s appointed executive council was the only way to stave off anarchy.
In the context of times, of so many countries seeking and failing to establish democratic systems, it was a remarkable achievement. We were “almost first out of the modern democracy gate,” writes John Ralston Saul in his book on LaFontaine and Baldwin. While you probably wouldn’t want to high-five our democracy today, given what it has become, we were trailblazers back then.
Europe-wide democratic revolutions marked 1848. Counterrevolutions followed shortly thereafter, and one was ignited in Canada. In 1849, reactionary mobs burned down the parliament buildings, then located in Montreal. But LaFontaine and Baldwin handled the crisis in a spirit of conciliation and compromise, as they had in bringing their culturally divergent provinces into union years earlier.
No such spirit prevailed in the United States, which was on the road to civil war, or in European jurisdictions where upheaval would mark the road to democratic legitimacy and world wars would be triggered.
The model put in place in our colonies was sound enough to endure through time with minimal politically inspired violence and bloodshed. The Baldwin and LaFontaine ministry decentralized power, establishing municipal governments. It brought in a modern legal and jury system and established secular public universities.
John A. Macdonald became our nation maker, as biographer Richard Gwyn calls him, but these men put in place the foundation. Lawyers by profession, they were not your typical win-at-all-costs politicians. Baldwin was a soft-spoken man who went about his work with a sunken heart. The pain at the loss of his adored wife at a young age never escaped him. But inescapable too was his devotion to the principles of democracy, social equity and justice. LaFontaine had that same commitment. He overcame strident opposition from francophone leaders in realizing his vision of a democratic union of the two cultures.
Not to be overlooked is Nova Scotia’s Joseph Howe, who secured responsible government for Nova Scotia two months earlier than Ontario and Quebec. His philosophy of governance paralleled that of Baldwin and LaFontaine. “The only questions I ask myself are, What is right? What is just? What is for the public good?” he said.
That’s a credo today’s political leaders would do well to heed. The responsible government fashioned in 1848 was primitive in many ways, but the form of democracy, in which the executive was controlled by the elected assembly, was a purer one than now. Now, the system is more akin to what existed prior to March 11, 1848, when the governor had all the power.
It’s all the more reason to remember that date, but we don’t. Academic David E. Smith notes in his book, Across the Aisle, that Canada’s contribution to responsible government used to be “a venerable theme in Canadian high school classes.” Sadly, he notes, that’s no longer the case.