‘The Lion, the Eagle and Upper Canada’ by Jane Errington

The Lion, the Eagle and Upper Canada: A Developing Colonial Ideology

1987, 192 p & notes.

This book, developed from the author’s Ph D thesis of a similar title, won the Corey Prize for 1988.  So far I can still count the number of books I have read on Upper Canada on my fingers, but even I was aware while reading it that I was tiptoeing across what we would characterize in Australia as a “history war”.  Has Canada had its own history wars? I suspect, from this article, that it has.  No doubt I shall soon become more familiar with all this.

In her introduction Errington identifies the characterization of Canadian history that she is arguing against- i.e. that hardy British-American settlers fled the destructive influence of American democracy and republicanism and established a new, counter-revolutionary British society in Northern America that “rejected all things American while embracing 18th century British conservative values and traditions” (p. 4).

Instead, she argues, there were ongoing personal and intellectual links between settlers who had crossed to Canada, and the families and friends they left behind in America.  The major communications links with England passed through America; people crossed the border both ways, and there was a strong interest in federalist politics particularly as it played out in the nearby American state of New York.  She argues that rather than a horizontal line drawn between Canada and America, there was a cross-border sympathy between the Canadian reformers and their ideological brethren, the American federalists.  The settlers who crossed into Canada were not British themselves: they had been born in America and the vast majority of them never set foot in England.  She argues that Upper Canadian society was shaped by the dual influences of Great Britain and America, and that the political  controversies of the 1820s and 1830s had at their heart differing perceptions of the British constitution and parliamentary traditions- whether the principles, or the image,  of the British constitution should apply there.  There are resonances here with the same issue for Australian judges and governors at the same time:  the relevance of what we would now sneer as “one size fits all” law and policy.

Errington flags right from the beginning that she is taking a view from the top, restricting her analysis to the articulate elite:

This study is an attempt to understand what some Upper Canadians, those few individuals who were recognized as leaders of their communities, actually believed about themselves and about others, particularly the United States and Great Britain, and how their views of themselves intersected and depended upon their views of others and changed over time. (p.10)

She draws heavily on newspaper articles and the personal correspondence of a number of key individuals, particularly Richard Cartwright, John Strachan and  Stephen Miles whose perspectives appear throughout the book.  Perhaps it is because this area is new to me, but I found myself wishing that she had fleshed out these characters a little more, given that they were to be the chorus of voices heard throughout- perhaps in the way that Inga Clendinnen did in Dancing with Strangers, so that each time you encountered them again, it was like meeting an old friend.

I gather from some of the reviews I have read of this book, that it was felt that, by concentrating on the views of the elite,  she overlooked other arguments in making her own.  That didn’t worry me at all- it is the views of the elite that I need for my own purposes.   She does address the issue of her close focus in the introduction, but perhaps it was a methodological choice that she needed to prosecute more insistently.

I’ve already spoken of my interest in the way she integrated quotations into her analysis,  and I certainly felt as if I was reading a viewpoint, formed and promulgated over time by living, inconsistent, evolving people rather than a political stance delivered ready-made.  I like the way that she emphasizes the evolving and contingent nature of political ideas, the effect of generational change on political protest, and the way that British and trans-colonial ideas, events and politics played out at a local level.

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