Photo : Radio-Canda
Une exposition présentée par la Commission de la capitale nationale (CCN) sur
la rue Sparks à Ottawa a été modifiée en octobre 2007 en raison de la
controverse qu`elle soulève. Un panneau présentant l`ancien gouverneur Lord
Durham comme l`un des personnages marquants de l`histoire canadienne a été
retiré. Le panneau présentait un portrait flatteur de l`auteur du rapport
Durham, rédigé à la suite des rébellions de 1837 et de 1838 dans le Haut-Canada
et dans le Bas-Canada. Toutefois, le texte de l`exposition omettait de signaler
que Lord Durham avait recommandé l`assimilation des Canadiens-Français, qu`il
qualifiait de peuple « sans histoire et sans littérature »...
Cette décision, on s`en doute, a rapidement provoqué des réactions de part et
d`autre de la rivière des Outaouais. Au Canada anglais on s`en est surtout
pris à la rectitude politique ayant conduit au retrait du panneau. On
considère en effet qu`il n`existe nulle raison de nier la contribution
historique de Lord Durham à l`avancement de la démocratie au Canada.
N`a-t-il pas été le premier à proposer la responsabilité ministérielle pour le
Canada rétorque-t-on ? Parmi ces réactions, celle d`une historienne, Janet
Ajzenstat, mérite d`être retenue. Spécialiste de Durham, Mme Ajzenstat
reprend une idée importante, soit que Durham proposait bien l`assimilation aux
Canadiens-Français pour "leur propre bien" et voulait simplement permettre aux
Canadiens français « d’avancer sur le terrain ensoleillé de la liberté et de la
prospérité » : "C`est pour les tirer de leur infériorité que je veux donner aux
Canadiens notre caractère anglais..."
Mme Ajzenstat a raison de rappeler que le Rapport Durham est bien plus nuancé
et impartial qu`on ne le croit généralement. Il est cependant tout à fait
inacceptable qu`on commémore ainsi la mémoire de son auteur. Durham
demeurera toujours un monument au mépris et à l`arrogance des Britanniques
envers les habitants du Québec. Loin de le faire oublier, il est bon qu`il
ressorte ainsi régulièrement dans l`actualité, pour rappeler aux Québécois
combien leur survie culturelle est à la fois un fait héroïque et fragile.
The Ottawa Citizen
Mercredi 7 novembre 2007
Should Lord Durham’s portrait be displayed on the streets of Ottawa ? It hardly
matters. His "Report on the Affairs of British North America" lives. It was
published in 1839 and has been in print ever since. It will be read as long as
there is a Canada, and - dare I say it ? - even afterward.
In the 1840s, both French-speaking and English-speaking reformers hailed the
report as the charter of free government. And it fulfilled their hopes. In 1848,
Durham’s recommendation for "responsible government" led to the overthrow of the
colonial oligarchies - the Château Clique and the Family Compact. At the Quebec
conference of 1864, the Fathers of Confederation used Durham’s description of
British freedoms to create the Parliament of Canada.
But if Durham’s report is deservedly famous, it is also - deservedly -
controversial. Commentators like Gerald Craig, editor of the abridged edition
(1963) call it "offensive."
The question of perennial interest for readers today is this : Did Lord Durham
expect the French Canadians to adopt the British way of life ? He undoubtedly
wanted them to adopt the institutions of British democracy. But did he expect
them to abandon their own traditions ?
He says outright that the British "race must ultimately prevail." The British
must be "placed in the ascendant." Lower Canada must be "thoroughly assimilated
to British ways and institutions." These passages and others like them leave a
deep wound. I do not believe that anyone of French origin who reads them will
ever warm to Durham.
And yet ! He did not envisage a static future for French Canada. He was himself
a mover and a shaker and he wanted the French to get a move on. He wanted them
to advance into the sunny uplands of political freedom and prosperity. In fact,
he thought they were already advancing.
French-Canadian businessmen and political elites were beginning to build a
modern commercial society. They were interested in new technologies
(transportation by steamboat, for one thing), and in social and constitutional
reform. Durham makes it very clear, moreover, that some Englishmen were impeding
French-Canadian ambitions. It suited Englishmen who had acquired seigneuries to
keep their tenants down on the farm. It suited the English elites of Montreal to
keep the French out of political office. He treats Englishmen with these views
Most Canadian scholars believe that Durham was wrong on two counts. He was wrong
to entertain the idea of assimilation (wrong from a moral standpoint, we might
say), and wrong, hopelessly wrong, to suppose that uniting Upper and Lower
Canada would accomplish this objective. It is usually said that after the union
of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840, the French used the political institutions of
the united province - the very institutions that Durham had recommended - to
successfully defend the French-Canadian way of life.
Was Durham wrong to suppose that the practice of parliamentary democracy
requires - or encourages - cultural homogeneity ? Is it true that despite all
hopes to the contrary liberal democracy erodes particular cultures ? The jury is
Durham thought he had the answer. I suggest that what he had is the question.
It’s a question that remains with us : Do the principles of free government
require assimilation to a bland and universal way of life ? Is liberal democracy
compatible with maintaining a distinctive and particular way of life ? New books
are published on the subject every year, not a few by Canadian academics.
Étienne Parent was perhaps Durham’s most devoted reader in 1839. Parent was
passionately attached to the French-Canadian nationality and yet also wanted,
just as passionately, to see his province governed by the institutions of
political freedom that Durham taught. He hoped to reconcile the two beloved "goods"
- British freedom and the French-Canadian way of life. His essays on the subject
appeared in the famous French-Canadian journal of political opinion, Le
In the end, Parent fastened on the idea of a union of the several British North
American colonies, including the Maritime provinces - a scheme also briefly
contemplated by Durham - in which Lower Canada would enjoy its own parliamentary
institutions, modelled on the Mother of Parliaments, and would thus be in a
position to maintain its distinctive social institutions.
But the time was not ripe. Shortly after Durham embarked for his return to
England (Nov. 1, 1838), the second Rebellion broke out. No British ministry was
going to trust the French province with separate political institutions at that
But I think we can say that Parent had seen the future. And a short generation
later, all had changed.
Janet Ajzenstat, Citizen Special
Historian Janet Ajzenstat is the author of The Political Thought of Lord Durham
and most recently, The Canadian Founding, John Locke and Parliament (McGill-Queen’s
University Press, 2007).