This Day in History – March 11th

1848 – Early Canadian political leaders Robert Baldwin and Louis LaFontaine become the first leaders of the United Province of Canada under responsible government – March 11, 1848 stands some claim to being our nation’s independence day, as it is the day Canada’s united colonies of Canada East (Quebec, formerly Lower Canada) and Canada West (Ontario, formerly Upper Canada) got responsible government and real democracy arrived. Early in 1841, the Act of Union came into effect in British North America, merging Upper and Lower Canada and abolishing their parliaments. They were replaced with a single parliament with an upper and lower chamber. This scheme served a dual purpose: to counter French voters in the more populous Canada East and to shore up Upper Canada, which was near bankruptcy. Several years earlier, rebellions in the two colonies had led Lord Durham to create a report calling on the union of the Canadas and the creation of a self-governing, independent legislature (responsible government). However, his second recommendation was not immediately implemented. It was on this date in 1848 that governor-general Lord Elgin appointed the leaders of the newly-elected Reform Party, Robert Baldwin, from Canada West, and Louis LaFontaine, from Canada East, as heads of the government. Working in tandem for much of that decade, they managed to convince their colonial masters that allowing power to reside with an elected assembly instead of a governor’s appointed executive council was the only way to guard against anarchy. This was a unique accomplishment in those days, when violent revolutions seeking to achieve self-government were igniting around Europe. LaFontaine and Baldwin’s government faced rioting by Loyalists, angered by the idea of Canada becoming an independent nation, that led to the burning of the Parliament buildings in Montreal in April 1849. They chose to move forward, and it wasn’t long before public opinion shifted overwhelmingly in favour of a sovereign Canada. The legacy of the Baldwin and LaFontaine years includes the establishment of municipal governments, secular public universities, and a modern legal and jury system. Historians have recognized them as laying the foundation for the Confederation John A. Macdonald built, but which neither of them lived to see. In 1914, a monument to both men designed by Walter Seymour Allward was erected on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

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1861 – The Confederate States of America adopt their constitution – In the early 1860s in Canada, politicians were approaching a unification that would be called Confederation. Meanwhile, south of the border (way south), a group of states with a coincidentally similar name, the Confederacy, were laying out clear lines of separation from a group of other states with which they had formally been in a union. Beginning in late 1860 with South Carolina and continuing through January and February 1861, southern slave-holding states began to secede from the Union in opposition to the newly-elected Abraham Lincoln, who opposed the expansion of slavery into new states and territories. The Confederacy was formed Feb. 4, 1861. It was on this date in 1861 that the Confederate States of America adopted its constitution. For a brief time, it was the supreme legal document for about nine million people, three million of which were slaves. The document is, in most respects, a word-for-word duplicate of the United States Constitution, however, as you might expect, there are crucial differences between the two documents, in tone and content, in regards to slavery. For instance, whereas the U.S. Constitution did not use the word slavery or the term “Negro Slaves”, instead using the phrase “Person[s] held to Service or Labour” (which included whites in indentured servitude), the Confederate Constitution addresses the legality of slavery directly and by name, ensuring no state in the Confederacy could make slavery illegal. It adds that a state government cannot prohibit the rights of a slave owner travelling to or visiting a different state with his or her slaves, and explicitly says that slavery is legally protected in the territories. Signing the constitution were representatives from South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. The original capital of the Confederacy was Montgomery, Alabama, from February to May in 1861, however it was then moved to Richmond, Virginia to encourage other border slave states to leave the Union. For all intents and purposes, the Confederacy came to an end when General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox Court House, Virginia on April 9, 1865. The final, hand-written document of the Confederate Constitution is currently located in the University of Georgia archives at Athens, Georgia.

1955 – Sir Alexander Fleming, discoverer of penicillin, dies – On this date in 1955, the British scientist Sir Alexander Fleming died of a heart attack at his home in London. He was 73. Serving in a battlefield hospital laboratory in France during the First World War, Fleming had seen many soldiers dying from infections and became determined to find a cure. In 1922, he made his first discovery towards that end, lysozyme, a naturally-occurring antibacterial substance found in tears and other body fluids. But his biggest discovery, penicillin, took place by accident in his lab on Sept. 28, 1928. Fleming noticed mold had developed on a culture plate he had left under a microscope. Where the new mold had grown, the bacteria around it had faded away. Conducting some further tests, he found the fluid the mold had grown in was strongly antibacterial, but non-toxic to animals and people. It was penicillin, our first antibiotic. British scientists at Oxford developed penicillin as a life-saving drug, curing mice with bacterial infections by 1940. The first patient to be treated for streptococcal septicemia, a blood infection, received US-made penicillin produced by Merck & Co. on March 14, 1942. Fleming was knighted in 1944 and was one of the winners of the Nobel Prize for Medicine the following year. Despite his success, Fleming knew penicillin was no cure-all, and even foresaw problems that can arise when bacteria develop an immunity to penicillin.

2004 – Explosions on rush hour trains in Madrid, Spain kill 191 people – At rush hour in the morning of this date in 2004, near simultaneous blasts hit Atocha station in the centre of the Spanish capital of Madrid and two smaller stations, Santa Eugenia and El Pozo. In all, 191 people were killed and over 2,000 people were injured. Ten explosions are said to have taken place on four separate commuter trains. One witness described the scene on a train platform, saying “People started to scream and run, some bumping into each other. I saw people with blood pouring from them, people on the ground.” Paramedics set up emergency field hospitals outside Atocha station, while other first responders began trying to rescue commuters trapped on the trains. All other trains in and out of Madrid were cancelled. Spain’s national telephone operator, Telefonica, urged people to send text messages instead of making calls to take the pressure off their network, which collapsed due to overwhelming demand. As the bombing took place three days before the country’s general elections, political motivation was suspected, and the Basque separatist group Eta was initially blamed. However in the days that followed, al-Qaeda linked groups came forward claiming responsibility. The following month, several suspects blew themselves up as police moved to arrest them in their apartment. In October 2007, 21 people said to have been Islamic extremists inspired by information they had found on line were found guilty of charges ranging from forgery to murder. They had bought the explosives through money from small-scale drug-trafficking. Two of the defendants were sentenced to over 40,000 years in prison.

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