‘Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine & Robert Baldwin’: John Ralston Saul, 2010

LaFontaine and BaldwinFist 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.

‘Lester B. Pearson’: Andrew Cohen

Andrew Cohen discusses his contribution to the book series ‘Extraordinary Canadians’ about the 14th Prime Minister of Canada, Lester Pearson. Andrew Cohen argues that few leaders have changed this country so profoundly in such a short time.

‘My Years as Prime Minister’: Jean Chrétien, 2007

Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien sits down with Allan Gregg for a wide-ranging interview. They discuss Chrétien’s new memoir, My Years as Prime Minister, his views on the state of politics in Canada and his recent heart surgery. Released earlier this fall, the book chronicles the high points and challenges of Chrétien’s decade in office as Canada’s twentieth prime minister – from eliminating the deficit to the 1995 cliffhanger Quebec referendum to his decision to keep Canada out of the Iraq war, as well as the rift between Chretien and his successor, Paul Martin.

‘Harperland’: Lawrence Martin, 2010

Harperland by Lawrence Martin“For Stephen Harper the end justified the means, almost any means. It was what troubled so may Canadians about him. He was caught up in his own internal war. The forces of old grievances and narrow ideology pulled him in one direction. The forces of broader enlightenment pulled him in the other. The former won too many of the battles.

He was one of the more talented Canadian political leaders to come along in decades. His range of knowledge, the precision of his mind, his degree of discipline, his capacity to strategize, to work his way through whatever maze stood before him, was of an unusually high standard.

He was a leader who was capable of triumphing on the high road but who, a victim of his brooding resentments, too often surrendered himself to the low.

In his holding to such a cynical view of governance, lessons of history were to be borne in mind. Before this prime minister, many leaders paid a steep price for exceeding their bounds of authority. They would have done well to recall the adage of the philosopher Heraclitus: ‘Character is fate.'”

-Lawrence Martin, Harperland

Martin’s Harperland provides an interesting and intimate behind the scenes view of the Conservative government under Stephen Harper. He spoke with former aids and friends of the Prime Minister and the party to flesh out the events of the first two terms of Harper’s reign.

The coverage and analysis is fair but critical, praising Harper’s strategic intelligence and political instincts while charging him with undercutting democratic principles and eroding the power of Parliament, centralizing it instead in the PMO.

Perhaps the most important chapter in the book and Harper’s time as Prime Minister is the chapter entitled ‘Surviving the Coalition’ which covers the Constitutional Crisis of 2008.  This event, perhaps best covered by the book Parliamentary Democracy in Crisis, marks a rare moment in modern Canadian history where the electorate was engaged (and to some extent enraged) by the events taking place in Ottawa.

Martin outlines the Conservative response to the situation, the party’s use of propaganda to convince the electorate to back them and not the opposition during the crisis in order to convince the Governor General to side with Harper and prorogue parliament.

As Martin points out, “Parliament had been shut down twice. From June on, it sat for less than a month” (p190). Prior to the crisis Canadians largely did not know the meaning of the word prorogue and the entire situation highlighted the lack of awareness and knowledge of the Canadian people about their own political and electoral system.

Whether the crisis actually increased the knowledge of any Canadians in a permanent way is debatable. But Martin’s book highlights this crisis and the response of Canadians to it. The book touches on many topics in the lead-up to Harper becoming Prime Minister as well as issues during his time in that position. It ultimately serves as an extremely detailed account of how the nation got to that moment of crisis and how it has been shaped since by the most powerful man in the country.