Archive for October, 2011

Laurier and Papineau

I’m enjoying André Pratte’s new biography of Wilfrid Laurier for the Penguin Group series, Extraordinary Canadians. Here’s a provocative passage:

“ … many members of the French-speaking elite of the nineteenth century, including ardent nationalists such as Louis-Joseph Papineau, felt great admiration for the British and the parliamentary democracy and economic prosperity they had brought to the province of Quebec. They found this system far preferable to the atheistic and unstable republican system chosen by France–which, they remembered with bitterness, had ‘abandoned’ their ancestors.”

He’s right about Papineau! In July 1830, Papineau said in the provincial assembly:

[Britain’s] “best laws have become ours, while our faith, our property, and the laws by which they were governed have been conserved; soon afterwards the privileges of her free constitution were granted us, infallible guarantees of our domestic prosperity, if it is observed. Now religious tolerance, trial by jury, the wisest guarantee which has ever been established for the protection of innocence; security against arbitrary imprisonment, thanks to the privilege of the habeas corpus, equal protection guaranteed by law to the person, honour, and property of citizens; the right to obey only laws made by us and adopted by our representatives – all these advantages have become our birthright, and will be, I hope, the lasting heritage of our posterity. In order to conserve them, we should act like British subjects and free men.”

The passage is cited in Michel Brunet, “The British Conquest and the Canadiens,” Canadian Historical Review, XL (2) June, 1959.

It’s true that when the guns and swords came out in 1837-38, Papineau flirted with ideas of populist democracy as described by Jeremy Bentham and the British Philosophical Radicals. He was always a “divided soul.”

I recommend Pratte’s biography but regard as the one essential commentary on Laurier, Rainer Knopff’’s “The Triumph of Liberalism in Canada: Laurier on Representation and Party Government.” It appeared originally in the Canadian Journal of Political Science and has been reprinted several times. Canada’s Origins, Liberal, Tory or Republican? Janet Ajzenstat and Peter J. Smith, eds. (Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1995).

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