Radical Jack and the birth of modern Canada

Spare a thought for Lord Durham, an unlikely Englishman who played a significant role in the events leading up to Confederation

TORONTO, Ont. Mar. 23, 2017 /Troy Media/ – As we anticipate Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations this summer, spare a thought for an unlikely Englishman who played a role in the events leading up to Confederation.

John George Lambton, Earl of Durham, may have spent less than six months on Canadian soil but he left his mark.

Sometimes known as Radical Jack and typically referred to as Lord Durham in history books, he was born into great wealth in 1792 England. And he wasn’t shy about spending that money on the good things in life. To him, there was no contradiction in downing copious amounts of champagne while overturning large chunks of the established order.

The aftermath of the 1837 Papineau-Mackenzie rebellions brought Durham to Canada. Although the rebellions were easily suppressed – historian Donald Creighton described them as “little more than a series of armed riots, unplanned, purposeless, hopeless” – they caught the attention of the government in London. Accordingly, Durham was appointed governor general of British North America and dispatched to sort things out.

But maybe there was more to it than that.

While Radical Jack could be charming when the spirit moved him, he could also be profoundly annoying – the phrase “wounded his inferiors and irritated his equals” has been used to describe the effects his manner had on people. Sending him across the Atlantic thus had the added benefit of getting him out of everyone’s hair in England. It may not have been a case of out-of-sight, out-of-mind, but at least his absence would provide temporary relief.

Durham, however, was no fool. In addition to his history as a reformer, he was shrewd enough to seek and take advice. Two of his closest confidantes, Charles Buller and Edward Gibbon Wakefield, were heavy hitters in their own rights and accompanied him to Canada.

But even thousands of kilometres away across the Atlantic, Durham’s ability to cause waves was unabated. And when his benign handling of prisoners from the rebellions raised hackles in England, the ensuing imbroglio caused him to head home. He had been in Canada for just over five months.

Still, he wasn’t quite finished. Working in collaboration with Buller and Wakefield, he produced the 1839 Report on the Affairs of British North America. History generally calls it the Durham Report.

There were three critical recommendations:

  • That Upper and Lower Canada (the territorially smaller precursors of modern Ontario and Quebec) be united.
  • That the governor’s ruling advisers be drawn from the leadership of the elected assembly.
  • That the colonies be given control over their internal affairs.

The first recommendation was a function of what Durham experienced in Lower Canada (Quebec). Rather than a conflict between government and people, he “found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state: I found a struggle, not of principles, but of races.” His solution was to amalgamate the two entities with a view to ultimately assimilating French Canada into a broader English-speaking polity.

The second and third recommendations got to the nub of what came to be considered “responsible government.” Essentially, government should be accountable to local representative assemblies and London should confine itself to imperial matters like foreign affairs.

Initial reaction was mixed. London went along with the amalgamation idea, creating the United Province of Canada in 1841, but balked at the responsible government concept.

However, the situation quickly flipped. By 1847, London was on board with responsible government. And the United Province of Canada was dissolved 20 years later as Ontario and Quebec became two of Confederation’s four founding provinces.

Fashions in historical interpretation ebb and flow, and perceptions of Durham’s importance are no exception. But, as with most things, historian Niall Ferguson has a definite opinion. To him, Durham and his two confederates can be said to have written “the book that saved the Empire.”

To quote Ferguson: “What the Durham Report meant was that the aspirations of Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans … could be and would be answered without the need for wars of independence. From now on, whatever the colonists wanted, they pretty much got.”

Radical Jack, though, didn’t live to see any of this. Stricken with tuberculosis, he died in July 1840 at the age of 48.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit. Pat is included in Troy Media’s Unlimited Access subscription plan.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by all Troy Media columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Troy Media.

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