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Louis-Joseph Papineau
Chapter XIV - Exile and Return to Canada


BANISHMENT from one's country is one of those great afflictions for which nothing can afford consolation, and the more it is prolonged the more its bitterness increases. It was peculiarly painful for Papineau, who saw his country plunged in mourning and misfortune, instead of enjoying all the advantages he had striven to secure for it Proscription wounded him to the heart, for throughout all his past struggles he had found no rest or happiness but in the bosom of his family and in the midst of his friends, for whom he was ever full of affection and tenderness. After his flight from St. Hyacinthe he proceeded to Albany, where he was joined by his wife and children. But the latter were soon compelled to return to Canada, with the exception of his eldest son, who accompanied him to France in order to study for the medical profession. This separation was most painful for Papineau, and it was rendered more poignant still by the anguish he endured from the spectacle, ever present in his mind, of his country groaning under the weight of calamities for which he himself was in some quarters held to be responsible.

"You well know, my dear Benjamin," he writes to his brother (Paris, November 23rd, 1843) "that my separation from my wife and my children, my brothers and my sisters, and their families, and from so many other relatives, friends and fellow-countrymen who are dear to me, and to whom the best and longest part of my life has been devoted, is a daily and hourly source of grief and sorrow to me. I would cheerfully bear all this, however, to the very last hour of my existence, rather than humble myself in the least before our persecutors." He could have returned to Canada as early as 1842, under the amnesty which LaFontaine had obtained specially for Papineau from Sir Charles Bagot. But reasons of a political and personal character prevented his return, and he prolonged his stay in France up to 1845. In the isolation of exile, he needed an occupation sufficiently absorbing to divert him from his gloomy ponderings; he found it in his love of study, and he was naturally led to take up historical research, to which, while in Paris, he devoted the best part of his time. In that atmosphere which the great libraries have impregnated, so to speak, with science and learning, his mind soon imbibed comfort and nourishment from the restful influence of books, and his letters of that period show that he was to some extent consoled by the delight he found in his new occupation. It seemed for a time to imbue him with a loathing for politics. "In your letters," he says in writing to his brother, "you speak of nothing but politics. Why do you not tell about something else?" Then returning to his literary work, he continues : " I have been given free access to the archives. I find them far richer in historical and legal matter than I expected, in relation to the history of Canada. Access to these archives had previously been denied to-Lord Durham. ... If I could afford it I would secure help to copy documents which will sooner or later be popular in our country, that is to say, when the taste for mental culture becomes stronger and more widely diffused than up to the present time."

But it was not so easy for him as he fancied to give up politics—the old fascination seized him once more and swayed him beyond all reason. It was political animus that wrenched from him in 1839 the first part of his history of the insurrection, in which virulent recrimination takes up more space than the narration of events, and which he did well not to complete. There are, nevertheless, scattered throughout the fiery pages of this pamphlet important statements to be noted, such as that in which he asserts that he never intended to extort by violent means the reforms he wanted: "I defy the government to contradict me when I assert that none of us had ever organized, desired, or even anticipated armed resistance .... not that an insurrection would not have been legitimate, but we had resolved not to resort to it as yet."

In 1845, Papineau returned to Canada. His fellow-countrymen welcomed him heartily, feeling that his services had more than expiated his faults, and forgot everything but the memory of his splendid past. The exile of 1837 came back stronger than ever before, and crowned with a halo of glory, the whole population manifesting their sympathy for the returned exile. Public curiosity was manifested as to his intentions for the future, but, assuming the mantle of reticence and discretion, he kept silent on the subject, and retired to his estate of La Petite Nation, where he shut himself up in the dignity of retirement until 1847. Would that, for the glory of his own name, he had never left his quiet retreat to tread once more the political arena, wherein having in former times taken the lead for thirty years, he could not play a subordinate part without lowering himself and bringing trouble on his friends!

Eager to wield once more the influence he exercised in former days, or it may be, hoping for an opportunity to take revenge on England, he again entered parliament; and we must certainly acknowledge that this second stage in his career, which terminated in 1854, added nothing to his fame as a statesman. Eight years of absence from the country had put him out of touch with the political ideas of his countrymen. A new mode of looking at events and dealing with things political had supplanted the views held by Papineau, who was still firmly grappled to the opinions of 166 the stormy days of the period from 1820 to 1837. Coming in contact during his life in Paris with the advanced spirits of the period, such as Lamennais, Louis Blanc and Beranger, his liberalism had become deeply tinged with radicalism, and this. produced a fresh element of severance between him and his former friends. The bitterness of defeat drove him to fits of anger which he vainly strove to control, and which often paralyzed his momentary good resolutions. Thus when accepting the representation of the county of St. Maurice, in 1847, he promised to support LaFontaine. "It is only," he declared in his address, "to give the Liberal government an opportunity of showing that they are able, as they are undoubtedly willing, to render good service." Reason then had the upper hand with him, but it was soon to lose all semblance of control over his mind.

It was evidently impossible for Papineau to cooperate with LaFontaine, who had, it was well known, become convinced that the union could be made to work so as to render full justice to the French Canadians. The former refused to put the smallest faith in responsible government, and demanded: "The repeal of the Act of 1840, and the independence of Canada; for the Canadians need never expect justice from England. To submit to her would be an eternal disgrace and a signing of their own death warrant; independence, on the contrary, would be a principle of resurrection and national life." On his return to Canada, his hatred for England was coupled in his mind with a real horror of monarchical institutions. Aristocracy in all its forms was, he considered, the real enemy of good government and the foundation of despotism; as if the representative assembly of a democracy could not become despotic! As if a collective body, even when the offspring of universal suffrage, did not sometimes become oppressive!

Was it possible for a man entertaining such ideas to remain a supporter of the Liberal administration under LaFontaine and Baldwin, which had just taken the place of the Draper government? The violence of his sentiments was certain to separate him completely from the ranks of those with whom he had associated in the past, and from whom he, at first, did not dare to part. His attitude in the House very soon assumed the character of a mild opposition, and culminated ere long in avowed hostility. There is no standing still on a slope, in politics as in other matters, and under the stimulating influence of the human passions of hatred and disappointed ambition, Papineau soon became an unflinching enemy. He quickly confessed that the Tories were not so black as he had thought them to be, nor the Liberals so white as he had deemed them. He depreciated the claims of the latter, and lauded the former, in order to justify his own hostility towards LaFontaine. The fact is that the great agitator was now utterly blinded by his hatred of British institutions, and denounced in unmeasured terms all those who upheld them. Moreover, he was never over-generous to those of his associates who ceased to share his views. One after another, Valli£res, Neilson and Debartzch, when they had differed with him, became the objects of his scathing sarcasms. In 1849, LaFontaine is "a mere simpleton, kicked and cuffed and deceived by his confederates; a bloated corruptionist." Blake and Drummond are two "shameless Irishmen who insult the memory of O'Connell and the sufferings of Ireland." He was carried beyond all bounds of reason by political passion.

Papineau's temperament was evidently wholly cast for opposition, and a ceaseless and unflinching criticism of the acts of his adversaries. Habit had imparted to his mind, during the long years of his struggle with Dalhousie, a decided bent impossible to remove. To find fault seemed a part of his nature, and in 1849, when he could see no enemies to attack, he vented his wrath on his friends, the Liberals. Indeed he probably depicted in a pleasant way the natural bent of his own mind when, in answer to his brother who, on his arrival from France, blamed him for having delayed one day in his coming from Montreal to Quebec, he said, "I waited to take an Opposition boat."

The sentiments ruling his mind were such as to involve him inevitably in a hand-to-hand encounter with LaFontaine. Hence, in the session of 1849, we find him engaged in a merciless attack on his former lieutenant. This was a struggle between two adversaries richly endowed with mental powers of a high order, but of diametrically opposite character; the one with the prestige of a brilliant past career and the halo surrounding his reputation as the most eloquent speaker in the country, a splendid voice which age had in no way affected, and a bad cause; the other, a cool-blooded advocate, with perfect self-control in argument, a master of trenchant logic, appealing to reason alone in defence of his impregnable position, and a good cause.

Papineau rushed to the assault with his old-time fervour and energy, and for ten hours held forth against his former friend, who had now become his enemy, because he had not broken with England, and had finally accepted the union of 1840, against which he had at first protested. Such was the scope of his lengthy indictment which, sad to say, was not free from malicious insinuations calculated to impugn the honour of the prime minister.

At the period of the union the whole Canadian people had protested against Lord Durham's scheme, which had been prepared as a means of disposing once for all of the French question in Canada. Papineau, recurring to this popular pronouncement, taunted LaFontaine with having accepted the new regime, which had at first seemed to him an abomination. As to himself, he said, he had not changed, and the union of the two Canadas was in his eyes a vassalage, a servitude, which must be forthwith put an end to. "LaFon-taine's attitude is simply cowardice, for the union has produced for us nothing but deplorable results, and can only lead to our enslavement" "For my part," he continued, "I see nothing in it but treachery and iniquity, a law of proscription and of tyranny against our people. That Liberals such as LaFontaine should accept this regime is something I cannot understand. Hence it is that I am opposed to a government which is putting the finishing touch on Lord Sydenham's work. This ministry has no capacity for good, but much for evil, much for the enslaving of those over whom it holds sway." In the stormy rush of his feelings he had come to hate the Liberals more than the Tories, his former foes. He does not express this sentiment in plain words, but it is quite clear that such was the fact "I must say, nevertheless, that this Draper Tory government, of which I had so poor an opinion, and the present ministry, from which I expected such great things, have both alike disappointed my hopes and my fears. The moment I began to know our Liberal ministry, I began to see that nothing good was to be expected from it" Then reviewing LaFontaine's programme, he found it "teeming throughout with subject matter deserving of condemnation and reproach." In matters of finance and political economy, everything must, he declared, be recast. A great deal of attention was even then devoted to the question of means of communication and transportation, and he pronounced the plans of the government in relation thereto to be hazardous and extravagant. The scheme of enabling sea-going vessels to reach the great lakes by means of canals he considered ridiculous. But Papineau lived long enough to see how mistaken he had been in underestimating the resources of the country, and how little foundation there was for the following forecasts: "It was a mistake to build these canals of such dimensions as to serve for ostentation rather than for utility. It is folly to think that European vessels will ever, through our canals, penetrate so far into the country. The currents and the winds will prove an obstacle, and render the voyage too long and too costly, and the idea of undertaking the construction of canals of such vast dimensions in order to enable European vessels to reach the lakes is nothing but a dream. No, that will never take place; I assert it without hesitation, for everything shows me that it is impossible. The extension of our navigation to Kingston can never thus be profitably realized, and all the expenditure incurred to that end has been incurred to no purpose. But England has been no wiser, than our government; she applauded our folly, and urged us on to it by promising us a protection which she is now withdrawing."

LaFontaine had no difficulty in proving the injustice of his opponent's attack, and in demolishing his whole argument. In his opening remarks, after reminding Papineau that he had obtained an amnesty in his behalf, he said: "If I committed a fault in entering the government, he is the one who has reaped the benefit, for were it not for that error of mine, he himself would not be in this House to-day, pouring phials of wrath and contumely on the heads of his old-time political comrades and friends. He would still be pining in exile."

Casting a retrospective glance at the working of the new constitution from 1841 to 1849, LaFontaine undertook to show that it had been possible for him, without logical inconsistency, to accept it, and join in the task of bringing it into operation, much to the advantage of his French Canadian fellow-citizens. It was not he who had changed, but the Union Act itself. The clause proscribing the French language had been struck out, and the Act had been the means of giving them responsible government, which embodies all the privileges claimed by the Canadian people prior to 1837. "I felt constrained/' he continued, "to yield to the solicitations of my colleagues, with a deep sense of the responsibility then resting upon me. And when I consider the immense advantages my fellow-countrymen have derived from this measure, I see no reason to regret the course I took. My country has approved of it, and the honourable member himself, on the eve of the general election, in the county of St. Maurice, said that he approved of it! With what degree of sincerity and for what purpose he made that declaration in his too celebrated manifesto, I leave it to this House and to his electors to say. In flat contradiction with that statement, which his electors at the time must have taken to be sincere, the honourable member tells us, to-day, that it was a fault and a crime for a French Canadian to take office in 1842. He has told us what, according to his view, was the line of conduct, the system of opposition, we should have adopted at that period and followed steadily ever since. He draws a contrast between that system and ours. From that point of view I accept the challenge with pleasure, and have no anxiety as to the result. The question being so put, let us see what have been the consequences of our system for the French Canadian people, and what would have resulted from that of the honourable member.

"It will not, I think, be unjust to the honourable member to qualify his system as a system of opposition to the bitter end; he himself so qualified it on several occasions. I leave to the honourable member the full benefit of a declaration which I have often made and which I now repeat: The idea of the governor who suggested, the idea of the man who had drafted the Act, was that the union of the two provinces would crush the French Canadians. Has that object been attained? Has Lord Sydenham's idea been realized? All my fellow-countrymen, except the honourable member, will answer with one unanimous voice: No! But they will also admit, as every honest man will admit, that had the system of opposition to the bitter end, upheld by the honourable member, been adopted, it would have brought about, ere now, the aim of Lord Sydenham: the French Canadians would have been crushed! That is what the honourable member's system would have brought us to, and what it would bring us to to-morrow, if the representatives of the people were so ill-advised as to adopt it.

"The protest of 1841 has a scope and bearing which it behooves us to bear well in mind to-day; but, to my mind, the refusal of the government and the majority of the legislature of Upper Canada to accede to that protest had a far greater significance. That refusal demonstrates absolutely that the Act of Union had not made of the two Canadas one single province, but that it simply united under the action of one single legislature two provinces theretofore distinct and separate, and which were to continue to be so, for all other purposes whatsoever; in short, there had been effected, as in the case of our neighbours, a confederation of two provinces, of two states. It was in accordance with this view of the facts, based on the operation of the Act of Union, as it was interpreted by Upper Canada itself, when the province was invited to do so by the Lower Canada Liberals, in their protest of 1841, that I regulated my political course in 1842. And relying upon the principle that the Act of Union is only a confederation of the two provinces, as Upper Canada itself declared it to be in 1841,)i1I now solemnly declare that I will never consent that one of the sections of the province shall have in this House a larger number of members than the other, whatever may be the figure of its population."

In this great debate Papineau's eloquence carried all before it as a piece of art, but cool reason gave the victory to LaFontaine. The tribune had fought with great courage, and he needed a good stock of energy to carry on the fight alone, and with the memory in his mind of the days in the old assembly when he spoke as a master, when all things yielded to the charm and authority of his voice. His position now was a false one, and he fell into the grave error of not perceiving it. All was changed since 1837; the political world had marched forward in the light of new ideas, effecting its evolutions in virtue of principles contrary to those of the past. Papineau stood alone, entrenched in his old position, and hurled defiance at his new enemies as though he had still to cross swords with Dalhousie, Aylmer or Gosford.

Prior to 1837, the French Canadians carried on the struggle for power against the English anent racial questions, ever a most exciting and enervating subject of debate. An essential characteristic of such struggles is that they become aggravated with the lapse of time, and develop passions which so obliterate all sense of justice and injustice as to close the door to the possibility of mutual concession and compromise. After the union, the alliance of the LaFontaine Liberals with the Baldwin Reformers operated as a salutary diversion, by affording fresh channels for forces which up to that time were constantly rushing into conflicts fraught with danger. It then became possible to deal with the material interests of the country which had so long suffered from neglect. The solution presented by LaFontaine of the political problem commended itself to the people generally; for, bearing in mind the sad experience of 1837, they dreaded the idea of straying after perilous illusions by following in the wake of Papineau. To renew the former agitation would be, they considered, to open afresh the wounds by which their country had so long been exhausted. Many reforms were of course still required, but it was hoped that the ministry when once in full possession of the means of action provided by the constitution, would promptly find suitable remedies. Inflexible in his principles, Papineau held in abhorrence the idea of mutual concessions, or compromise of any kind, which are of the essence of a constitutional system. Disdainful in his isolation, and boldly facing his enemies, his bearing and attitude seemed to express undying hostility, and his lips might well have phrased the unbending words: Etiam si vos omnes, ego non f His attitude was a proud one, but was it more reasonable than that of his opponents ? However that may be, one feels inclined even while giving a verdict against him, to bow before the strength and power of conviction with which he urged his views. If Papineau felt himself isolated on the floor of the House, he found without, a certain number of friends and adherents, irreconcilables like himself, who refused to believe that England, victorious on the battle-field of the insurrection, had given up, after her defeat in the political arena, the idea of putting an end to French influence in Canada. From this group of refractory patriots, whose ranks had been augmented by the accession of a number of young men (who had been attracted by their admiration for Papineau, and afterwards became his disciples) issued, in 1849, Le parti democratique —a party deeply influenced by the revolution of 1848 in France.

The leading men of the new organization were the two Dorions, Rodolphe Laflamme, Dessaules, (a nephew of Papineau), Labreche-Viger, and J. Daoust, with VAvenir, and Le Canadien, for a short time, as their representative newspapers. They all took their cue from Papineau, sought their inspiration in his speeches and joined in a programme reflecting his ideas. The articles forming the creed of the democratic party included the repeal of the Act of Union, the annexation of Canada to the United States, and, pending the absolute severance of the colonial link, the introduction of the elective principle into every branch of the administration, and the selection, through that mode, of public officials, magistrates and members of the legislative council.

The French Canadian Liberal party—up to that time solidly united—split up into two factions; and this break up of the national forces affected LaFontaine so deeply, that he resolved to retire from public life after the session of 1851. Speaking at a banquet tendered to him by his friends on the occasion of his retirement, LaFontaine, who was then but forty-three, having referred with some feeling to the rapidity with which the struggles of political life wear out its votaries, continued as follows: "And I beg to assure you that, in retiring from public life, I cannot but regret to witness the efforts being made to create division in the ranks of the French population of this country. But I have had sufficient experience to enable me to tell you with perfect confidence that these efforts cannot succeed. Our people are gifted with sufficient strong common sense to see clearly that, if they divide their forces, they will be powerless, and their fate will be that predicted by a member of the Tory party some years ago in these words: ' The Canadians are fated to be led always by men of another race.' For my part, I despise the efforts now being made to divide the Canadians, and they will not succeed."

LaFontaine's predictions were ill-founded, as was shown by the result of the elections in 1854, when quite a number of Papineau's adherents were elected to parliament. Moreover, the disunion had already taken effect in 1849, on the foundation of Le club democratique. LaFontaine feigned — we do not know for what purpose—to be unaware of the existence of this division, which was, as his friends tell us, the chief cause of his retirement, and to which he makes allusion when in his speech he speaks of the disgust inspired by politics.

Papineau retired into private life three years after his rival, wearied and disappointed, but full of hope in the future of democracy and its final triumph in Canada. Living in retirement at La Petite Nation, he never wholly ceased to take an interest in public affairs. In spite of himself his ardent and active spirit continually haunted the arena which he had so long filled with his presence.

A keen observer of men and things, he studied our institutions in contrast with those of the United States, which on every occasion he used as a subject of comparison and as a criterion in support of his opinions. An examination of the Constitutional Act of 1840, in contrast with Washington's great work, led to his inditing in a letter to Christie1 some singular comments on that charter. Strange to say, he finds it too liberal, and one asks himself whether it was really Papineau who wrote this: " The country has entered upon a new phase. The democratic element has suddenly become dominant in a dangerous degree, and there is no counterpoise. In the United States the peculiar position given to the Senate, is in itself a counterpoise to the tendency to over-acceleration in the action of the representative body; but the most effectual of all is the Supreme Court, whose decisions suspend the execution of laws contrary to the rules of justice established by the constitution of each State. Here the legislative assembly alone makes the law, because it can, through the selections it has made of the ministers, judges and councillors, convert into a statute any ephemeral whim of the hour. The powerful aristocracy of England is so essentially conservative that there is no danger in admitting, as a constitutional principle, that parliament is omnipotent as to legislation. New men will succeed one another so quickly at each general election in Canada, that the result will certainly be legislation of a precipitate and violent character. Reforms suddenly carried to extremity, after an obstinate resistance extending through many long years—in place of a moderate and gradual concession of wise measures—will do as much harm as England did in the past by wrongfully maintaining the excessive preponderance conferred on the executive. England has now no clearer apprehension of the social needs of the country than she had in the past, because she cannot conceive of the existence of a state of society other than her own. We are, I fear, falling into a state of legislative anarchy, because each parliament, in turn, will destroy the reputation of the ministers by whom it is led. Beginning with a majority, they will end with a minority, and each new parliament will have to destroy the work of its predecessor."

While this criticism is a surprise to us as coming from Papineau, it is, nevertheless, a tolerably accurate view, in part, of the constitution. Undoubtedly, if the Constitutional Act of 1840 had a blemish, Papineau had shrewdly hit upon it. We have little to say against his opinion, but what astounds us is to hear, from the lips of an old Liberal, language which Tories like MacNab and Draper would hardly have uttered. Was Papineau at this time acting in obedience to the all but general law which makes us with advancing age see things in a different light or from another standpoint, and leads us to modify our former opinions? Mature age shows us the fallacy of many doctrines, for experience has by that time enabled us to witness the failure in practice of many a brilliant theory. As we advance in years the difficulty of subduing human nature, with all its defects, to the exigencies of some great system, admirable on paper, becomes more and more manifest. In most cases, institutions are better than men, and our own shortcomings render them impracticable. In this matter Papineau, it may be, was simply a critic a outrance, as of old.

If Papineau still pined for political life after entering upon his retirement, the feeling did not so overpower him as to make him seek publicity. He unbosomed himself on this cherished object of his thoughts only to his close friends, in those pen-chats which he had always loved and to which he imparted so great a charm. Once only, and for the last time, he appeared in public. At the Canadian Institute in Montreal he gave a lengthy lecture on December 17th, 1867. On that occasion, in the very closing hours of his career, and under the depressing burden of advanced age, he showed all the ardour of youthful energy in the expression of his sentiments and especially of his old antipathies; it was the last roar of the lion in the face of his foe. His lecture was a lucid summary of the history of English rule in Canada, a subject which offered full opportunity for the last confession of the hardened and unrepentant patriot, proud to stand on the brink of the grave without regret for the past, and still hopeful for the future of democracy. Although Papineau had ceased to be in communion with the political and religious ideas of the majority of his fellow-countrymen, he remained, nevertheless, in their eyes the most attractive political figure in the land.


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