Saturday, 11 January 2014

Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine

Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine (1807-1864), Canadian politician and judge who led French Canadians in their fight to maintain their own language and nationality in the British colony of Canada in the 1840s. From 1848 to 1851 LaFontaine headed the first government in the colony controlled by a majority in the elected assembly.
At the time of LaFontaine’s birth, Britain’s two largest North American colonies were Lower Canada (now Québec), where French Canadians constituted the majority of the population, and Upper Canada (now Ontario), where British Canadians were prevalent. Although both colonies had elected assemblies, much power remained in the hands of the British governors.
The son of a carpenter, LaFontaine studied at the Collège de Montréal in Montréal, Lower Canada. He then entered law and set up a practice in 1828. Two years later he was elected to Lower Canada’s assembly. He joined the Patriotes, a group of assembly members who endorsed French Canadian nationalism and called for a more democratic government. LaFontaine backed away from the group in 1837, when the Patriotes turned to violent agitation and rebellion in Lower Canada.
The British government crushed the Rebellions of 1837 in Lower and Upper Canada, but British officials were convinced that French Canadian nationalism was an obstacle to the progress and prosperity of the colonies. In 1840 Britain passed the Act of Union, which merged Lower and Upper Canada (to be known as Canada East and Canada West respectively) into a single province, the Province of Canada. The new province had a single legislature, whose only official language was English. Since British Canadians formed a majority in the new province, British officials expected that French Canadians would soon assimilate, adopting the English language and abandoning their French laws and institutions for British ones. LaFontaine, however, insisted on speaking French in the Canadian assembly.
Although the Rebellions of 1837 failed, many French Canadians still wanted a separate colony, led by its own government. LaFontaine argued, however, that Canada East could maintain a national identity within Canada if French Canadians in the assembly joined forces with the reformers from Canada West led by Robert Baldwin. Both groups wanted responsible government, in which the executive was controlled by the leaders of the elected assembly. LaFontaine said that together they could form a majority in the assembly and force concessions from the governor, the British government’s colonial representative.
LaFontaine’s followers joined with Baldwin’s reformers, and their alliance dominated the assembly for most of the 1840s. The assembly maintained French civil law and institutions in Canada East. In 1842 LaFontaine and Baldwin shared leadership of the colony’s executive council. In 1843 they asked Britain to restore French as an official language in Canada. They also demanded that the governor accept their recommendations for government appointments. When the governor refused, LaFontaine and Baldwin resigned from the executive council.
By 1848 Britain had agreed not only to restore French as an official language but also to transfer power to the assembly by requiring the governor to act according to the wishes of the majority in the assembly. The reform alliance had won a large majority, so the governor asked LaFontaine, who led the largest group within the alliance, to form a Cabinet, this time with power over government appointments.
Throughout the 1840s LaFontaine had appealed for help from the Catholic clergy in order to unify French Canadians behind him. In return for the church’s support, he secured its control over public schools in Canada East. He also supported the law that obliged Catholics in Canada East to pay a tithe (tax) to the church, and he encouraged the clergy to speak out about issues confronting the government. Thus LaFontaine granted influence to the Catholic Church, helping to make Canada East a more conservative and religious society than any of its neighbors in British North America.
The LaFontaine government promoted Canada’s economic development and legal reform. By 1851 strains were emerging between his increasingly conservative French Canadian followers and his liberal allies in Canada West. Tired and ill, LaFontaine resigned that fall. He returned to law and was appointed chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench (Canada's court of appeals) in 1853.
Canadians have always admired LaFontaine's role in making government responsible to the voters, but Québec Francophones have been divided in their opinion of him. While he saved their language and identity, his strategy to unite French and British Canadian leaders in one government left French Canadians without independent power in a country dominated by Anglophones. Most Quebeckers today also believe he gave the Catholic clergy too much power and influence.

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