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Photo: Mark Fram

What do Robert Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine – the fathers of responsible government – have to do with the Sharon Temple and the Children of Peace? We think of this building as a religious place of worship. Its preservation has narrowed our view of the wider political activities and impact of the Temple builders on Canadian history. If Baldwin and LaFontaine are the fathers of democratic governance in Canada, then David Willson and the Children of Peace were its midwife. It was the Children of Peace who ensured the election of BOTH men in tempestuous times, in the face of the dual abuses of British colonial rule and of Orange Order violence. This is a story of the importance that small numbers of brave and idealistic citizens can have on our national history. There are many parallels between the challenges that they faced in the aftermath of the financial panic and rebellion of 1837, and that facing us after the financial panic of 2008. Its important to tell their story if we plan on saving their gift to us, a truly responsible government.

When we think of the principle of Responsible Government – if we think of it at all – it is that no minister of the government shall continue unless they have the confidence of the elected legislature. In its day, that principle was revolutionary. When Baldwin first proposed the principle, government ministers did not even have to be elected, let alone seek the confidence of the House of Assembly. Government ministers were appointed at the pleasure of the Crown – a system of patronage that gave all power to the Governor. The role of the Legislative Assembly in this colonial model was simply to approve the budget – it was not to set the government’s legislative agenda. The author of this alternate model of government was Robert Baldwin’s political nemesis, Lord Sydenham, the Governor General of the Canadas, sent to bring the rebellious provinces to heel. Where Baldwin spoke of Responsible Government – of a government responsible to its elected officials and to local control – Sydenham, in contrast, spoke of Good Governance – of a government appointed by a distant crown to manage its colonial interests in a financially responsible way. Baldwin and Sydenham both called for Accountable Government. Baldwin called for a government accountable to the people. Sydenham for good government with superior book-keeping skills – a government that spent money wisely. In order to maintain that good government, Sydenham was willing to use patronage as well as Orange Order violence. Baldwin saw voters as citizens with rights; Sydenham saw (some of) them as tax-payers. Those differing conceptions of citizenship are still with us today.

LaFontaine and Baldwin – from Extraordinary Canadians

How then, did Responsible Government become the basis of Canadian Democracy, and what role did the Children of Peace play in this? As I said, when we think of the principle of Responsible Government, it is in terms of cabinet ministers and who they are responsible to – to parliament or to the crown. But for Baldwin, Responsible Government applied equally to local government. His reasons for insisting on responsible local government are what brought him to know the Children of Peace, the local electors who repeatedly faced Orange Order violence in order to elect both him and his Lower Canadian co-premier Louis LaFontaine.

The relationship between these democratic reformers was forged in the aftermath of the Rebellion of 1837, when government repression was at its height. All of York County – or the Home District as it was then know – was suspect. Their relationship goes back to 1838, to the visit of Lord Durham, appointed by the British Prime Minister to investigate the causes of the Rebellion of 1837. Durham appointed public meetings across the two provinces in order to hear the grievances behind the uprising; his eventual solution to the problem was to unify Upper and Lower Canada in a single province and by so doing, dilute and eliminate the French fact. The policy was like that of the ethnic cleansing pursued after the collapse of Yugoslavia.

But in some areas like York Region – the heart of the Upper Canadian Rebellion – these public meetings were considered problematic. The government feared large numbers of the public coming together – one might think of how our government responded to the G20 meetings in Toronto two summers ago. And so they tried to ban the public meeting that Dr. William Baldwin, Robert Baldwin’s father, was trying to organize. Dr. Baldwin was a democratic reformer beyond reproach, well respected by all. He was a man of aristocratic background, great learning as both doctor and lawyer, yet unlike his peers, a democrat. As Dr. Baldwin was calling the meeting to order, William Jarvis, the sheriff, led a mob of Orange Order thugs to attack the crowd. He was heard to scream at Baldwin “Down with him! Down with him!” The Orange Order attacked the crowd with clubs, and in the melee, a young 19 year-old member of the Children of Peace, David Leppard, was killed when struck with a rock to his temple. He is buried in the Children of Peace cemetery down the street.

Leppard’s death became a rallying point for Reformers across the province. Everyone knew who was responsible for his death. The Sheriff had egged on the Orange Order, and George Duggan Jr., a Toronto Alderman and Orange Order organizer had directed the mob. Yet no arrests were made. There was no inquiry into the death. And no one could hope for justice when the Sheriff himself – one of the co-accused – was responsible for picking the jurors at a trial! Robert Baldwin who had almost watched his father killed by the Orange mob formed a compact then with the Children of Peace to reform municipal government and municipal justice.

We see here all of the issues laid out at last. We have Robert Baldwin fighting for Responsible Government at both the provincial and local level against Lord Sydenham, a colonial governor intent on providing Good Governance with the aid of Orange Order violence, as needed – a benevolent dictator. And at the local level, it was the Children of Peace supporting Baldwin against the Orange Order.

Sydenham at first tried to appease the reformers by naming the un-elected Robert Baldwin as his Solicitor-General. By his own principle of Responsible Government, Baldwin was committed to seeking election. Yet he faced a critical problem. He knew, following a series of Orange Riots during the Toronto municipal elections of Jan. 1841, that he would never get elected in Toronto. He had to find a safe riding elsewhere. He was ultimately nominated in two ridings, in Hastings County, and in the 4th Riding of York, which encompassed Newmarket and parts North. David Willson, the leader of the Children of Peace, became Baldwin’s campaign manager. He organized a campaign rally during the annual Illumination of the Temple. Baldwin was escorted to the polls in Newmarket by 80 sleigh loads of supporters led by the Band of the Children of Peace. He won in a landslide.

Baldwin, however, had also been elected in Hastings County. His reform counterpart in Quebec, Louis LaFontaine, had not won the election at all. LaFontaine lost his bid for a seat in Terrebonne, outside Montreal, due to Orange Order violence and the placing of the poll in an English village. Without being elected, he couldn’t become a cabinet minister according to the principle of Responsible Government. It was critical to get LaFontaine elected if Responsible Government was to be introduced. Since he had two seats, Baldwin broached the idea to David Willson of stepping down in the 4th Riding of York, and having LaFontaine run to replace him. Although initially wary of the Orange Order violence that would accompany a by-election, Willson was whole-heartedly receptive. He formed a “political union” – a rudimentary political party organization within the riding in order to nominate LaFontaine, and to organize his campaign. Willson’s vision of the new united provinces of Canada, envisioned the equality of French and English under a responsible government.

The local opposition to LaFontaine was great – then as now, anti-French feelings were rife. There were threats of Orange Order violence – and even Jacob Aemilius Irving, a Newmarket reformer, threatened violence if LaFontaine were nominated under the Reform banner. But Willson was able to sway his local supporters with the words, “Let us show the world our disapprobation to elections obtained by riot, and such parliamentary measures as refuse to grant equal justice to every representative of Canada.” They organized another campaign rally at the June Illumination of the Temple, like the one held here last Friday. Willson lambasted the local opposition to LaFontaine who had argued “LaFontaine is guilty in their eyes of the unpardonable crime of being, as they please untruly to call him, a Frenchman.” Willson argued that this was an opportunity, as he said, “to show our impartial respect to the Canadian people of the Lower province.” Here, Willson is expressing a clear Canadian identity that overcame differences in language and religion. It was a vision of Canadian citizenship that was ultimately successful, as LaFontaine was elected in the 4th Riding of York.

Finally, in September 1841, just before the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada were about to be united for the first time as the province of Canada, both Robert Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine, the co-leaders of the Reform party were elected. Their success was marked by a gruesome irony. For just as LaFontaine was winning his by-election in Sharon, Lord Sydenham, the Governor General of Canada, was dying an agonizing death of lockjaw. Few politicians have ever been so compellingly silenced. His death left a power vacuum that Baldwin and LaFontaine were able to successfully fill.

It took almost a year for Sydenham’s replacement, Sir Charles Bagot, to form another cabinet. With the extra reformers elected in Ontario, it was impossible to form a government without acknowledging the French Fact; no majority government was possible without including the French under LaFontaine. Bagot had no choice but to invite BOTH Baldwin and LaFontaine into his cabinet, when the next parliamentary session opened in Sept. 1842. The victorious Louis LaFontaine, representing the 4th Riding of York, was to address parliament in French – against the rule of the day – with the words:

“Struggles of principle and political beliefs have been engaged in the separate legislatures of Lower and Upper Canada. Sympathies gradually formed between the men struggling in each place for the same cause, even if they had not yet physically met. Those sympathies began to grow, to become more present the moment that these men walked into this House, this Chamber, were able to shake each others’ hands. These relations created not only sympathies but far more than that. They created moral obligations to which our own sense of our honour imposes an absolute necessity for me in particular not to be found lacking. I have remained faithful to those obligations.”

This was the handshake between the two Canadas, the two solitudes that helped forge this democratic country, made possible by the Children of Peace in this riding.

I would like to emphasize that these events only mark the start of the relationship between Baldwin, LaFontaine and the Children of Peace. It was only the start of the battle for Responsible Government as well, a battle that was not definitively won until 1849. But here we see the major lines of the story. We see how alliances were formed between the two nations in Canada East and Canada West through the bold actions of ordinary citizens like David Willson and the Children of Peace, who rejected the prejudices of the day in order to ensure equal rights for all parts of the country. They fought for responsible government – for the accountability of government ministers to parliament, and of representatives to the people.