Rebellion in Lower Canada
Following the WAR OF 1812, the Assembly was dominated by the representatives of the French Canadian middle class, who, under the leadership of a new professional elite, developed a national consciousness and sought to wrest power from the Roman Catholic Church, in areas such as education, and from the anglophone merchant class which was expanding its economic base because of the rapid growth in the timber trade.
The nationalists, led by Louis-Joseph PAPINEAU, who was elected Speaker of the Assembly in 1815, first organized the PARTI CANADIEN and then the Patriote Party after 1826. They demanded the right to determine how all of the revenues raised within the colony were spent, challenged the authority of the appointed upper house or Legislative Council, and sought control over the provincial civil service, including the advisory body to the governor, the Executive Council.
During the 1820s, these demands were vigorously resisted by Gov Gen the earl of Dalhousie, but after a select committee of the British House of Commons reported unfavourably on his activities in 1828, the British Colonial Office embarked upon a new policy of conciliating the Lower Canadian Assembly and replaced Dalhousie with a series of more conciliatory governors: Sir James KEMPT 1828-30, Lord AYLMER 1830-35 and Lord GOSFORD 1835-38. Yet despite their efforts, the situation in Lower Canada gradually deteriorated.
The early 1830s was a period of widespread economic distress, fueled by a rapidly worsening agricultural crisis which brought many French Canadian habitants to the verge of starvation. At the same time, the province also saw a rapid increase in emigration from the British Isles, which gave the British minority close to a numerical majority in the urban centres of Montréal and Québec. The immigrants brought with them the dreaded CHOLERA which killed many thousands of French Canadians and fed the growing xenophobia of the French Canadian majority.
A series of incidents, such as the shooting deaths of 3 French Canadians by British troops during an electoral riot in 1832, increased tensions between the majority and the minority and led to increased polarization. The Patriote Party, shorn of its moderate wing and of most anglophone support, became more extreme in its demands, which it embodied in 92 Resolutions adopted by the Assembly in 1834.
The Assembly refused to vote any supplies, with the result that the civil service went unpaid, all public works ground to a halt and the government was virtually paralyzed. The British minority reacted by forming constitutional associations and appealing to the British government to resist the pretensions of the Assembly. Since neither the Patriote Party nor the British Party was a monolithic entity there was more to Lower Canadian politics than "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state," as Lord DURHAM described the problem in 1838, but as the extremists on both sides drifted toward violence, the ethnic division became more pronounced.
In Mar 1837 the British government reluctantly pushed through the British Parliament the 10 Russell Resolutions rejecting all the major demands of the PATRIOTES and gave Lord Gosford the power to take money from the provincial treasury to pay the officials in the colony. The Patriotes organized a boycott of British goods, held mass protest rallies across the colony and began seriously to prepare for an armed insurrection, although there were deep divisions among the Patriote leadership over this strategy and the moderates agreed to it in the belief that the British government would back down if faced by the prospect of an uprising.
The Patriotes had fatally underestimated the resolve of the British government, which had already begun to despatch troops to Lower Canada from throughout the empire and which began to turn a blind eye to the rifle clubs organized by the British minority. In Montréal the militant Patriotes established the FILS DE LA LIBERTÉ and on Nov 6 there was a skirmish between the latter and the DORIC CLUB, which represented the militant Anglophones. Meanwhile British authority in the countryside rapidly deteriorated as French Canadians began to practise widespread civil disobedience.
On 16 Nov 1837 the government sought to forestall the rebellion by arresting the Patriote leaders, who took refuge in the countryside. On Nov 23 the government forces under Col Charles Gore suffered a minor defeat in the first major engagement of the rebellion, at St-Denis (see ST-DENIS, BATTLE OF), but the ill-organized, poorly equipped and badly led Patriotes were crushed by a force of British regulars under Col Charles Wetherall 2 days later at St-Charles (see ST-CHARLES, BATTLE OF), despite the desperate courage displayed by the rebels.
On Nov 30 Gore returned to St-Denis, but the town surrendered without a struggle and the soldiers sacked it, leaving 50 homes blazing. On Dec 14 the British commander in chief, Sir John COLBORNE, captured St-Eustache (see ST-EUSTACHE, BATTLE OF), after fierce resistance from the habitants under Jean-Olivier CHENIER'S leadership, and the first rebellion collapsed. There was widespread looting and burning of French Canadian settlements by the British volunteers.
Papineau and a number of the Patriote leaders fled to the US. Several hundred insurgents were wounded or killed, many more were captured, and the Constitution was suspended. Lord Durham, sent out as governor general and special commissioner, issued an amnesty for most of the prisoners and tried to restore harmony, but when his measures were inadequately supported by the home government, he resigned.
With the encouragement of American sympathizers who had organized themselves into HUNTERS' LODGES, the rebels had been preparing for a second rebellion, which broke out immediately upon Durham's departure in early Nov 1838. Led by Dr Robert Nelson and Dr Cyrille Côté, the rebels hoped to be able to cut communications between Montréal and the S shore of the St Lawrence and thus set off a mass uprising of the habitants. They were poorly organized and supplied and were defeated at Napierville and Odelltown. One group of rebels was captured at Caughnawaga by the Iroquois, who were allied with the British.
The Patriotes defeated a small British force at Beauharnois on Nov 9 but then scattered as a larger force approached. Within a week the second outbreak had been put down, almost entirely by the actions of the volunteers, who rampaged across the country, leaving a trail of devastation. The makeshift prisons were filled with suspects and 108 men were convicted by court-martials. Rumours of risings and invasions from the US continued, but there was no substance to them and even Papineau left for exile in Paris.
Of the 99 condemned to death, only 12 went to the gallows, while 58 were transported to Australia. In total the 6 battles of both campaigns left 325 dead, 27 of them soldiers and the rest rebels, while 13 men were executed (one by the rebels), one was murdered, one committed suicide and 2 prisoners were shot.
Rebellion in Upper Canada
By comparison the UPPER CANADA rebellion was a more limited affair. There was growing discontent with the network of officials, erroneously described as the FAMILY COMPACT, who dominated the administration of the government and controlled the distribution of patronage throughout the province. Popular opposition developed over land-granting policies, particularly the setting aside of large blocks of land as CLERGY RESERVES, the education policies of the government and its economic priorities, and the general favouritism shown to the Church of England and its supporters and to recent emigrants from Britain.
This discontent was strongest among the American-born settlers who had migrated prior to the War of 1812 - the so-called late loyalists - and their descendants, nonconformist in their religious views and somewhat republican in their political sympathies, who were denied political rights during the struggle over the ALIEN QUESTION in the 1820s. Although the settlers of American origin constituted a declining proportion of the population as British immigrants flooded into Upper Canada in the early 1830s, the oligarchic form of government which had been established by the CONSTITUTIONAL ACT of 1791 came increasingly under attack, and the nascent Reform Party won control of the Assembly in 1828 and again in 1834.
Lt-Gov Sir Francis Bond HEAD was sent to the colony to appease the reform majority in the Assembly, but he succeeded only in precipitating a rebellion. He assisted the conservatives in winning the election of 1836, in which Marshall Spring BIDWELL, who had been Speaker of the Assembly and the real head of the reform movement, and many of the moderate reformers, such as Robert BALDWIN, were defeated. The more extreme elements in the Reform Party began to mobilize under the leadership of William Lyon MACKENZIE.
Mackenzie at first sought only to exert pressure on the government by organizing a network of political unions and a boycott of imported goods and by entering into a working relationship with the reformers of Lower Canada. At least until the late summer of 1837, he did not decide to turn from extra-parliamentary protest to rebellion. But during 1837 political unrest grew more serious because of a crisis in the international economy which spread to Upper Canada and uneven crop yields which led to food shortages.
When Head sent all the troops in the colony to Lower Canada, Mackenzie persuaded the radicals on Nov 16 to issue a draft constitution for Upper Canada, modelled on that of the US, and to attempt to seize control of the government in early Dec. Something close to 1000 men gathered at Montgomery's tavern in Toronto over the 4 days of Mackenzie's rebellion between Dec 5-8. They came largely from the Home District north of Toronto and represented a cross section of the agrarian community from which Mackenzie had always drawn the bulk of his support, with a disproportionate number of settlers of American origin and of members of the dissenting sects.
On Dec 5 some 500-700 rebels bearing rifles, staves and pitchforks marched S on Yonge St to meet a smaller force of about 200-250 volunteers and militia. They ran into a picket of about 20 loyalists who opened fire and then fled. The front rank of the rebels returned the fire and then dropped to the ground. In the poor early evening light the rebel force thought the men in the front had been killed and they turned and ran. In total only 3 men, 2 rebels and one loyalist lost their lives during the initial stages of the rebellion.
On Dec 8 a force of 1000-1500 loyalists marched to Montgomery's tavern and dispersed the remaining rebels. A second unco-ordinated outbreak took place a few days later near Brantford, where 500 men gathered under the leadership of Charles DUNCOMBE, but they too were easily dispersed by volunteers under the command of Sir Allan MACNAB. Mackenzie and Duncombe escaped to the US. With the support of those Americans who wished to liberate Canada from British rule, Mackenzie took control of Navy Island and proclaimed a republic of Upper Canada, but he was forced to withdraw on Jan 14 after Canadian volunteers burned the rebel supply ship CAROLINE.
During 1838 the rebels continued to organize expeditions across the border, including major raids at Pelée I in Lk Erie in Feb, where a substantial American force was driven back after a severe fight, at Short Hills on June 30, and at Prescott (see WINDMILL, BATTLE OF) in mid-Nov and Windsor in early Dec. These raids, though poorly organized and easily crushed, kept the border in a constant state of turmoil and brought Britain and the US to the verge of war. Moreover, the rebellion and the raids played into the hands of the ultra-Tory faction in Upper Canada who were placed in a temporary ascendancy.
Although only 2 of the original rebels, Samuel LOUNT and Peter MATTHEWS, were executed, many reformers, including Bidwell, fearing reprisals, fled to the US and the conflicts along the border led to many more executions, deaths and deportations than the original, somewhat pathetic uprising.
Causes and Consequences
The causes and consequences of both rebellions remain controversial. Some writers point to the inherent weaknesses of the 1791 constitutional arrangements, which gave the elected assemblies the power to thwart the executive but not to control it, and blame the British government for failing to respond adequately to the legitimate grievances of the colonists. But this interpretation ignores the sincere effort which was made after 1828 to conciliate the reformers in both colonies, downplays the ethnic division in Lower Canada and overlooks the fact that the majority of colonists did not support the rebellion in Upper Canada.
In Lower Canada the rebellion was precipitated by the economic and social tensions of the 1830s, but the underlying cause was the conflict between the French Canadian majority, which demanded that all power be centralized in the popularly elected Assembly, which it controlled, and the British minority, which was no less determined to resist French Canadian domination. The Patriote leadership to some extent drifted into rebellion, which it was ill equipped to win, and many moderate French Canadians opposed the use of force, including the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which benefited from the defeat of the anticlerical Patriote leadership. But the revolt had widespread support among the French Canadian population and Papineau and his lieutenants earned a lasting place in the hearts of French Canadian nationalists.
In Upper Canada there is a continuing debate over who was responsible for the rebellion and the degree of popular support it commanded among the people. Among more radical historians there is considerable sympathy for the rebels and a feeling that they represented the authentic voice of the majority, at least of the colonial working classes. But the majority view is that the uprising had limited support and was largely a historical accident precipitated by the inexcusable partisanship of Head and the rash behaviour of that most unlikely of Canadian heroes, Mackenzie. Few historians see any necessary connection between the 2 outbreaks, though without the Lower Canadian rebellion the Upper Canadian revolt would probably not have taken place.
The impact of the rebellions is equally disputable. The influence of the radicals in both colonies was undermined and more moderate leaders, Louis-Hippolyte LAFONTAINE in Lower Canada and Robert Baldwin in Upper Canada, reconstructed the reform movement. The rebellions led directly to the appointment of Lord Durham and the Durham Report, which recommended that the Canadas be united into one colony, as the British minority, particularly the merchant class, had long demanded, and the introduction of what became known as RESPONSIBLE GOVERNMENT.
The ACT OF UNION was passed in 1840 and the United PROVINCE OF CANADA came into being in 1841; the details of responsible government were gradually worked out between 1841 and 1848. Whether the rebel leaders should be given paternity for these measures, both of which they opposed, remains controversial. In an earlier period, most writers insisted that without the rebellions change would have come slowly, if at all. The more recent trend is to dismiss the rebellions as unnecessary since Britain was moving towards gradual reform.
But without some form of wider union, it is doubtful whether any British government could have gone further in the direction of devolution in Lower Canada, and it is even more doubtful whether any form of union could have been forced on the French Canadians without widespread resistance. In this sense, the rebellion in Lower Canada did break the impasse that had been reached in the mid-1830s.
It is more difficult to find any redeeming purpose for the rebellion in Upper Canada, although by discrediting extremists on both sides of the political spectrum it did assist in the rise to power of moderates who focused on the campaign for responsible government and were thus prepared to make a success of the union. Yet there can be no doubt that even among conservative historians who see the rebellions as unnecessary bloodletting, which complicated and probably delayed the transition to greater self-government, there remains considerable sympathy for the attempts of the rebels to establish a more popular system of government, and the status of Mackenzie and Papineau as Canadian heroes, like that of another ill-fated rebel, Louis RIEL, seems secure.
Author P.A. BUCKNER
P.A. Buckner, The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America 1815-1850 (1985); G. Craig, Upper Canada (1963); Jacques Monet, The Last Cannon Shot (1967); Desmond Morton, Rebellions in Canada (1979); F. Ouellet, Social and Economic History of Québec (tr 1980) and Lower Canada 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism (1980); Colin Read, The Rising in Western Upper Canada (1980); Read and Ronald J. Stagg, The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada (1985); Elinor Kyte Senior, Redcoats and Patriotes: The Rebellions in Lower Canada 1837-38 (1985).
Links to Other Sites
The website for the Historica-Dominion Institute, parent organization of The Canadian Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada. Check out their extensive online feature about the War of 1812, the "Heritage Minutes" video collection, and many other interactive resources concerning Canadian history, culture, and heritage.
A historical overview of the political turmoil and military action that engulfed Lower and Upper Canada during the Rebellions of 1837 – 1838. Many illustrations and interesting historical minutiae.
Fort Malden National Historic Site
This Parks Canada website is dedicated to the Fort Malden National Historic Site in Ontario.
Fortifications of Québec National Historic Site
This Parks Canada site is dedicated to the Fortifications of Québec City. Includes nicely illustrated historical notes about the French and British contributions to the fortifications.
Fort Wellington National Historic Site
The website for Fort Wellington National Historic Site in Ontario. Features an illustrated overview of the War of 1812, the 1837 rebellions, and related topics. From Parks Canada.
Bois Blanc Island Lighthouse National Historic Site of Canada
This 1837 round stone light tower was built to aid Detroit River navigation and was involved in military conflicts of 1837-1838. A Parks Canada website.
William Lyon Mackenzie
A brief biography of William Lyon Mackenzie with photographs and related archival material. From the “Canadian Confederation” website, Library and Archives Canada.
The Rebellions of 1837-1838
Learn about the simmering political and social issues that set off the insurrections in Lower and Upper Canada from 1837 to 1838. Features biographies of leading figures, great illustrations, maps and snippets of some of the fiery oratory of the time. Part of the Histori.ca “Peace and Conflict” educational website.
A biography of Egerton Ryerson, Methodist minister, author, editor, and educational administrator. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
A biography of Dominique Ducharme (baptized François), fur trader, militia officer, office holder, and justice of the peace. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Emily Stowe: Doctor and Suffragist
See the full text of a biography of pioneer medical doctor and crusader for women's rights in Canada. See also pages 21 - 30 for detailed accounts of various events involving participants in the Rebellions of 1837 in Upper Canada.
A biography of Joshua Gwillen, farmer, tanner, and Patriot. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
A biography of Charles Duncombe, physician, politician, and a leader of the rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada. From the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Queen Victoria's journals
See brief comments about rebellions in Upper Canada in a Tuesday 16th January 1838 entry in a digitized copy of Queen Victoria's journals. Search or browse this site for other references to Canada and political figures involved in Canadian affairs during the reign of Queen Victoria. From the website "Queen Victoria's Journals."
Shawnadithit grew anxious waiting for her uncle, Longnon, to return to camp at the junction of Badger Brook and the Exploits River, deep in the wilds of Newfoundland...