Durham's question

Lord Durham wanted French-Canadians to advance into the sunny uplands of political freedom and prosperity

Rébellions 1837-2007

Ajzenstat*Janet - Should Lord Durham's portrait be displayed on the streets of Ottawa? It hardly matters. His "Report on the Affairs of British North America" lives. It was published in 1839 and has been in print ever since. It will be read as long as there is a Canada, and - dare I say it? - even afterward.

In the 1840s, both French-speaking and English-speaking reformers hailed the report as the charter of free government. And it fulfilled their hopes. In 1848, Durham's recommendation for "responsible government" led to the overthrow of the colonial oligarchies - the Château Clique and the Family Compact. At the Quebec conference of 1864, the Fathers of Confederation used Durham's description of British freedoms to create the Parliament of Canada.

But if Durham's report is deservedly famous, it is also - deservedly - controversial. Commentators like Gerald Craig, editor of the abridged edition (1963) call it "offensive."

The question of perennial interest for readers today is this: Did Lord Durham expect the French Canadians to adopt the British way of life? He undoubtedly wanted them to adopt the institutions of British democracy. But did he expect them to abandon their own traditions?

He says outright that the British "race must ultimately prevail." The British must be "placed in the ascendant." Lower Canada must be "thoroughly assimilated to British ways and institutions." These passages and others like them leave a deep wound. I do not believe that anyone of French origin who reads them will ever warm to Durham.

And yet! He did not envisage a static future for French Canada. He was himself a mover and a shaker and he wanted the French to get a move on. He wanted them to advance into the sunny uplands of political freedom and prosperity. In fact, he thought they were already advancing.

French-Canadian businessmen and political elites were beginning to build a modern commercial society. They were interested in new technologies (transportation by steamboat, for one thing), and in social and constitutional reform. Durham makes it very clear, moreover, that some Englishmen were impeding French-Canadian ambitions. It suited Englishmen who had acquired seigneuries to keep their tenants down on the farm. It suited the English elites of Montreal to keep the French out of political office. He treats Englishmen with these views harshly.

Most Canadian scholars believe that Durham was wrong on two counts. He was wrong to entertain the idea of assimilation (wrong from a moral standpoint, we might say), and wrong, hopelessly wrong, to suppose that uniting Upper and Lower Canada would accomplish this objective. It is usually said that after the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840, the French used the political institutions of the united province - the very institutions that Durham had recommended - to successfully defend the French-Canadian way of life.

Was Durham wrong to suppose that the practice of parliamentary democracy requires - or encourages - cultural homogeneity? Is it true that despite all hopes to the contrary liberal democracy erodes particular cultures? The jury is still out.

Durham thought he had the answer. I suggest that what he had is the question.
It's a question that remains with us: Do the principles of free government require assimilation to a bland and universal way of life? Is liberal democracy compatible with maintaining a distinctive and particular way of life? New books are published on the subject every year, not a few by Canadian academics.

Étienne Parent was perhaps Durham's most devoted reader in 1839. Parent was passionately attached to the French-Canadian nationality and yet also wanted, just as passionately, to see his province governed by the institutions of political freedom that Durham taught. He hoped to reconcile the two beloved "goods" - British freedom and the French-Canadian way of life. His essays on the subject appeared in the famous French-Canadian journal of political opinion, Le Canadien.

In the end, Parent fastened on the idea of a union of the several British North American colonies, including the Maritime provinces - a scheme also briefly contemplated by Durham - in which Lower Canada would enjoy its own parliamentary institutions, modelled on the Mother of Parliaments, and would thus be in a position to maintain its distinctive social institutions.

But the time was not ripe. Shortly after Durham embarked for his return to England (Nov. 1, 1838), the second Rebellion broke out. No British ministry was going to trust the French province with separate political institutions at that time.

But I think we can say that Parent had seen the future. And a short generation later, all had changed.
Janet Ajzenstat, Citizen Special
Historian Janet Ajzenstat is the author of The Political Thought of Lord Durham and most recently, The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament (McGill-Queen's University Press, 2007).

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