The victory of the Reform Party on 24 January 1848 was one of the most significant in Canadian history. For almost a year before the election it had seemed to the new governor general, Lord Elgin, that there was no real political life in Canada at all, as the moribund Tory ministry of William Henry Draper tottered to its fall.
Although the Reform (that is to say liberal) Party swept the constituencies like a broom (see Reform movement in Upper Canada), the principle that the majority party controls parliament was not yet established. Colonial government was still firmly in the grip of the governor, who was appointed by London. The governor, in turn, appointed members of the legislative council (today's Cabinet). He chose or dismissed advisors and vetoed legislation at will.
The dramatic change from this autocracy to responsible government was achieved by the most remarkable political partnership in Canadian history — that of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine. When the new parliament assembled at Montréal on 25 February, Baldwin rose to insist that the new speaker be fluent in both English and French and he nominated Auguste-Norbert Morin. The motion was seconded by LaFontaine and it carried to loud cheers from all parts of the chamber. It was not the first or the last time that the two men collaborated.
In the early days of the Reform movement in Lower Canada (Québec) there was distrust among French Canadians that LaFontaine was "selling out” by co-operating with the English-speaking Reformers. Some gesture was needed to show that his policy of survival through co-operation could work. In August 1841, Baldwin supplied it. When LaFontaine was shut out of the Lower Canada Assembly, Baldwin presented him to his own electorate in York. LaFontaine accepted the generous offer and was elected.
It was a dramatic embodiment of the idea of a reform alliance. (Later, when Baldwin lost his seat, LaFontaine was able to return the favour, earning Baldwin a seat in Rimouski, even though Baldwin spoke no French.)
The issue of the bilingual speaker brought about a confidence vote and when the old government was defeated, Lord Elgin turned to LaFontaine to form a new ministry — for the first time acknowledging the principle of responsible government. LaFontaine accepted on condition that his friend and ally Baldwin be co-premier.
Robert Baldwin was anything but a typical Canadian politician, then or now. Raised by his father Dr. William Baldwin with political ideas in advance of their time, Baldwin's actions were always dictated by a high moral sense of duty. If he was not the actual author of responsible government, he spent the best years of his life contending for it. "This is not a mere party struggle,” he wrote. "It is Canada against her oppressors, the people of Canada claiming the British constitution against those who would withhold it.”
Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine stands out among the politicians of the past 175 years because he was the first to understand how the power and flexibility of the British Constitution could be used to ensure the survival of his people. He was a brilliant and ambitious leader who entered the Lower Canada Assembly at the age of 23. He was so Napoleonic in his appearance and bearing, that he was taken for the reincarnation of the dead emperor by Napoleon's own guardsmen. LaFontaine was too prudent to identify himself with the violent aims of the Patriotes, much as he sympathized with their goals. He knew that their cause was hopeless. Under suspicion nonetheless, he repaired to England and France until the dust cleared.
LaFontaine and Baldwin were of one mind in seeing that the most important issue in the Canadas was the achievement of responsible government. The two men had the highest possible esteem for one another and enjoyed a deep friendship for the rest of their lives.
The Baldwin–LaFontaine ministry of 1848 has earned in Canadian history the appellation of the "great ministry.” Its term saw not only the acceptance of the principle of responsible government but a record of legislation with which no other can compare: the establishment of a public school system, the founding of the University of Toronto, the organization of municipal government and the first real pacification of the French Canadians after a period of antipathy.
While responsible government did not transform Canada overnight into a fully developed democracy, it was an important milestone along the road to political autonomy. Most importantly, it provided an opportunity for French Canadians to find within the British Constitution a means for its own survival. It also displayed, in the partnership and friendship of Baldwin and LaFontaine, a model of collaboration that has been all too rare in our fractious past.