Redden is a native of Campbellford, Ontario and holds a B.A. (Honours) from
Carleton University. While working at the Ontario Legislature, he wrote this
paper in support of a private member’s bill tabled by Dr. Doug Galt, MPP, to
establish Robert Baldwin Day.
his prominent role in Ontario’s political history very few people know much
about Robert Baldwin. A prominent lawyer and political leader in the
nineteenth century, Baldwin is best remembered for his role in democratic
reform. He developed and promoted the concept of responsible government
for Upper Canada and envisioned an Executive Council that would be accountable
to an elected legislature. This became a reality with the passage in 1841
of the Act commonly known as the Act of Union and remains the basis of Canada’s
system of parliamentary government to this day. Baldwin was also active in the
reform of local government. Passage of the Act commonly known as the
Baldwin Act allowed for the incorporation of townships, villages, towns and cities.
These respective levels of government were formed around the notion of
having a democratically elected council in each community. This article
proposes recognizing the accomplishments of Baldwin by establishing a day
in his honour.
Since July 1985 members of the
Ontario Legislative Assembly, staff and thousands of tourists have passed by
the portrait of Robert Baldwin hanging just to the left of the entrance to the
Legislative Chamber. Most have little or no knowledge of who the man is
or what he accomplished. A poor understanding of the Baldwin legacy leads to a
poor understanding of Ontario’s political history. As a result many
Ontarians lack a sufficient understanding of their parliamentary and
monarchical system of government.
Knowing our history is very
important. Our sense of entitlements and obligations are our civic values
which bind our society. But with the loss of history, these values cannot
We risk losing our Canadian
culture to the United States if we do not make a significant effort to remember
and acknowledge our unique political history.
A 1997 paper published by the
Dominion Institute surveyed 1100 Canadians between the ages of 18 to 24. It
found that 64% of young Canadians did not know when Confederation occurred, and
over half of these did not know in which century Canada was founded. Only half
of young Canadians could name the first prime minister and only 15% knew when
Canada’s constitution was patriated from Great Britain. Clearly, there is
evidence of a poor understanding of our political history.
Originally, the Governor
General as a representative of the Queen, ruled the colony. Robert
Baldwin strongly opposed this by disputing that it was “impossible to have a
British-type constitutional monarchy in a colony.” The Governor General should
reign but not rule. This holistic and alternative approach to the
monarchy instigated the rebellions in the Canadas during the early 19th century.
The imperial authorities in London were embarrassed
by the rebellions. As a response to these events, the British Government
sent a noted Liberal, the Earl of Durham, in 1838 to be Governor-in-Chief and
make recommendations on the discontents in British America. Durham experienced
a great deal of difficulty and abandoned his hope for a broader union of
British North America.
Eventually Lord Durham
discussed these matters with Robert Baldwin. Baldwin proposed that the
best reform would be the recognition of the “principle that a colonial governor
should choose his closest advisors, the members of his Executive Council,
entirely from the leadership of the majority group in the Assembly.” The
representative of the Crown should be governed by the advice of the Assembly in
all matters “that could be construed as domestic concerns”.
The logic of Baldwin’s
proposal attracted Durham’s fullest attention. The result was the “monumental” Durham
Report of 1839 which dealt with issues concerning land policies, oligarchic
misrule, judicial reform, and education. The Durham Report made a
number of recommendations. His report is remembered for two specific
proposals – responsible government whereby a governing ministry or cabinet
would depend on the will and confidence of the elected representatives; and
secondly a union of the two Canadas which he thought would absorb French
Canadians in one broader province with an English-speaking Majority.
Although the British
government agreed with Durham’s recommendation for union, it still remained
reluctant to implement responsible rule. And so in 1841, the Act of Union
took effect in the Canadas which was steered by a new governor-general, Lord
Sydenham. Upper Canada became Canada West and Lower Canada became Canada East.
Despite the union of the
mainly French-speaking and Roman Catholic community of Canada East, and the
English-speaking and Protestant community of Canada West, the “communal
division” continued during the era of Union parliament. The Union parliament
still provided equal representation to the two old Canadas, meaning divided
parties and “double-headed” governments. But this changed with the introduction
of the “Reform Alliance” party headed by Robert Baldwin in Canada West,
“faithful advocate of the responsible principle”, and Louis Hippolyte
Lafontaine in Canada East.2
Regardless of their cultural differences and backgrounds, they agreed to work
together forming a coalition government.
When the Reform party of
Baldwin and Lafontaine won the 1847-48 election, the “Great Ministry” came to
power. In 1848, Colonial Secretary Lord Grey accepted Baldwin’s principle of
responsible government for the Colony. From that point forward, Canada was a
land “where one man’s vote was as good as another’s, and where the will of the
majority was the ultimate sanction.” Baldwin was finally successful in his
cause of insisting on the assembly’s right to hold executive councillors
responsible for government action.
Another major change
introduced by Baldwin was a system of local government. This was achieved
through the Municipal Corporations Act which was viewed by some historians as a
grand extension of democracy and as Baldwin’s creation. The Municipal
Corporations Act was a 68-page document “laying out a full range of municipal
structures and their powers, and also jury laws.” By providing municipalities
with elected councils, they were allowed some independence from provincial
control, something government reformers had been crying for. It was of such
high quality, that it “stood the test of time and was copied by other
With the exception of many
historians, how many citizens actually know that the previously mentioned
changes to our system of governance were initiated, promoted, and accomplished
by Robert Baldwin? This author argues that our parliamentary and monarchical
system of government can best be understood and respected with an understanding
of our historical origins as a British colony, and an understanding of how our
present system of government was initiated by Robert Baldwin. Therefore,
proclaiming a day in Robert Baldwin’s name will help to promote the Baldwin
legacy and encourage the remembrance of our political history.
Canadian Political Culture
Baldwin also contributed to
the Canadian tradition of peaceful evolution rather than violent revolution. It
was Robert Baldwin and his associates who initiated separation from Great
Britain. Baldwin demanded that Canadians manage Canadian affairs. In 1846
during a debate on the militia, he insisted that Canadians were capable of
defending the province without British help. But while the United States had
their violent War of Independence, Baldwin and Lafontaine favoured independence
through negotiation. This reasonable and cautious Canadian way is a
major separating factor between Canadians and Americans.
In The Founding of New
Societies, Louis Hartz and Kenneth D. McRae discuss English-Canada’s
political culture as being rooted in a liberal fragment “etched” with a Tory
streak coming out of the American Revolution in the late 18th century. Gad Horrowitz has generalized
the arguments of both Hartz and McRae by stating that: “the difference is that
while the United States is the perfect bourgeois fragment English Canada is a
bourgeois fragment marred by non-liberal imperfections, a Tory “touch”.3
This Tory touch has resulted
in the obvious amount of conservatism inherent in English-Canada’s political
culture. This conservatism has historically involved loyalty to the
Monarchy and to the opposition to revolutions.
In a speech by historian
Desmond Morton delivered in a 1999 conference sponsored by The McGill
Institute, Morton states that Canada will survive in accordance with each
generation’s understandings of the “arrangements and compromises we all
inherit”.4 If our history as Canadians is to
continue, then learning our history is vital to our survival. As Edmund
Burke noted, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look
backward to their ancestors”.5
Essentially, history has a
social role in a nation like ours, as historian Jack Granatstein argues:
The values and traditions of
Canadian life should be force-fed; history explained in ways that demonstrate
how and why we have regularly settled our disputes without force, how our
political system has functioned, and why we have on many occasions gone to war
or joined alliances, not for aggressive reasons, but to protect our democratic
Granatstein’s idea of
“force-feeding” values and traditions may sound a little barbaric. However,
force-feeding common historical achievements shared by both English and
French-Canadians may serve as a working tool to provide the Quebecois with an
emotional bond to the rest of the country.
Baldwin and Canadian
During the Quebec referendum of 1995, Canadians
living in Quebec and elsewhere, were very upset with the action taken by our
federal leaders to combat the separatist campaign. It appeared as though
our federal leaders could only think of “economic self-interests and the United
Nations’ declaration that Canada is a really swell place.”7Why could Canadian federalists not
muster a coherent emotional force to keep Canada together? Where were the
appeals to the alliance of Robert Baldwin and Louis Lafontaine?
John Ralston Saul argues in Reflections
Of A Siamese Twin, that it is worth realizing that the cooperation of
LaFontaine and Baldwin was much more than a political coalition. Probably
our federal leaders should consider referring to the Baldwin and LaFontaine
alliance when it comes time to muster emotional unifying forces.
Saul also states that
LaFontaine and Baldwin banded together for the first time in Kingston, where
the legislature of the newly unified colonies was meeting, and became each
other’s closest friend for the rest of their lives. “A small detail:
Baldwin immediately began sending his two sons and two daughters… …to be
educated in French in Quebec City.”8
Baldwin and LaFontaine put
aside their differences and put together a complex reforming coalition.
Saul acknowledges the importance of this historical relationship to
Canada. But many have forgotten, or more importantly, have never been
made aware of the historic working relationship between these two leaders.
Their relationship serves as an historical example of English and French-Canada
A Baldwin family history book,
written by and for descendants of Robert Baldwin, provides a good description
of the Baldwin and Lafontaine partnership:
(it) was based on mutual
friendship, trust and loyalty and was to last their lifetimes. The
imperial policy of “divide and rule” could not break this unique relationship
because they consulted each other and made joint decisions. They were not
willing to play ethnic or class games. As moderates, they abhorred
violence and believed in developing a fine balance of interests and
respect for others.9
It is too bad that this could
not be a description of today’s relationship between Quebec and the rest of
Canada. But it was a reality in Baldwin’s day. His contribution to
French-English cooperation was one of his most important legacies to Canadian
The proclamation of a Robert
Baldwin Day will help Ontarians remember their unique political history.
I would suggest that May 12th, his birthday, be designated as Robert Baldwin Day.
Recognizing his accomplishments with a day in his name not only provides
him the respect that he deserves, but it provides people with a reason to
remember their history, gain a better understanding and grasp of their
political culture, and restore our historic and emotional connection with
1. Daniel Gardner, Youth and History:
Policy Paper, Dominion Institute, Toronto, 1997 p. 2.
2. John Finlay and D. N. Sprague, The
Structure of Canadian History, Prentice-Hall, Toronto, 2000 p.241.
3. Gad Horowitz, Canadian Labour in
Politics, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1968 p.7.
4. Desmond Morton, Speech at 1999 conference
sponsored by the McGill Institute.
5. Angela Partington Ed., The Oxford
Dictionary of Quotations, “Edmund Burke”, p. 158.
6. Jack Granatstein, “Does History Matter”,
7. The Ottawa Citizen, April 9, 1997,
8. John Ralston Saul, Reflections of a
Siamese Twin, Viking, Toronto, 1997 p. 65.
9. Baldwin Family History, The Baldwin
Legacy, p. 14.