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LaFontaine, Baldwin, and the blueprint for modern Canada

Since 2000, the annual LaFontaine-Baldwin lecture has gathered Canadians to reflect on democracy, citizenship and the public good.  The series honours the leaders of Canada’s first democratic movement, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin.  Established by John Ralston Saul and hosted for the past decade by the Institute of Canadian Citizenship, the lecture has been given by many prominent thinkers, including George Erasmus, Louise Arbour, The Right Honourable Beverley McLachlin, Robert Lepage, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, and Naheed Nenshi.


“Le Canada est la terre de nos ancètres; il est notre patrie, de même qu’il doit être la patrie adoptive des differentes populations qui viennent, des diverses parties du globe… Leurs enfants devront etre, comme nous, et avant tout, CANADIENS… Outre l’égalité sociale, il nous faut la liberté politique. Sans elle, nous n’aurions pas d’avenir; sans elle, nos besoins ne pourraient être satisfaits… Les moeurs sont plus fortes que les lois, et rien ne saurait nous soustraire à leur puissance. Il ne peut exister en Canada aucune caste privilégiee, en dehors et audessus de la masse de ses habitants. L’on peut créer des titres un jour: le lendemain vous voyez les enfant trainer le parchemin dans la boue.”

“Canada is the land of our ancestors; it is our homeland, as it should be the adopted homeland of the different populations that come from the diverse parts of the globe… Their children should be, like us, and above all, CANADIANS… In addition to social equality, we need political liberty. Without it, we will have no future; without it, our needs cannot be satisfied… These values are stronger than laws, and nothing we know of will weaken them. There can exist in Canada no privileged caste above and beyond the mass of its inhabitants. One can create a title one day; the next you’ll see the children dragging the parchment in the mud.” 

Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, un extrait de/an excerpt from “L’Adresse aux Electeurs du Comté de Terrebonne/The Address to the Electors of Terrebonne.”

28 août/August 1840


The above address is remarkable because of how powerfully it argues for inclusiveness and equality, both fundamental to the contemporary Canadian ethos, in a nation divided by religion, language, race, and class. Seven months later, these very tensions dominated the first elections held in the newly united Province of Canada. Ever since the release of the Durham Report in 1837, British colonial policy was explicitly geared towards reducing the political influence of French Canada and assimilating its people into British culture. To this aim, the colonial administration took great pains to influence the outcome of the vote, gerrymandering ridings and passively standing by as anglo-protestant strongmen threatened political opponents and their prospective voters.

It was under these conditions that Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, a francophone lawyer and Parliamentary candidate from Lower Canada, led a column of seven hundred supporters to the polls in the riding of Terrebonne. They were closely followed by hecklers for ten kilometres, many of who were off-duty members of the local militia. Many were armed. Near the end of the journey, with their destination in sight, LaFontaine was faced with a choice. It had become clear that crossing those final hundred metres would mean violence—and almost certainly death—for many on both sides. Four years earlier, LaFontaine had argued that only passive resistance, “[une] force d’inertie,” could ever be effective against the power of the British Empire. And on that Monday in early spring LaFontaine held true to his beliefs. He withdrew his candidacy and convinced his would-be voters to reject violence and return, as he did, safely to their homes.

Not five months later, the anglo-protestant Reformer Robert Baldwin arranged for LaFontaine to run in a by-election in the riding of North York in Upper Canada. (North York was somewhat larger than it is today, reaching as far north as Lake Simcoe.) North York and Terrebonne could not have been more different. They were further apart than London is from Paris; a trip by coach took over twenty-three hours. Most of the residents had never met a francophone. However, this difference also offered an enormous opportunity: to demonstrate that Canadians could rise above the politics of division in support of common goals and the fair treatment of Lower Canadian francophones. LaFontaine won comfortably. A year later, Lower Canada would return the favour by electing the unilingual Baldwin in Rimouski after a by-election plagued by violence had thrown him out of his home riding.

During the Great Irish Famine, British absentee landlords found it cheaper to deport their tenant farmers than to continue feeding them. Many were sent to Canada, crammed by the thousands into ill-supplied boats that soon became known as “coffin ships.” In 1847 alone, an unprecedented 110,000 Irish refugees resettled in Canada. After arriving in Montréal, most were shipped off again to Toronto in conditions often worse than on the transatlantic voyage. Disease, most prominently typhus, ran rampant. One in five died. The scale of this inhumanity horrified many in the united Province and played a significant role in delivering unto Canada the “English idea of responsible government.” Elected to a majority government in 1848, LaFontaine became the first Prime Minister in Canadian history truly accountable to the people. Immediately, LaFontaine and Baldwin began developing Canada’s first official immigration policy. Within a year, immigrants with seven years of Canadian residency were guaranteed the right to vote.

Although they are not prominently featured in our country’s founding mythology, LaFontaine and Baldwin, political allies as well as close friends, laid the blueprint for much of modern Canada. Guided by the belief that social equality, political liberty, and inclusion were “values stronger than laws,” they fought for (and achieved) the fair representation of francophone Canadians in the newly united Parliament; official bilingualism; the introduction of the secret ballot; the de-politicization of the judiciary and the civil service; the expansion of the courts to rural communities with subsidies for poor litigants; the reduction of toll roads; an affordable postal system; the decriminalization of debt; the end of primogeniture; the abolition of seigniorial rights and class privileges; secular post-secondary education; and free public education as the “first benefit” of government. The United States has its Founding Fathers; we Canadians have our Founding Friends.

The nascent government was constantly tested. Following the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill in April 1849, five days of rioting in the colonial capital of Montréal put the lives of LaFontaine, Baldwin, and Governor General Lord Elgin continually under threat. the previous year, national governments across Europe did not hesitate to order their militaries to open fire on civilian demonstrators in the quest to secure order. In contrast, even after the rioters burned down Parliament, LaFontaine and Baldwin took the extraordinary step of making it official government policy to refrain from using violence against the people even when this restraint came at great risk to their own personal safety.

However, the purpose of history should not be to glorify the past but rather to seek guidance to improve the present. LaFontaine and Baldwin oversaw many changes in pre-Confederation Canada, but not every moment was a bright one. The same year their government enfranchised immigrant residents, the united Parliament voted to explicitly exclude women from exercising that same right. Female property owners had been able to vote in Lower Canada for over fifty years. It was not until 1920 that Canadian women would again be able to participate in federal elections. And, of course, as had been the case since European contact, the continued waves of European immigration and national expansion pushed Canada’s First Nations further and further off their native lands.

Since 2000, the LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture has honoured the legacy of Canada’s first democratic movement by giving us an opportunity to reflect on the nature of citizenship and the common good. Much like the Canada of days past, today’s politics makes a great deal out of “difference.” Sometimes the inoculation is exclusion, sometimes assimilation. However, neither does us justice. The beauty of Canada is in the coexistence of our differences; it is in how we encourage our citizens and residents to nurture and navigate the constituent elements of their identities. Differences of race, gender, religion, and language, among others, mark us, but these differences need not be surrendered to the bonds of dogmatic patriotism. Canada is at its absolute best when we, like LaFontaine and Baldwin, recognize the value inherent in our differences and work together in the spirit of the common good.

6 Degrees and the Institute for Canadian Citizenship are pleased to welcome Naomi Klein as this year’s LaFontaine-Baldwin lecturer. Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist, and author of the international bestsellers: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014), The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007), and No Logo (2000). Her work touches on a large number of themes related to inclusion, difference, and modern citizenship, including the role radical inclusion can play in fighting climate change and the corporatization of identity politics (“market masala”). She is the recipient of multiple awards and honourary degrees for her tireless advocacy of economic, social, and environmental justice, both in Canada and abroad. Her talk, as well as the rest of 6 Degrees, is open to the public. And yes, tickets are still available:

The 14th LaFontaine-Baldwin Lecture featuring Naomi Klein will take place on September 19th, 2016 at Koerner Hall, TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning in Toronto. The event is part of 6 Degrees, a three-day forum on inclusion and citizenship in the 21st century, presented by the Institute for Canadian Citizenship.

The preceding historical account of LaFontaine and Baldwin is adapted from John Ralston Saul’s excellent book Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin, Penguin 2010. All subsequent commentary is the author’s own and does not necessarily reflect the opinions held by 6 Degrees or any affiliated organization.

Thilo Schaefer is a Ph.D student in Political Science at the University of Toronto, Massey College Junior Fellow, and 6 Degrees Young Advisor.