The strange part about the arrival of democracy or somewhat responsible government in Canada is that it was not something won by force of arms or through negotiation; instead this first step towards self-government and limited autonomy is one that was granted to the provinces of the Empire in a change of public opinion. By 1848, it no longer made sense to hold onto the empire in the manner that still dated to the 18th Century, even though the Colonial Office and Parliament had tried hard for many years. You have to remember the 1840 Act of Union still found it’s foundation in the 1791 Constitution Act and all three previous governors of the Province of Canada had mostly failed to stamp out both the Reform Movement and the French-Canadian Culture. All three governors were forced to allow their involvement in governing the colony, although Metcalfe came the closest to succeeding even he soon realised that such an act proved near impossible. In 1848 the first provincial parliaments had been granted limited self-government. Limited in a sense they were still subject to the laws of the British Parliament and the appointed governors, and they could only pass laws that affected local issues. But it remained a step forward. Nova Scotia on the 2nd of February 1848 gained this form of regional autonomy first, and the first premier of the province, Joseph Howe who had been an outspoken advocate for responsible government became the province’s first Premiere to govern under the new model. Despite the past troubles, the Colonial Office would appoint Sir James Bruce the 8th Earl of Elgin (Lord Elgin) as the governor general for British North America and Lieutenant-Governor for Canada with the instructions to grant responsible government.
There’s a good chance that you have never heard of the term responsible government, yet to this day we work under that model. There are plenty of texts and online resources to dig into the details of responsible government, but let’s try and lay it out solely for the sake of this post and the context that we have here in 1848. In short, responsible government means that the members of the Legislative Assembly are responsible to those who elected them to represent them in the Provincial Government, not responsible to the wishes of the Imperial Government. It flipped the power, putting the people at the top, and the government under them. It also called that the members of the Executive Council be chosen from the pool of elected officials from the party that holds the most seats, and the leader of that party be chosen to act as the head of the Provincial Government, and the Governor (who remained appointed) served as an advisor to the Premiere and their Executive. It also gave the Provincial Parliament a limited level of self-determination and that the Imperial Government would not interfere with local government. Today we know this model as the Westminister System as it is the model used by the British Parliament, based on the post-1832 model. The Premiere and their Executive, or rather Cabinet would draft laws, which were then voted on by the Assembly and the Legislative Council if passed, they were signed into law by the Governor, then needed to be allowed by the Colonial Office. And while there were still many potential spots where the bills could be stopped, the idea of democracy in the Provinces had taken hold, and the Colonial Office rarely disallowed a local law. The new model did not grant full independence, and the Colonial Office, the British Parliament, and ultimately the Crown held the ultimate authority over the Imperial holdings. It was a victory for those who had fought for decades for democracy.
The elections of 1848 proved a first for Canada in a long time as they happened cleanly, limited violence, no attempts at interference and everything just worked. And for the Reform Association, they gained a majority and welcomed the new Governor, Lord Elgin to his post. It should come as no surprise that the Colonial Office chose Elgin for the post, as the Earl’s wife, Mary was the daughter of Sir John Lambton Lord Durham. Elgin would get to work, he recognised both Robert Baldwin and Louis La Fontaine as the co-premieres of the Parliament and charged them with forming a government and choosing the appropriate members of the assembly to serve on their cabinet. And in the throne speech, Elgin delivered it in both English and French. These two simple acts resonated and while not a direct apology for the attempts at assimilation, it told the French-Canadians they mattered. Immediately the Baldwin-La Fontaine government got down to business crafting a series of forty-nine bills to bring home the idea of responsible government across the whole province. Baldwin championed a bill to deliver better government to cities and towns and abolishing local councils of town leaders to elected ones similar to that found in cities only. Another bill granted blanket amnesty to those rebels still in exile or prison. For La Fontaine, he had another idea, finally bringing justice to those who suffered under the Rebellions of 1837/8 in Canada East. The Rebellion Losses was not a new idea; the previous government under Henry Draper passed one in Canada West and prepared one for Canada East. But the one for Canada East never got to the assembly before the government was dissolved. La Fontaine took the initial bill and modified it to clear up what he saw as an injustice. The bill only allowed those who were on the Loyalist side to claim losses and receive government money. Ousterhout saved his tavern from demolition thanks to government money. La Fontaine changed the bill’s language to allow for any who suffered a loss during the rebellions to make a claim to the government for reconstruction costs. La Fontaine did have a personal reason. His property had been damaged during the uprisings. By early April the bills were started to be read before Parliament, most passed without difficulty, even the official opposition, a loose coalition of former Compact and Clique Allies and Hardline Tories held together by the ageing Sir Allan Napier MacNab passed the vote quickly. Trouble appeared on the horizon when the losses bill came up for a reading. The Conservatives exploded, they used every trick in Parliamentary etiquette to block it, continually asking for clarification, filibustering, as the Parliament dragged into the night, the next morning they had their supporters crowd the galleries to distract the proceedings. The mob shouted down the government and started fights with the government supporters who had been called in for counter-protests. Even members of the assembly began fights, a young lawyer; John Alexander MacDonald saw a challenge to a duel. It seemed to spiral towards chaos until the Sargent-At-Arms and Speaker ordered the galleries cleared. The bill finally went to a vote and passed.
But MacNab did not stop there. The Conservatives saw the Losses Bill as an insult to Canadian Loyalty during the rebellion, he approached Lord Elgin and appealed to his to disallow the bill and refuse to sign it into law. Conservative-friendly papers spoke at length against the bill, and some even investigated the annexation of Canada by the United States. Both sides of the coin knew that if all the bills were signed, it would change Canada forever. Tensions ran high on the 25th of April 1849, the city and the Parliament held their collective breaths. Supports of both the Reformers and Tories waited to hear the news. No pomp, no ceremony, Lord Elgin arrived at the Parliament Building in regular clothes attended by only a few servants. He moved quickly up to the chamber of the Legislative Council. Without word or comment, he signed and sealed all forty-nine bills, speaking only a few men whom he knew personally and then left. The bills signed included the Rebellion Losses Bill, which even Elgin had severe concerns over, but he signed it because it was the will of the electorate and passed with the required double majority. Its allowance was now in the hands of the Colonial Office (spoiler, they allowed it). The news travelled quickly, and while the Reformers celebrated in private, the Tories took to the streets. Elgin’s carriage came under a barrage of bricks, stones, and produce. One stone broke through a window not harming the governor, but he kept it as a reminder. Conservatives in the Assembly decried the move; Tory newspapers declared that rebellion was the law of the land and that Elgin would be the last governor of Canada. They could do nothing; the law had been passed. One member of the assembly, Bartholomew Gugy called for a public demonstration against the measure, gathering in Champs du Mars he spoke fire into the public, and when joined by Alfred Perry, the Captain of the Fire Brigade wiped the public into a mob, and they wanted blood. Gugy and Perry were more than happy to lead them as they marched on the Parliament. Even at this late hour the Parliament remained occupied as clerks and members continued their jobs late into the night. They were interrupted as the mob battered down the door, any who got in their way were beaten. It no longer mattered which side of the aisle the members sat, Conservative and Reformer alike found themselves with a familiar foe and each fought for their life, even Sir Allan, despite age and illness put up a fight. It worked, and the Parliamentarians seemed to gain the upper hand, only to face a renewed wave of mobsters. The men took the Assembly chamber, destroying furniture, upsetting inkpots and documents. They made crude speeches from the speaker’s bench and broke windows. One ill-aimed missile knocked a shade over a gaslamp; the fire spread rapidly. The Parliament was quickly engulphed, many documents and works of art were lost in the inferno. The fire brigade stood and watched as it burned. Robert Baldwin sprang into action, refusing to call out the militia, instead, he used the Montreal Police force and arrested any who were causing violence. La Fontaine, fearing reprisal took shelter in Château Ramezay, the other Vice-Regal residence in the city while his own home was looted and vandalised. The militia only stood guard over the executive council and the Governor who stayed well outside the city at Monklands. In a few days, the violence ended, and peace restored. When Parliament reconvened in the Bonsecours Market building in an incomplete space on rude wooden benches, MacNab called for investigation and punishment. Baldwin urged calm but agreed that Montreal could no longer serve as the capital and the government packed up and moved back to Toronto. Political newspapers such as Punch Magazine portrayed La Fontaine as a Napoleon Bonapart with a torch setting flame to the city with his Losses Bill, only two papers published their support, one being the Pilot, managed by Francis Hincks, a member of the Baldwin-La Fontaine cabinet.
It became clear that moving the capital around could no longer work if the province were to move forward a single capital city had to be picked and approved. The scramble to meet with the favour of both the Governor-General saw many of the big communities of the Province put forward their name. But one odd one came to the surface, Bytown. Yes, the rude construction camp turned logging town on the Ottawa River, and a terminus of the Rideau Canal offered up their humble rough-and-tumble community as the capital of all of Canada. The trouble is that the town was not unified in their petition to become the capital. Bytown was a split community, divided by the Rideau Canal and socio-economic standing. The lower town, south of the canal stood as where the working class lived, mostly Roman Catholic, immigrants and made up of French-Canadians and Irish. The upper class lived in the upper town north of Canal, with only a single bridge connecting the two areas, built in 1827 and took the name Sapper’s Bridge as it had been built by the Royal Miners & Sapper’s Regiment involved in the Canal’s construction. Like the divide caused by the canal each neighbourhood had different views on government, the Lower Town supported the Reform movement while Upper Towns remained Tory diehards. And when they heard the Lower Town were gathering in the Northward Market to discuss their petition and invitation to Lord Elgin to visit the town and consideration, they sent in their men. Fearing violence, the town’s mayor, Robert Hervey, requested that the town’s garrison a company of riflemen from the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment to stand ready. As the meeting began, the protesters began to shout to drown out the speakers in the Lower Town. They largely ignored the group and pressed on, being ignored they began to throw sticks then rocks. The situation dissolved into a full out street brawl. The riflemen moved in opening fire on the population of the Lower Town. As the population dove for cover several were wounded, but only one, David Borthwick who was nothing but an innocent bystander was killed. Neither side would go down quietly and spend the next day planning their revenge. Each side gathered what weapons they could find, rifles, muskets, pikes, clubs, and even a cannon were secreted away. Supporters slipped into the town unaware. On Monday the 19th of September 1849 each group made their way towards the Sapper’s Bridge ready to take the fight to the other’s neighbourhood, but the riflemen of the Royal Canadian Rifle Regiment stood prepared to block both groups. This time they were on no side but that of peace and order. Each group shouted at the others but fearing violence. When they refused to disperse the riflemen fired into the air. The simple threat of violence and the act of the military firing again on civilians saw both groups surrender, weapons confiscated, and the leaders imprisoned. In a strange turn, Mayor Hervey ordered the leaders released without charge to maintain the peace. Hervey went on to lead the charge to change the image of Bytown, taking on a new name Ottawa in 1854 and seeing it selected by Queen Victoria as the capital in 1857.
Both Baldwin and La Fontaine would retire from their post in 1851 for different reasons. Lord Elgin continued to serve as Governor-General of Canada until 1854 before being sent to China. His mission to open up the country to trade from the west resulted in the Second Opium War, and he ordered the destruction of several cities including Yuanming Yuan and Guangzhou. And while trade was opened, it is a stain on his reputation. He was appointed in 1862 as Viceroy of India and died the following year. James Bruce is well remembered in Canada, with a statue on the Quebec Legislature Building in Quebec City, the Bruce Penisula in Ontario along with Elgin County. The Lord Elgin Hotel in Ottawa (where my wife and I stayed during a photo trip related to this project) is named for Bruce as well. Bruce introduced the idea that the Governor-General of a Province should use his power as a patron to further arts and culture, lending their name to significant events and industries, as well as serving as the figurehead and head of the armed forces. La Fontaine would serve as chief justice of Canada East from 1854 to his death in 1864, Baldwin retreated from the public eye, dying in 1858.
Today there is nothing left of the St. Anne’s Market Building that served as the Canadian Parliament, that said the site is still present in Vieux-Montreal and is better known as Parc place d’Youville. A temporary marker had been set up in the Fall of 2018 regarding the site’s history; however, when I visited in 2019, there was nothing but dogs running free. Both Monklands and Château Ramezay still stand, the former now a private school operated still today by the Roman Catholic Church and the latter being a public museum and the first building to receive a historic designation by the city of Montreal. In Ottawa, the Sapper’s Bridge stood until 1912 when it and the Dufferin Bridge were demolished to make way for the Plaza Bridge that carries Wellington Street over the Rideau Canal. The original footings of the Sapper’s Bridge remain and have a plaque affixed to them under the Plaza bridge. Northward Market is known today as the Byward Market and is the city’s fifth such market since it’s creation in 1827, although much of the current market stands where the riots initially took place in 1849. If you’re interested in more of Bytown and Ottawa’s early history make sure to check out the Bytown Museum next time you’re in Ottawa, it’s the spot where I first learned about the Stoney Monday Riots. Ottawa, Parliament Hill specifically is home to the Baldwin-La Fontaine memorial, just behind the Centre Block overlooking the Rideau Canal, designed by Walter Alward (better known for his work on the Vimy Memorial) and erected in 1914 memorialises their work towards Responsible Government. And that is the most significant memorial of all, as today even after Confederation in 1867 the model of responsible government and the Westminister System is still used today in both the Federal and Provincial Parliaments. Some provinces still refer to their members as MLAs or Members of the Legislative Assembly. But most important is that we must remember that this first step towards full independence was not won through violence or force of arms, it was a gift, granted by the British Government because it made sense, Baldwin and La Fontaine proved that as did Joseph Howe. The Canadians now had the tools, but could they transform a rural backwater into a modern province, only time would tell.