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This oil painting from 1849 depicts the burning of the Parliament building in Montreal. On the night of April 25, 1849 mobs attacked Parliament in Montreal, at that time the capital of the Province of Canada. A gas lamp was struck by a rock and the Assembly caught on fire. In the morning only a shell remained. Canada’s largest library and archives was lost in the flames.McCord Museum

John Ralston Saul is co-chair of the Institute for Canadian Citizenship, president emeritus of PEN International and PEN Canada, and the author of 14 books, including A Fair Country and The Collapse of Globalism.

When a group of Canadian citizens brought the national capital to a halt for three weeks in January and February, 2022, the atmosphere on all sides was one of confusion. Nothing like this had ever happened in Canada’s capital – at least, not since anti-democratic forces besieged Parliament, which was then based in Montreal, and burned it to the ground. That was a little while ago: April 25, 1849.

Historical comparisons are rarely helpful. All the same, the Montreal rioters were clear that they wanted an end to the new Canadian experiment in democracy, then called Responsible Government. That experiment had started just over a year before, on March 11, 1848, and it was aimed at making colonial governments such as theirs answerable to Canadian voters, rather than to the British Parliament.

Which means that today marks the 175th anniversary of Canada’s continuous life as a democracy, making us an old, experienced democratic state – the kind of state that has seen protest movements come and go over the centuries.

What made these much more recent events in Ottawa resemble the disorder of 1849 was the declared intent of protest leaders to bring down the government by non-democratic means. True, only a small group among the convoy protesters made the demand that the Governor-General and Canada’s Senate form a new government. But that is classic revolutionary theory: Only the leaders should have a plan, and the masses can be convinced to follow. Some of us were distracted by images of protesters having fun, in hot tubs, for example, but that also is standard behaviour by figures on the margins. Sometimes they wear a noble’s wig and dance around; sometimes they have the noble’s head on a pike and dance all the same.

More troubling, governments at the federal, provincial and municipal levels appeared unwilling or unable to do anything about the disorder in Ottawa. For those of us on the outside, they appeared demobilized. Were they trying to avoid violence? Were they unable to motivate the local police force? We now know much more thanks to the inquiry into the federal government’s use of the Emergencies Act. But again, this confusion among those of us on the outside was similar to the public’s perception of the troubles of 1849.

Yet even though March 11, 1848, is so important for Canada, we rarely talk about it, or celebrate it. It is as if we don’t want to talk about democracy. Instead, we gossip about politics.

But on that day, the governor-general, Lord Elgin, invited Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, from Montreal, to form the government of the Canadas. With his friend and political partner, Robert Baldwin, from Toronto, LaFontaine had been leading the democratic movement for a decade.

They had been exhausting years. First, they’d had to pick up the pieces after the failed armed revolts of 1837. Baldwin took on defending the losers in court, many of them friends, many of them hanged. LaFontaine had to flee into exile for a few years. Neither of them could work out a viable next step.

Then, in 1841, the two young men were brought together and began building a new democratic movement based on non-violence, and therefore restraint. In the process, they became each other’s best friend. It’s worth pointing out that all of this happened long before Tolstoy and then Gandhi tried to do the same.

None of it was easy. Politics in Canada was violent. More than once they had to run – simply run – to escape gangs of Orangemen armed with clubs. But when they finally won a large parliamentary majority in the election of January, 1848, and formed the “Great Ministry,” as it was called, they moved at remarkable speed to transform Canada. The journalist and politician Joseph Howe had come to great influence in Nova Scotia two months before them and done the same.

The first bill the new Reform majority got through Parliament was a law to encourage, protect and support immigrants. A torrent of reforms followed: public schools and universities; toll-free roads for the poor; a professional civil service; official bilingualism; municipal democracy; independent judges. Both legal codes were rewritten. It was a waterfall of legislation designed to create a fair and just society. What they put in place are the legal and social foundations of Canada today. And all of this was done in just three years.

With each reform, the elites became increasingly upset. They eventually occupied the centre of the national capital, in Montreal. Mobs attacked Parliament in scenes of brawling as the MPs fought back. A gas lamp was struck by a rock and suddenly the Assembly was on fire. In the morning, only a shell remained. Canada’s largest library and archives were lost in the flames.

Over the next few days multiple attempts were made on the lives of Elgin, LaFontaine and Baldwin: the governor-general, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister, respectively. The disorder and attacks on property would go on for about three months.

As with last year’s Ottawa occupation, these three leaders did not do what most respectable citizens wanted them to do. What this meant in the 1840s was that they did not allow the soldiers or the police to open fire on the mob. Was this weakness? Confusion?

You can read in the cabinet minutes a memorandum its members had approved: In it, the soldiers and police were instructed not to open fire on the rioters. The government refused to reply to violence with violence. They would use restraint and careful politics instead. Here we see the beginning of what would become the better side of Canadian governance.

It is amazing, perhaps depressing, that our standard political discourse in Canada remains one based on an identity as a new country, and never as an experienced and stable democracy. We don’t bother to celebrate March 11, the day on which we became a democracy – a continuous democracy, flawed in many ways, but a continuous democracy from that day 175 years ago to this one.

Of course, every state is flawed. In our case, the single most important unresolved question remains the situation for Indigenous peoples. If Canada is to function as a place of justice, every citizen needs to commit on this issue.

Still, here we are, the oldest continuous democratic federation in the world, and one of the two or three oldest continuous democracies of any sort.

“Continuous” is the key word. There have been lots of on-again, off-again democracies, with exciting narratives. Just look at France, an exciting democracy that emerged out of the French Revolution in 1789, but kept slipping between dictatorships, empires and spates of republicanism until the second half of the 20th century. Or consider the United States, with its political system and economy that were built for two centuries around slavery and semi-slavery. Or Britain, with its narrow democracy under the persistent control of two social classes until well into the 20th century.

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Canadian Stamp from 1927 showing Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine.PUBLIC DOMAIN

Canada failed on many fronts, along with most other countries. But in some areas, particularly in the time of LaFontaine and Baldwin’s Responsible Government, we did well. Because of widespread land ownership – Canadians were predominantly farmers, after all – there was a broad male franchise here in 1848. And the solidification of francophone and Catholic democratic rights by LaFontaine and Baldwin was the beginning of the multicultural concept – the idea that a modern nation-state could comfortably be based on more than one language, religion or race.

Through the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, this idea was rejected in most other countries. The secular religion of the monolithic nation-state dominated. The flowering of francophone-anglophone relations in Canada in 1848 made the much broader complexity we have today possible. Perhaps the most important element was that this relationship was built on a new idea of democracy, which in the hands of Canadians and their Parliament has now found its way through the challenges of 175 years.

As LaFontaine put it in his most important declaration, “The Address to the Electors of Terrebonne”: “We will win our political liberty. No one will be able to take it from us so long as social equality is the central feature of our population.” So let us be honest with ourselves and conscious of our failures, but each year on March 11 celebrate the remarkable achievement of our continuing democratic experiment.

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