A Hidden History

The Burning of Parliament at Place d’Youville, Montréal – 1849

The painting above is of a fascinating moment in our shared history, and yet all to often I’ve heard it described as something of a joke. Perhaps that’s all it’s worth today anyways, and given there’s very little in terms of general acknowledgement of that intrepid pre-Confederation era, no memorials, no markers. The joke goes something along the lines of Montrealers being so passionate (if not violent) when it comes to politics that the only time they tried to make Montreal the capital, the locals burned the parliament buildings. It’s a joke about the feverish Latin blood of the Québecois, of French Canadians. It’s also grossly inaccurate. The mob was English, no British, and defiantly so. A mob of elites who stood in the way of responsible government, democracy, and a defined, unique character.

The site of this parliament is today a parking lot at Place d’Youville – the rough outline of the building conforming very nicely to the limits of the asphalt. There’s nothing at the Bonsecours Market either – it served as parliament too. And LaFontaine’s House, as we all know, is presently a squat. As per the custom of Montréal, it’s much vaulted history is a mystery. We’ve Disneyfied ourselves – plenty of places which look historical but very little in terms of public education, interpretation. Sometimes this city seems to be a study in half-assing it. We don’t do monuments, let alone plaques, memorials or museums – we don’t bother trying to explain to ourselves or others why we’re historically significant, but there always seems to be both time and money for theatre students to dress up like soldiers or blacksmiths.

In the words of the arrested prophet Gob: c’mon!

We can do better, and I would argue that if we did have a fundamentally better appreciation of the critical time in our nation’s evolution we’d have a more perfect society today. For those of you who know me, you know that I’m a student of John Ralston Saul, who it seems wants nothing more than to remind Canadians that we are, at our very core, a complex society which stands in stark contrast to anything to ever come out of Europe or the Americas. We are integrated, multi-cultural, bi-lingual – and above built up through patience and restraint. All of these are our virtues, and most of the necessary political philosophizing was accomplished here, in Montréal, prior to the BNA Act of 1867.

There’s reason to rejoice here, especially if you’re a federalist at heart. Our nation’s founding fathers were not ardent supporters of the British Empire – they wanted out, but they didn’t want to do so via bloodshed. They wanted to create a new nation in which European nationalism was seen for what it was – out-of-touch, out-of-step and thoroughly unacceptable in the Canadian context. The Patriote’s Rebellion was an effort to remove the British from impeding the creation of a multi-racial, multi-lingual Canada, where social and political values of brotherhood and commonwealth were viewed as superior to the status quo. Today the flag is flown as a general statement of discontent with the establishment, and many separatists have taken up as their standard. If they only knew.

If we all only knew. If only we had the balls to tell one of the most fascinating, violent and intellectually awe-inspiring stories from our great history – we could do much to remind all Canadians that the nation we have today is not in fact the mis-guided creation of an opposition political party (as Stephen harper would like you to believe), but rather a very deliberate and controversial creation which has been evolving for years, generations even.

The linguistic battles we fight today are not as a result of something from our past left unfinished, incomplete or unaddressed. We fight them simply because we forgot who we are and why we’re here. We forgot because we’re pathetically humble sometimes. See this link for a book I’m reading now on the lives of our nation’s first real leaders, LaFontaine & Baldwin. Much of the great work they did which would ultimately lead to Confederation occurred in Montréal, and yet there’s nothing at all to remind the locals and tourists of their monumental accomplishment. It’s a shame we should let weigh heavy on our hearts, as failure to adequately and appropriately recognize the significance of these men, and that key era between 1837 and 1867 when Montréal was the laboratory of Canadian democracy should be front and centre – with or without the government grant. We must endeavour to educate the public for the common good, which is incidentally precisely what these men – our nation’s grandfathers in a sense – were trying to accomplish.

It’s an inconvenient truth for the hardcore separatist inasmuch as Stephen Harper’s brainless ‘conservatives’, and it’s our saving grace.

There’s going to be a lot of ‘blood & guts’ history to appease the militarist-nationalists in this country for the next year. I can only hope when the tide goes back out we recognize that it was still a battle between empires with legitimate Canadians caught like pawns in the middle. The War of 1812 was not the birth of our country, it was simply our first instance of collective defence against naken aggression. What is infinitely more significant is the effect the war had on our founding fathers, many of whom openly rebelled against the British Empire a quarter-century later. The crucible of our creation, miraculously, lies outside any field of battle, and instead can be found in addresses, debates, letters and laws.

When will we stand to acknowledge that we were created by peace? When will we have the balls to cast off bloodshed as a necessary condition of our creation and subsequent evolution?

When will we recognize ourselves for who we really are, and accept it?

Food for thought. I’d like nothing more than to solve our nation’s never-ending crises with a simple history lesson.