In the fourth part of our article on the rebellions, the main events of the struggle against the British Empire in Upper and Lower-Canada until 1837-38 will be examined.
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5
1834 was a year of significant radicalization for the Patriot movement. The 92 Resolutions, while not openly demanding independence, posed its possibility if the Crown did not respond positively to the grievances of Lower Canada. The same year also had the Patriots promoting the boycott of British products in protest. As well, the reaction became more and more brutal. For example, in June 1834, British troops opened fire on a peaceful assembly at the Champ de Mars field in Montreal.
In July, the Patriot Party established a permanent Central Committee composed of representatives of parish and county committees which had been established throughout Lower Canada since 1827. The Patriot movement was thus able to expand throughout the province.
In 1835, the authorities were faced with growing pressure from the masses of Lower Canada, who had overwhelmingly elected Patriots, in addition to a quarter of the adult population signing a petition in favour of the 92 Resolutions. In response, London set up a commission of inquiry headed by Lord Gosford, then lieutenant governor of the province. On September 30, 1836, the Assembly of Lower Canada adjourned its proceedings until a new constitution was granted.
A few months later, the Gosford Commission’s findings were revealed, and the 10 Russell Resolutions, based on the report, were introduced in Parliament. Not only did the Crown refuse to grant an elected legislative council and responsible government, stating that this was tantamount to “true independence,” the governor would also be allowed to spend provincial revenues without consulting the assembly. As if that was not enough, regiments from New Brunswick were sent to Lower Canada. There was no doubt that the authorities were preparing for a showdown.
In response to this provocation by the British government, the London Working Men’s Association, a Chartist organization, sent the Patriots a declaration in support of their struggle. This shows the increasingly clear class character of the movement, as well as its international importance. The address stated, among other things, “Do not think that the millions of workers in England share the feelings of your oppressors.” The Chartist organization also organized a protest meeting against the Russell Resolutions, as reported in the Vindicator newspaper: “The workers of London met today to defend the political rights of their Canadian comrades.” The powerful link between the struggles for colonial emancipation and the nascent labour struggle in England was thus established.
While the active support of the London workers was of invaluable symptomatic importance, the Patriots’ response to the Association shows what the Patriot movement really was, a class movement against British tyranny, and not only for French Canadians:
“Our people depend almost entirely, for their subsistence, on manual and intellectual labor. … We despise the idler … which only consumes what others produce.…
“Whichever attitude the course of things forces us to adopt, we are not fighting against the English people. We are only responding to the aggression of our tyrannical oppressors, who are also their oppressors.”
The Russell Resolutions added fuel to the fire. As early as May 1837, popular assemblies propagated throughout the province. The first, held at Saint-Ours, literally declared the independence of the province: “Looking at ourselves bound only by force to the English government … we regard it as our duty, as our honour to resist, by all means presently in our possession, against a tyrannical power.”
In mid-June 1837, Lord Gosford forbade all popular assemblies in Lower Canada. Here, the reaction only provoked the revolution. Three days later, 4,000 people gathered at an assembly in Berthier, and another of the same size was held in Montreal. The assemblies began to propagate once more.
Within Lower Canada, local state institutions were virtually non-existent. There were no full-time representatives of the government in the countryside. There were officials responsible for the administration of everyday business, but only in urban areas. In the autumn of 1837, the Patriots began to establish a local administration, with elected judges and militia officers. A new government was emerging, through the very necessity of events. In addition, a patriotic paramilitary organization was founded, the Sons of Liberty, inspired by the organization of the same name created during the American Revolution.
Organs of a new power were thus established. Patriot power would obviously have to face British power, a situation of dual power being by nature unstable and temporary. The anti-Patriot newspaper Le Populaire was quite right when it said: “The revolution begins!”
The culmination of patriotic mobilization was the People’s Assembly of the Six Counties of October 23, in which 5,000 people gathered in Saint-Charles. It was on this occasion that Dr. Wolfred Nelson declared that it was time to prepare for the armed resistance, to which Papineau was opposed: “Well! I differ in opinion with Monsieur Papineau. I contend that the time has come to melt our dishes and our tin spoons into bullets.”
The assembly reiterated what had been adopted in May at St. Ours, and sanctioned the Sons of Liberty. However, the assembly did not appeal to arms or insurrection. The initiative was then passed to the British forces. Joe Colborne, now at the Colonial Military Command, convinced the governor to issue arrest warrants against the Patriot leaders. The Patriots took refuge with their troops in the villages of the Richelieu Valley to defend themselves. The fighting was about to begin, and it was the Patriots who were in a defensive position, facing 6,000 men who had received superior arms and training.
The Patriots were mostly in Saint-Denis and Saint-Charles, and the attack on the British forces began on November 23 at Saint-Denis, at about nine o’clock in the morning. Some 800 Patriots led by Dr. Wolfred Nelson were waiting for the enemy, and only 100 were armed! The Patriots were barricaded in houses, and succeeded for six hours in repelling their adversary, who were trying to take the village. A hundred Patriots arrived from the neighbouring village and struck the English troops to defend Nelson. The colonial troops began to lose ground, and at three o’clock their commander, Colonel Gore, ordered a retreat. The Patriots, who were badly armed in addition to rudimentary preparation, had repulsed the powerful British army!
The news spread rapidly. On November 24th, Girod, a Patriot leader who was in Saint-Eustache, learned that Montreal was in a state of “extreme panic” and that there were scarcely any troops present. He decided that the time was right to try to seize the city, but the other leaders convinced him to give up this idea and remain on the defensive. Again, the leadership was reluctant to move forward. Girod himself said: “For the first time, I repent that I placed my trust in such hesitant people.”
The celebration was therefore short lived. Another attack on the British forces began on November 25 in Saint-Charles, not far from Saint-Denis. The commander of the Patriot forces, T. Storrow Brown, fled at the start of the confrontation, leaving his 200 men without leadership in the face of the enemy. The Patriots of Saint-Charles were massacred. Five days later, Colonel Gore returned to Saint-Denis to avenge his defeat, and burned the whole village with the exception of two houses. The victory of Saint-Denis was a thing of the past, and the British forces began the massacre of the Patriots and the complete destruction of Deux-Montagnes county, the bastion of the Patriots.
On December 5, martial law was proclaimed in the district of Montreal, and pillaging, destruction, and massacres began. On December 14, Saint-Eustache was burned to the ground by the British. Approximately sixty Patriots fell in the battle. The next day, it was Saint-Benoît’s turn. A prison letter from Girouard described the destruction of the village: “Then began scenes of devastation and destruction more atrocious than one has ever seen, murder alone excepted, in a city taken by assault and given up to plunder after a long and painful siege.”
In February 1838, a new expedition from the United States was led by Robert Nelson and Dr. Côté. This was also impeded by the powerful British army, but is worth noting because of the “Declaration of Independence of Lower Canada” written by Nelson. It declared that the province was a republic, that the seigneurial tenures were abolished, that English and French would become the languages of public affairs, that equal rights would be granted to the natives – the “savages” as the document called them – etc. The document also contained important limitations, such as the fact that women would have been deprived of the right to vote. In any case, this document betrayed the true character of the movement of 1837-38, a bourgeois-democratic movement directed not against “the English” but against British tyranny.
In the end, the Patriot movement of Lower Canada was annihilated before it even had time to prepare a real insurrection, except for a few adventures in 1838, such as Nelson and Dr. Côté. The Patriots had enormous support among the masses of the province, but were not able to use this support to overthrow the colonial government. The twelve Patriot leaders hanged on February 15, 1839 will remain a symbol – a symbol of the class struggle, the struggle against oppression and exploitation.
Insurrection in Upper Canada
Similar to Lower Canada, the troubles in Upper Canada continued throughout 1838 but the decisive acts of the revolution occurred towards the end of 1837.
In 1836, the demands of the reformers for a responsible government were again refused by the Crown and a new governor general for the province, Sir Francis Bond Head, was in charge of delivering the news.
Bond Head tried to buy peace with the reformers by appointing two of them, Dr. Rolph and Robert Baldwin to the executive council. But they were never consulted and resigned in protest. As tensions raised between Bond Head and the reformers, he decided to dissolve the assembly in May 1836 and call new elections. Bond Head put into play his propaganda machine to intimidate the population to not vote for the “disloyal” reformers. He made reference to a so-called imminent invasion by the United States in order to justify a vote for the “Tories”. Drunken bandits were used to intimidate voters. This campaign of fear and propaganda may have worked in the electoral arena, but it only served to radicalize the reform movement.
On July 4th, 1836, the 60th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, MacKenzie and the reformers launched a new paper, The Constitution. This paper was openly radical, referencing the revolution and the overthrow of colonial authority.
In the spring of 1837 the Russell resolutions provoked a backlash among Lower Canadians and the reformers of Upper Canada gave their support to the struggle against the resolutions. On April 17th, 1883, an assembly of the Toronto Alliance Society denounced the resolutions and offered their support for the Patriots.
In July 1837, the Constitution unambiguously posed the question: “Will Canadians proclaim independence and take up arms?” On July 31st, 1837, a meeting of reformers in Toronto declared their support for Papineau and the Patriots and called for public meetings all over the province, with the election of delegates for a convention to be held in Toronto to make decisions about political conditions in Upper Canada. This statement in essence amounted to a declaration for a revolution. It should be noted that Dr. Rolph, a prominent reformer, did not sign the Toronto declaration.
The reformers, with MacKenzie at their head, began organizing political meetings all over the province, often met with enormous support. In the city of London, a reactionary journal, ironically called The Patriot, directly threatened MacKenzie and suggested that he should not show up there, otherwise he would be “prevented for good.” MacKenzie, upon arriving in London, was met with such overwhelming support that no incident took place. Between August and November, 200 meetings were held and 1,500 men were enlisted to lead the struggle for independence.
In November, the reformers realized that the situation was getting worse in Lower Canada. The leadership of the reformers decided that the time for the insurrection had arrived. On December 7th when British troops were busy pacifying Lower Canada, the reform forces were supposed to: gather in Montgomery, three miles from Toronto and then they were to march on the city; seize the 4,000 weapons left at the Town Hall by Bond Head, arrest him and his councilors; declare the province independent; entrust a convention with the drafting of a new constitution; and declare Dr. Rolph, administrator of the provisional government. Rolph was to be in charge of making contact with Papineau and the Patriots. “The country was ripe for change,” stated MacKenzie.
The declaration of independence that was to be distributed on December 7th was printed and remains one of the most daring and revolutionary documents in the country’s history.
“Brave Canadians! Do you like freedom? I know that you do. Do you hate oppression? Who would dare to deny it? Then strap on your armor and overthrow the bandits who oppress and enslave our country …
We can not find agreement with England … they are never going to govern us justly or let us go – we are determined to not rest as long as we have not attained independence…”
Everything was ready for the assault on Toronto but at the last moment the plans were ruined by Dr. Rolph. Without even warning MacKenzie, Rolph gave orders to march on Toronto on December 4th, three days earlier than expected. The troops led by the reformer Samuel Lount were sent off before MacKenzie had the time to stop the disaster. Very few people had been informed of this and the majority were still preparing for the 7th, so instead of marching on Toronto on the 7th with 4,000, the reformers attacked on the 4th with only 200. The next day 800 reformers arrived, but very few had weapons and reinforcements started leaving when they took note of this situation.
On December 5th, reformer troops met a delegation sent by Bond Head to negotiate. The stance taken by the reformers during the negotiations was that they didn’t want a truce but independence. And who was at the head of the delegation sent by the despised lieutenant governor? None other than Dr. Rolph and Robert Baldwin, another eminent reformer. This betrayal of two key leaders had a detrimental effect on the morale of the troops. Later, when the reformers tried obtain information about the attack that was being planned by Rolph, the former reformer had already fled.
On December 6th, forces loyal to Bond Head had arrived: 1,200 men, better armed and more prepared than the 600 poorly armed reformers remaining. In the meantime, the reformers had lost colonel Anthony Anderson, the only experienced military leader. This contributed to the disorganization of the reformers. MacKenzie’s troops fought as best as they could but were forced to retreat, faced with an enemy that was too powerful. This was a fatal defeat for the Canadian insurrection and MacKenzie was forced to flee to the United States.
Other attempts were made later on, the most serious of which took place on December 13th on Navy Island, where a provisional government was proclaimed by MacKenzie, with the help of Americans. However this attempt was short lived. 600 men were on the island, half of which were Americans. On December 29th the American steamship Carolina, which was supposed to bring supplies to the revolutionaries, was torched by nearby loyalist forces.
The leadership of the provisional government was paralyzed. Van Ressenllaer, an American ‘general’ who in reality had very little experience or initiative, did nothing in response to the Carolina incident. MacKenzie meanwhile was only a shadow of the inspiring leader he was a few months earlier, the defeat in Toronto had completely demoralized him. Faced with a crisis of leadership, the revolutionary troops ended up leaving Navy Island on January 13th. Other attempts at an uprising from the United States were attempted in 1838, however most of them remained isolated and as the leadership of the movement was now in the hands of American sympathizers, this greatly aided loyalist propaganda.
The leaders of the movement were decimated, hanged, deported or imprisoned. On April 12th, 1838, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, two of the most
prominent leaders of the reformers were hanged in a public square. After the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838, which saw 250 insurgents revolt against British troops, eleven more were hanged. The British wanted to ensure the complete submission of the revolutionary forces and, as in Lower Canada, they used terror. In January 1839, six other revolutionaries were hanged in front of the Windsor courthouse while another was hanged in London. A London Presbyterian minister declared at the time “May God take pity on us if we are led by the Tories – these ogres whose thirst for blood must be satisfied.”
The Canadian revolutionaries, ill-prepared and with a hesitant leadership, were met with ruthless British forces that were unleashed and enthusiastically drowned the revolution in blood.