The “Heritage Minute” I’d like to see


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The Historica Dominion Institute has just announced that they are launching a new round of the immensely popular “Heritage Minutes,” which have covered such topics as the “Halifax Explosion” and “Baldwin and LaFontaine.”

The minute I’d like to see is an extension of the Baldwin & LaFontaine episode.

The existing minute tells the story of how Baldwin persuaded the voters of the Fourth riding of York to elect LaFontaine in his place.  I have already pointed out how much riskier the proposition was than that, and the role of the Children of Peace in securing LaFontaine his seat. The minute asserts “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.” However, this heritage minute is also rather one sided in highlighting the favour English Canada did LaFontaine without mention of the favour LaFontaine did to ensure Baldwin’s election in Rimouski, Quebec. Baldwin now represented a seat in Lower Canada, and LaFontaine in Upper Canada.

The minute I’d like to see takes place in 1843 and highlights the bravery of the Reform movement in facing down Orange Order electoral violence. In March 1843 a new governor, Sir Charles Metcalfe, was instructed to check the “radical” government of Baldwin and LaFontaine. Metcalfe was convinced that only the Tories were loyal. Metcalfe refused to work with the reform ministers, who ultimately resigned in Nov. 1843, and thus precipitated a year long crisis which resulted in new elections only in Nov. 1844.  This year-long crisis, in which the legislature was prorogued, “was the final signpost on Upper Canada’s conceptual road to democracy. Lacking the scale of the American Revolution, it nonetheless forced a comparable articulation and rethinking of the basics of political dialogue in the province.”[1] Normal politics was suspended for the year, as public debate raged.

Photo: Mark Fram

The divided reformers, under the impetus of some new blood in Toronto, established a “Reform Association” there in February, 1844, in an attempt to explain the reasons for Baldwin and LaFontaine’s resignation, and to disseminate their understanding of responsible government before the expected election. At least ten branches of the association were formed in Upper Canada. David Willson, leader of the Children of Peace, wrote to Baldwin shortly thereafter seeking to have Association members from across the province meet in Sharon.[2] The Sharon Branch was established in May, and soon after announced another grand reform meeting to be held concurrently with the illumination of the Temple in June.

However, this grand show of support did not prevent other threats of violence. From Sharon, Baldwin had traveled to Bradford a few miles away in Simcoe County where he had planned a similar reform rally. Unlike the 3,000 who attended in Sharon, barely 15 showed up in Bradford, due to the circulation of a handbill several days before predicting a “second Durham races.” The handbill invoked the spectre of the 1839 Durham riots, and as predicted, over 300 Orangemen armed with clubs and firearms under the leadership of George Duggan collected around the tavern where the meeting was to be held. Duggan and Henry Sherwood had been Baldwin’s primary parliamentary opposition when Baldwin had introduced the “Secret Societies Bill” making the Orange Order illegal in the reform dominated legislature in 1843; although the bill had been passed, Governor Metcalfe reserved the bill, and the Colonial Office disallowed it. Duggan and Sherwood had been organizers of the “Durham riots” in which a member of the Children of Peace was murdered, but no charges ever laid. Emboldened, Duggan began direct attacks on Baldwin. The Bradford meeting was abruptly cancelled and Baldwin fled, although it was only a fast horse that stood between him and life-threatening injury. One of his companions was seriously hurt in the succeeding riot by thrown stones.[3] The attack confirmed information Baldwin had received of Governor Metcalfe’s complicity with the Orange Order.[4]

As the crisis continued to stretch into the summer while Metcalfe vainly attempted to rebuild his cabinet, Baldwin was forced to try to sustain the momentum of his supporters in the 4th Riding of York. Willson again organized a rally in Sharon timed to coincide with the fall illumination of the Temple.[5] In a repeat of the tactics used at the Bradford meeting, the Orange Order under Duggan’s leadership called on its members to attend this rally, a “third Durham races.” Reformers warned that the Orangemen would “fall upon the persons peaceably attending the meeting, and with clubs and bludgeons disperse them – maiming many, and perhaps murdering others.”[6] While seemingly melodramatic, we must remember that the warning was made to those who had already lost a member of their community in the first Durham riot, and that one of the unpunished organizers of that riot was none other than Duggan. Many reform leaders originally scheduled to speak there evidently took the warning seriously, and did not show up. Duggan did arrive, uninvited, to the rally, as predicted, but not with the usual armed escort of Orangemen. There he was reminded “that the man that attempts to raise his hand with a weapon is an enemy to himself, to society, and to God.” With many of the reform leaders absent, he arrogantly pushed his way to the podium to defend Metcalfe’s policies.[7]

That Duggan felt he could intrude on the gathering, alone and unarmed, is an indication that election violence in the riding was truly one-sided; and that those who rejected such violence also respected free speech by all. The Children of Peace and their supporters were not easily intimidated, even as they faced stiffer and stiffer resistance. It was they who insured the election of BOTH of the “fathers of Responsible Government” in their riding.

The Heritage Minute I’d like to see would celebrate the role of the Children of Peace in facing down electoral violence and asserting our rights to free speech and free elections.

[1] Jeffrey McNairn, The Capacity to Judge: Public Opinion and Deliberative Democracy in Upper Canada 1791-1854 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2000), 237.

[2] Letter, David Willson to Robert Baldwin, 7 March 1844, Baldwin Papers, Baldwin Room, MTRL.

[3] Mirror 14, 21 June June 1844. Letter, Baldwin to LaFontaine, 14 June 1844, My Dear Friend, p. 137.

[4] Letter, Baldwin to LaFontaine, 22 May 1844, My Dear Friend, p. 123ff.

[5] Mirror 8 Aug. 1844.

[6] Mirror 6 Sept. 1844.

[7] Mirror 20 Sept. 1844. British Colonist 13 Sept. 1844.