Like each of us, a nation’s character is forged by triumphs recalled and tragedies we choose to forget. On an April evening in 1849, a Montreal mob burned Parliament to the ground. The fire and ensuing riots are among many largely forgotten incidents suggesting that Canadians are not what we like to think we are.
Canada is not the meek and peaceable kingdom of our collective mythology. It’s more complicated than that. We are more complicated than that. If we wish to understand who we are as Canadians, who we truly are, then we must understand and acknowledge the ugly but transformative power of riots whose fires, blood, and mad destruction dot our past and colour our character.
The flint that lit the 1849 flames lay in the muskets and determination of farmers who, twelve years before, marched down Toronto’s Yonge Street and up the road to St. Denis. They understood power. They knew they had none. A small, rich, urban elite – we would call them the one percent – was making all the rules and ruling only for themselves. A British governor held executive authority and he appointed only rich business and clerical leaders to his cabinet then heard only the advice of London and those well-heeled friends. The people and its elected assembly were routinely ignored.
William Lyon Mackenzie, in what is now Ontario, and Louis Joseph Papineau, in what is now Quebec, harnessed the people’s righteous indignation and led armed rebellions. The Toronto fight ended quickly with gunfire where Maple Leaf Gardens would later stand. Papineau’s rebellion was longer and bloodier but it too was crushed. Three hundred and thirty died, 2,000 were arrested, 151 were banished to Australia, and 12 were hung. The leaders fled to the United States.
The foppish Lord Durham was dispatched to find out what happened. He grumbled through five months of high living and then wrote a report revealing that he had learned little. Thinking the rebellions were inspired wholly by religious and ethnic tensions, he recommended joining the two colonies under one administration to overwhelm the pesky French Catholics. However, he also recommended that the new colony’s governor rule according to advice from Canadians rather than London.
The old conservative elite rigged the new game to keep their old power. People like Toronto’s Bishop John Strachan and Montreal brewer John Molson still called the shots. Reform politicians Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, however, forged an unlikely alliance. They insisted that members of the executive council – the cabinet – be appointed not from among the rich and clerics but, rather, from among those elected by the people.
After two violent elections that were corrupt even by 19th century standards, and then shifting priorities in Britain, a new Governor arrived. Lord Elgin allowed democratic reforms that farmers and urban merchants were demanding. The 1848 election afforded Reformers a parliamentary majority and Elgin asked Baldwin and LaFontaine to become co-premiers and form a cabinet. The 99% had won. The 1% were out – and they were mad.
Among the new government’s first legislation was the Rebellion Losses Bill. It pledged to compensate all those whose property had been damaged in the 1837 rebellions, including the rebels themselves. The old conservative elite was outraged. Their petition to the governor was dismissed. Although Elgin disagreed with the bill, he said that the people’s government had legally passed it and so he must sign it. At five o’clock on April 25, in the presence of the members of both houses of parliament, he affixed his signature.
As Elgin left the legislature, elegantly dressed business people and Conservative (Tory) MPs pelted his carriage with rocks. An egg smashed his face. With horses at a gallop Elgin escaped the melee. Drunk with indignation, 1,500 angry Tories and their supporters gathered at Champ-de-Mars. Holding torches aloft they marched, shattered windows, and chanted their way to the opulent St. Anne’s Market building that housed parliament.
The legislature was in session but members scattered as rocks smashed through windows. Sandford Fleming, who would later plot the railway route through the Rockies and invent standard time, grabbed a portrait of Queen Victoria and ran it out a back door. Several legislators, including John Sandford Macdonald, who would later be Ontario’s first premier, blockaded the large front entrance. Led by a well-known lawyer, the mob stole a 35-foot ladder and used it to crash their way inside. Legislators were knocked down and kicked. A fat man in an expensive waistcoat jumped atop the speaker’s chair and yelled, “I dissolve parliament!” Furniture was smashed. Gas pipes were broken and then torches thrown. Bankers, lawyers, and clerics cheered the collapse of the roof as the screaming, leaping flames licked the sky. The fire quickly engulfed a neighbouring house, two warehouses, and a hospital. And the cheering went on.
The next night, men left their fine homes, expensive sherry, and imported cigars to reassemble downtown. There were more speeches about race, religion, class, and the natural order of things and power lost. This time their spitting anger was focused on the homes of political enemies whom they blamed for stealing what was considered rightfully theirs. LaFontaine’s house on rue de l’Aqueduc and Baldwin’s boarding house were among those attacked with torches and rocks.
As the mad violence threatened to fill a third night, the military assembled. General Gore warned of the arming of police constables and that the 71st regiment had rifles and cannon ready. There were scattered incidents of violence but a tense and eerie calm gripped the city.
Everyone knew the riot’s instigators. Everyone knew who had thrown stones and set flames. But Baldwin and LaFontaine restrained their reaction. They did not meet violence with violence. They ensured that some arrests were made but also that all were freed. They carefully enhanced security and for weeks there were flares of politically inspired violence but a bitter peace eventually prevailed. The army retired to base and the police locked up their guns.
Over the next weeks, Parliament was moved to Toronto. A Tory petition to London demanding an overturning of the Rebellion Losses Bill was denied. The payments were made. A Conservative movement demanding Canada’s annexation to the United States was initiated by new voices of the old Tory elite, including some who would later be fathers of confederation. It was allowed a natural death.
Most importantly of all, those still raging at the shift of power from the one to the ninety-nine percent fought not on the street but through committees, editorials, and speeches. The government remained in office with executive power, then and forever afterward, held not by the privileged, handpicked few but determined by the votes of the many.
The 1849 rich man’s riots did not signal Canada’s independence from Britain, but it was a crucial step. They did not give birth to true democracy, but parliament’s flames illuminated its dawn. Perhaps we are well served to recall incidents such as the Montreal riot to better understand ourselves and who we truly are. Further, perhaps we should ponder if the old fights regarding whose voices should be heard and interests served will be, or maybe even should be, re-fought. If so, let us listen for the voices of this generation’s Baldwin and LaFontaine, lest torches be lit again.
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