Mon. Aug 8th, 2022

It was April 25, 1849, and rioters looted the parliament of the United Province of Canada in Montreal and burned the building to the ground. Unlike Donald Trump’s band of thugs in the US Capitol, the Canadian thugs were initially more successful.

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An angry crowd stormed the seat of government and overwhelmed a small unit of peace officers unprepared to reject those who intended redress and terror. A rabid media that burns the flames of violence and divides a people. Racial tensions rose to a boiling point. A rioter leaving with symbols of state authority stolen from the building.

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Malcontents forces himself into the hall of democracy and successfully finds his way to the floor of the chamber where elected legislators were meeting. Book burns. Shots were later fired.

One government official attacked in his home, and another furred with stones and rotten eggs, forcing him to shelter in his place. A mob that intends to interrupt and stop a constitutional process by the legislature.

Scenes from Donald Trump’s inspired attack on the Capitol building in Washington on January 6?

Far from. The events took place right here in what was to become Canada.

It was April 25, 1849, and the mob looted the parliament of the United Province of Canada in Montreal and burned the building to the ground. But unlike Trump’s band of thugs, our group of looters on the surface were much more successful. They completely destroyed the government house of a burgeoning democracy and even caused the capital to be relocated to Toronto.

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It was a notorious period in which religious and ethnic tensions brought our small colony of the British Empire to the brink of destruction – less than 20 years before the Confederacy.

James Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, was Governor-General of the Province of Canada.
James Bruce, eighth Earl of Elgin and 12th Earl of Kincardine, was Governor-General of the Province of Canada. jpg

The roots of riots in Montreal and attacks on parliament went back to the uprisings in both Upper and Lower Canada in 1837-38. In their aftermath, the British sent Lord Durham to British North America, where he famously described what he found as “two nations (one English, one French) fighting in the arms of a single state.”

His solution? Force the future Canadians to live and govern together as a unified province – called Canada – and as a people begin to experience the rights and challenges of a truly responsible government.

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“(Responsible government is) the only possible guarantee of a good, constitutional and effective government,” said Quebec reformer Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in 1840. “The inhabitants of a colony must have control over their own affairs … the colonial administration must be formed and controlled by and with the majority of the people’s representatives. “

In practice, this meant that the British Crown, as represented in the colony by the Governor-General, would rule with the advice and consent of a single, democratically elected legislator. Under this system, the Prime Minister and his cabinet could only remain in office as long as they enjoyed the confidence of the duly elected legislator.

Not everyone was happy about it, especially the English-speaking Tories of Montreal, which was now in the political minority in Quebec. When Prime Minister Lafontaine (along with his English-speaking friend and colleague, Deputy Prime Minister Robert Baldwin) and his government introduced the Rebellion’s Losses Bill, French-Canadians who had their land and property damaged by the British during the uprisings compensated (a similar bill had previously passed with little controversy in what is now Ontario), a linguistic, racial, and religious pot came to a boil and spilled out into the streets.

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“Britain’s disgrace achieved,” wrote the English Journal of Record in Montreal Gazette, thundered as the bill passed while the smoke still hung in the air over the capital. Canada sold and gave away (to the French speakers). The end has begun. Anglo-Saxons you must live for the future. ”

Fortunately for Canada, however, the Governor – General was Lord Elgin. He had in fact been attacked in his carriage coming home from the parliament building, where he had just given royal consent to the law on insurrection. (Elgin kept and marked some of the rocks thrown at him and his family; these are in the collections of the Canadian Museum of History today). The terror he experienced only gave him further determination to continue on the path of the responsible government. In this he was joined by Baldwin and Lafontaine and a very large majority of the elected legislature.

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And in this we see the biggest difference between the events in Washington this month and what happened in Montreal so long ago.

Incredibly, the attack on the U.S. Capitol was encouraged by the U.S. head of state, President Donald J. Trump. By contrast, in Canada in 1849, a similar attack was led by an angry mob of English-speaking rebels who were unwilling to accept the reality of what democratic government had come to mean. Responsible Government of Canada carried the day.

Of course, Canadian democracy and Canada itself would be tested again and again in the following years. But the nation later described in our constitution, the British North American law, as a country of peace, order and good government, lived on, despite what happened in Montreal the terrible season, to fight another day.

From the north side of the border, I’m sure America will too. Trump, like the Montreal rebels at another time, will soon be given a rightful place in the dustbin of history.

Public historian and journalist Arthur Milnes, whose books include studies by Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Wilfrid Laurier, is an internal historian at Kingston’s Frontenac Club Hotel.

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