Canada’s Jan25

Posted on: February 4, 2011

Anti-democracy mobs burned Canada's parliament on the 25th of April, 1849.

Canada had its own Tahrir Square, its own rebellion that won democracy. It happened, not on January 25 (#Jan25) but but on April 25. The year was 1849.

A hotly debated bill was passed in the Canadian legislature, then in Montreal. A rebellion a dozen years before, in 1837, had damaged property of residents of Lower Canada, now Quebec, like today, largely French-speaking. The bill promised money to repair damages from that rebellion. The bill passed, infuriating the English of Upper Canada. It was democracy, but those against the bill would have none of it. Their last hope was that the Governor-General would not sign the bill into law. He did, and rioting began.

Those who were against the bill believed those who rebelled in 1837 were traitors to Queen Victoria and should never be compensated. They were loyal to the Crown, and not to democracy. They were the elite of Canada, wealthy, many owing their positions to their pedigree. True democracy, responsible government, was not supported by them, and here was an example of what democracy could do. Furious, they burned parliament to the ground.

It happened quickly. A large mob gathered, further fueled their anger with speeches, and marched to the parliament where government members were debating. The mob angrily broke the windows of parliament, used a ladder as a battering ram and entered, overpowering those inside. After they burned parliament five days of rioting followed, damaging other property. There was looting. A coup was feared, local militia were armed. Trust was gone. A leading government minister, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, was attacked by mobs and rescued by soldiers. Both the government and the head of the Canadian armed forces, Lieutenant-General Sir Benjamin d’Urban, said they would not fire on the rioters.

It took great restraint. Lord Elgin, the governor-general, the highest ranking government official, the representative of Queen Victoria, was attacked  by a mob in his carriage. The mob stoned it. Elgin, surrounded, was rescued by soldiers as well.

The members of parliament bravely walked through the streets for a meeting at a hotel, a temporary parliament. The mob blocked them, stoned them, threw anything they could. Soldiers separated the two sides. The government met, and there Elgin said, “A free people…can discover…the best security..for their rights and liberties.”

The mob was not through. When Governor-General Elgin left the meeting, the mob attacked him again, and nearly destroyed his carriage. For four months he was under guard while tempers cooled. Elgin would continue to use the same near-destroyed carriage to open parliaments for the rest of his term of office, as a reminder of how dear democracy is, and how near it came to being lost in Canada, just at its birth.

Eighteen years later, July 1, 1967, Canada was born, with the asserted stance that  parliament, and therefore the people, were supreme.

Every free people faces a moment that determines how much they want democracy. Ours began on the 25th day on a month long ago.


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