Duel | The Canadian Encyclopedia



A duel is a formal armed combat between 2 people in the presence of witnesses, to settle differences or a point of honour.


A duel is a formal armed combat between 2 people in the presence of witnesses, to settle differences or a point of honour. Duels were recorded in NEW FRANCE as early as 1646; the last known duel in what is now Canada occurred in 1873 at St John's, Nfld (a hilarious shoot-out for which the seconds had loaded the pistols with blanks). Duels in the French regime were fought exclusively with swords; after the Conquest almost all were with pistols. Most incidents ended without injury, but there were some fatal encounters: at least 9 died in New France, 2 in Lower Canada, 5 in Upper Canada, 2 each in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick and 1 in Newfoundland.

The last fatal duel occurred 22 May 1838 at VERDUN, Lower Canada, when lawyer Robert Sweeny shot and killed Major Henry Warde, who had sent a love letter to Mrs Sweeny. The last fatal duel in Upper Canada [Ontario] took place in Perth 13 June 1833. Defending his honour, John Wilson shot and killed Robert Lyon, who had called him a liar and assaulted him. Wilson and his second were charged with murder, but were acquitted.

Several famous Canadians fought duels: James DOUGLAS duelled at Île-à-la-Crosse, Saskatchewan in 1820 during a fur trade dispute; Joseph HOWE fought in 1840 to prove his courage and gain the opportunity to decline further challenges; George-Étienne CARTIER duelled in 1848 to refute accusations of cowardice 11 years earlier at the Battle of ST-DENIS; and in 1849 John A. MACDONALD had to be prevented from fighting a political opponent.

Duels were fought in a variety of places: in locked rooms, in open fields or across tables. Causes also varied, and were often trivial. In 1800 at York [Toronto], John Small shot and killed John White after the latter spread gossip that Mrs Small was the former mistress of an English lord. A quarrel over card-game winnings led to a fatal duel in St John's, Nfld, in March 1826. Sharp political disputes in Lower Canada resulted in a spate of challenges and meetings between 1834-37.

Authorities considered duelling a crime, and to kill in a duel was tantamount to murder. However, the laws were irregularly enforced. In New France, several duellists were imprisoned, banished or executed; even the bodies of men killed in duels were desecrated. Under English rule, juries consistently refused to convict duellists if they felt that the encounters had somehow been conducted fairly and honourably.