The Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions of 1837-38

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Canada as we know it today owes a lot to two rebellions that occurred nearly 200 years ago. These rebellions sit between the War of 1812 and the more famous rebellions of Louis Riel, but their impact is anything but small.

They are the Upper Canada and Lower Canada Rebellions, which did not last long but which Canada may not have never formed as we know it without.

I will look at these two rebellions separately, even though they are heavily linked to each other.

First, we look at the Lower Canada Rebellion.

For three decades previous to 1837, there had been many efforts to put forward political reform in Lower Canada.

Under the Constitutional Act of 1791, Lower Canada would elect a House of Assembly, which would lead to the rise of two parties. The English Party, made up of the upper class of Quebec and English merchants, and the Canadian Party, made up of aristocrats of both French and English descent. In Quebec, the Catholic Church tended to support the British Party.

The population was mostly French and those elected to the House of Assembly tended to be French-Canadian businessmen. While this seemed good, the House of Assembly gave the illusion of power to the population. The problem was that the Executive and Legislative Councils advised the governor and he could veto anything he liked. Both those councils were made up of Englishmen.

The Parti patriote would be formed by James Stuart and Louis-Joseph Papineau to that end. The party campaigned for responsible government and a Legislative Council of Quebec that would be appointed by the majority party in the Legislative Assembly. One of the biggest issues at this time was that the council was extremely powerful and members were chosen by a British governor, who party members considered to be hostile to the French population, and extremely corrupt.

With the economy changing in Lower Canada as lumber became more important than the fur trade and agriculture, many who worked in those fields began to worry about what they would do for a living. In the growing fields of timber, transportation and banking, English speakers were highly represented, giving them much more power in the province.

From 1807 to 1812, James Henry Craig was the governor of Lower Canada and fearing that the Canadian Party and its supporters would want a French-Canadian republic of their own, he would call three elections in the space of only 16 months. Each time he was not satisfied with who the people elected and each time they elected the same people.

He also feared that the United States would invade Lower Canada and the Canadian Party would side with them. In a terribly misguided move, he would jail several journalists who worked at the newspaper Le Canadien, and also jail Pierre-Stanislaw Bedard, the leader of the party and the editor of the newspaper. This would create a crisis in the party about who would lead them.

During the War of 1812 and afterwards, fear over the American invasion led several of the English-speaking elite in Lower Canada to advocate for the union of Upper and Lower Canada to ensure they could compete with the powerful economy of the United States. George Ramsey, the British-appointed governor also favoured it.  This would lead to the formation of a union between English and French citizens, calling themselves Parti Canadien, which became Parti Patriote after 1826.

In 1811, James Stuart would become the leader of the party, and in 1815 Louis-Joseph Papineau became its speaker in Lower Canada.

Before long, Papineau and Ramsey were at odds over the unification of the two Canada’s. Rather than accept Papineau as assembly speaker, Ramsey called an election in 1827 hoping that elected members should change. When that didn’t happen, he suspended parliament, resulting in 87,000 people sending a petition in protest to London. That would result in Ramsey being sent to India, but there was still no more progress towards a unification.

From 1828 to 1832, little happened and several laws were passed.

Things began to change in 1832 when Patriot newspapers published articles criticizing the Legislative Council. This would result in the heads of the newspapers being arrested and that created a great deal of tension in Lower Canada towards the British government. Things became worse in 1832 when three people in a crowd were shot by the army during the election.

After the shooting, Papineau, who had been drafting 92 Resolutions, submitted his document directly to the governor, which was then presented to the House of Assembly on March 6, 1834. The 92 Resolutions, or demands, outlined the grievances against the legislative council and the goal was to group all the grievances together in a document and address it to the British government. The population of Lower Canada, of all origins, were very in favour of this and gatherings across the colony were held with people signing petitions and sending them to London to show the popularity of the document.

In 1834, thanks to this document, the Patri Patriote would take 75 per cent of the popular vote in the election.

Eventually, Papineau found out that the British were not going to accept the resolutions.

For the reformers like Papineau, things were not going well at this same time. A rival Constitutional Association was formed by John Neilson who had quit the Parti Patriote in 1830 and formed his rival party in 1834. Papineau was also anti-clerical and that alienated the Catholic Church.

By 1837, the resolutions had been rejected and the governor had been given the right to take subsidies without voting in the assembly. The legislative council would still be chosen by the crown.

With this bold move by the British, the Patriots newspapers began to use their influence to push for a boycott of British products and to import illegal products from the United States. Gatherings began to take place throughout Lower Canada, with thousands attending. The Governor forbid these gatherings but even those loyal to him were participating.

Governor Gosford’s supporters would leave him and begin to show support to the Patriots. Gosford then appointed seven French Canadian members to serve in the Legislative Assembly to gain the trust of the Patriots.

The largest Patriots gathering would be at the end of October, with thousands attending and it lasting for two days.

In his last speech before the beginning of the conflict, he said it was not time to fight yet and that actions on the political side of things could be taken. Wolfred Nelson spoke after him and said that he disagreed with Papineau and that it was time to fight.

On Nov. 6, 1837, a gathering was held in which the Doric Club arrived and began to fight with the patriots. This would escalate to severe violence and vandalism throughout Montreal and arrested warrants were issued for those involved.

The first real armed conflict of the rebellion would happen when 26 members of the Patriots were charged with illegal activities chose to resist their arrest. Papineau and others would have arrest warrants put against them. For their own safety, they left to the country and Papineau would escape to the United States.

On Nov. 16, Constable Malo was sent to arrest three patriots with 15 of his men. As they were transporting the patriots, 150 patriots were waiting for them. They liberated the men and with that move, their confidence was increased but they knew that the British would send the army to deal with them.

On Nov. 23, Wolfred Nelson and 800 men, half of whom had guns, were able to defeat a British force at Saint-Denis. The majority of the men were young but there were veterans in the group. The support of the men wavered but Nelson stated he would cut the throat of anyone who left. As for the British, they were under the command of Sir Charles Stephen Gore, who had 300 regulars and one cannon. By the end of the battle, the patriots had lost 12 men, with seven wounded. As for the British, they lost 54 men, with another 20 wounded and six missing.

The patriots were gaining confidence with their victory and they would meet the British again on Nov. 25 at Saint Charles. The patriots were under the command of Thomas Storrow Brown at this point, and had 200 to 250 men with 50 rifles. The British were led by George Wetherall, who had 406 infantry, 20 Calvary and two cannons. Within two hours, the British had taken the local hill and destroyed the encampment of the patriots. All the buildings of the camp were then burned, and Brown fled to Saint Denis where he was relieved of his command by Wolfred Nelson. With this defeat, the patriots 1,000 strong force began to abandon the cause and Nelson would fortify at Saint-Denis.

On Dec. 14, the British would take 2,000 men to meet the rebels at Saint Eustache. The rebels had 500 to 600 men and it would be a massive defeat for the patriots. I did an episode on the Battle of Saint Eustache earlier, and I would encourage you to listen to that.

The battle was a massive defeat for the patriots and it would spell the end of the Lower Canada Rebellion but it would result in the rebellion in Upper Canada. More on that later.

Over the course of the next year, those rebel leaders who made their way into the United States began to raid Lower Canada. Attempts would be made to establish a Republic of Canada by the leaders of the patriots, but this would end in defeat as by this point the British were not messing around and were sending large legions of troops out to deal with any uprising they found in Lower Canada.

After the second attempt at a rebellion in 1838, which was crushed much quicker, marital law was imposed and 99 people from that second rebellion were arrested and 12 were hung. Another 141 prisoners from both Upper and Lower Canada would be sent to Australia.

Onto the Upper Canada Rebellion, or as others call it, the Farmers’ Revolt. This rebellion was led by William Lyon Mackenzie, the first mayor of Toronto, who wanted the same things that they wanted in Lower Canada. Democratic reform and an end to the rule of the privileged oligarchy. Sir Francis Bond Head, the Lt. Gov. Of Upper Canada, was sent to appease the reformers but he did the opposite by helping the Conservatives win the election of 1836, which pushed out moderate reformers and gave Mackenzie the chance he needed to mobilize people. Mackenzie had been a critic of the government refusing to give political rights to American settlers and as a member of the Legislature by this point, he had pushed the government to organize political unions and he began to work with reformers in Lower Canada.

With the Lower Canada Rebellion, Mackenzie saw the shifting of troops from Upper Canada to Lower Canada, and he used the opportunity to draft a republican constitution for Upper Canada. He also urged his followers to seize control of the government at this point.

This would lead to the Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern. Between Dec. 5 and Dec. 8, 1837, 1,000 men gathered at the tavern in Toronto from the countryside. Many of those who came were of American origin.

On Dec. 5, 500 to 700 rebels with hunting rifles and pitchforks marched along Yonge Street in order to engage a smaller force of government loyalists and militia. On the way to meet the militia, the rebels came upon 20 loyalists who opened fire. The front rank of the rebel force returned fire and then dropped to the ground in order to assume a better firing position. The problem was that the rebels behind them had assumed they were killed and in their fear, they turned and left. In actuality, only two rebels died and one loyalist.

On Dec. 8, 1,000 volunteers loyal to the government dispersed the rebels at the tavern. The loyalist force included 120 black soldiers, just some of the hundreds of black Canadians who volunteered to serve.

This ended the very brief Battle of Montgomery’s Tavern.

A few days later near Branford, a second confrontation took place when 500 rebel men were easily defeated by government volunteers led by Sir Allan Napier MacNab.

Mackenzie and his followers would flee across the border  and would begin to launch raids into Canada over the course of the next year, while also trying to establish the Republic of Canada on an island in the Niagara River. I did an episode on this a few months back, and again, I encourage you to check it out.

At this point, after only a few days literally, the Upper Canada Rebellion was finished.

Let’s look at what happened to some of the leaders of the rebellions.

William Lyon Mackenzie, after serving as the president of the Republic of Canada from Dec. 13, 1837 to Jan. 14, 1838, would spend a period of exile in the United States before returning to Canada and serving as an elected member of the Province of Canada Legislative Assembly from 1851 to 1858. During that time, he would be a loud advocate for true reform. He would hit financial difficulties but his friends would help raise $,7,500 so he could buy a house and secure a loan for the newspaper he was releasing. He would pass away in 1861.

Wolfred Nelson, the man who gave the patriots their only victory in the Lower Canada Rebellion, would be exiled to Bermuda and be granted amnesty in 1842. In 1844, he was elected to the Parliament of the Province of Canada and in 1854, he became mayor of Montreal, serving until 1856. He would pass away in 1863.

Louis Joseph Papineau, the leader of the reformers, fled to the United States and lived in exile in New York City, where he would remain until 1845. He had been granted amnesty by this point and he returned to the Province of Canada. In 1848, he was elected to the Province of Canada Legislative Assembly and he would call for Canada to join the United States of America. He would lose his seat in 1851, but regain it in 1852. In 1854, he retired from public life but lived long enough to see Canada become a country. He would pass away in 1871.

Following the two rebellions, Lower and Upper Canada would be merged into the Province of Canada. I did an episode on that a few weeks back, and again I encourage you to check it out. From the Province of Canada, we would have a slow move to Canadian Confederation and the creation of Canada itself.

Today, the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions are seen as what might have happened if the American Revolutionary War did not succeed. In Quebec, the Lower Canada Rebellion is commemorated as National Patriots Day, and the day has become a symbol for the Quebec Independence Movement.

These rebellions, especially the Lower Canada Rebellion would lead us to the road of Canada today. Forgotten by many, their impact is still being felt.

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