We publish here the second 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 

The birth of the movement in the colonies

It is in this context that two parallel movements arose in the early 1800s. The Reform Movement in Upper Canada, and movement around the Parti canadien in Lower Canada, which would later be called the Parti patriote.

These movements were first and foremost movements to reform the government of the provinces in favour of a real democracy. They were inspired by similar movements, especially those of their American neighbours. For example, during the 1831-1832 parliamentary session, Thomas Lee of the Parti patriote, deplored the fact that the Canadians had not made common cause with the Americans in 1775. Louis-Joseph Papineau, one of the most prominent leaders of the Patriotes, declared that “it is certain that before too long, all the Americas must be republican.” In his book Histoire de l’Insurrection, written after the events, Papineau explains: “It is not the English statutes which will resolve the immediate future of Canada; this future is written in the declarations of the rights of man and in the political constitutions that our good, wise and happy neighbours, the independent Americans, have been given.” The bourgeois-democratic character of the movement is implicit in the struggle against the yoke of the British Empire.

In Upper Canada, the Reformers called for “responsible government,” that is to say one which is accountable to the people, not the King. In Lower Canada, the Patriotes called for an elected Legislative Council, rather than one appointed by a governor who was himself appointed by the King. It was another way of saying they wanted a government responsible to the people.

Another important demand was control of the budget by elected representatives. In both provinces, the unelected Council could set the budget, even against the will of the elected Assembly. The Patriotes and the Reformers demanded that the budget be controlled by the elected representatives of the people.

In 1830, William Lyon MacKenzie, the main leader of the movement in Upper Canada, put forward a five-point program:

  1. An executive accountable to the province for its conduct;
  2. Control of provincial revenues by the legislature;
  3. The independence of the judiciary;
  4. Reform of the Legislative Council;
  5. Equal rights for all religions and complete separation of church and state.

In August 1837, a political meeting in Trafalgar, Upper Canada, adopted a request for freedom of commerce. This was a reflection of the economic problems faced by colonies. That same year, MacKenzie clearly expressed the need to free the country’s industry in an article in his newspaper The Constitution:

“The question today is not between one reigning family or another, between one people and another, between one form of government or another, but a question between privilege and equal rights, between law sanctioned, law fenced in privilege, age consecrated privilege, and a hitherto unheard of power, a new power just started from the darkness in which it has slumbered since creation day, the Power of Honest Industry.”

In Lower Canada, the Patriotes‘ demands were essentially the same. In 1833, Papineau proposed a convention to discuss a new constitution. The spirit of Papineau’s demands was to allow Canada to reform its own constitution. In 1834, the Patriotes presented to the British Crown the famous 92 Resolutions, demanding the supremacy of parliament, the right to amend their constitution, and the right to control public spending. It also called for an end subordination and political exclusion of francophones, who had little to no representation in decision-making bodies of the state.

In Lower Canada the demand for free trade was more confused, but in 1834, the tactic was to boycott British products in favour of domestic products. It was a tactic inspired by that of the Americans before their revolution. This was a way to protest against the high cost of British goods, and against the restrictions on freedom of commerce. The boycott movement would gain momentum in 1837.

The struggle taking shape was the political expression of an emerging capitalist system in revolt against the straitjacket of colonial force imposed upon it. Ultimately, the struggle between the Councils and Assemblies, the struggles for responsible government in Upper Canada and the elected Legislative Council in Lower Canada, reflected this impasse and the need for a revolutionary transformation of social relations of production. The development of capitalism in Canada needed the overthrow of colonial rule.

In hindsight, it is clear that the demands of the movements in the colonies were leading to a logical conclusion: they had to escape the clutches of the British Crown, to become independent. The British Empire had never yielded an inch without fighting fiercely to maintain its power, and it would be no different this time.

Despite this, the movements were not initially for independence as such. For example, the 92 Resolutions of 1834 simply asserted that if the Crown made no concessions to the colony, Lower Canada should “look elsewhere” remedies for his problems. But the first of these resolutions began by affirming allegiance to the Crown.

It was only much later, in the mid 1830s, that the goal of independence began to take clearer shape in the two provinces. As the struggle developed, it was clear that the British Empire would not give democracy as a gift, and that it would have to be acquired by the separation from the Crown. The radicals within movement, under pressure from the masses, would eventually realize this and openly demand independence.

Class in the Rebellions

As mentioned, the ruling classes united against any development of the colony were the rich capitalist merchants, colonial administrators, the Church, and the seigneurs of Lower Canada. These form a bloc opposed to reforms, and even more so to the independence of the colonies.

It is important to note that within the Church, there was a significant difference between the higher levels and the lower clergy. The higher clergy definitely supported the British Empire, but some francophone priests supported the Patriotes, with some even giving active support to the resistance against British forces in 1837. This is explained by the fact that the higher clergy was entirely dependent on colonial authorities for their power, which meant that they had a vested interest in its continuation. Meanwhile the lower clergy, rooted in local communities, was much closer to the masses, and could see and feel their misery caused by colonial oppression.

As for the seigneurs of Lower Canada, they were all on the side of the Crown, except one: Louis- Joseph Papineau himself! But Papineau was truly the exception; the others were loyal to the Crown, whether anglophone or francophone. The seigneurial system had been maintained after the conquest by the British and was now part of the colonial power. It was obvious to the seigneurs that any movement succeeding in overthrowing colonial rule would effectively lead to a solution to the agrarian question which would have inevitably ended the seigneurial system and land monopolies. This would have meant the end of the power of large landowners, which they were not willing to accept.

The big merchant bourgeoisie of the colonies was of course a counter-revolutionary force. They had no interest in severing ties with the “mother country.” The merchant bourgeoisie derived their power, wealth and privileges from their position in the colonial trade. They depended on trade restrictions to preserve their wealth and power, and as increasingly important landowners, naturally they insisted that the colonial system and land monopolies remain intact.

The numerically weak middle bourgeoisie however, did support the concerns of the Reformers and the Patriotes to some extent. But the movement would eventually split between the radicals and the moderates, leaving the middle bourgeoisie on the moderate side. This layer saw themselves prevented from developing fully by the colonial system and its obstacles, but it was politically weak, and lacked confidence in its ability to fight against the colonial power or survive without it. Hence the hesitation and divisions on whether to support the movement.

The leadership of the movement for the emancipation of the colonies fell mainly to the petty bourgeoisie, the liberal professionals. The movement’s leaders included John Rolph, Thomas Morrison, William Baldwin, Jean-Olivier Chénier, and Wolfred Nelson, who were all doctors, the lawyer Papineau, the journalist MacKenzie, etc. The social weight of the petty bourgeoisie had increased considerably in the 20 years preceding the Rebellions; between 1815 and 1838 they had gone from 331 to 939 individuals in Lower Canada. The professional petty bourgeoisie in this period comprised 74% of the deputies in the Assembly of Lower Canada and was the core of the Parti patriote. It is easy to understand why.

At the time, the basic social infrastructure such as schools were very underdeveloped, and accessible to only a few people. A large portion of peasants and workers were illiterate and the road to parliamentary political involvement was very difficult to navigate. In this context, it was the people who had the most contact with the broader population, whether doctors, lawyers, or journalists, to whom fell the burden of representing their interests.

This petty-bourgeois social layer could see with their own eyes the sufferings of the people and the delayed development of all the normal amenities of a civilized society, schools, hospitals, the justice system, etc. Therefore they naturally tended to take part in the movement for reform. This explains their dominant role.

The peasantry – the habitants as they were called in Lower Canada – were the largest class in the colonies. Historian Allan Greer explains in his book The Patriots and the People how they actively participated in the revolutionary movement in Lower Canada in 1837. However, he noted that their action remained constantly under the supervision of the Patriots leaders, and that they never played independent role. This is typical of the peasant class. The habitants, scattered throughout the territory and even more isolated from each other than French peasants, could not be an independent force capable of leading the revolution. As we said earlier, the habitants enjoyed a certain social mobility which French peasantry did not, which made them an even more heterogeneous class.

What was the specific place and role of the Canadian proletariat in the Rebellions? It is clear that the proletariat was not able to play a leadership role in the movements of Patriotes or the Reformers. It had only been a few years that the unions had appeared on Canadian territory. However, despite a low level of organization and their low numbers, Canadian workers left their stamp on the movement and within political parties struggling against the aristocracy in both provinces. MacKenzie said that the workers were “those on whom we can count.”

In 1834, the trade unionists of Montreal gave their support to the 92 Resolutions, while two years later, in Quebec City, the workers signed a declaration of confidence in Louis-Joseph Papineau. The newspaper La Minerve wrote that “in Quebec City, as in Montreal, there is the massive participation of workers at Patriotes meetings.” It is clear that the working class would support and play an important role in the approaching Canadian revolution.

The conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat made its way into the pages of the reactionary newspapers: one of them, the Montreal Gazette, urged merchants to force their employees not to vote for the Patriotes!

Increasingly, the Parti patriote and the Reformers of Upper Canada echoed the pressure of the working class and the habitants, and revealed the latent class contradictions in Canadian society. The Vindicator, the radical Patriotes newspaper in Lower Canada, wrote with remarkable clarity:

“Traders as a group are a useful class, but they are not the most patriotic. … They attach more importance to financial independence than political independence. They would gladly wear the most ignominious chains if they were gold. … To establish a healthy political society, we must turn to the classes whose work is the real source of wealth.”

We have already said that MacKenzie stated that the workers were the ones the movement could rely on. But he went further in his propaganda. In an address to York County published in May 1837, MacKenzie wrote “Work is the true source of wealth.” Later, he added: “How are the services of a bank … required to produce the wealth and prosperity which, as I have shown, are the result of a useful application of labour and industry? In no way whatsoever.”

We can see that as time progressed, the movement for the liberation of Canada took on a more clear class character. It is obvious that the working class supported and played an important role in the movement, without being powerful enough to form the leadership. But nature abhors a vacuum; with the bourgeoisie not strong enough politically and the proletariat too small and undeveloped to lead the revolution, the leadership of the colonial liberation movement fell mainly upon the petty bourgeoisie, the liberal professionals – for better or for worse.

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