Thursday, May 14, 2015

The blind spot in our history

The 175th anniversary of the Act of Union


John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham
Federalist propaganda is preparing us for the celebration in 2017 of the 150th anniversary of the founding of Canada. In 1867, an Act of the British Parliament, the British North America Act, replaced the 1840 Legislative Union of Upper Canada and Lower Canada and its single parliament with a broader federal union of four colonies. The birth of this new country is presented to us as harmonious and in the interest of the "two founding peoples" by underlining the alliance of conservatives Macdonald and Cartier. They forget that the first Union was brutally imposed by London in July 1840 after the harsh military repression demanded by the British merchants of Montreal. And it's this first union that made the union of 1867 possible.

2015 marks the 175th anniversary the abolishment by the British government of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, our separate Parliament which had existed since 1791 and the establishment of a new political entity, the Province of Canada. This Union laid the foundations of the British nation of North America, known today as Canada. The union of the two colonies had been called for as early 1810 by the British merchants of Montreal. Quebec historians need to remind people of 1840, this fundamental date of our too often forgotten history. For 1840 is the real political conquest of French Canada following the British military conquest in 1760, it is the blind spot in our history, even paradoxically for some Sovereignists.

We must remember that, in 1839, Lord Durham, who was sent to investigate the circumstances surrounding the Lower Canada Rebellion, wrote in his report that he initially envisioned a federal union as a permanent solution to the crisis. But he was finally convinced that only a legislative union without provincial parliaments was possible. For Durham, the urgent priority was to first make French Canadians a minority in a union Parliament of Upper and Lower Canada. He believed that a parliament made up of a French majority would only slow down the economic development of British North America. In his view, the liberal solution of responsible government could not apply to the separate Lower Canada. He clearly stated the need to promote English immigration and to entrust the administration to a legislature dominated by the English. The legislative union was therefore required and it was done in the interests of English colonization.

He concluded that a federal union was not possible at that time, as the British merchants of Montreal would never submit to an Assembly, even a provincial one, which was dominated by a French majority. Moreover, he believed that a legislature granted to a provincialized Lower Canada as part of a federal union would use the limited power it possessed to paralyze the central government.

Instead, Lord Durham proposed:

  1. to Unite Upper and Lower Canada into a single province in order to reduce to dominant position of French-Canadians and render them increasingly politically powerless.
  2. to institute responsible government so as to remove a major source of friction that had existed between the government and elected officials prior to 1837.
  3. to assimilate the French-Canadians.

It was evident that one of the purposes of the Act of Union was to remove from French-Canadians the little amount of self-government, of control over their political institutions, that they had had between 1791 and 1837. It was also evident that various clauses in the Act aimed at assimilating French-Canadians or introduced a threat to their survival in the future. Especially objectionable to Quebec were the following clauses:

  • The debts of Upper Canada and Lower Canada were now merged into one. Upper Canada had a large debt when Lower Canada had an accumulated surplus.
  • The Union Act provided for equal representation of the two parts of the new province in the new House of Assembly when in fact Lower Canada contained 60% of the population and Upper Canada had only 40%. This had been done to ensure an English majority in the House of Assembly right from the start of the Union.
  • The financial requirements to vote in elections, or to be elected, had been raised making it more difficult for the poor to exercise their franchise. As francophones tended to be poorer than anglophones, more of them were adversely affected by this.
  • There was no requirements for French to be used in the laws and by the government of the Province. French could be used in the debates of the House but was slated to disappear within 15 years.

The Act of Union sealed, for more than a century, the destiny of the French-speaking nation, reducing it to minority status in a manner that shaped its national consciousness. French-Canadians henceforth conceived of themselves as a national minority, developing complexes about disadvantages and the economic and political leadership set over them, to the extent that they became afraid to make claims for themselves. The governing elite pronounced them to be inferior, and French-Canadians adapted to a world in which their exclusion from certain circles and executive positions was almost a given, to the point of interiorizing some of these complexes. This inferiority complex had not yet crystallized before the failure of the Rebellions and the ensuing annexation of 1840, which may therefore be regarded as a turning point.

We must reread the work of the historian Maurice S├ęguin to understand the beginnings of the political annexation of French-Canada. According to him, the Fathers of Confederation were, despite their speeches, the implementers of Lord Durhams project, who saw in the history of Louisiana a good example of the way a majority can erase the national distinctions of a people and realize its smooth assimilation.


Based on  a text by historian Robert Comeau, February 7, 2015

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