Baldwin & LaFontaine
FROM THE Heritage Minutes COLLECTION
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PROVINCE OF CANADA 1841 - Canada's existence owes much to the partnership of two moderate reformers: Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine and Robert Baldwin.
Trained as a lawyer, LaFontaine began his political career with election to the Lower Canadian Assembly when he was twenty three years old. Tall and portly, LaFontaine was respected as a man of ideals whose love for French Canada was readily apparent.
Like LaFontaine, Robert Baldwin was a lawyer who took up politics at an early age. But Baldwin was shy and prone to depression. Political life held little appeal for him. However, motivated by high principles and a strong sense of duty, he devoted much of his life to changing the Canadian political system.
In the early 19th century, Canada's political system was in much need of reform. The British Colonies of Upper and Lower Canada were dominated by closely knit elites. Satisfied with their positions of privilege and supported by the British governors, these elites paid little attention to the elected assemblies in the colonies.
In 1837, resentment against the elites reached a boiling point, and rebellions broke out in Upper and Lower Canada. In Upper Canada the rebellion was quickly defeated, but in Lower Canada it was drawn out and bloody. When the fighting was over, the British government dispatched Lord Durham to investigate the colonial grievances.
Durham's report advocated greater power for the colonial assemblies - exactly what the leaders of the Lower Canadian rebels had demanded. However, he also recommended that Upper and Lower Canada be united - a proposal that many Lower Canadians vehemently opposed.
Nonetheless, in February 1841, the Union was proclaimed and the election was called. LaFontaine ran in the riding of Terrebonne. But on election day, 200 armed thugs surrounded the polling place, obstructing LaFontaine's supporters from voting. LaFontaine's intervention prevented a pitched battle, but he lost the election.
A few months later, LaFontaine received a letter from Robert Baldwin. Baldwin had been elected in two ridings. He had spoken to his constituents in the Fourth York and had persuaded them to elect LaFontaine in his place. Would LaFontaine agree to run in a by-election in Toronto?
He would. LaFontaine campaigned in Toronto on a platform of French-English cooperation and won the seat with a comfortable majority.
Baldwin's gesture won the reformers considerable good-will in Lower Canada. The respected journalist and academic Étienne Parent wrote: "If all the inhabitants of Upper Canada are like him (Baldwin), I predict the most brilliant results of the Union of the Canadas."
By the end of the 1840s, Baldwin and LaFontaine had succeeded in convincing the British government that legislative power should rest in the hands of the elected assembly of the colony. Moreover, their historical compromise showed that French and English Canadians could work together to solve their political problems.
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