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Lord Durham and His Infamous Report

The rebellions succeeded where Papineau's diplomacy and Mackenzie's insults had failed: the British Government was finally listening. The newly crowned Queen Victoria sent Sir John George Lambton (Lord Durham) to British North America to learn the reasons for the rebellions and report back to Parliament.

lord durhamIn 1838, Lambton was appointed governor general of all British North America (a position that technically had not existed prior to Lord Durham). With this new office came a great deal of executive decision-making power. The British were bent and determined to solve their colonial problems once and for all.55

When Lord Durham arrived in the colonies, many Canadians were optimistic. He had earned a rep utation as a progressive and forward thinking man who supported responsible government.

Durham's first act as Governor General turned out to be the beginning of the end for him. He pardoned many of the imprisoned Patriotes; and he sent the leaders of the rebellions to sunny Bermuda instead of the nasty penal colonies of Australia. In the long term, his sending of Canadian prisoners to Bermuda would get him into trouble; however, in the short term the act seemed to improve French-English relations in Lower Canada.

While in British North America, Durham spent the majority of his time in Lower Canada. Unfortunately for the French, Durham did not consult with the French about their specific concerns. Instead, he spent most of his time with English merchants of Montreal; and in so doing he inherited their anti-French bias and their ridiculous belief that English was superior to French-Canadien culture. This bias was later reflected in Durham's Report on the Affairs of British North America (1839).

During his brief stay in Upper Canada, Lord Durham met with the father and son team of reformers William and Robert Baldwin. The Baldwins insisted that the culture of privilege enjoyed by the Family Compact and the lack of accountability in the colonial government were both to blame for the civil unrest. If the British were sincere about solving Canada's problems, the colonial government would have to become "responsible." Although Durham was sympathetic to the Baldwins, he needed more information before making any recommendations.

In the meantime, he visited New York State to restore the Anglo-American relationship back to normalcy. (If you recall, the Canadians had killed an American citizen while sinking the Caroline.) His mission to the United States was a complete success. There would be no American war with Canada.56

Canada Loses Its First Governor General

Remember when Durham sent those French prisoners to Bermuda? Well, he should've sent them to Australia (or New Jersey). The governor of Bermuda was apparently upset with Durham for sending him the French prisoners. First of all the island paradise was not a penal colony; secondly, Durham's authority did not extend to Bermuda; and lastly, Durham did not say "please." He had apparently over-stepped his authority. Bermuda's governor made sure the English Parliament was aware of Lambton's actions.57

After only spending five months in Canada, Durham was recalled to England to defend his actions. He resigned his position shortly thereafter. (Possibly the real reason for his recall was that he had made too many powerful enemies in England with his unabashed republicanism). Coincidentally, a second uprising in Lower Canada erupted only days after he departed. The rebellion was crushed easily. The following spring, Durham submitted his Report on the Affairs of British North America. Among his many recommendations, the three most important were:

Upper and Lower Canada should be united into one government.
Members of the executive and legislative councils should only be taken from the people's elected representatives in the House of Assembly.
The colonies should be given authority over their own internal affairs. (Only on imperial matters would the governor be allowed to override them.)

Ultimately, Durham simply recommended colonists be given the same rights as citizens in Britain. As for the cause of the two rebellions? The two conflicts occurred for very different reasons:

Upper Canada: he blamed an outdated colonial system and the self-serving Family Compact.

Lower Canada: the Governor General felt the rebellion was caused by a power struggle between the French and English. According to Durham, in Lower Canada "I expected to find a contest between a government and a people: I found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state: I found a struggle, not of principles, but of races."


Some Final Words

In my opinion, Durham's view of Quebec was overly simplistic. He took on far too unquestioningly the attitudes and opinions of the English merchants of Montreal. I know he respected the "simple" French people but he spent no time talking directly to them about their concerns. Had he done so, he would have found a reasonable and reform-minded people who simply wanted political change.

Durham ignored the fact that the same backward colonial system existed in both Upper and Lower Canada. Thus, he failed to make the connection that the cause of conflict in both colonies was fundamentally the same: tension between poor and rich, competition between the lower/middle and upper classes. Certainly in Quebec there was the additional French versus English element; however, it was not the only factor as Durham made it out to be.58

Thus, I enthusiastically disagree with Durham (and basically every Canadian historian I've read on topic of the rebellion in Lower Canada). If racial tension was the primary cause of conflict in Quebec, why had the two rebellions taken place at essentially the same time? Moreover, it was well stated that Papineau's (and Mackenzie's) motivation for the uprising was to establish responsible government. Moreover, if the race issue was so important to the French, wouldn't they have simply joined the Americans in either 1776 or 1812? They didn't rebel because they believed (by and large) in English-style democracy and the rule of law. They believed in it in 1776 and in 1836.

(Okay, it is possible, just maybe, that the French didn't join the Americans because they thought the Yanks were bigger jerks than the British. Aight. I'll concede that much; but, I am going to challenge my homie Lord Durham by laying down some sweet counter-arguments to a phat back beat. Oh and because I am rapping my point of view, everything I say must be true. Hey, that totally rhymed!)

Place your mouse over one of the four corners of the movie to see some additional functionality.

I want to offer one last argument before I leave this topic: ethnicity in Lower Canada was incidental, in that, had Quebec (or Upper Canada for that matter) been given responsible government there would've been no reason to rebel. The cause of the rebellions in both colonies was fundamentally the same: people wanted responsible government and rich English dudes, i.e. Family Compact and Chateau Clique, etc. naturally resisted any attempt at a reduction to their powers or privileges.

Republican Itch (1848): the conflict affecting Canada in the late 1830s spilled over into Europe in the 1840s. In 1848, Europe was engulfed in a series of revolutions fought for principally the same reasons they occured in Canada: people were tired of the status-quo and wanted a greater say in their own government; and just like in Canada the European aristocracy refused to share their wealth and power.

Durham can be forgiven for not being perceptive of the changes taking place in Western society. According to political philosopher Karl Marx, changes take place in society, i.e. Desire for democratic reform in 1848, etc. well before anyone can articulate why these changes occured in the first place; it is only well after events have occured that the historian can honestly make sense of them or provide a meaningful context.


Durham's Solution

Initially, the French placed a lot of hope in the new Governor General. He had a reputation for being a champion of democracy in Great Britain. Unfortunately for the French, the English elite had 100% of Durham's attention. The elite argued persuasively that to solve the "colonial problem" the French presence in Canada would have to end once and for all. Durham agreed.

Durham knew expulsion was not an option; therefore, he chose two subtle approaches to assimilation: firstly, he would rely on the so-called superiority of English culture to convince the French to quit being French; and secondly, he would rig the colonial government in such a way that the English population could dominate the colony without significant interference from the French.

1). The "Superiority" of English Culture
In Durham's Report, he identified the central mistake of British policy in Quebec: it was impossible to preserve a "French-Canadian nationality in the midst of Anglo-American colonies and states." He insisted that the "superior political and practical intelligence of the English [compared to the French] cannot be, for a moment, disputed."59 Therefore, the French identity must be wiped away to make room for the superior English culture; and once this was achieved all problems would disappear.

Many Englishmen thought it odd that the French had not already abandoned their culture. Although there were Frenchmen who valued English-style democracy, they were not about to abandon a language, religion or culture, that was at least as old (if not older) than the English. In reality, the French appreciated what a representative system of government offered them. In such a system, they could represent and make decisions for themselves. This of course is one of the central principles of representative democracy; and men like Papineau took the English at their word. They looked at the English Bill of Rights and rightly felt that if the British truly meant what they wrote in this document then all would be well.

Perhaps it was French naivety or perhaps it was the "superiority" of English culture but the English said one thing and then did quite another. For example, the British created a colonial government that looked democratic yet in reality was aristocratic. The English are not the only hypocrites when it comes to saying one thing and then doing something else. For instance, in the American Constitution (1787) the authors say fancy things like "all men are born free" and then they continued to practice slavery. (Maybe the word all here means something entirely different in "American" than it does in English?) The English, like the Americans before them, never intended to share decision-making with minorities.

2). Rigging the Colonial Government
Durham wanted to grant the "English" responsible government. Before this could be accomplished the French would have to be outnumbered. Durham's first idea was to join all of the British North American colonies into a single province. The French would be obviously outnumbered by the English if this were done. However, the Maritime colonies had no interest in being united with the unstable Canadas.

Since a confederation of all British North American colonies was out of the question, Durham would join Upper and Lower Canada into a single province. And then once an English majority had been clearly established, it would be time to introduce responsible government.

Durham never lived to see his recommendations put into action. He died in July 1840, killed, it was said, by the rigors of his Canadian assignment.60

Act of Union (1840)

The British government only accepted part of Durham's Report: while Britain decided to unite Upper and Lower Canada, it did not grant responsible government.
united canada diagram

The government of the new province retained a Governor General, an appointed Executive Council, an appointed Legislative Council, and an Assembly of elected representatives. As indicated by the chart to the right, the act accomplished the following:

  1. There would be a single House of Assembly.
  2. Both Upper and Lower Canada were given the same number of representatives.
  3. The debt of the two colonies would be pooled together.
  4. Upper Canada would now be known as "Canada West" and Quebec would be "Canada East."
  5. English would be the official and only language of government.

By under-representing the French, it was hoped the English would dominate the government. The dumb thing about giving both Canadas equal representation is it made it impossible for the English to dominate the Assembly. They had the same number of representatives. This resulted in political deadlock and not the intended dominance. (I think the English law makers should've brushed up on their math skills before completing the Act of Union.)

Lastly, the Act of Union established Kingston as the capital of the new United Province of Canada. The capital was later moved to Montreal in 1844. As for responsible government, the Executive and Legislative councils remained answerable only to the governor.61


The United Province of Canada

Nothing changed substantially for either Quebec or Ontario. Politically speaking, the two colonies were now united in a fundamentally dysfunctional political relationship.

Both the French and English were given equal representation in the new House of Assembly (despite the French having 50% more population). The arrangement was supposed to somehow give the English an advantage over the French. However, regardless what the British intended, the Canadians (of both former colonies) did something quite unintended and unforeseen: reformers from both Canada East and West formed a political alliance to make common cause for, you guessed it, responsible government.

Although there were obvious differences between the French and English, the two had much in common. In particular, they shared a desire to expand democracy.62

Reformers in the New Union

Britain had denied the colonies responsible government in 1840. Yet, the matter was far from over. Reformers from both Canada East and West worked tirelessly for political reform. And of course the same people were there to oppose the reformers—the British governor, the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique.

In Canada West, the most influential reform leader was Robert Baldwin. He understood that to force change English would have to work together with the French. Thus, Baldwin established a relationship with the French reformer Louis-Hippolyte la Fontaine. The relationship turned into a political alliance when Baldwin arranged for la Fontaine to be elected in Canada West; that's right, a Frenchmen elected in an English dominated region; and much to everyone's surprise he won the election in the riding of North York. Later, he would return the favor to Baldwin, who would be elected in the riding of Rimouski (in lafontaineQuebec) in 1843. These gestures of goodwill sealed both a political alliance and a life long friendship between the two men.63

Responsible Goverment at Last
In 1847, Durham's son-in-law, James Bruce, the Earl of Elgin, became the new Governor General of the United Province of Canada. He was eager to put responsible government into practice. His chance came after the 1848 election, when the Reform Party won the majority of seats in both Quebec and Ontario.

Elgin asked reformers Robert Baldwin and Louis la Fontaine to appoint the Executive Council. They suggested members of their own party. Lord Elgin agreed. Responsible government had arrived. The diagram to the right illustrates what the new colonial government looked like in 1848.

The first real test of responsible government came in 1849.64

The Rebellion Losses Bill (1849)
In 1849, la Fontaine presented a bill to the Assembly called the Rebellion Losses Bill; it was a law designed to pay Lower Canadiens for losses suffered during the rebellion of 1837. Upper Canadians had already been awarded damages; it seemed only right the French receive some sort of compensation, as well. But the proposed bill angered British merchants in Canada East.

The bill raised passions on both sides. During debate in Parliament one day guards had to clear the galleries when a brawl broke out among the spectators. Another time, the Assembly sat continuously for 24 hours trying to outlast the shouts and whistles from the hecklers from the galleries. In Toronto, a likeness of Robert Baldwin (who supported the bill) was burned in the streets. One English language newspaper declared that "as long as there is one axe and rifle on the frontier and British hands to wield it, [the bill] will not be passed."65

Since the Reform Party controlled the Assembly, the bill was passed. It was then sent to Governor General Elgin to be given royal assent. The Family Compact and the Chateau Clique put puressure on Elgin not to sign the bill. Personally, Lord Elgin did not approve of the bill, but his advisers in the Executive Council favored it. Elgin believed in responsible government. So, despite personal objections he signed the Rebellion Losses Bill into law.66

Riots in Montreal
After signing the bill, Elgin left Parliament House in Montreal. As he walked outside, a crowd of angry protestors pelted him with dead rats, stones, and rotten eggs. The mob then burst into the parliament while members were still debating issues of government. And in the spirit of the rock band The Who in a hotel room , the mob smashed the lights, ripped down wall hangings and destroyed furniture. When a fire broke out in the west wing, Assembly members quicky voted to close the session. They quietly walked out as the Parliament buildings burned to the ground.67

The mob controlled the streets of Montreal for several days. They destroyed la Fontaine's property, cut down his fruit trees, burned his stable, [stole the gnomes from his front yard], and destroyed his furniture. Soldiers arrived before the mob could burn down his new house. Rioting continued in Montreal for four months. Violent protests erupted in Toronto and other cities in Canada. The riots eventually came to an end, but many people were still unhappy. Some British Canadians believed that the government was being controlled by French Canadiens.

Late in 1849, more than 300 Montreal businessmen proposed Canada join the United States. The proposal was outlined in a document called the Annexation Manifesto. The following year another annexation group formed in Toronto. The movement never received much support, and when the economy improved a year later, the annexation movement died.68

A New Capital
One of the most hotly debated issues in the United Province of Canada was over which city should be the capital. Between 1841 and 1849, the Assembly voted 218 times on this issue. Britain selected Kingston as the colony's first capital. Although Kingston's population was only 8,000, the British government believed that Toronto and Montreal would be difficult to defend against an attack from the United States, and Quebec City was surrounded by French Canadians who were unhappy with the political union.

In 1844, the Reform dominated Assembly felt that Kingston was too conservative. It chose Montreal as the site for the capital. When the Parliament buildings burned down in 1849, the capital moved to Toronto.

Afterward, the capital alternated every two years between Toronto and Quebec City. In 1857, Queen Victoria, advised by the Canadian government, chose Bytown—now called Ottawa—as the permanent capital; it was halfway between Canada East and Canada West. And, just as important, it was a safe distance from American attack and was populated by both French and English inhabitants.69