- 'Union Is Strength': W.L. Mackenzie, the Children of Peace, and the Emergence of Joint Stock Democracy in Upper Canada
For anyone interested in the distinctive roots of Canadian democracy, Albert Schrauwers's 'Union Is Strength' is a gem of a book. It throws fresh light on the political and economic battles in Upper Canada in the 1830s that shaped the political and economic institutions of an emerging Canadian state. Schrauwers challenges the conventional wisdom about the wild radicals and utopian socialists who interrupted Canada's smooth evolution to responsible parliamentary democracy and a capitalist economy. Unlike so much of Canadian historiography, he connects these local struggles to international movements and developments astir in the world outside Canada.
The focus of the book is a group of settlers, led by the Quaker preacher David Willson, who called themselves the Children of Peace. In the midst of the turbulence of the War of 1812, this group built a temple at Hope, a small village a few miles north of York (before it became Toronto). The three-tier Sharon temple, with equal sides evoking a principle fundamental to the builders' political economy, stands to this day as a monument to social justice and democracy. Schrauwers's book helps us understand why the principles and practices that emanated from that temple also stand to this day as enduring features of Canada's political economy.
Willson and the Children of Peace were at the heart of a movement that challenged the colonial establishment's response to the economy of debt that gripped Upper Canada in the 1830s. With an emergent capitalist Britain turning to 'assisted immigration' to solve its unemployment problem, Upper Canada became a prime destination for destitute immigrants. Members of the Family Compact used their influence with British governors and their domination of the colonial legislature to charter the Bank of Upper Canada and give it a virtual monopoly [End Page 294] over creating credit and lending money. The bank's Tory shareholders used their power over the judiciary to imprison debtors, forcing struggling settlers to sell land they had been granted as immigrants to the local gentry at bargain prices. In opposition to this regime, the Children of Peace and political reformers, drawing on the Owenite socialist movement in Britain and the United States, offered a 'moral economy' that, instead of criminalizing the poor, aimed at maintaining their respectability and independence.
The key institution of this 'moral economy' were unchartered joint stock companies through which struggling farmers, artisans, and merchants could pool their resources and help one another through hard times. Schrauwers shows how the joint stock companies served as a crucibles of democracy. Shareholders' meetings nourished the practice of deliberative democracy so absent from the hierarchically controlled colonial legislature. In alliance with political reformers they built Shephard's Hall in Toronto and the political movement that enabled William Lyon Mackenzie to become Toronto's first mayor in 1834. At a time when the idea of 'His Majesty's Loyal Opposition' was not yet accepted in Upper Canada, this movement was indeed the cradle of Canadian democracy.
In the latter part of the book Schrauwers tell the story of the crucial role these 'joint stock democrats' played in the transition to responsible government in pre-Confederation Canada. It was the Union Society formed by the Children of Peace that overcame administrative interference and the hooliganism of Tory mobs to secure nominations for Robert Baldwin and Louis Lafontaine in the 1841 elections to the Legislative Assembly of the united colony of Canada.
In celebrating the political victory that united English and French political leaders in the cause of government responsible to the people's representatives, Robert Baldwin proclaimed, 'Union is strength.' Under the banner of those words, Albert Schauwers has written a book that is essential reading for all who are interested in the roots of Canadian democracy and the communal strain in Canada's economic culture that has kept it from adopting laissez-faire...