David McConkey - Columnist, Consultant, Citizen
Columnist. Consultant. Citizen.

Canadian History Boring?  Not if You Know a Little

Brandon Sun, July 18, 2011 - David McConkey

Is Canadian history really that boring?

Like, how many of us gave any notice to our history on Canada Day? Wasn’t our main thought: the holiday falls on a Friday – that makes it a long weekend, eh?

I’m thinking more now about Canadian history after reading a new book by John Ralston Saul titled Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin.

Whoa, stop right there. Louis-Hippolyte who? Robert who?

Yes, I couldn’t recall them either from my school history classes (although that was rather a long time ago).

Yet Saul includes LaFontaine and Baldwin in his series of 20 Extraordinary Canadians. The author credits them with largely creating modern democratic Canada.

The book is a short biography of both men, and focuses on their “Great Ministry” of 1848 to 1851.

That was the first democratic government of what was to become the country of Canada. (Of course, democracy was more limited back then; usually only property-owning males could vote.)

Lafontaine held the position that we now call prime minister. Baldwin was his chief cabinet minister, his partner really.

Canada in 1848 was part of an international trend toward democracy. Popular movements all across Europe succeeded in replacing autocratic regimes with more democratic ones.

It was a domino effect, much like this year’s “Arab Spring” in North Africa and the Middle East.

Almost right away, however, those fledgling democracies in Europe were grounded by counter revolutions. Reactionary regimes were restored.

That same reversal could have happened in Canada. The new democracy was very fragile.

Mobs (encouraged behind the scenes by the upper class elite) ran amok. Lord Elgin, the Governor General, was assaulted on several occasions and came close to being killed. LaFontaine survived assassination attempts, saw his house ransacked; a gun battle right at his home resulted in injuries and a death.

The Parliament building was set ablaze and destroyed.

For a moment it looked like Canada’s experiment in democracy would come crashing down, like the Parliament building had.

After all, the usual response would have been a reinstatement of autocratic rule to crack down and restore order.

But something unusual and wonderful happened. The LaFontaine-Baldwin government steered a course of restraint in the face of violence.

Democracy was saved. Canada was on its way to Confederation, to independence from Britain, and to becoming one of the very best countries in the world.

And I don’t say “best” in the afterglow of too many Canada Day brewskis. In his book, Saul ably articulates just what a special place Canada is. And it comes to light from better knowing our history.

Canada, Saul asserts, has had the most democratic society – and for the longest time – of any country on Earth.

Or, consider the way we became independent, a path that has been since followed by many other countries. As Saul points out, until Canada had, in all of human history no colony ever had peacefully exited a still-powerful empire.  

LaFontaine and Baldwin were creating not only a democratic society, but also a society accepting of different races and religions.

We take that kind of acceptance for granted now. But it would take Europeans 100 years, and 100 million deaths in 20th century wars, to figure out how to do that.

But Saul says we gloss over our history. We see where we are now and then “read history backwards.”

“All of this looks easy after the fact,” Saul says, “just as democracy seems to have been inevitable.”

We prefer not to see Canada as special, nor to see our democracy begin as “an intentional and controversial project.”

We also “hate to be reminded of riots and a burning Parliament and anti-democratic fervor, all led by our established elites.”

And what about the locations where these important events took place, like where Parliament was burned down? Those historic sites are largely forgotten today. “There are no signs, no plaques, no statues.”

So maybe Canadian history isn’t that boring, after all. Too bad we citizens don’t know more about it.

* * * *
See also:  

Manitoba History – A Citizen Appreciation

Vote Early, Vote Often, and Vary Your Vote

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David McConkey,
Brandon, Manitoba
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