Lower Canada Rebellion
The Lower Canada Rebellion (French: rébellion du Bas-Canada), commonly referred to as the Patriots' War (French: Guerre des patriotes) by French-speaking Quebecers, is the name given to the armed conflict in 1837–38 between the rebels of Lower Canada (now southern Quebec) and the British colonial power of that province. Together with the simultaneous rebellion in the neighbouring colony of Upper Canada (now southern Ontario), it formed the Rebellions of 1837–38 (French: rébellions de 1837–38).
As a result of the rebellions, the Province of Canada was created from the former provinces of Lower Canada and Upper Canada.
The rebellion was preceded by nearly three decades of efforts at political reform in Lower Canada, led from the early 1800s by James Stuart and Louis-Joseph Papineau, who formed the Parti Patriote and sought accountability from the elected general assembly and appointed governor of the colony. In 1791, after the Constitutional Act, Lower Canada could elect a House of Assembly. It created the rise of two parties: the English and the Canadian party. The English party was mostly composed of the English Merchants bourgeoisie and had the support of bureaucrats and old seigneurial families. The Canadian party was formed by aristocrats, French or English. The Church didn’t participate for any political party, but they tended to support the British party. With the power in the hand of the population, the French-Canadian business class needed support from the population more than support from the British business bourgeoisie. The population being in majority French-Canadian in Lower Canada, the people elected at the House of Assembly were mostly French-speaking and supported the French-Canadian Business Class. The House of Assembly gave an illusion of power to the French population, but the Executive and Legislative Council were there to advise the governor who could veto all legislation. Both councils were made of people chosen in the British party. The appointed legislative council (a type of upper house) was dominated by a small group of businessmen known as the Château Clique, the equivalent of the Family Compact in Upper Canada.
During the early 19th century, there was a drastic change in the economy of Lower Canada. The lumber started to be more important than the fur trade or the agriculture, which caused fear for the population working in those fields. Activists in Lower Canada began to work for reform in a period of economic disfranchisement of the French-speaking majority and working-class English-speaking citizens. The rebellion protested the injustice of colonial governing as such, in which the governor and upper house of the legislature were appointed by the Crown. Many of its leaders and participants were English-speaking citizens of Lower Canada. The French speakers felt that English speakers were disproportionately represented in the lucrative fields of banking, the timber trade, and transportation industry.
In 1807, the governor became Sir James Henry Craig. During his five years as governor, multiple crisis happened. He set off the elections three times in 16 months because he was not satisfied with the people elected, even though the same people were elected each time. Craig thought that the Canadian party and their supporters wanted to become a French-Canadian republic. He also feared that if the United States tried to invade Lower Canada, the French-Canadian would participate with them. In 1810, Craig imprisoned the journalists working at the newspaper Le Canadien. Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, the leader of the Canadian party at the time and also editor at the newspaper, was sent in jail. It created a crisis in the party about who would be at the leadership.
During the War of 1812, there were always rumours in the colony of a possible invasion. The French-Canadians were dependent on the protection of Britain, so it created a certain unity in the colony during times of war.
At the same time, some among the English speaking business elite advocated a union of Upper and Lower Canada in order to ensure competitiveness on a national scale with the increasingly large and powerful economy of the United States (some rebels had been inspired by the US' successful war of independence). The unification of the colony was favoured by the British-appointed governor, George Ramsey, Earl of Dalhousie. In Lower Canada, the growing sense of nationalism among English and the French-speaking citizens was organized into the Parti Canadien (after 1826 called the Parti Patriote).
In 1811, James Stuart became leader of the Parti Canadien in the assembly and in 1815, reformer Louis-Joseph Papineau was elected as assembly speaker in Lower Canada. The elected assembly had little power; its decisions could be vetoed by the legislative council and the governor, all of whom were appointed by the British government. Governor Dalhousie and Papineau were soon at odds over the issue of uniting the Canadas. Dalhousie forced an election in 1827 rather than accept Papineau as assembly speaker.He was hoping that the elected members would change but they didn't. He decided to prorogue the parliament. The population reacted by sending a petition signed by 87,000 people to London against Lord Dalhousie. Sympathizers to the reform movement in England had Dalhousie forced from his position and reassigned to India. But the legislative council and the assembly were not able to reach a compromise.
For a short period of time from 1828 to 1832, there was a calm in the colony and the Assembly was able to vote different laws that were important for the colony. In 1832, the Patriots’ newspapers published controversial stuff about the Legislative Council and the two people at the heads of those newspapers got arrested. This created a big tension in the population against the British government. Even more when the army shot three people in a crowd during the elections of 1832 and nobody got arrested for what they did.
After hearing about the 99 grievances submitted by Robert Gourlay, Papineau wrote the "Ninety-two Resolutions" while secretly coordinating with Upper Canada. After protestors were shot in Montreal in 1832, Papineau had no choice but to submit the list of "resolutions" to the governor himself. The 92 resolutions is a document that was presented to the House of Assembly on January 7, 1834. It is made of 92 griefs and demands for the British government. By 1834, the assembly had passed the Ninety-two Resolutions, outlining its grievances against the legislative council. The goal of the 92 resolutions was to group all together in a single document what the population thought was concerning. It was addressed to the British government to tell them how bad their colony was going and all the problems in encounter. At that point, the Patriote movement was supported by an overwhelming majority of the Lower Canada population of all origins. There were popular gatherings all around the province to sign a petition that was sent to London with the 92 resolutions to show that it was something that lots of people supported. Later in 1834, the Parti Patriote swept the election, gaining more than three-quarters of the popular vote.
When London received the 92 resolutions, they asked Governor Lord Gosford to analyze the patriots’ griefs. At first, Lord Gosford was trying to attract the Patriots away from Papineau and his influence. However, this same governor created a loyal militia made of volunteers to fight against the Patriots. In 1836, the government was able to vote some subsidies to the administration during the assembly because the assembly members from the City of Québec decided to go against Papineau. This period of calm for the British government didn’t last long because a month later Papineau found governor Gosford’s secret instructions. Those said that the British never planned on accepting the 92 resolutions.
But, the reformers in Lower Canada were divided over several issues. A moderate reformer named John Neilson had quit the party in 1830 and joined the Constitutional Association four years later. Papineau's anti-clerical position alienated reformers in the Catholic Church, and his support for secular rather than religious schools resulted in opposition by the powerful bishop, Jean-Jacques Lartigue. Lartigue called on all Catholics to reject the reform movement and support the authorities, forcing many to choose between their religion and their political convictions.
In 1837, the Russel resolutions rejected all of the patriots’ resolutions and gave the right to the governor to take subsidies without voting in the Assembly. It also says that the legislative council will continue to be chosen by the Crown. The Russel Resolutions were adopted in Westminster by a big majority.
Organizing for armed conflict
Papineau continued to push for reform. He petitioned the British government but in March 1837, the government of Lord Melbourne rejected all of Papineau's requests. After the announce of the Russel Resolutions, the Patriots at the Assembly decide to use their newspapers to organize popular gatherings to inform the population about the government actions. For example, they encourage the population to boycott the British products and to import illegal products from the United States. These gatherings took place all around Lower Canada and thousands of people participated. Louis-Joseph Papineau attended to most of the gatherings during the summer of 1837 to make sure that people would pressure the government by only political measures, like the boycott of the British products. Governor Gosford tried to forbid those gatherings, but even the people that were supposed to be loyal to him, participated in the gatherings. At the end of the summer, a lot of Gosford’s local representatives quit and show support to the Patriots’ movement. Lord Gosford hired loyal people and tried to gain the Patriots’ trust by choosing seven French-Canadian members at the Legislative Assembly. In September and October of 1837, a bunch of patriots that were more radical tried to intimidate the British government by going out into the street and break things around the houses of certain loyal people. At the end of October, the biggest of the Patriots’ gatherings took place in Saint-Charles, at the lead was Wolfred Nelson. It lasted for two days during which they formed La Confédération des Six-Comtés. Papineau organized protests and assemblies, and eventually approved formation of the paramilitary Société des Fils de la Liberté during the assemblée des six-comtés.
In the last speech that Papineau did before the armed conflict, he said that it is not the time to fight yet. He thought that there was still actions to take on the political side before fighting. Wolfred Nelson made his speech right after that and said that he didn’t agree with Papineau and he thought that it was time to fight. After this gathering called L’Assemblée des Six-Comtés, the patriots’ movement was divided in two because some supported Papineau and some supported Nelson. On the other side, the supporters of the Russel Resolutions, called Constitutional Association led by Peter McGill and John Molson, also held gatherings around the province. They wanted the army to put order back in the colony.
On November 6, 1837, Les Fils de la Liberté are doing a gathering in Montréal, when the Doric Club start fighting against them. This caused violence and vandalism everywhere in the city of Montréal. After this, they have put arrest warrants against the people responsible for the fight, which they consider being the leaders of the Assemblée des Six-Comtés. The first armed conflict occurred in 1837 when the 26 members of the Patriote movement, who had been charged with illegal activities, chose to resist their arrest by the authorities under the direction of John Colborne. Arrest warrants against Louis-Joseph Papineau and a lot of other assembly members are released. They decided to leave Montréal to go out in the country for their safety. Papineau escaped to the United States, and other rebels organized in the countryside.
On November 16, Constable Malo was sent to arrest three patriots. He transported them to from Saint-Jean with a crew of 15 people. The prisoners were liberated in Longueuil where 150 patriots were waiting for them. This victory gave a lot of confidence to the patriots. They knew that with this event, they could expect the army pretty soon to intervene. However, the patriots were not quite ready to fight an army. Led by Wolfred Nelson, they defeated a British force at Saint-Denis on November 23, 1837. He had 800 people ready fight, half of them had guns and some of them were not brave. Nelson had to threaten them to make sure that they wouldn’t leave. Papineau was not there during this fight which surprised a lot of people. The British troops soon beat back the rebels, defeating them at Saint-Charles on November 25 and at Saint-Eustache on December 14. The troops pillaged and ransacked Saint-Eustache. On December 5, the government declared martial law in Montreal. At the battle of Saint-Charles, the patriots were defeated. General Brown was confident, but he couldn’t lead his troops very well. There was no discipline in the camp. Different people offered support to Brown by offering him men, but Brown turned down all the offers. Once the battle started, Brown escaped the fight. After the Battle of Saint-Charles, Nelson tried to keep Saint-Denis safe but there was nothing to do, he knew there was no hope. The main leaders, like Papineau, O’Callaghan and Nelson, left for the United States. The last battle of the rebellions of 1837 was the Battle of Saint-Eustache. When the time of the battle came, on December 14, 1837, there were between 500 and 600 people ready to fight. The British troops were expecting a strong resistance, so they had 2000 men. Most patriot leaders were killed or left during the fight. The Battle of Saint-Eustache was a horrible defeat. The defeat of the rebellions of 1837 can be explained by the fact that the patriots were not quite ready to fight.
When news of the arrest of the Patriote leaders reached Upper Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie launched an armed rebellion in December 1837. In the meantime, filibusters from the United States, the Hunter Patriots, formed a small militia and attacked Windsor, Upper Canada, to support the Canadian Patriots. This resulted in the declaration of martial law by the Lower Canadian government.
After the insurrection of 1837, the army was preparing themselves in case of another armed conflict. They reorganized the whole organization, mostly in the urban areas like Montréal and Quebec. The British army had 5000 men posted in Lower Canada. The British government knew that the leaders of the patriots’ movement were in the United States so they had spies and the American government kept them updated if there were any actions going on. The following year, leaders who had escaped across the border into the United States raided Lower Canada in February 1838. During the summer of 1838, the patriots in the United States formed a secret society, called Frères Chasseurs. Their plan was to invade Lower Canada from the United States. The secret group also had members in Lower Canada itself which would help them invade. They wanted an independent state of Lower Canada.
Two major armed conflicts occurred when groups of Lower Canadian Patriotes, led by Robert Nelson, crossed the Canada–US border in an attempt to invade Lower Canada and Upper Canada, drive out the British army and establish two independent republics. A second revolt began with the Battle of Beauharnois in November 1838. It was also crushed by forces of the colonial government.
The Frères Chasseurs had camps around Lower Canada where they were getting armed. The main campus was in Napierville. They had a lot of participants, but not enough weapons to fight. They were planning on taking control of the road between the United States and Napierville, but they got intercepted by volunteers. The Frères Chasseurs got defeated in 30 minutes.
Shortly after, Nelson and other members came from Napierville to take control of the same area. However, volunteers were already waiting, and they had help from the Loyal Rangers of Clarenceville. This time, the battle lasted longer, but the Frères Chasseurs still got defeated. After that defeat, three secondary camps got scattered very easily by armed volunteers. After those camps got destroyed, the patriots mostly left the camps when they heard that the army approached. The army was barely involved in the second uprising of the patriots.
Britain dispatched Lord Durham to investigate the cause of the rebellion. His report in 1839 recommended that the Canadas be united into one colony (the Province of Canada) to assimilate the French-speaking Canadiens into Anglophone British culture. For Durham, the fact that there was two groups (English and French) created a hostile environment. He thought that the way to solve to problems in Lower Canada was to assimilate the French-Canadians to the British language and culture. It would’ve then eliminated the inferiority feeling of the French-Canadians and fixed all the problems in the colony. He also recommended accepting to the rebels’ grievances by granting responsible government to the new colony.
After the first insurrection, a lot of people were made prisoners at the Pied-du-courant prison in Montréal. They sent way too many people in the prison than the prison capacity so in July Lord Durham emptied the prison. However, when battles started again in 1838, they filled up the prison with even more prisoners. At this time, the martial law allowed the government to put people in prison without any reason to do so. They convicted 99 people to death penalty from the second rebellion. They hung 12 of them. The last time they executed people were on February 15, 1839. The government stopped the execution after that because they were scared that the population would feel bad for the prisoners. Some of the prisoners that were left were sent to Australia. In total, with the prisoners from Lower and Upper Canada, they sent 141 people to Australia. Once in Australia, they were sent in camps where they were forcing them to work. Most people sent in Australia came back to Canada after they were giving their redemption in 1844. However, they had to pay their trip back home, by 1845 most of them had returned to Canada.
Following the military defeat of the Patriotes, Lower Canada was merged with Upper Canada under the Union Act. The Canadiens had a narrow majority in the new political entity, and with continued emigration of English-speakers to Ontario, this dominance was short lived. Eight years after the Union, a responsible elected government was set up in the united Province of Canada. The instability of this new regime (see Joint Premiers of the Province of Canada) eventually led to the formation of the Great Coalition. In 1867, there was another major constitutional change and formation of the Canadian Confederation.
The rebellion of the Patriotes Canadiens of Lower Canada, taken along with the Upper Canadian Rebellion, is often seen as the example of what might have occurred in the United States if the American Revolutionary War had failed. In Quebec, the rebellion (as well as the parliamentary and popular struggle) is now commemorated as the Journée nationale des Patriotes (National Patriotes Day) on the Canadian statutory holiday, Victoria Day. Since the late 20th century, it has become a symbol for the contemporary Quebec independence movement (and to a lesser extent a symbol of Canada's small republican movement).
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