We publish here the third 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 

Radicalization and splitting of the movement

The patriot movement and the reform movement both passed through a period of radicalization. Confronted with the constant refusals from London to give in to anything, the demands became more insistent and the idea of independence gained ground. However, the radicalization of the movement had its downside: the split between the radicals and the moderates. This is a phenomenon that is unique to all revolutions in history: there is always a wing that looks to simply find a compromise in order to take their place in the sun, while another is pushed down the road towards the revolutionary transformation of society.

During this entire period that preceded 1836-1838, the approach of the reformist leadership of the Patriots was to turn to the Crown for a solution regarding the problems in the colonies. They hoped that the Crown would grant the colonies the right to improve their lot and were seeking a compromise within the limits of the system.

This was the spirit of the 92 Resolutions of 1834 in Lower Canada. The resolutions were not written to be read by the masses: endless sentences, written in a language that seems intentionally complex demonstrates this. The resolutions were not intended to galvanize the people, but to convince London.

Even though the resolutions were not a declaration of independence, it was these resolutions that confirmed the split between the radicals and the moderates. It was John Nelson, owner of a print shop and one of the leaders of the Patriot Party, who formed a right-wing group within the Patriots and ended up distancing himself from the party after the publication of the 92 Resolutions. The moderate wing that Nelson led considered them to be too radical: “From the moment we attack the constitution, we unleash popular passions.” Within Nelson’s group at the time was A. Cuvillier, a member of the administrative council of the Bank of Montreal, who ended up leading a militia against the Patriots in 1837! We see here that even at this time, 60 years after the American Revolution, the embryo of the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie in Canada had already given up overthrowing colonial rule and was looking to make a favourable deal with the aristocracy. By the 1830s, fear of a popular movement that was “too radical” was stronger than their desires to cut ties with Britain amongst a layer of the Patriots.

As soon as the right jumped ship, the radical Patriots radicalized even more and they had the support of the population. In 1834, a petition supporting the 92 Resolutions gathered 80,000 names from a population of approximately 600,000. An election in the same year was basically seen as a referendum on the 92 Resolutions (which formed the Patriot’s electoral program), and the Patriot Party gained 77 per cent of the votes. John Neilson, the moderate, lost his seat. In Lower Canada, the 92 Resolutions were approved by a large majority of the population, which included English and Irish people. While the Canadian Party (predecessor of the Patriot Party), had Francophone nationalist tendencies, the Patriots became a party of the masses in the province, including Anglophones and Francophones, and became the vehicle by which new organs of power were created in 1837 in Lower Canada.

In Upper Canada, the movement also passed through a period of radicalization in the 1830s. In 1828, the reformists won the majority in the assembly and passed a vote of “no confidence” in the Executive Council by a majority of 37 out of 38 votes. By the end of 1834, in Upper Canada the Canadian Alliance Society was formed. This was an organization of Patriots which had the objective to educate the masses and to carry out political propaganda with the goal of “entering into close alliances with any similar association Lower Canada or the other colonies.” Mackenzie, the main leader of the reformists in Upper Canada, who was himself a radical, was, in 1834, elected as the first mayor in the history of Toronto, one of the most important cities in Upper Canada.

The political evolution of Mackenzie was a completed expression of the process of radicalization of the movement. In 1831, MacKenzie wrote to John Neilson, then Patriot leader:

“There is a lot of irritation among the people about the procedures of this House, but the system is so corrupt that … I do not see the cure right now. The people could petition, but what would that serve? The more I understand the system, the more I hate it, and the more I feel disposed to do my best … to change things.”

MacKenzie was therefore a determined leader, and he did not see how Canadians could reach their aspirations within the existing system. His political experience would lead him to the conclusion that only an armed revolutionary uprising and the independence of Upper Canada could lead to the desired reforms. It was a trip to the United Kingdom, where he saw how Ireland was treated, that convinced him that the system that must be changed. MacKenzie turned from reformer to revolutionary. He was the man at the head of mass meetings across the province in the summer of 1837, and at the head of the revolutionary uprising of December 1837. He saw that Canada was “on the verge of a revolution.”

When MacKenzie and his supporters became more radical in the 1830s, some of the reformers distanced themselves from him. These were mostly Methodists, a religious group led by Egerton Ryerson. The Methodists wanted certain reforms, in particular to counter the hegemony of the Church of England. They were deprived of the right to celebrate marriages or receive land for the construction of chapels or cemeteries. For those reasons, they opposed the colonial aristocracy. However, the Methodists opposed the idea of independence and the growing radicalism of MacKenzie.

Just as in the other revolutionary movements in history, the living struggle between reformism and revolution was in full swing in Canada.

The crisis of the 1830s

The constant refusal of the Crown to grant bourgeois-democratic reforms would have the effect of radicalizing the movement. This was exacerbated by the economic crisis which first broke out in England in 1825.

It started with a major financial collapse. Many British banks disappeared and thousands of companies went bankrupt. The crisis spread to the United States and France, but British investors were the most affected. There was deflation in several sectors, including cotton, textiles and metals. Of course, as colonies, the Canadian provinces were also hit by the crisis.

The crisis deepened throughout 1836 and 1837, when a financial crisis began in New York, resulting in a cessation of activities by American banks. Canadian banks would also cease operations.

The economic crisis added to the existing difficulties of the Canadian provinces. Agricultural methods were outdated, and land monopolies limited the possibility of improving them. The underdeveloped transport network limited the prospect of exporting agricultural products. Farmers quickly found themselves in deep poverty and a debt cycle exacerbated by the crisis. This meant that they could not find outlets for their surplus.

All this favoured a massive exodus to the United States, but also led to the radicalization of the masses that supported the Patriotes and reformers. In 1837, the situation reached a critical point. On the one hand, the Canadian masses could no longer bear the old state of affairs. On the other hand, the government and the ruling classes were also in deep crisis, with the organization of Patriote and Reformer meetings across the two provinces attracting thousands of people. On both sides, it was no longer possible to live as before.

Nationalist struggle or class struggle?

The Lower Canada Rebellion is often presented as an isolated event, ignoring the Upper Canada Rebellion which occurred at the same time. The Lower Canadian uprising is portrayed as a manifestation of “French Canadian” nationalism, while the abortive insurrection in Upper Canada is hardly worthy of attention.

There is no denying that the specific oppression of French-speaking Lower Canadians played a role in rallying the masses to the cause. The many prejudices faced by Francophones probably explain the radicalization of the movement in Lower Canada relative to its counterpart in Upper Canada. Moreover, the movements in Upper and Lower Canada clearly lacked coordination, which suggests that they were independent of each other.

However, the Patriotes refuted the idea that it was primarily a Francophone nationalist movement. As the conflict developed, the class character of the Rebellions became clearer and the Francophone nationalist character largely went by the wayside. In addition, evidence of solidarity between the movements in Upper and Lower Canada is plentiful, shattering the idea that the Patriotes’ movement was an isolated nationalist event.

The Patriotes’ newspaper La Minerve wrote:

The colonial consciousness of Canadians shone not ‘against the English’ but at the sight of the exploiters: French-Canadians do not tend to have exclusive power; they have no national hatred against the English; and as soon as an inhabitant of the country shows that he is really a citizen, one no longer makes a distinction. But those who regard Canada as an exclusive trading post, a place where one can live off the public purse or enrich oneself in order to return to live elsewhere; those who speculate on the properties of the country; they cannot reasonably be recognized as citizens of a country which they do not recognize as theirs and which they would abandon if necessary by shaking the dust from their feet.

This could hardly be clearer. The struggle in Lower Canada was not specifically against the oppression of culture and language, but against the unbearable exploitation of colonial lords, merchants and administrators. That is, against those who were callously enriching themselves on the backs of the habitants and workers.

Papineau himself commented on what he thought of the struggle: “We pretended to believe that our complaints are the fruit of our differences of origin and of Catholicism, when it is commonplace that the ranks of the liberals count a majority of men of all beliefs and origins. But what can be said in support of this argument when we see Upper Canada, where there are few Catholics, and where almost all the inhabitants are of English origin, denounce the same evils and demand the same reforms.”

In 1837, a popular assembly of the county of Deux-Montagnes declared:

We have never maintained, and on the contrary we have always rejected, the unfortunate national distinctions which our common enemies have wickedly sought and seek to foment among us. … As for us, whatever the fate of the country, we shall work without fear and without reproach, as in the past, to assure to all the people without any distinction, the same rights, equal justice and common liberty.

National divisions were the tools of the ruling classes. The Patriotes of Lower Canada fought against division on national or linguistic lines. The struggle was a class struggle against the yoke of the aristocracy, led by the petty bourgeoisie and supported by the workers and the habitants. What a striking contrast to Jacques Parizeau, who advocated independence with only the support of Francophone Quebecers!

It’s true that the Parti canadien, ancestor of the Parti patriote, was very nationalist. The motto of its newspaper Le Canadien was unequivocal: “Our institutions, our language, our laws.” However, the Patriotes would move away from this narrow nationalism over the course of the struggle. We see this in the radical Patriote newspaper Le Libéral, which stated: “The progress of civilization is marked everywhere by a coordinated progression … in the reform ‘of institutions and laws’ and we could even say ‘the language’ of a country” and added “[the English language] will share with the French its empire over all classes of society.” As the movement became more radical, the tendency towards a narrow French-Canadian nationalism was pushed to the sidelines.

The many demonstrations of solidarity from the Reformers of Upper Canada to their comrades in Lower Canada must also be noted. MacKenzie recounted a mass meeting held on August 14, 1837: “The meeting is over. I believe there were over 600 people present. Never have I seen such excitement … Everywhere, we hear ‘Hurray for Papineau!’”

A statement by the Toronto Reformers on July 31, 1837 stated:

The Reformers of Upper Canada are invited by all ties of sentiment, interest, and duty to make common cause with the citizens of Lower Canada, whose coercion if it succeeds will no doubt one day be ours.

Such solidarity demonstrations were not uncommon, especially in 1837. They displayed that the movement went much further than the specific oppression of French Canadians. The main lesson of this period is the exact opposite of that which Quebec nationalists draw from it. When the movement was at its inception, it tended to be dominated by nationalist ideas. But as the movement grew and became radicalized, it discarded its nationalist ideas and fought for the unity of all religions, nationalities and linguistic groups against the British Crown and for democratic republican administration. A victory for the revolution in the two Canadas is probably the only time to date that the Quebec national question could have been resolved, either by a voluntary alliance or by a freely agreed-upon separation.

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