Lower Canada

Lower Canada is the southern portion of present-day Québec, existing as a separate British province from 1791 to 1840. In 1791 Britain took the decision to divide the Province of Quebec into Upper Canada and Lower Canada. In 1841, Upper Canada and Lower Canada were reunited as a single colony, the Province of Canada.

Raft on the Lower St Lawrence
At Cap Santé, by William Bartlett, circa 1838 (courtesy NGC/18017.10).
Lower Canada, Map
View of Montréal Harbour, 1830s
Seen here is the waterfront along to Bonsécours Church, a lumber ship loading square timber, and the river (courtesy John Ross Robertson Coll, Metropolitan Toronto Library).
Louis-Joseph Papineau (Daguerrotype), politician
Complex and contradictory, Papineau was the first effective political leader of his people and a fitting symbol of their discontent (daguerrotype, courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-66899).
Rebellions of 1837, Lower Canada
Lord Durham, politcian
Two nations warring in the bosom of a single state was Lord Durham's assessment of the relationship between Lower Canada's two linguistic communities (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-121846).

Lower Canada is the southern portion of present-day Québec, existing as a separate British province from 1791 to 1840. In 1791 Britain took the decision to divide the Province of Quebec into Upper Canada and Lower Canada. In 1841, Upper Canada and Lower Canada were reunited as a single colony, the Province of Canada.

Lower Canada is the southern portion of present-day Québec, existing as a separate British province from 1791 to 1840. In 1791 Britain took the decision to divide the Province of Quebec into Upper Canada and Lower Canada (see Constitutional Act 1791). The decision could have been foreseen, since Britain had followed a policy of territorial division in the 17th and 18th centuries when the American colonies were being founded; in 1769 when Prince Edward Island was detached from Nova Scotia; and in 1784 after the wave of Loyalist immigration (which occurred in Québec as well) when the provinces of Cape Breton and New Brunswick were created. In 1841, Upper Canada and Lower Canada were reunited as a single colony, the Province of Canada.

The Quebec Act

After the Conquest of New France, Great Britain wanted to redraw the boundaries of its new colony so as to make room in the fisheries and the fur trade for the rival merchants of Québec and Montréal. The Quebec Act of 1774 was a formal recognition of the failure of the project, as the borders were adjusted in closer conformity to the needs of a transcontinental economy.

In 1791 the fur trade still played a determining role for the merchants and seasonal workers drawn from the rural population. These and their dependants still felt that their territory included both the St Lawrence Valley and the huge western expanse from the Great Lakes to the Pacific. In the early 19th century, however, the economic bases for this perception grew blurry and, for most francophone Lower Canadians, took on the dimensions of the St Lawrence Lowlands from Montréal to the Gulf of St Lawrence. When in 1822 Louis Joseph Papineau attacked the proposed union of the two Canadas, he described Lower Canada as a distinct geographic, economic and cultural space, forever destined to serve the Habitant as a Catholic and French nation.

This vision found little support among the anglophone merchants, who continued to challenge the 1791 division and who, from Montréal, largely controlled the economic development of Upper Canada. These businessmen, who owned the banks (see Banking) and means of transportation and who fervently advocated the building of canals on the St Lawrence River (see Canals and Inland Waterways), were involved primarily in the grain trade to England and in transporting Upper Canadian forest products to the port of Québec; they occupied an economic space that overflowed the borders of the St Lawrence Valley. After the unsuccessful attempt to unite the two Canadas in 1822, they began clamouring for the annexation of Montréal to Upper Canada and continued until after the failure of the Rebellions of 1837, when a single province was formed.

An Economy in Crisis

Around 1760 the colonial economy was still dominated by the fur trade and a commercial agriculture based on wheat. The fisheries, the timber trade, shipbuilding (see Shipbuilding and Ship repair) and the Forges Saint-Maurice were all secondary. The fur trade was still expanding northwards and towards the Pacific: towards the end of the century, 600,000 beaver skins and other furs worth over £400 000 were being exported annually to England.

All this activity, transcontinental and international by its very nature, was largely concentrated in the hands of the bourgeoisie of the North West Company - the Montréal based company that had triumphed over its American rivals and the Hudson’s Bay Company. However, after 1804, growing pressure from these rivals reduced profits to such an extent that in 1821 the NWC had to merge with the HBC.

The wheat trade underwent equally important transformations. After about 1730 wheat farming, the basis for subsistence agriculture, started to become a commercial activity, thanks to the development of an external market. This market was mainly the West Indies until 1760, and then it expanded until, by the beginning of the 19th century, it included southern Europe and Britain.

Thereafter, production fell off so sharply that around 1832 Lower Canada had to import over 500,000 minots (about 19.5 million L) of wheat annually from Upper Canada. The deficit became chronic. Oats, potatoes and animal husbandry occasionally brought profits to some farmers, but most grew these crops for subsistence. The increasing difficulties in agriculture (see History of Agriculture) and in the fur trade adversely affected the population's standard of living.

The Timber Trade

This was the context for the rapid growth of the timber trade (see History of timber trade) after 1806. Increased production and export of forest products occurred during Napoleon's Continental Blockade (see Napoleonic Wars) when England, to guarantee wood supplies for her warships, introduced preferential tariffs that were maintained at about the same level until 1840, despite successive price drops. Again there was abundant seasonal help in Lower Canada. The forest industry, with Québec City as its nerve centre, was especially active in the Ottawa Valley, the Eastern Townships and the Québec and Trois-Rivières areas. Squared pine and oak, construction wood (see Lumber and Wood Industries), staves, potash and shipbuilding were the industry's mainstays.

Lower Canada's economy, transformed in the climate of crisis of declining fur and local wheat shipments, was increasingly Québec-centered and yet more dependent for its exports on surplus production in Upper Canada. This produced an urgent need for credit institutions and for massive investments in road and canal construction.


From the early 18th century, the French Canadian population had grown without significant help from immigration. With a birthrate of about 50 births per thousand population and mortality of about 25 per thousand, the population doubled every 25-28 years. Post-Conquest British immigration hardly affected this demographic trend except for a limited time during the Loyalist wave, whereas land was so abundant and people so scarce that French Canada's vigorous increase continued until the end of the century.

It was in the seigneur's interests to grant lands upon request in order to have the largest possible number of rent payers, but early in the 19th century this policy, combined with the high birthrate, led to decreasing accessibility of good lands; as well the seigneurs, prompted by the rising value of their forest products, began to limit the peasants' access to real estate. As the scarcity of land, real or artificial, became more widespread, a rural proletariat began to develop, which by 1830 made up about one-third of the rural population. French Canadian immigrants to the US (see Franco-Americans) came largely from this group and from the impoverished peasantry.

After 1815, population pressure was intensified in the rural communities along the St Lawrence and Richelieu rivers by a massive wave of British immigrants looking for land and jobs. Peasants and the proletariat in rural Québec felt threatened by the strangers, who sought land in the Townships, where French Canadians had long thought their own excess population could settle. The rapidly rising urban anglophone population was even more alarming to them: in Québec City in 1831, anglophones formed 45% of the population and topped 50% among the day labourers; in Montréal in 1842 the percentages were 61% and 63%, respectively. These factors helped sharpen the francophones' feeling that their culture was in danger and helped strengthen the nationalist movement, tormented by class struggle (see Francophone nationalism in Québec).

Class Struggles and Political Conflicts

The society that had developed in New France was one in which the military, nobility and clergy were dominant and the bourgeoisie was dependent on them. After 1760 British military personnel, aristocrats and merchants replaced their francophone equivalents. But the development of class consciousness within the two bourgeoisies, the English and the French, helped set off a conflict between the middle class and the aristocrats over the introduction of parliamentary institutions. The outcome in 1791 showed both the progress of the middle class and the economic and social decline of the nobility. Towards the end of the century, the power of the nobility was entirely dependent on the privileges and protection guaranteed by the heads of the colonial state.

Economic and demographic changes after 1800 produced a deterioration of social relationships, the emergence of new ideologies and a reorientation of the old ones. This was the context for a struggle among 3 classes for the leadership of society: the anglophone bourgeoisie, the French Canadian middle class and the clergy. The anglophone merchant bourgeoisie, the main beneficiary of the 1791 reform and of recent economic expansion, felt that its status and power were threatened by the widespread changes. The efforts of these merchants to make the St Lawrence River navigable through the building of canals and their desire to stimulate the construction of access roads into the Townships were parts of a larger program seeking to increase immigration, create banks, revise the state's fiscal policies and abolish or reform the seigneurial system and customary law.

But these measures required political support from the francophone nationalists, who were on the rise and held a majority in the legislative assembly. Income from continued Timber Duties was uncertain since it depended, after the 1815 peace, on both the goodwill of this nationalist element and the failure of England to introduce free trade. Anglophone merchants dominated business circles in the cities (in 1831 they constituted 57% and 63% of the merchant class in Québec City and Montréal, respectively) and played a disproportionately large role in the countryside. Nevertheless, they felt vulnerable in a colony numerically dominated by francophones.

Anglophones and Conservatism

Not surprisingly, anglophones tended to seek the political support of governors, colonial bureaucrats and even the government in London. Their attitude is explained by their inability to form a party capable of dominating the majority, slight though it was, in the Legislative Assembly. Their successive political defeats over 30 years forced them to defend the imperial connection and the constitutional status quo and to support conservative political ideas.

After the turn of the century, this bourgeoisie began to clash with the French-Canadian middle class, in particular with the professionals who were then developing a national consciousness. These professionals, whose numbers were rapidly growing and who aspired to form a national elite, became sharply aware that major economic activities were increasingly controlled by anglophones. Regarding this as the result of a serious injustice done to their fellow francophones, they tended to view the anglophone merchants and bureaucrats as the most dangerous enemies of the French Canadian nation.

Their ideology, warmly welcomed among small-scale merchants in French Canada, became steadily more hostile to the activities on which anglophone power was based. The francophone petite bourgeoisie glorified agriculture, defended the Coutume de Paris and the seigneurial system (which it wanted to see extended throughout the province) and opposed the British American Land Co, loudly insisting that Lower Canadian territory was the exclusive property of the French Canadian nation.

Birth of the Parti canadien

To promote its interests, the French-Canadian bourgeoisie fashioned the Parti canadien (which in 1826 became the Parti patriote). Party leaders explained economic disparities by the British control of the political machine and the distribution of patronage. They therefore developed a theory that, though it provided for political evolution along traditional British lines, also justified rule by the majority party in the legislative assembly.

Party leader Pierre Bédard was the main architect of this strategy, which was inspired by a desire to apply the principle of ministerial responsibility. (Its obvious consequence was to transfer the bases of power to the francophone majority and to reduce the governor's powers.) In 1810, in the context of revolutionary and imperial wars, perpetual tension with the US and current ideas about colonial autonomy, these reformist plans seemed so radical that the suspicious Governor James Henry Craig had the editors of Le Canadien arrested, suppressed this nationalist party organ and dissolved the legislative assembly.

After the War of 1812, Papineau, the new leader of the decapitated party, realized that it was necessary to seek more limited results. He focused on the struggle over control of revenues and on complaints, with the immediate objective of sharing power with his party's opponents. Papineau hoped in this way to control the clergy and win over the Irish Catholics, thus warding off accusations of nationalist extremism; it is from this perspective that the leadership roles in the party of John Neilson and, later, E.B. O'Callaghan can be explained.

Radicalization of the Nationalists

Only after 1827 did the pressure of events and from the militants cause Papineau to become more radical, and the idea of an independent Lower Canada then began to take root. The desire initially to win power by ordinary political means was at the heart of this adjustment of political ideology. But the British model was replaced by the American model, which justified the elective principle for all posts that exercised power, from justices of the peace and militia officers to legislative councillors and even the governor.

As the political struggle intensified, the Parti patriote gained strength in French-Canadian circles, stirred up by nationalism, but lost popularity among anglophones, who tended to align themselves with the anglophone merchants. Though they agreed on the main objective - national independence - Patriote militants disagreed about the kind of society that should follow their victory: the majority, which backed Papineau, wanted to continue the social ancien régime, whereas a minority hoped to build a new society inspired by authentic liberalism. These opposing views were to play a major role in the failure of the rebellions.

Role of the Clergy

The clergy, a class solidly enthroned on a complex institutional network that generated great revenues, naturally became engaged in the struggle for power. Having seen the effects of the French Revolution and the intervention of the Protestant colonial state in Québec education at the turn of the century, Québécois clerics were already aware of the threat to their social influence. They became even more aware when conflict flared between the Parti canadien and the merchants' party, which was supported by the governor.

The ecclesiastical leaders became convinced that a local group was using parliamentary institutions to achieve its revolutionary intentions. Consequently, during the crisis of 1810, Monseigneur Joseph-Octave Plessis asked his priests to support (with little success) the government's candidates. When the War of 1812 began, it is not surprising that the episcopacy strongly denounced the Americans and demanded, on pain of religious sanction, that the population actively defend its territory.

After 1815, reassured by peace and the more conciliatory attitude of the Parti canadien leaders, who opposed the Sulpician fathers (still French in origin) and supported the clergy's efforts to create a diocese in Montréal, clerical leaders began fighting for the restoration and extension of the privileges of their class. They sought control of primary education, perceiving that school was one of the main instruments of socialization. With Papineau's support the clergy won a dramatic but brief victory over the Protestant and state threat when the Parish Schools Act was passed in 1824.

The clergy gained new strength when Monseigneur Jean-Jacques Lartigue became bishop of Montréal and devoted himself to reorienting clerical ideology and strategy to fight the lay and Protestant threat. He was well suited to the role: he was one of the first priests to break with Gallican ideology (see Gallicanism) and to be won over by Ultramontane (see Ultramontanism) and theocratic doctrine. He followed the new form of nationalism, now detached from its liberal roots and justifying the dominant role of the clergy in a Catholic society.

He hoped to restore to the church full control over educational institutions and to bring the clergy closer to the people so as to deepen church influence. But after 1829 the Parti patriote decided to establish assembly schools (nurseries for future patriotes), sought to democratize the management of the parishes and adopted a liberal and republican rhetoric. A break between the clergy and the French Canadian middle class became inevitable.

Rebellions of 1837-38

The three-way power struggle became more violent in March 1837, when the British government, to break the political and financial deadlock, adopted the Russell Resolutions, which effectively rejected the Patriotes' demands. The Patriotes were not well enough organized to jump immediately into a revolutionary venture, so they developed a strategy that provided for the possibility that the state would refuse to yield to the pressure of a mass movement while it gave them time to prepare an armed insurrection to begin after winter set in.

The great parish and county assemblies began in 1837 and spread agitation from parish to parish. At first, only legal activities were undertaken, but these assemblies soon went beyond legal limits under pressure from the radicals. Government leaders saw the uproar as a massive attempt at blackmail, but the better-informed clergy immediately understood the Patriotes' real objectives.

By July 1837 Monseigneur Lartigue had given precise instructions for his priests in case of armed uprising. Agitation increased until the end of October, when the Patriotes held the "Assembly of the Six Counties" in Saint-Charles-Sur-Richelieu. It was marked by a declaration of rights and by the adoption of resolutions suggesting a desire to overthrow the government.

During this time, the Patriotes, who were very active in Montréal, created the Fils de la Liberté, an organization that advocated for revolution, paramilitary exercise and public demonstration. On November 6, a violent clash between the Fils de la Liberté and the anglophone Doric Club resulted in government intervention. Such intervention was anxiously anticipated, as rural residents had been harassed by the Patriotes for some time. A few days later, the government issued arrest warrants for Patriotes leaders, who left Montréal in haste and took refuge in the countryside.

Defeat of the Patriotes and the Role of Lord Durham

Armed confrontation came well ahead of the Patriotes' intended timetable. Following an incident in Longueuil on November 16, the government sent troops into the Richelieu Valley. On 23 November 1837 the Patriotes, led by Wolfred Nelson, took Saint-Denis (see Battle of St-Denis), but two days later were defeated at Saint-Charles (see Battle of St-Charles). Having scattered the last insurgent ranks south of Montréal, General John Colborne attacked Saint-Eustache (see Battle of St-Eustache) on December 14 and ended Patriote resistance.

Papineau, supreme commander, had hidden in Saint-Hyacinthe before taking refuge in the US under an assumed name. Many refugees gathered in the US and, until Lord Durham, as Governor General and High Commissioner to British North America, tried to calm tempers, attempted to plan an invasion of Lower Canada. Their efforts were complicated by a rift within Patriote ranks between the radicals, such as Cyrille Coté and Robert Nelson, and the more conservative elements led by Papineau.

In 1837, Durham banished some of the more radical political prisoners, but he was reprimanded by the government in London, which reversed his decision. Durham believed that it was necessary to unify Canada and assimilate the French Canadians. When Durham resigned his post and left Canada in early November 1838, a second rebellion broke out, led by the radicals. Even though the revolutionary organization, through the efforts of the Société des frères chasseurs (see Hunters’ Lodges), had spread throughout the territory, the Patriotes had no more luck than the year before. By about mid-November 1838 order had been re-established in the Richelieu Valley.

In 1838, 850 suspects were arrested; 108 were brought before a court-martial and 99 were sentenced to death; only a dozen were hanged and 58 were deported to Australia. The main winners in the revolution were the clergy, with its special vision of a French Catholic nation, and the anglophone bourgeoisie, with its plans for development through economic measures. In 1840 the Act of Union was passed in Britain, providing for the 1841 unification of Upper and Lower Canada into the single Province of Canada.

Further Reading

  • Craig Brown, ed., The Illustrated History of Canada: 25th Anniversary Edition (2012);

    John A. Dickinson and Brian J. Young, A Short History of Québec (2008);

    Allan Greer, The Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada (1993);

    Fernand Ouellet, Lower Canada, 1791-1840 (1980);

    Yvan Lamonde and Claude Corbo, Le rouge et le bleu. Une anthologie de la pensée politique au Québec de la Conquête à la Révolution tranquille (1999);

    Yvan Lamonde, The Social History of Ideas in Québec, 1760-1896 (2013).

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