We publish here the first of a five-part series of articles on the 1837-1838 Rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada. It is important that Marxists understand the place of these important events in the history of the class struggle in Canada and Quebec.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 

Canadians! It has been said that we are on the verge of a revolution. We are in the midst of one; a bloodless one, I hope, but a revolution to which all those which have been will be counted as mere child’s play.

– William Lyon MacKenzie, 1837

Canada has always been portrayed as a country in which the class struggle has been exempt; that the history of the country is that of a people who prefer evolution to revolution, in which law and order has flourished and persevered. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The history of Canada is a history rich in class struggle: rich in struggles for the overthrow of the established order and the establishment of a new one.

The rebellions of 1837-1838 in Upper and Lower Canada constitute one of the most important episodes of this history. It was a classic example of a situation in which the class contradictions reached a point where an open confrontation had to breakout.

The myth surrounding the rebellions makes one believe that this was simply one of the first manifestations of French-Canadian nationalism, while the insurrection in Upper Canada is hardly worth mentioning.

In this way, the history of this struggle is depicted as purely French-Canadian history, specifically for the liberation of Francophones from Anglophone domination. This allows the Quebecois bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie to justify the struggle for independence today under the banner of the defence of “Quebecois culture” and “the French language”.

However, if we look more closely, we see that the movement of the Patriots was not a movement that confined itself only to fighting for the rights of French-Canadians. The leaders of the movement in Lower Canada rejected this idea in numerous speeches. In reality, the rebellions were a class struggle, a struggle to eliminate colonialism. It was a struggle led by the petty-bourgeoisie of the Canadian colonies, supported by the small proletariat and the people against the colonial power which was defended by the merchant bourgeoisie, the colonial administrators and their armed forces, the nobles and the clergy. The Rebellions were the aborted bourgeois revolution in Canada.

An important task is to understand how the rebellions are regarded in Canadian history or even American history. What is the significance of the rebellions? Why did they breakout? What was the cause of the monumental defeat? What was the impact on the history of the rest of the country? Almost 180 years later, these are essential questions for all Marxists who want to understand Canadian history.

A complex colonial heritage

The rebellions broke out in the colonies where the class composition was rather complicated. Canada in 1830 did not fit into any preconceived schema. As Lenin and Trotsky noted, the rapid development of capitalism in some countries, and the subordination of the rest of the world to these nations creates unique situations in colonial and semi-colonial countries.

Canada was not an exception. The class composition was very complicated and was the result of a history with several abrupt changes. This history must be briefly outlined in order to understand how the rebellions developed.

With the English Revolution of 1648 led by Cromwell, the bourgeoisie became one of the dominant classes in England and capitalism rapidly developed. Under Cromwell, colonialism became more and more “energetic”, and the colonies developed systematically to the benefit of the English with their development occurring essentially on a capitalist basis.

In this way, we can explain the rapid development of a bourgeoisie in the American colonies, a bourgeoisie which became more and more conscious of its own interests and realized that its interests were divergent with those of the British Crown. The American Revolution completely demonstrated this divergence. The nascent American bourgeoisie succeeded in liberating itself from the chains of colonialism through a revolutionary war.

But in the French colonies, particularly in New France, things were very different. When England officially took possession of New France in 1763, which eventually became the Province of Quebec, the colony was under a seigneurial system.

It was the French King who granted the colony to a merchant trading company which re-divided the land between the seigneurs, who then distributed small plots of land to small land holders who became known as “habitants”. It was these habitants who had to pay taxes and rent – often arbitrarily – to the seigneurs, and the seigneurs had the rights to lumber, water, fishing, hunting, minerals, lime, stone, sand and so on. The real owner of the land however remained the King of France.

There was an important difference between the habitants of New France and the peasants in France: in New France, the habitants were obligated to work on their land but many were able to escape to the nearby forests, where they became trappers or participated in the fur trade. This mobility of the habitants resulted in unstable class relations which were less crystallized than in France.

With the establishment of the regime in New France, there were the seeds of future capitalism. In 1627, a charter granted the company of One Hundred Associates a monopoly on the fur trade. The fur trade helped to enrich the French monarchy but also encouraged the development of a relatively powerful merchant bourgeoisie in New France. On the other hand, this nascent bourgeoisie was not strong enough to oppose the monarchical authority. The merchants made important profits but were also heavily taxed in order to enrich the monarchy.

The ruling class in New France was therefore a complex mixture of feudal, religious and merchant elements. From the start, seigneuries (lordships) were granted to the King’s officials, to different religious orders and merchants. The state in New France was essentially a military regime where the church shared power with military authorities.

Another important difference was that in France, the absolutist regime had hundreds of years to perfect its domination. In New France, the semi-feudal regime was artificially transposed and contained the seeds of commercial capitalist interests; it was a system that was very unstable right from the start.

When England took control of New France in 1763, many questions arose. What was to be done with the seigneurial system? What were the Canadians going to do?

The merchants wanted free trade and representative institutions, but in the end the seigneurial system was maintained. The English military made an alliance with the Catholic Church and the seigneurs, against the aspirations of the rising merchants. Giving representative institutions to the Province of Quebec was refused; the military regime remained. It is obvious that it wasn’t in the interest of the Crown to permit representative institutions to the Francophone majority oppressed by a tiny Anglophone minority.

We should also note that the class relations remained essentially the same after the conquest of Quebec. 140 of the 200 seigneurs remained and the others were replaced by the English. Many French merchants were ruined, but Anglophones took their place. The difference is obviously the creation of the national question, with the domination of the English over the Francophones subjects. This question will be discussed in more detail later on.

The American Revolution and the arrival of the loyalists

The American Revolution marks an important qualitative change in world history and in the history of Canada as well. Never before had the bourgeois revolution been conducted on such a scale. For the first time in the history of America, the people broke free from their colonial oppressors; Lenin spoke of this revolution as “one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars.”

Analyzing the failure to spread the revolution to Quebec and the other Canadian colonies is beyond the scope of this article. But it is important to analyze one of the most important consequences of the revolution for the subject at hand: the arrival of the loyalists in Canada.

During and after the American War of Independence, tens of thousands of Americans settled in the English colonies of Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

Around 7,500 settled in what is now Ontario and this led to the Constitutional Act of 1791, which declared the separation Quebec into two distinct colonies: Upper Canada, which was Anglophone, and Lower Canada, which had a Francophone majority.

At the political level, the Constitutional Act granted Upper and Lower Canada elected legislative assemblies for the first time in history. Yet this was not a question of a simple gift made to Canadian subjects: with the newly republican United States to the south, there was a great risk that Canadians would demand democracy as well. And with the French Revolution breaking out previous to this, the movement for democracy was gaining momentum and was having repercussions all over the world.

Moreover, the secretary of state for the British colonies shortly after the storming of the Bastille in France wrote that it was wise “to make concessions at the moment when they will be seen as a favour and we can manage and direct their implementation rather than waiting and having them torn from us by force.” Here we see the real intentions of the Crown with this concession that had the appearance of democracy.

The Act of 1791 and the development of the new provinces

In spite of this concession, the elected assemblies in Upper and Lower Canada were not sovereign governments. Effectively, there was a governor general above the assemblies, chosen by London who also personally selected the members of the executive and Legislative Council (the upper house) of each province. All of the bills adopted in the assemblies had to be approved by the non-elected legislative council, followed by the governor.

In other words, the assembly decided nothing at all, while the real power was in the hands of the governor chosen by London and its Legislative Council. Between 1822 and 1836, 234 bills adopted in the assembly were rejected by the unelected Legislative Council in Lower Canada. In Upper Canada, 300 bills were rejected.

Therefore, this semblance of a democratic concession was nothing of the sort. Lord Durham, who was charged with investigating the rebellions of 1837 and 1838, correctly said that the political regime seemed to be established specifically with the purpose of creating anger in the colonies.

On the economic front, the development in Upper and Lower Canada took paths that were a bit different following the division into two provinces.

In Lower Canada, the seigneurial system remained, but there was an important phenomenon that arose: the purchase of seigneuries and non-cultivated land by rich merchant English capitalists. There was therefore a growing interpenetration of interests of merchant capitalists and seigneurial interests. For example, in 1833, the British American Land Company came into the possession of 850,000 acres in the eastern townships.

The alliance between the colonial administrators, the seigneurs and the clergy (who possessed two million acres of the land, compared with six million for the seigneurs), and merchant capitalism was therefore reinforced. They formed what became known as the “Chateau Clique”, a clique that dominated the economy and the politics of Lower Canada. It was this clique that dominated the unelected legislative council. It should also be noted that this clique was comprised of primarily English and French seigneurs not to mention the tacit alliance with the Francophone clergy.

In the second province of Upper Canada, the seigneurial system did not exist. The Crown granted free land to loyalists in Upper Canada which was developed on the basis of capitalist agriculture. It should however be noted that the loyalists were not a majority of the population of Upper Canada. According to historian Stanley B. Ryerson, they accounted for only one quarter of the population in 1812. The definition a loyalist was precise: anyone who was born in America or who lived there during the revolution, had performed valuable services to the crown and had left the United States during the war or afterwards. In Upper Canada, the desertion deadline from the United States in order to be considered a loyalist was established in 1798. However, these people were not the only ones to leave the United States for Canada: the migration of the loyalists also led to a migration of simple farmers looking for land, and it was only the loyalists who were given special privileges like free land.

In addition, the land was distributed in order to artificially create an aristocracy in the province and a differentiation even inside of the loyalist population. Indeed, for the free plots of land, the Crown granted 200 acres to loyalist soldiers who fought in the American Revolution but 5,000 acres were given to the officers. As well, one seventh of the land was reserved for the Church of England and one seventh for the Crown. The Crown lands were then seized by rich merchants and privileged government functionaries.

The spirit of these measures was to artificially create a military, merchant and clerical aristocracy, dependent on the Crown for its privileges and allied with the King’s functionaries, so that Upper Canada could become a bulwark against republican and anti- colonial ideas. This aristocracy became baptized as the “Family Compact”.

In the end, in both provinces, a tiny clique composed of the Church, the colonial administration, the merchant capitalists and the seigneurs (in Lower Canada) formed a reactionary bloc, a bloc that was not homogenous, but had an interest in defending the interests of the Crown.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the development of capitalist industry began in both provinces, with an emerging proletariat and an industrial bourgeoisie. This ultimately prepared the ground for a conflict between the merchant bourgeoisie and its clique, and the embryo of the industrial bourgeoisie.

The development of capitalist industry in Canada essentially met the needs created by Napoleon’s blockade in Europe against the British Empire. The Crown required wood and ships and it was in Upper and Lower Canada in which the necessary resources were located. The lumber industry developed and the number of shipyards multiplied in both provinces. This was the first – albeit relatively small – industrial boom in Canada.

Nonetheless, capitalist industry needs roads, means of communication, transportation and a well-developed division of labour in order to come to full fruition. However, in Upper and Lower Canada, the grip of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique greatly hindered the development of these requirements.

In Upper Canada, rich land owners would leave their land uninhabited and untouched. Quite often, land owners did not even live there. Many rich landlords were simply holding onto the land for reasons of speculation in order to sell it later for a good price. In this way, there were immense tracts of deserted tracts of land interposed between the inhabited lands.

This complicated communication and transportation in addition to adversely affecting the division of labour. As well, the merchant bourgeoisie preferred to invest in speculation on the land than invest in industry. The fledgling industry was constantly in need of capital.

William Lyon MacKenzie, the main reformist leader in Upper Canada, brilliantly explained in the first issue of the reformist journal the Colonial Advocate, how the economy of the colonies was subordinated to the interests of the British metropolis and its lackeys:

“We earnestly desire to see established, throughout Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, efficient societies for the improvement of arts and Manufactures. We would like to see the manufacturer not quite four thousand miles from the farmer. We would like to see less apathy, not only in the government but in the governed, in regard to this important topic. Our foreign commerce, confined and shackled as it is, and as it has been, is entirely in the hands of the British capitalists; our lumber trade is merely encouraged to support British worn-out shipping. We are inundated – glutted with British manufactures.”

In Lower Canada, the situation was also difficult due to colonial constraints. Land which was newly purchased by rich English capitalists was also left untouched. The division of land into seigneuries and the monopoly on the land by rich merchants hindered the industrialization of agriculture.

The growing monopoly of the land was a way to squeeze the inhabitants on their territory and prevent them from spreading onto larger plots of land. Therefore, with the growth of the population, space would run out and a sizable part of the population would be forced to move into the cities to find work. Yet in the cities as well, there was a shortage of capital, and the inhabitants as well as the numerous immigrants from England and Ireland were forced to leave for the United States. In the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of Canadian families left for America.

The colonial system, founded on the enrichment of the metropolis, was a hindrance to the development of emerging industrial capitalism. Since 1784, Canadian trade with the West Indies and the United States was severely limited. The Navigation Laws established that all transportation of commodities headed to or from Canada had to be conducted with British ships. The exorbitant prices of British commodities resulted in Canadian farmers becoming more and more indebted.

It is also important to note the impact of the British Corn Laws on Canada. The Corn Laws were such that if the price of wheat fell below a certain level, the wheat could not be imported from the colonies to England. Wheat was a major part of production mainly in Upper Canada. The Corn Laws, in addition to other limitations to trade with countries other than England, were an enormous restriction to trade.

In summary, the colonial interests of the British Empire, defended in the two Canadas by the merchant bourgeoisie, the landlords and seigneurs, the Church and the colonial administration became an immense barrier to the development of the productive forces in the colonies. It was necessary to throw off this colonial structure in order to ensure that the full development of capitalism in Canada which, at the time, was a progressive step forward in the history of the country.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5