Here's how a riot caused Montreal to lose its title as Canada's capital 174 years ago

Here's how a riot caused Montreal to lose its title as the capital of the Canada, 174 years ago


Between 1841 and 1843, the city of Kingston in Ontario was the political center and capital of United Canada. With the adoption of a new constitution in 1840 (Act of Union), Toronto and Montreal ardently wished to obtain this title of Canadian capital, but Kingston was chosen as a compromise by the British authorities.

< p>However, in Kingston, there is no parliament. 

During the years that our MPs sat there, they had to debate in a former hospital. Parliamentarians are protesting: there's a lack of space to carry out their political duties, decent housing is scarce, MPs and their wives are even railing against Kingston's poor water quality. 

It is said to have a foul odor and cause stomach aches, possibly due to the presence of lime and limestone in the soil in the area. 

C It was in this context that in December 1843, Canadian parliamentarians left Kingston for Montreal, unfortunately for a very short time.


To fully understand the story I am telling you, let's first look at ministerial responsibility, a fundamental principle of our political system. 

A responsible government is a government whose members are chosen among the deputies of the majority political party in the House of Assembly, therefore elected by the people. 

According to this rule, the government must always retain the confidence of the House, which represents the people, otherwise it will have to be replaced. When this rule is applied, it is called “responsible government”. After many years of struggle, this principle was recognized in Canada in 1848. It is still recognized today.

The short presence of the Parliament of United Canada in Montreal is closely linked to this concept. of “ministerial responsibility”.  

The English-speaking rioters who attacked the Parliament of Montreal were outraged that the Legislative Assembly had passed a law to compensate the victims of the military repressions of 1837-1838 in Lower Canada. As early as 1843, rumors circulated suggesting that Parliament might move to the Sainte-Anne market building in Montreal.


After the patriot revolts, London sent a new governor in May 1838, Lord Durham. Its mission is to investigate revolts and propose solutions to the British parliament to restore calm and peace. 

In his report, he mainly recommends two things: the union of Upper and Lower Canada and the application of ministerial responsibility.

In establishing the Act of Union in 1840, London established Durham's first recommendation, but rejected the second, the application of ministerial responsibility. The first election under this new constitution will take place in 1841. In this new political system of United Canada, one envisages the election of 42 deputies to represent the voters of Western Canada (Upper Canada) and the same number for Canada -East (Lower Canada). Moreover, this proposal highlights a major injustice: the population on the east side, therefore of today's Quebec, is much more populous, but does not have more representativeness. In this structure, Members share the power to pass laws with a Legislative Council, which is not made up of elected officials, but of representatives appointed by the Governor. It is this same governor who chooses the Executive Council. The executive also has a lot of power because it enforces the laws.

It can be a mixture of all that, so let's keep in mind that there is a Legislative Assembly made up of elected officials (it makes laws), then two councils, a legislative (therefore which also makes laws) and an executive (which executes these laws for the people). At the top of this structure, a Governor General represents British control over our political system. As the governor is the representative of the British government, he has a really powerful card in his deck. It is a kind of wild card, the “right of veto”, which gives him a lot of power. It allows him to reject all decisions taken by the elected Assembly that do not suit him. This is a very undemocratic system!

On April 25, 1849, English-speaking rioters ransacked the parliament and set it on fire.


Due to protests against the quality of the facilities in Kingston, it was decided to move the center of power. Located at the crossroads of the ocean routes, Montreal stands out as a point of convergence between the American and British markets. 

The Canadian Parliament therefore has every reason to settle in the most majestic building of the city, the Sainte-Anne market. This is how Montreal became the political capital of Canada between 1844 and 1849.

In this parliament, two figures stand out in particular: Robert Baldwin, politician from Canada West, and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, from Canada East. 

To put an end to the domination of Governor and his Executive Council, Baldwin and La Fontaine both wanted to see the principle of “responsible government”. The two politicians are aware that the alliance of their parties will make it possible to obtain a parliamentary majority in the House of Assembly, which will allow them to advance their ideas. For this to work, each side therefore makes compromises.


During this period, the economic policy of Great Britain changed considerably. During the 1840s, England abandoned its protectionist policy, which favored the export of colonial products, and gradually turned to another economic system, free trade. Thus, in 1848 the Governor General, Lord Elgin, agreed to officially recognize the principle of “ministerial responsibility”. 

He offered the reformist alliance of Baldwin and La Fontaine to form the first responsible government in our history. These two politicians were sworn in on March 11, 1848. 

From now on, the members of the executive were chosen by the leader of the majority party. The Executive Council must always retain the confidence of the House of Assembly to govern. 

Lord Elgin is a skilled diplomat. It was under his administration that Canadians would gain the first truly responsible government in history. It was this same Elgin, then stationed in Constantinople 37 years earlier, who had had the most beautiful part of the carved frieze removed from the temple dedicated to Athena on the Parthenon in Athens and sold it to Britain. .


The principle of “ministerial responsibility” is quickly put to the test. Among the first bills to be tabled was a proposed law to compensate the people of Canada East for losses suffered during the Patriot Rebellions. The Conservatives (or the Tories) fiercely oppose this bill.

However, a similar law had been passed to compensate the people of Canada West a few years earlier. The debate that opened between Reformers and Tories in February 1849 on the Indemnities Bill would be one of the most virulent in Canadian parliamentary history.

The member for Sherbrooke will say that it is “indecent and immoral to dip with both hands into a fund fed by Protestants for the payment of indemnities to Catholics…” 

Even more acrimonious , MP MacNab from Hamilton directly attacks French influence in parliament. He rails against the French-Canadian people, to whom he bestows the epithets of rebel, traitor and even foreigner. 

Tension is high and battles also break out among the spectators attending the debates.

The Sergeant-at-Arms will have to intervene to prevent MP MacNab and Solicitor General Blake from coming to blows. The Chamber will even summon this famous Blake and John A. Macdonald to dissuade them from fighting a duel. 

The debate is no less violent outside parliament. The conservative press launched genuine calls for insurrection. For example, we can read: “A civil war is a misfortune, but it is not the worst of misfortunes; it would be better for the British people of Canada to suffer 12 months of battle… and lose thousands of lives, than to submit for another 10 long years to this bad French-speaking government.”


Despite the disagreements, the bill was finally voted on by the deputies of the Legislative Assembly of the Parliament of Montreal on March 9, 1849.


The conservatives who voted against are furious and are trying every means to convince the governor to defeat the bill, as he could before ministerial accountability. Nothing helped, Lord Elgin ratified the law and his gesture, highly symbolic, thereby recognized the responsibility of the government. Heated to the hilt by the English media for several months, the pot jumped on April 25, 1849 when the governor went down to Montreal to sanction the law in person. It is said that he will leave parliament under a hail of projectiles. 

It is in this spirit that the Montreal Gazettepublishes an extraordinary supplement, which ends with a veritable call to arms: “The puppet [Elgin] must be recalled, or repelled by the universal contempt of the people. […] The crowd must assemble on the Place d'Armes this evening at eight o'clock. In combat, now is the time!” A rally draws thousands of angry English speakers. They drink in insulting speeches against French Canadians. In a great commotion, the crowd then heads towards the parliament. The building of power, located in present-day Old Montreal, a few steps from the Pointe-à-Callière museum, became in a way the symbol of the brand new principle of responsible government.

Driven by anger, the demonstrators start a riot and set fire to parliament. Members of the government must evacuate the building at full speed. The rioters, furious, prevent the firefighters from going to the scene. Not a drop of water will be projected on the parliament. It is even said that the equipment to put out the fire was sabotaged by the rioters. 

As for the army, it shows up two hours later, intervening only very weakly. As a result, the parliament building and its library are in ruins. The 30,000 documents, books and manuscripts dating from the beginnings of colonization are destroyed. A precious treasure of our collective memory goes up in smoke. Parliament will not be the only building ransacked by these intolerant Tories. The next day, several businesses as well as the residences of many deputies on rue Saint-Antoine were vandalized. The premises of the newspaper of parliament are also destroyed. Even the new house of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine suffered vandalism. 

After the terrible fire, the deputies met for a while at the Bonsecours market, but this violence convinced a good number of parliamentarians that Montreal was no longer suitable for hosting the headquarters of the capital. Tension reigns for months. Calm finally returned when parliament left Montreal for Toronto in September 1849. Those responsible for burning down parliament and the journalists who incited the insurrection would never be punished.

OTTAWA< /strong>

The attitude of Lord Elgin in 1849 definitively confirms the obtaining of ministerial responsibility, but at the cost of the fire of our parliament, which leads to his removal. During the 1850s, Toronto, Quebec, Montreal, Kingston and Hamilton fought over this title of capital. Ultimately, it was Queen Victoria who would decide. 

In 1857, she chose the tiny city of Ottawa (formerly called Bytown) as the colony’s definitive capital. Ten years later, the Constitution Act of 1867 confirms Ottawa as the capital of federated Canada. Quebec, for its part, becomes a capital again, that of a new province, Quebec.