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Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Dec. 8, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Dec. 8, 2011. (CHRIS WATTIE/Chris Wattie/Reuters)

Rae's appeal to Rideau Hall dials Canada back to colonial times Add to ...

Bob Rae would reverse 162 years of constitutional precedent by having the Governor-General refuse royal assent to a bill. He should be careful. An opposition leader proposed this sort of thing once before – and it ended with a mob burning Parliament to the ground.

The Liberals vehemently oppose the Harper government’s plan to dismantle the Canadian Wheat Board’s monopoly on marketing grain. They are particularly incensed that the Tories are pushing the legislation through the Senate, even though a Federal Court judge has ruled that the bill is outside the law, because the government didn’t first seek the approval of farmers through a plebiscite as previous legislation requires.

The Tories are appealing the ruling, arguing that no law can bind Parliament from passing a new law. But until the appellate courts have the final say, the Interim Liberal Leader wants David Johnson to stay the government’s hand by refusing to give royal assent to the legislation.

“I haven't heard of a government saying it would ignore a court ruling before,” Mr. Rae told The Globe’s Jane Taber. “... We didn't see any other option given their determination to ram it through the Senate.”

This is a remarkable thing for Mr. Rae, who is a careful student of history, to say. And the Liberal chief’s letter is no less remarkable.

In 1849, the colonial government of Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin introduced legislation that would compensate French Canadians for losses suffered during the 1837 rebellion. Lord Elgin, the Governor-General of the day, hated the bill. But he was the first governor-general who believed that the fledgling administration of the Province of Canada should be allowed to legislate on its own, without being dictated to or vetoed by the Queen’s representative. Despite calls from opposition leaders for him to refuse royal assent, Lord Elgin signed the bill.

Some people took this badly. There were days of riots in Montreal; the Governor-General was roughed up by an angry Tory mob, who then went on to raze the Parliament building. During one particularly heated debate in the legislature, John A. Macdonald challenged Hume Blake to a duel, and the Speaker had to send the Sergeant-at-Arms outside to break it up. Those were the days.

Passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill signalled that responsible government had come to Canada East and Canada West, as Quebec and Ontario were then called. From then till now, the people, through their Parliament, have decided the direction of the country. The Liberals would erase all that by having Mr. Johnston leap in where Lord Elgin chose not to tread.

We suspect the Governor-General will give royal assent, and let the mob do as it will.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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