Fist fights on the floor of Parliament between its members. A future Prime Minister, John A. Macdonald, attempting to duel with another member. The egging of a sitting Governor General, Lord Elgin, as he conducted the business of the country. Sandfield Macdonald, a future post-confederation Ontario premier, beaten unconscious in parliament. Parliamentarians of all political stripes banding together to ward off invading rebels in parliament, violently clashing with them. Rebels seizing the Mace and the Speaker’s chair, mocking parliament. Parliament itself pelted with stones until a gaslight was struck and the building itself began to burn to the ground. Members of parliament rushing to save the library and historical portraits of parliament but barely escaping with their lives. 23,000 books and the entire archives of Canada burnt to the ground with parliament, lost forever. The Solicitor General, shooting and wounding two people. Local papers calling for annexation of Canada by America. The Tory’s of parliament voting in support of annexation. Assassination plots on the sitting Prime Minister, LaFontaine, leading to several failed attempts and the destruction of his home by fire, set by rebels.
These were the events of the first year of a Canada comprised of a united Upper and Lower Canada under the political leadership of LaFontaine from Montreal and Baldwin from Toronto. These were the events that transpired after the arrival of Responsible Government.
Canadian history is largely considered by Canadians themselves to be boring. It is seldom that way. The work of Baldwin and LaFontaine to bring Responsible Government to Canada by way of what would become Ontario and Quebec ultimately altered the course of Canadian (and some would argue world) history, putting us on the path to Confederation and the true birth of the nation.
John Ralston Saul’s new book, part of the ‘Extraordinary Canadians’ series, chronicles this violent, revolutionary, and extremely important time in our history. It is the story of two men, strangers to one another and of entirely different heritage, who were brought together by their shared philosophy and together brought their ideals to all of Canada.
Saul argues that LaFontaine and Baldwin brought forth a new system not just for Canada, but for the world as Responsible Government would eventually spread all over the world over the following century. He suggests that this was an entirely new form of politics the world had never seen and it was selected over other models such as the republicanism seen in America.
Beyond this, Saul argues that we owe not just Responsible Government to these two men, who had inspiration from people like Baldwin’s father and Joseph Howe of Nova Scotia as well as help from others like Lord Elgin, the Governor General who risked his own reputation and life to help them. He suggests that the concept of restraint, of not fighting back and of avoiding violence was forged by these two men years before Ghandi would ever employ such tactics. Saul suggests that LaFontaine and Baldwin saw the key to any success for Canada as a nation lay in not adopting the old colonial ways of maintaining power by force.
Saul monitors the philosophical maturation of each man as they grew towards the beliefs they would be known for as well as each other. He tells of the sheer exhaustion both men felt after only one term in what was called the ‘Great Ministry’ and how all their efforts of reform had left them with little energy left to administer after changing the entire political landscape and then formulating the new way forward once in government.
Baldwin, tired of politics, eventually quit parliament, weeping as he gave his farewell speech which brought his fellow members to tears. LaFontaine soon followed, not willing to continue without his partner. Both men died not long after and each had society-stalling funerals in their respective home cities of Toronto and Montreal, funerals of a scale that reflected their importance to what would soon become Canada.
Yet modern Canadians generally know little if anything at all of either man. The Prime Minister and his deputy who governed at a time when John A. Macdonald was merely a freshman MP from Kingston, are ignored as founding fathers by most of Canada and even in the historic places of their story, little is left behind to commemorate that they ever existed or what they accomplished.
Baldwin’s impact on Toronto is his family’s impact. Osgood Hall, Spadina, Front Street… all linked to Baldwin and his family but will very little current awareness for that fact. LaFontaine, first elected in York in what is now Sharon, Ontario leaves behind the Sharon Temple, the religious home of the Quakers who supported him but little else. There is a monument to the two men at Parliament Hill in Ottawa in a back corner of the grounds. Elgin himself has a long stretch of road nearby named after him.
The legacy of these men is in effect everyday in Canadian governance but we should celebrate their accomplishments more than simply using their model. Canadians rarely celebrate their own history and without celebration there is often a tendency to forget altogether. Baldwin and LaFontaine are too important to forget.