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Radical Lord Drops Political Bombshell

For the week of Monday February 2, 1998

On February 4, 1839, a remarkable document arrived at the Colonial Office in London. The Earl of Durham, who spent five months as Governor General of Canada in 1838, delivered a 119-page report on the troubled colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, now southern Ontario and Quebec. He advised the British government to re-unite the Canadas and grant them more power to govern themselves.

John George Lambton, first Earl of Durham, 1792-1840

John George Lambton,
first Earl of Durham, 1792-1840

© LAC / C-121846

In Britain, "The Canadas" had been a hot news item since 1837. For years the governors who were sent from London had quarreled with reformers in the elected Assemblies. Late in 1837, armed revolts broke out in the country districts around Montréal, Toronto and London. In response, the British government chose "Radical Jack" Lambton, first Earl of Durham, to conduct a special inquiry. Durham was a fabulously wealthy landowner but also a charismatic radical politician. He had been very active in reforming the British Parliament in 1832, but then became a leader of the discontented radical wing of the government's supporters. He was therefore sent away on special missions to Russia, Belgium and eventually Canada.

At the old capital city of Québec Durham threw great parties, but also spent weeks with his aides studying the crisis. One of his new laws exiled rebels to Bermuda, but it was not legal and was cancelled by the Imperial Government. Durham returned home in disgust to write his report. In it, he predicted that the colonies would be more loyal to Britain if they governed themselves. But he also said Lower Canada was "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state," and that the French Canadians were slowing the march of the British Empire in North America. Durham believed Upper and Lower Canada had to be reunited and dominated by an English-speaking majority. The British government agreed, and reunited the Canadas in 1841. A more "responsible" colonial government emerged in the 1840s, with some French Canadians among its leaders.

Durham's famous report still provokes controversy. It has always been hated in Québec, because it denigrated French Canadians, and said they had to be assimilated. Durham's view of French Canada remains controversial, but his advice on colonial self-government changed the way Canadians talked about their place in the empire. This helped the peaceful movement towards what is now the Commonwealth of Nations.

Lord Durham was recognized as a person of national historic importance upon recommendation of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada in 1974.

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