The day Canada became a democracy, a mob of angry Tories burned the Parliament Buildings down. They were mad because the Governor General — Lord Elgin — had just signed a new bill into law. The Tories opposed the new law, but that wasn't the worst part: the worst part was that Elgin had plenty of his own reservations about it, but he still signed it anyway. He could have vetoed the bill, but he didn't. That was a huge, nation-changing decision: it signalled the end of the British veto over laws passed by the Canadian parliament. It was the beginning of Responsible Government. From now on, when it came to domestic politics, Canadians ruled themselves. Parliament held the ultimate power.The Tories and their supporters freaked out. To them, democracy was a dangerous thing: the stuff of blood-soaked rebellions, revolutions and guillotines. They'd spent decades opposing it. But the outrage wasn't only about the Tories' fear of democracy. It was also about fear-mongering and racism.
The bill was called the Rebellion Losses Bill. It paid compensation to people in Québec (called Canada East back then) who had suffered property damage during the rebellions in 1837. The previous Tory government had already done the same thing for the anglophone region of Ontario (Canada West), so it shouldn't have been controversial — but it was: the conservatives hated it.
To many Tory supporters, francophones weren't real Canadians. They couldn't be: they were Catholic; they spoke French. Real Canadians were British: they were Protestant; they spoke English. Anyone else couldn't possibly be a loyal subject. They were all automatically rebels.
The liberal Reform party had recently been elected in a landslide. But their government was an alliance between English- and French-speaking Canadians led by Robert Baldwin (a Protestant anglophone from Toronto) and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (a Catholic francophone from Montreal). Conservatives didn't trust that alliance.
The Tories saw an opportunity. If they could stoke enough fear among their supporters — if they could threaten enough violence and unrest — they might be able to keep the Governor General from ever signing the bill. And by doing that, they might keep Responsible Government from ever becoming a reality in Canada.
John Ralston Saul writes about the Tory strategy in his biography of Baldwin and LaFontaine. He argues that the Tory leader, Allan MacNab, realized that "his party would have to create a crisis of loyalty. Loyalty in populist rhetoric is always about patriotism... In this case, loyalty would be about the Crown, Britain, the Anglo-Saxon race... [The Tories] believed they could undermine democratic sympathies by simply setting anglophones and francophones at each other's throats."
And so, during the debate over the bill, the Tories used lies, misleading half-truths and racially-coded language to build fear in their supporters. The Tory leader called francophone Canadians "foreigners." His party claimed the Reformers were "dangerous, criminal and subversive of order... under the dominion of French masters... You laugh to see the Anglo-Saxons under your feet." One up-and-coming young Tory — John A. Macdonald — got so worked up that he challenged a Reformer to a duel by passing him note in parliament during the debate.
|Elgin & two of the rocks thrown at his carriage|
Back in 1849, fear wasn't enough. The Rebellion Losses Bill was signed into law and Responsible Government was embraced by the vast majority. Canadians believed in democracy and diversity more than they believed in fear. On October 19, we'll find out if that's still true.
Main image: "L'incendie du Parlement à Montréal" ("The Burning of the Parliament Buildings in Montreal") by Joseph Légaré (via the Wikmedia Commons here).
Second image: Elgin's wife kept the rocks hurled at the carriage and carefully labelled them; they are now at the Canadian Museum History in Gatineau. Photo by me.