Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine

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Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine

Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine (1807-1864) was a Canadian politician of French-speaking background who collaborated with Robert Baldwin in the achievement of "responsible government" and who laid the basis for the effective participation of French-Canadians in the government of the country.

Born on Oct. 4, 1807, at Boucherville in Quebec, Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine was called to the bar in 1828 and, like so many other ambitious young French-Canadian lawyers, embarked on a political career. He served in the House of Assembly of Lower Canada from 1830 to 1837 as a member of the Popular, or Patriote, party, which expressed the grievances of the French-speaking majority against the English domination of the executive branch of government. He did not, however, approve of the revolutionary action taken by Louis-Joseph Papineau in 1837, and he prudently left Canada to live abroad for 5 months. On his return Lafontaine was briefly arrested as a person connected with the rebels, but he was released on bail.

Lafontaine now began negotiations with Robert Baldwin and Francis Hincks, leaders of the reform group in Upper Canada, to work together for the achievement of "responsible government," by which the executive would be made dependent upon the support of a majority in the elected legislature. In the new legislature of the united Province of Canada, after 1841, Lafontaine emerged as the leader of the French-Canadian reformers, eloquently expressing the political claims of his countrymen. He insisted on speaking French in the chamber, ultimately winning legal sanction for this practice.

Lafontaine's first collaboration with Baldwin came in 1842, but the administration then formed collapsed when the governor general refused to take its advice on the matter of appointments. Nine of the ten members of the Cabinet, Lafontaine and Baldwin among them, resigned office in November 1843.

In March 1848 Lafontaine was once more asked to assume executive office, again in association with Baldwin, and again in the portfolio of attorney general for Canada East. This time the ministers found a new governor general, Lord Elgin, ready and willing to act upon their recommendations and implement the concept of responsible government.

As leader of the French-Canadian group in the administration, it fell to Lafontaine to introduce the most controversial bill of the 1849 session, the Rebellion Losses Bill. This measure compensated property owners for damages resulting from the 1837 rebellion, a purpose which made it anathema to the "loyal" English-speaking population of Canada East. When Elgin assented to the bill, riots broke out in Montreal; Lafontaine was vilified, his house attacked, and his law library burned. Yet the ministry held firm, and the measure became law. The episode marked the ultimate test of the principle of responsible government.

Like his close associate Baldwin, Lafontaine was essentially a moderate man, and after the achievement of cabinet government his attitudes became more and more conservative. He failed to solve two of the burning questions of the day—the secularization of lands set aside for the support of the clergy and the abolition of the ancient seigneurial system of landholding in Quebec. Along with Baldwin, he resigned from the administration in 1851 and left public life. In 1853 he was appointed chief justice of Canada East, and a year later he was made a baronet. He died in Montreal on Feb. 26, 1864.

Lafontaine was the first successful exponent of what became an axiom of Canadian political life: that the full participation of French-speaking Canadians was vital to the administration of national affairs.

Further Reading

There are few formal biographies of Lafontaine. The best is probably a composite study of Canadian reformers of the period: Stephen Leacock, Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks, in the "Makers of Canada" series (1907; published in 1926 under the new title Mackenzie, Baldwin, Lafontaine, Hincks). Mason Wade, The French Canadians, 1760-1967 (1955; 2 vols., rev. ed. 1968), discusses Lafontaine and is recommended for general background. □