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The Great Ministry of Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine

For the week of Monday October 1, 2007

On October 4, 1807, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine – the first prime minister of the Province of Canada, the first French-Canadian elected to direct the national aspirations of French Canada, and the father of parliamentary democracy in British North America – was born at Boucherville, Lower Canada.

Sir Louis Hippolyte LaFontaine by June F. McCormack
© Government of Ontario Art Collection, 693209

LaFontaine, a Member of the Lower Canadian Assembly from 1830, solidly supported the Patriotes campaign to achieve responsible government until early 1837 when he broke with the Papineau camp over their use of violence. He had come to believe that French Canada could best realize its goals by working within the British parliamentary system. In 1840, with French Canada vehemently opposed to The Act of Union, LaFontaine worked to convince his compatriots that by uniting and co-operating with Robert Baldwin’s ‘Upper Canadian reformers,’ they could dominate the House of Assembly and bring about responsible government. Baldwin helped ease French-Canadian mistrust when, in 1841, he resigned his York seat (he held two seats) and successfully campaigned for La Fontaine’s election there, ensuring that French Canada would be fully represented in the Assembly.

The burning of Parliament in 1849 (attributed to Joseph Légaré)
© McCord Museum of Canadian History, M11588
For eight years, they toiled together as partners for reform and, in the 1848 general election, won a majority in the House of Assembly. The new Governor General Lord Elgin agreed that the majority Reform Party should form the government and that he would accept their advice. Lord Elgin’s acceptance of responsible government effectively made LaFontaine the first prime minister of the Province of Canada.

LaFontaine’s “Great Ministry” government of 1848-51 passed legislation that laid the foundations of the modern Canadian state. It established a public school system and public universities, created a professional civil service, initiated early labour laws, re-organized municipal governments, the judiciary, Post Office, and ended the seigneurial system. LaFontaine is most remembered for the 1849 Rebellion Losses Bill, legislation that he felt would forever end French bitterness over the 1837 Rebellion. Unfortunately, an enraged Montréal commercial class rioted, burned the Parliament building, and tried to kill Lord Elgin, LaFontaine and Baldwin. Ever the opponents of violence, the cabinet calmly and consciously decided not to use the military to quell the rioting, thus preserving the English-French reform unity that Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir George-Etienne Cartier would rely on during Canadian Confederation deliberations.

For his role as a reformer and as a principal architect of responsible government in Canada, Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine was designated a National Historic Person in 1937.


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