The turn of the 19th century was an important moment in Canadian history. Thanks to the Constitutional Act, 1791, the Province of Quebec was divided into two colonies — Upper and Lower Canada — and elected legislative assemblies were established in each colony. Colonists that met voting requirements — based, generally speaking, on land ownership and property — could elect deputies to their respective assemblies. This was also a time when French Canadians acquired a national and political consciousness. Swayed by the Atlantic Revolutions — notably the American and French revolutions — French Canadian colonists began seeking more control and authority over their colony.
Political Stalemate and Colonial Struggles
Though the establishment of an elected assembly gave the people of Lower Canada some political authority, it was limited. Absolute authority remained in the hands of the governor general and his appointed legislative and executive councils, composed of the local British mercantile elite, referred to as the Château Clique. Neither the governor nor his councils were accountable to the elected assembly and could spend public funds and reject or pass any law as they pleased.
This concerned many deputies in the Legislative Assembly. Seeking a political system that was accountable to the Legislative Assembly, supporters of reform — first under the banner of the Parti canadien and then the Parti patriote — used the Assembly as a forum to press for change. However, before them stood the governor general and a local elite, both unwilling to cede more power to the French Canadian–controlled Assembly. This marked the start of a political struggle that pitted a conservative elite fighting to retain its absolute political authority against a reform movement asking for responsible government.
Initially, the Patriotes sought to reform the colony via peaceful means. However, when the governor and his councils were unwilling to negotiate, the Patriotes adopted pressure tactics. Though the Legislative Assembly had limited authority, it had one important power: taxation. It was the only political body that could levy taxes, and taxes were an important source of revenue for the governor and his councils. Every time the Patriotes asked to reform the political system, after which the governor and his councils responded no, the Patriotes would refuse to levy taxes. As a result, the government could not pay for their salaries or fund public works programs.
In 1832, tensions escalated in Lower Canada: a cholera epidemic killed thousands in Québec and Montréal, crops struggled, and three supporters of the Patriotes were killed by government troops during a riot in Montréal. Moreover, after years of facing a government that was unwilling to consider their demands, Patriote deputies grew more and more frustrated. The party thus began to radicalize with many asking for more ambitious reforms and forceful pressure tactics.
In 1834, the party further radicalized with the 92 Resolutions. Drafted in January 1834 by Louis-Joseph Papineau and Augustin-Norbert Morin, the 92 Resolutions was a list of grievances and demands made by the Parti patriote with regards to the state of the colonial political system. Though the document started with a statement of loyalty and attachment to the British Empire, it followed with a lengthy critique of the entire colonial political system, with the Legislative Council receiving the brunt of condemnations. To the drafters, it was excessive that the governor had so much control over such an important council. According to historian Yvan Lamonde, such authority allowed the governor to “appoint to it only individuals supporting his views.” As a result, the council had become, as the writers of the 92 Resolutions put it, the embodiment of “monopoly and despotism in the executive, judicial and administrative departments of government.”
The resolutions also condemned the colonial secretary, the governor general, the distribution of public offices — which were heavily in favour of the British minority — the Château Clique, and the misappropriation of public funds. No longer content with reforms to the Legislative Council and Assembly, the drafters now sought a complete and total reform of the colonial political system. They sought responsible government and often pointed to the United States and its republican-style government as the answer to their grievances. Finally, also included in the document was the veiled threat that if the British government refused, the population could revolt, just like Americans had in 1776.
On 17 February 1834, Elzéar Bédard presented the resolutions to the Legislative Assembly. This was a divisive moment for the party, leading to the departure of many moderate members of the party. Former political allies, like John Neilson, the publisher of the Quebec Gazette, heavily condemned the resolutions. Others, such as Étienne Parent, applauded them, arguing that Lower Canada represented “the advance guard of Colonial Rights.” On 21 February, the Assembly voted in favour of the resolutions (56 to 23). The resolutions were equally popular beyond the Legislative Assembly. All over the colony, public assemblies in support were organized and a petition of 78,000 was sent to London. The Parti patriote even based their 1834 electoral platform on the resolutions, an election they easily won, taking 77 out of 88 seats. And these votes not only came from the French Canadian population, but also from Irish voters and English-speaking reformists from the Eastern Townships. It appears that the 92 Resolutions tapped into a general desire for reform. Above all, however, they started the inevitable march towards the Canadian Rebellion.
The British Respond: Russell Resolutions
The 92 Resolutions were never intended to reform the colony from within. They were not meant for the governor general and his councils, but for the Imperial Parliament. Early in 1834, Augustin-Norbert Morin travelled to London, where he met with Denis-Benjamin Viger, and presented the document to the Imperial Parliament. On 15 April, the House of Commons at Westminster began discussing them. John Arthur Roebuck, a radical representing Bath, applauded the resolutions, arguing that the Legislative Council had been the cause of much strife in the colony. He was, however, the minority, with most representatives opposing these demands.
In early 1835, the British government created a royal commission — headed by the new Governor of Lower Canada, Lord Gosford — to examine the Patriotes’ grievances. Generally speaking, Lord Gosford was a breath of fresh air in the colony; he did not share Lord Aylmer’s francophobe perspective and was willing to listen to the Patriotes, albeit he favoured the party’s moderate members. His commission’s conclusions were also very favourable. Though he rejected calls for responsible government, he was open to reforming the Legislative Council and turning it into an elected body.
On 2 March 1837, his final report was submitted to the House of Commons, and a few days later, three years after the 92 Resolutions were sent to England, the Imperial Parliament finally officially responded to them. Lord John Russell, the home secretary, revealed the British government’s position. Whereas Gosford’s commission demonstrated some flexibility, Russell did not and offered counter-resolutions of his own, known as the Russell Resolutions. These resolutions categorically rejected every demand made by the Patriotes. They rejected demands to reform the Legislative Council, rejected demands for responsible government and, more importantly, they allowed the governor general to levy the sum of £142,160 pounds without the consent of the Legislative Assembly. Despite the fact that some members of Parliament opposed the resolutions, such as Roebuck and John Temple Leader, they passed by an overwhelming majority.
Though the 92 Resolutions were not the only cause of the Canadian Rebellion, they sped up the march that eventually ended in rebellion. After years of frustration, the 92 Resolutions and Russell Resolutions not only showed many Patriotes that reform could not be achieved via constitutional means, but it even convinced some that nothing could be achieved through peaceful means. Starting in the spring of 1837, supporters of the Parti patriote thus mobilized throughout the colony, organizing in large public assemblies, where they denounced the Russell Resolutions, the imperial government and, in some cases, even promoted violence and rebellion. Fearing that these assemblies would soon turn to disorder, Lord Gosford, on 15 June 1837, made them illegal. However, they did not end.
The most important public assembly — the Assembly of the Six Counties — took place on 23 and 24 October 1837 at Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu. It was attended by some 1,000 to 5,000 people, including several Patriote leaders, such as Wolfred Nelson, who announced his support for an armed rebellion. In the weeks that followed the assembly, violence increased: imperial symbols were destroyed throughout the colony, loyalists were harassed and a violent street fight took place on the streets of Montréal between the loyalist Doric Club and the Fils de la liberté. The government responded by issuing arrest warrants against Patriote leaders, which led to armed rebellion.