Monday, December 30, 2013

The Mystique of the Burning of the Parliament Buildings in Montreal, Part 1

The Mystique of the Burning of the Parliament Buildings in Montreal, Part 1

By Natsumi Koshigaya
The Daily Magi
October 20, 2060

The burning of the Parliament Buildings in Montreal was an important event in pre-Confederation Canadian history and occurred on the night of April 25, 1849, in Montreal Quebec. It is considered a crucial moment in the development of the Canadian democratic tradition, largely as a consequence of how the matter was dealt with by then co-prime ministers of the united Province of Canada, Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine and Robert Baldwin. The St. Anne's Market building lodging the Legislative Council and Assembly of Canada was burned down by Loyalist rioters in retaliation for the Rebellion Losses Bill while the members of the Legislative Assembly were sitting in session. The episode is characterized by divisions in pre-Confederation Canadian society concerning whether Canada was the North American appendage of the British Empire or a nascent, sovereign nation. In 1837 and 1838 Canadians rebelled against the oligarchic rule of the British colonial administration, first in Lower Canada, then in Upper Canada (or the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario respectively. Political reforms followed the rebellions as Canada was of vital strategic interest to the British Empire; simply put the British could not afford to lose the rest of North America, especially given the inconsequential results of the War of 1812, and they acquiesced to what gradually evolved into full legal national sovereignty. Many key leaders of the Rebellions would play focal roles in the development of the political and philosophical foundations for an independent Canada, something achieved on July 1st 1867. Opposition to this movement was principally represented by the somewhat aristocratic British colonial administration and their extended community, in addition to organized fraternal associations, such as the Scotch-Irish Orange Order and the Anglo-Montreal Bourgeoisie of the era. The Rebellion Losses Bill was intended to both offer amnesty to former rebels (permitting them to return to Canada) and an indemnity to individuals who had suffered financial losses as a consequence of the rebellions. Though the bill was passed by the majority of those sitting in the Legislative Assembly, it remained unpopular with the Loyalist population of Montreal, who decided to use violence to demonstrate their opposition. As such, the Parliament was destroyed amidst considerable mob violence, and an invaluable collection of historical records kept in the parliamentary library lost forever.

Despite the tense situation and deplorable socio-cultural crime committed by the mob, Lafontaine proceeded cautiously, fought off armed thugs who had shot through his window, and maintained restraint and resolve in his actions. Jailed members of the mob were released on bail soon after their arrest and a force of special constables established to keep the peace. Though there was public concern this might be a crushing blow to the reform movement, Lafontaine persevered despite the opposition, and would continue in his role developing the tenets of Canadian federalism - peace, order and good government. Within a decade public opinion had shifted overwhelmingly in the development of a sovereign Canada.

On April 25, the cabinet sent Francis Hinks to The Monklands, the governor's residence, to request that Governor Elgin quickly come to town in order to assent a new tariff bill. The first European ship of the year had already arrived in the Port of Quebec and the new law needed to be in force in order to tax its merchandise. The governor left his residence and went to the Parliament the same day.

At about 5:00 pm, the governor gave the royal assent to the bill in the Legislative Council room, in the presence of members of both houses of Parliament. Since he was already in town, the governor decided to also give assent to some forty one other bills passed by the houses and awaiting to be assented. Among those bills was the Rebellion Losses Bill. The assent of this law seemed to take some people by surprise, and the galleries where some visitors were standing became agitated.

When the governor exited the building at around 6:00 pm, he found a crowd of protesters blocking his path. Some of the protesters began throwing eggs and rocks at him and his aides and he was forced to climb back into his carriage in haste and return to Monklands at gallop speed, while some of his assailants pursued him in the streets.

Not long after the attacks on the governor, alarm bells sounded throughout town to alert the population. A horse-drawn carriage traveled through the streets to announce a public meeting to denounce the governor's assent to the Rebellion Losses Bill. The editor in chief of The Gazette, James Moir Ferres, published an Extra which contained a report of the incident involving Lord Elgin, and invited the "Anglo-Saxons" of Montreal to attend a mass meeting to be held at 8:00 pm on Place d'Armes. The Extra read:

When Lord Elgin – he no longer deserves the name of Excellency – made his appearance on the street to retire from the Council Chamber, he was received by the crowd with hisses, hootings, and groans. He was pelted with rotten eggs; he and his aide-de-camps were splashed with the savory liquor; and the whole carriage covered with the nasty contents of the eggs and with mud. When the eggs were exhausted stones were made use of to salute the departing carriage, and he was driven off at a rapid gallop amidst the hootings and curses of his countrymen.
The End has begun.

Anglo-Saxons! you must live for the future. Your blood and race will now be supreme, if true to yourselves. You will be English "at the expense of not being British." To whom and what, is your allegiance now? Answer each man for himself.

The puppet in the pageant must be recalled, or driven away by the universal contempt of the people. In the language of William the Fourth, "Canada is lost, and given away."

A Mass Meeting will be held on the Place d'Armes this evening at 8 o'clock. Anglo-Saxons to the struggle, now is your time. — Montreal Gazette, "Extra" of April 25, 1849.

Between 1,200 and 1,500 were reported to have attended the meeting (which in the end took place on Champ-de-Mars) to hear, by the gleam of torch light, the speeches of orators protesting vigorously against Lord Elgin's assent to the bill. Among the speakers were George Moffat, Colonel Gugy and other members of the official opposition. During the meeting it was proposed to address a petition to Her Majesty asking her to recall governor Elgin and disavow the indemnification act. In the 1887 account he gave of his participation to the events, some 38 years later, Alfred Perry, the captain of a volunteer corps of firemen, asserted that on that night he stepped on the hustings to speak to the crowd, put his hat on the torch lighting the petition, and exclaimed: "The time for petitions is over, but if the men who are present here are serious, let them follow me to the Parliament Buildings."

The crowd then followed him to the Parliament Buildings, breaking the windows of the offices of the Montreal Pilot, then the only English-language daily then supporting the administration, which were on the route to the Parliament.

When they arrived on site, the rioters broke the windows of the House of Assembly, which was still in session despite the late hour. A committee of the whole House was at that time debating a Bill to Establish a Court having jurisdiction in Appeals and Criminal matters for Lower Canada. The last entry in the journal of the House on April 25 reads:

Mr. Johnson took the Chair of the Committee; and after some time spent therein, the proceedings of the Committee were interrupted by continued volleys of stones and other missiles thrown from the streets, through the windows, into the Legislative Assembly Hall, which caused the Committee to rise, and the Members to withdraw into the adjoining passages for safety, — from whence Mr. Speaker and the other Members were almost immediately compelled to retire and leave the Building, which had been set fire to on the outside. — Journals of the Legislative Assembly of the Province of Canada, April 25, 1849.

After breaking the windows and the gas lamps on the outside, a group entered the building and committed various acts of vandalism. According to Perry's account, he, together with Augustus Howard and Alexander Courtney, broke into the building after a first unsuccessful attempt to open the locked doors.[18]:109 Someone ordered a fire truck brought over, and then Perry and a notary, John H. Isaacson, used the truck's 35-foot ladder as a battering ram to break down the doors. He entered with a few followers and reached the House of Assembly. A certain O'Connor attempted to block their entry, but Perry knocked him down with the handle of the axe he was carrying. The mob took control of the room despite the resistance of a few MPPs (John Sandfield Macdonald, William Hume Blake, Thomas Aylwin, John Price) and sergeant at arms Chrisholm.

One of the rioters sat in the Speaker's chair where Morin had been sitting only a few minutes before, and declared the dissolution of the House. The room was turned upside down while other men entered the room of the Legislative Council. The acts of vandalism that were reported included the destruction of the seats and desks, stamping on the portrait of Louis-Joseph Papineau, that had been hanging on the wall next to that of Queen Victoria. Perry claimed to have set fire to the room himself when he hit the gas chandelier suspended on the ceiling with a brick, aiming for the clock that was directly above the Speaker's chair. The clock, whose ticking apparently got on his nerves, was, according to his account, showing 9:40 pm when it happened. Other sources, including newspapers of the time, believed the fire to have been started when rioters outside the building started throwing the torches that some of them had carried from the Champ-de-Mars meeting.
Since gas pipes were broken both inside and outside the building, the fire spread rapidly. Perry and Courtney ran out of the building with the ceremonial mace of the House of Assembly which was lying on the clerk's desk in front of the Speaker's chair.The mace was afterwards brought to Allan MacNab who was then at Donegana Hotel.

The St. Anne's Market building burned very rapidly, with the fire propagating to adjacent buildings, including a house, some warehouses, and the general hospital of the Grey Nuns. The mob did not allow firefighters to fight the flames devastating the parliament buildings, but did not intervene against those who were trying to save the other structures.

The St. Anne's Market building was completely devastated. The fire consumed the parliament's two libraries, parts of the archives of Upper Canada and Lower Canada, as well as more recent public documents. Over 23,000 volumes, forming the collections of the two parliamentary libraries, were lost. Only about 200 books, along with the portrait of Queen Victoria, were saved, thanks to James Curran. Four people, Colonel Wiley, a Scotsman named McGillivray, an employee of the parliament, and the uncle of Todd, who was responsible for the libraries, and Sandford Fleming, who later became a renowned engineer, saved the portrait of Queen Victoria hanging in the hall leading to the lower house. The canvas of the painting without the frame was transported to the Donegana Hotel. The market buildings and all it contained were insured for £12,000; the insurers refused to pay because of the criminal origin of the fire.

The two libraries and the public archives had been kept in the Parliament buildings since 1845. At the beginning of the session of 1849, the library of the Legislative Assembly counted more than 14,000 volumes and that of the Legislative Council more than 8,000. The collections were those of the libraries of the old provincial parliaments of Lower Canada and Upper Canada, which were merged into a single parliament through the Act of Union in 1840. The parliament house of the province of Upper Canada, founded in 1791 and seated in York, had been burned down by the American army during the War of 1812. The parliament remained itinerant between 1814 and 1829, and a permanent building did not re-open before 1832. Consequently, its libraries were not considerable and only provided a few hundreds of books to the new united legislature. Most of the books came from the Parliament of Lower Canada's libraries, particularly that of the Legislative Assembly, which comprised many thousands of books and was opened to the public in 1825. The losses were estimated at over $400,000 CAD.

Looking to rebuild the parliamentary library, the government sent bibliographer Georges-Barthélemi Faribault to Europe, where he spent £4,400 purchasing volumes in Paris and London. About two years after its partial reconstruction, the library of the Parliament of United Canada was lost again to a fire, on February 1, 1854. This time, the flames destroyed half the 17,000 volumes of the library, which had been in the new Parliament Buildings of Quebec City since 1853.

The parliamentary agenda was obviously affected by the events of April 25. The day after the fire, a special meeting of the members of the Legislative Assembly was convened to meet at 10:00 am in the hall of the Bonsecours Market, under the protection of British soldiers. On that day, the MPPs accomplished nothing other than appointing a committee responsible to report on the bills that were destroyed. Their report was presented to the House a week later on May 2. Lafontaine was not present that morning, because he assisted to the wedding of lawyer Amable Berthelot, his associate in law, who was marrying the adoptive daughter of judge Elzéar Bédard. The Legislative Assembly kept meeting at Bonsecours Market until May 7, after which date the parliament was convened in a building owned by Moses Judas Hayes on Place Dalhousie.

The Legislative Council's first meeting after the fire was held in the sacristy of the Trinity Church on April 30.

Four of the speakers of the Champs-de-Mars meeting, James Moir Ferres, editor in chief and principal owner of The Montreal Gazette, William Gordon Mack, lawyer and secretary of the British American League, Hugh E. Montgomerie, trader, Augustus Heward, trader and courtier, as well as Alfred Perry, five persons in total, were arrested and charged with arson early in the morning of April 26 by the police superintendent William Ermatinger. A crowd gathered around the police station at the Bonsecours Market in protest. Perry, who was arrested last, was transferred to the prison of the faubourg de Québec at 12:00 pm, escorted by a company of soldiers, and pursued by the crowd. Once in prison, he was put in the same cell with the other four.

Lafontaine, exercising his role as Attorney General, advised Ermatinger to release the prisoners. On Saturday April 28, they were released on bail. A procession of omnibuses and cabs transported them in triumph from the prison to the front door of the Bank of Montreal, on Place d'Armes, where they addressed their partisans and thanked them for their support.

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