It is on page three that John Ralston Saul’s new book might first shock its readers. There, in the midst of describing a riot that clogged the streets of Montreal on an April afternoon in 1849, Ralston Saul describes Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine as “the first real prime minister of a democratic Canada.” John A. Macdonald does not turn up for another 178 pages.
With all due respect to John A., the story of LaFontaine and his kindred spirit Robert Baldwin—set out in the latest instalment of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series edited by Ralston Saul—is about how we got to 1867. It is about how two complicated and burdened men brought Canada to responsible government. “If you got [George-Étienne] Cartier and Macdonald on the phone and said, ‘Okay, how do you explain Canada?,’ they’d say, ‘Oh, it’s really, really easy, LaFontaine and Baldwin.’ Their idea was LaFontaine and Baldwin’s idea,” says Ralston Saul. “It’s a technical, constitutional, boring detail as to how many votes and how you get a majority. Of course, in politics, you have to worry about these things. But that’s not what it was about. It was actually about a different kind of relationship between peoples, between religions, between languages. A different approach toward the public good, non-violence and so on.”
Indeed, in lavish detail, Ralston Saul revives not only Canada and Canadian life at the moment of this new beginning, but these two men as they found their respective ways as individuals and allies. It is a dramatic time, but it is amid the tumult that much of what has come to define Canada—much of how we define ourselves—was established. As Ralston Saul writes, “The ongoing dramas of Canada—positive and negative—were shaped and energized as if in perpetuity by these two men and their great friendship.”
In April 1849, anti-democratic rioters—a mob that would destroy the Parliament buildings in Montreal—threatened to overrun responsible government in Canada. Under siege, LaFontaine and Baldwin scrambled to save their dream.
The first characteristic of the LaFontaine–Baldwin philosophy was a devotion to restraint. In the violent context of the time this would be mistaken for weakness and indecision. Power was a metaphor for the constant maintenance of order. If this required violence, so be it. A government’s job was to disperse mobs, if necessary by opening fire. In 1849 in Montreal the local anglophone-dominated militia were probably not to be trusted to do that. But there were more than enough British regulars to do a professional job. Properly lined up, opening fire in raking blasts, they could disperse mobs many times their own size. That, after all, is how empires are held. The soldiers are always outnumbered by the locals. That’s why, when they open fire, their intent is to achieve a mass effect by killing large numbers. The Canadian government’s refusal to keep order by shooting the mob, in fact their refusal to keep order at all, was considered a failure of weakness by London, by the mob itself, even by much of the Reform elite.
Restraint was such a new and audacious strategy that its power was not at first self-evident. The rioting had begun on the night of April 25, and for five days and nights LaFontaine and Baldwin hardly left Government House. The cabinet operated from there. LaFontaine, his wife and Baldwin discreetly moved into hotels near the Château Ramezay, but the two men scarcely had time to use their beds.
They armed loyal civilians, disarmed them a day later, arrested troublemakers, released them, negotiated with selected Opposition leaders, calmed their own MPs. Cabinet meetings ran all night. There were reports, proclamations, a press campaign in Montreal, a press campaign across the two Canadas. There was urgent correspondence about local militia with military rifles who might attempt a coup.
Government leaders were attacked in the streets, their houses damaged. LaFontaine’s new and handsome house was sacked. When attacked coming out of the temporary Parliament, he was rescued by soldiers. The details of managing disorder almost always look and feel like confusion at the time, and this was no exception. But the underlying line was that of restraint.
It was 20 after two. A police officer ran in to tell them that the state coach had appeared at the far end of Rue Notre-Dame, a few minutes later that the mob was surging about it. Somewhere out of sight the highly experienced but rather ancient Lieutenant-General Sir Benjamin d’Urban, the senior military officer in the Canadas, was attempting to use his soldiers to ease the situation. He had agreed to the government policy that his troops would not open fire on the mob. The strain on d’Urban was so great that he collapsed and died a few weeks later.
LaFontaine and Baldwin could not help wondering if they hadn’t miscalculated by bringing the Governor General into town. If he were killed or wounded, the mob would have defeated itself. The empire could never side with a party that killed its representative. But it would be a pyrrhic victory for the Reformers. The dye of violence and division would have been set. Their philosophy of restraint would also have been proved unworkable.
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