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Gary O'Brien

The Political Thought of Lord Durham, Janet Azenstat (McGill - Queen's University Press: Kingston - Montreal, 1988)

Lord Durham was High Commissioner to Lower and Upper Canada for just one year and sixteen days and stayed in Canada only five months. Given such a short period, historians, such as Chester New, have seriously questioned his knowledge of Canadian political and social life. Janet Ajzenstat's The Political Thought of Lord Durham reveals that Durham had profound insights into Canadian problems which are still confounding us, particularly the relationship between equality and nationalism and the need for an improved constitutional arrangement to end the animosity many Canadians feel toward each other.

Ajzenstat challenges the widely-held assumption that Durham was a racist. Such a portrayal is inconsistent with his liberalism which emphasized equality, individual rights and freedoms, toleration and a belief in responsible government. What Durham objected to were nationalist arguments, both English and French, and special legal protection. His object was to put English and French on the same footing and he therefore favoured the assimilation of distinctive ways of life. The Durham Report should not be looked upon as the product of one individual but rather of the modern liberal tradition. Ajzenstat is sympathetic to that tradition. She writes: "We may decide in the end that Durham and the mainstream liberals generally do not give enough place in their thought to the strength of human loyalties and the desire to be associated with a collectivity. But we cannot evaluate their argument, or our own thought on the place of national minorities in a liberal society, if we ignore their central supposition--that nationalist divisions recognized in law deny liberal rights to minorities."(p. 12)

Ajzenstat also challenges conventional opinion that Durham's advocacy of responsible government was aimed at strengthening democratic institutions, specifically, the power of the lower, elected Houses. In fact, Durham called for a limitation on the powers of the lower houses. If two constitutional principles were recognized, the money bill principle (or the financial initiative of the Crown in legislative matters) and the confidence convention, a balanced constitution would be created and the danger of democratic tyranny would be reduced. It should be noted, however, that the eventual recognition of these two principles in the Legislature of the United Province of Canada did not create the "balance" Durham was looking for. While these principles may have resulted in a more equal relationship between the executive and the Assembly, they essentially crippled the upper house, the Legislative Council, as an equal partner in the legislative process. As professor R.A. Mackay has stated in The Unreformed Senate of Canada by 1849 "for all practical purposes the Canadian parliament had now become a single chamber."

Ajzenstat refers to the money bill principle as being "not in operation in the colonies at the time."(p. 59) In fact the money bill principle, while never followed in Upper Canada, did exist in Lower Canada. One of the rules of the Lower Canadian House of Assembly, laid down in 1793 and rescinded only in 1834, the year of the passage of the 92 Resolutions, read "that this House will receive no petition for any sum of money relating to Public Service, but what is recommended by His Majesty's Governor, Lieutenant Governor or person administering the Government at the time." The Legislative Council of Lower Canada, despite the Assembly's actions, never rescinded its own rule which stated "that the Legislative Council will not proceed upon any Bill appropriating public money that shall not within the knowledge of this House have been recommended by the King's representative."

As other reviewers have noted, this book has re-opened the question of Lord Durham when for many years it had been closed. In this the 150th anniversary of the Durham report, such a development is welcome.

Gary O'Brien, Director, Committees and Private Legislation, The Senate

Canadian Parliamentary Review Cover
Vol 12 no 4

Last Updated: 2020-03-03