Revisiting Lord Durham

Rébellions 1837-2007

Lord Durham deserves a grander and more detailed tribute than the three sentences the National Capital Commission gave him on Sparks Street.
In a four-month stint as governor general in 1838, John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, laid the foundations for democratic government not only in Canada, but in British possessions around the world. Dubbed "Radical Jack" for his populist, liberal views, Durham had been sent to the colonies to discover why residents had rebelled in both Upper and Lower Canada and to suggest what the Crown ought to do.

In Upper Canada, he wrote, the people chafed under an appointed governor advised by an aristocracy of upper-class, chauvinistic Anglicans called the Family Compact. In Lower Canada, a similar situation was aggravated by a racial divide: between the British upper classes and the French-descended masses, who were still attached to the traditions of the long-departed French colonial administration.
John George Lambton, earl of Durham

The solution for Upper Canada was responsible government, where the governor and his cabinet had to answer to the people's elected representatives. Durham advocated the same for Lower Canada, but added measures to "obliterate" the French-Canadian nation, which he thought permanently opposed to English-dominated governments. He called for a shared government between the two colonies, which would add the democratic power of Upper Canada's English-speakers to that of the Anglo minority in Lower Canada.

Certain semi-professional offence-takers reared up when they noticed the National Capital Commission had included Durham in an outdoor display showing people who contributed to the choice of Ottawa as Canada's capital. (His idea of unifying Upper and Lower Canada began the process of joining colonies that ended in Confederation, the NCC explained in a three-sentence note below his image.) He advocated cultural genocide, complained the French-rights group Impératif français. Who could honour him?

The NCC promptly took down the Durham plaque, which was strictly factual regarding his role in the choice of Ottawa, and issued a cringing apology. The plaque will go back up, the commission says, with "more precise facts."
Nellie McClung, a great Canadian who fought for women's rights, also advocated the sterilization of the "feeble-minded" and "immoral;" her fellow fighter, Emily Murphy, the first female police magistrate in the British Empire, had unenlightened views on race. Nobody suggests reference to these historical figures has to have an asterisk on it.

To modern eyes, Durham's assessment of French Canada is offensive, his solution to the supposed problem even worse. But only a blinkered viewer would see him as sinister.

Durham's recommendations strengthened democracy in the colonies that became Canada. In Ontario, responsible government broke the Family Compact's grip. In Quebec, it led to the end of the Château Clique, the merchants (mostly British) for whom assimilation of French Canadians was an article of faith. In a democracy where the governor had to bow to the governed, they couldn't hold out against a French-Canadian voting majority.

Out from beneath the aristocrats' thumbs, the Canadian colonies progressed rapidly. Before Lord Durham, British colonies were administered by governors appointed from London; after Lord Durham, liberal democracy under local control was the end toward which all gradually moved.

Without Lord Durham, the anglophones of Quebec might have looked to the expansionist United States for protection, as Durham warned.

No reasonable reader of history could conclude that Lord Durham was bad for Canada, and certainly not that his failed ideas about assimilating Francophone Canadians were so important that they belong in the top three sentences anybody could write about his role in making Ottawa the country's capital. The NCC should not revise the Durham panel and include the criticism to appease the semi-professional agitators of Impératif français. And we should not forget that Canadians did not choose to follow Durham's recommendations dealing with race.
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