Burning Convictions – Getting Fiery about Canadian Politics

A week from now, we might have a new country.

Well, okay, not a new country, but certainly one with a different outlook for the future. The federal election is set for October 19th and for weeks the pollsters have indicated that it is far too close to call. The Nanos numbers today suggest the Liberals might be pulling ahead, but there have been major surprises before.

Perhaps because of the tight race, the headlines on the news this past weekend were full of stories about long lines at the advance polls. The most recent findings I saw from Elections Canada state that 2.4 million of us voted over Thanksgiving weekend. Some people waited hours to cast their ballots – in a Canadian election – more than a week before voting day.

This is not the norm.

The turnout for the last six federal elections was fairly pathetic: around 60%. That might sound large enough, but consider that this means a political party can win a “majority” mandate from the country with less than 22% of the electorate.

We Canadians are a fairly apathetic bunch when it comes to our political convictions. We value our freedoms, but we’re hardly marching in the streets to protect them. I polled one of my classes the other week, asking how many of them had ever marched in protest, or demonstrated in a public place. The result was minimal: maybe half a dozen out of a class of nearly 60 students.

Like a good sex scandal, getting all up in arms over politics is really not a very Canadian thing to do.

Or, at least it hasn’t been for a long time.

There was a time when elections in this country meant one thing: violence. Lots and lots of violence: riots; brawls; fisticuffs; arrests; even the odd murder or two or three (though, sadly, still no sex scandals).

Yes, we literally used to kill each other over politics in this country.

There was even a time when marching in protest wasn’t enough: we needed to burn things.

Burning of the Parliament in Montréal, attributed to Joseph Légaré

In an 1849 scene more fitting to a Monty Python film than a government-sponsored Heritage Minute, a mob of “loyalists” in Montreal decided to prove their devotion to the Crown by attacking the governor-general and then burning down parliament.

Queen Victoria’s representative in the colony, Lord Elgin, had been led to parliament that afternoon from his country estate by the Irish-born politician and journalist Francis Hincks to approve dozens of pieces of legislation into law. Among the many sheaves of paper waiting for his assent was the Rebellion Losses Bill, one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in nineteenth century Canada; with its passage, the idea of responsible government was realized in the United Province of Canada (Nova Scotia – then a separate British colony – had already ushered it in a year earlier in 1848).

James Bruce, 8th Earl of Elgin Library Archives Canada/MIKAN 3644739

Proponents of the Rebellion Losses Bill saw it as the just remuneration of Lower Canadians who had suffered financial damages during the 1837-38 Rebellions – more specifically, during the turbulent period of martial law and violent reprisals that had followed the defeat of the Patriote cause. Opponents of the bill believed it rewarded former rebels for their treason and was a complete betrayal of the Crown and the British constitution.

Surprised by the governor’s apparently sudden assent to the bill – even though it had passed through the House over a month before in March – alarmed loyalist citizens voiced their displeasure by pelting Lord Elgin with rocks and garbage as he left the Houses of Assembly in the early evening.

This was not an isolated action taken against the governor-general by a small, disgruntled section of the Lower Canadian population: people throughout the colonies and across the ocean were aware of what was happening in Montreal that night, and in the weeks that followed. Samuel Peter Jarvis, a noted member of the Family Compact in Upper Canada, as well as the commander officer of the Queen’s Rangers during the rebellions, waited anxiously for news from the UK and bluntly wished “they would catch old Elgin and string him up as a caution to other traitor governors.”[1]

Elgin’s carriage was chased from the city at a gallop back to his residence at Monklands. There, he was met by his wife, Mary Lambton, the daughter of another former governor-general, Lord Durham, whose famous report following the rebellions had advocated for both the union of the Canadas and for the immediate assiilation of French Canada. Not only did Mary keep the rocks that had landed in her husband’s carriage – they were later donated by her descendants to the Canadian Museum of History in 2008 – but she also managed to save the house: Lady Elgin was heavily pregnant in April of 1849, and her presence at the mansion stopped the protestors from attacking the governor-general’s home in a fit of vengeance. Instead – after apparently remembering their gentlemanly honour – the mob decided to burn down parliament instead.  It feels like a scene straight from Young Frankenstein: “To the lumber yard!”

Within hours, a mob of over 1,200 men had assembled at Place d’Armes in Montreal’s downtown core and proceeded to march to St Anne’s Market, where the Assembly was still in session. First the windows were broken, followed by the gas lamps. One of the mob’s leaders, Alfred Perry, was also the captain of the volunteer corps of firemen, which perhaps explains the ready appearance of a thirty-five foot fire ladder to use as a battering ram against the main doors.

The Assembly Room was swiftly overrun, with one rioter climbing into the Speaker’s Chair to announce that the house was hereby dissolved.

Perry later claimed to have started the fire when a rock he threw at the Speaker’s Chair missed and hit a gas-lit chandelier; other witnesses that night observed that the sheer number of torches thrown into the building was more than sufficient to spark the conflagration. Over 23,000 volumes of irreplaceable government documents went up in flames. Before being burnt down, however, the Assembly Chamber was thoroughly vandalized, including a portrait of Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the Lower Canadian Rebellion in 1837.

Canadians – vandals? Oh, yes.

Popular legend has it that only the most royal of symbols escaped the blaze: Alfred Perry and Alexander Courtney made off with the ceremonial mace, delivering it later that night to a rather shocked Allan MacNab, one of the leading Tories in the House. Meanwhile, Sandford Fleming – the future inventor of global standard time – dashed into the burning building with three others to carry the portrait of the young Queen Victoria to safety.

Queen Victoria Portrait John Partridge (1842)

This John Partridge portrait of Queen Victoria, painted in 1842, has had a most adventuresome history as part of the décor of the Canadian Parliament Buildings. It has been saved from fire no less than four times. Its size meant that it once had to be cut from its frame in order to fit through a doorway to escape the flames; a section of the Queen’s train in the painting has been lost ever since. The painting was one of the only pieces to be saved in a blaze that nearly consumed all of Parliament in 1916. It now hangs in the foyer of the Senate in Centre Block on Parliament Hill – a silent witness to some of the wilder and more inane moments of our nation’s history.

Such was the lot of those who felt strongly about politics at the dawn of modern Canadian democracy: instead of being apathetic, they torched the place.

Illustrated London News, 19 May 1849

Of course, Canadian Tories and Orangemen rather raised the question of what exactly their “loyalty” entailed when their claims of zealous devotion to the Crown resulted in arson and assault of the governor-general. But at least they seemed to give a damn. As the ash blew in the spring breeze over St Anne’s Market, as the flames spread to the Grey Nun’s hospital nearby, as Lord Elgin and members of parliament and gentlemen of the press watched the mob violence unfold that night and spill over into the weeks that followed in 1849, were they thinking this was a shock – or were Canadians just acting as expected?

I’m not suggesting that the federal election next week should result in the mass burning of government property in order for it to be a truly Canadian event. But the statistics from the advance polls this weekend certainly show that more people than usual want to be part of the process this time.

If there’s any lesson we can learn from the burning of parliament over 150 years ago, it’s that we do have a tradition of political engagement in this country. There is a history we can tap into in order to have a greater sense of our collective identity, and also to see our actions next Monday as part of a larger script stretching far back into the past.

I was tempted to write that we’re a bit more civilized now than we were in the nineteenth century, since we at least have secret ballots and universal suffrage, but the base negativity of the attack ads in this race and racist, duplicitous tone of debate is more than enough to make me – and hundreds of other academics across the country – doubt that we have any special claim to civility here.

But we are capable of being engaged in the process. That counts for something.

And maybe, just maybe, next Monday will be the beginning of a new chapter for the country that also hearkens back to a version of Canada that has almost been lost.

Just please leave your rocks and torches at home.

[1] Archives of Ontario (AO), F 31, Jarvis Family Fonds, S. P. Jarvis to Mary Jarvis, 25 May 1849.

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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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