French Canadian militants in Lower Canada took up arms against the British Crown in a pair of insurrections in 1837 and 1838. The twin rebellions, which killed more than 300 people, followed years of tensions between the colony's anglophone minority and the growing, nationalistic aspirations of its francophone majority. The rebels failed in their campaign against British rule, but their revolt fueled the speed of political reform, including the arrival of responsible government. The rebellions also gave French Canadians one of their first nationalist heroes, Louis-Joseph Papineau.
Papineau and the Nationalists
Following the War of 1812, the elected Assembly of Lower Canada (in what is now Quebec), was dominated by representatives of the French Canadian middle class. Under the leadership of a new professional elite, the francophone population developed a national consciousness. Their leaders sought to wrest power from the Roman Catholic Church, in areas such as education, and from the anglophone merchant class, which was expanding its economic base because of the rapid growth in the timber trade.
The nationalists were led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, who was elected Speaker of the Assembly in 1815. He organized the Parti Canadien, which became known as the Patriote Party after 1826. Papineau and his followers demanded the right to determine how all of the revenues raised within the colony were spent. They also challenged the authority of the appointed upper house or Legislative Council, and sought control over the provincial civil service and the cabinet-like Executive Council, which advised the governor.
During the 1820s, these demands were vigorously resisted by the authoritarian Governor-General of British North America, the Earl of Dalhousie. In 1828, after an unfavourable report on Dalhousie's tenure by a group of reformist British MPs, who favoured coming to terms with the Lower Canadian Assembly, the British Colonial Office replaced Dalhousie with a series of more conciliatory governors: Sir James Kempt 1828–30, Lord Aylmer 1830–35 and Lord Gosford 1835–38. Yet despite their efforts, the situation in Lower Canada gradually deteriorated.
Starvation, Disease and Anger
The early 1830s was a period of widespread economic distress, fueled by a rapidly worsening agricultural crisis which brought many French Canadian habitants to the verge of starvation. At the same time, the province also saw a rapid increase in emigration from the British Isles, which gave the British minority close to a numerical majority in the urban centres of Montréal and Québec. The immigrants brought with them the dreaded cholera, which killed many thousands of French Canadians and fed the growing xenophobia of the French Canadian majority.
A series of incidents, such as the shooting deaths of three French Canadians by British troops during an electoral riot in 1832, increased tensions between the majority and the minority and fueled the polarization of the two communities. The Patriote Party, shorn of its moderate wing and of most anglophone support, became more extreme in its demands, which it embodied in 92 Resolutions adopted by the Assembly and sent to London in 1834.
The Resolutions affirmed the Assembly members' loyalty to the Crown, but they also listed a long series of political demands – such as increasing powers for self-government, including the awarding to Lower Canada of Responsible Government (making the Executive Council responsible to the elected Assembly).
The Resolutions were ignored for three years, during which time members of the Patriotes began to agitate for rebellion. In 1837 the Legislative Assembly refused to approve money for supplies to the unelected Executive Council, which resulted in the civil service going unpaid, all public works grinding to a halt and the colonial government becoming virtually paralyzed. The anglophone minority reacted by forming constitutional associations and appealing to the British government to resist the Assembly.
Neither the Patriote Party nor its political opponent, the British Party, was a monolithic entity; there was more to Lower Canadian politics than "two nations warring in the bosom of a single state," as Lord Durham described the problem in 1838. But as the extremists on both sides drifted toward violence, the ethnic division became more pronounced.
In March the British government pushed through Parliament in London its official response to the 92 Resolutions. This came in the form of the 10 Russell Resolutions (named after Britain's Colonial Secretary, Lord Russell), which rejected all the major demands of the Patriotes, and gave the governor, Lord Gosford, the power to take money from the provincial treasury to pay the officials in the colony.
The Patriotes responded by organizing a boycott of British goods and holding mass protest rallies across the colony. They also began to prepare for an armed insurrection, although there were deep divisions among the Patriote leadership over this strategy and the moderates agreed to it only in the belief that Britain would back down if faced by the prospect of an uprising.
The First Rebellion
The Patriotes had fatally underestimated the resolve of the British government, which had already begun to despatch troops to Lower Canada from throughout the empire, and which began to turn a blind eye to the rifle clubs organized by anglophones. In Montréal the militant Patriotes established the Fils de la Liberté — an independence movement with a military wing — and on 6 November 1837 there was a skirmish between the Fils and the Doric Club, which represented the militant anglophones. Meanwhile British authority in the countryside rapidly deteriorated as French Canadians began to practise widespread civil disobedience.
On 16 November the government tried to forestall the rebellion by arresting the Patriote leaders, who took refuge in the countryside. On 23 November, government forces under Colonel Charles Gore suffered a minor defeat in the first major engagement of the rebellion, at St-Denis (see Battle of St-Denis), but the ill-organized, poorly equipped and badly led Patriotes were crushed two days later by a force of British regulars under Colonel Charles Wetherall at St-Charles (see Battle of St-Charles), despite the desperate courage displayed by the rebels.
On 30 November Gore returned to St-Denis, but the town surrendered without a struggle and the soldiers sacked it, leaving 50 homes blazing. On 14 December the British commander-in-chief, Sir John Colborne, captured St-Eustache (see Battle of St-Eustache), after fierce resistance from the habitants under the leadership of Jean-Olivier Chenier, and the first rebellion collapsed. There was widespread looting and burning of French Canadian settlements by the British volunteers.
Papineau Flees, Durham Arrives
Several hundred insurgents had been wounded or killed in the fighting, and many more captured. Papineau and a number of the Patriote leaders fled to the United States, and the constitution of the colony was suspended.
Lord Durham, sent out as the new governor general and as special commissioner, issued an amnesty for most of the prisoners and tried to restore harmony, but when his measures were inadequately supported by the home government in London, he resigned.
A Second Rebellion
With the encouragement of American sympathizers who organized themselves into hunters' lodges, the rebels prepared for a second insurgency, which broke out immediately upon Durham's departure in early November 1838. Led by Dr Robert Nelson and Dr Cyrille Côté, the rebels hoped to be able to cut communications between Montréal and the south shore of the St. Lawrence and thus set off a mass uprising of the habitants.
They were poorly organized and supplied, and were defeated at Napierville and Odelltown. One group of rebels was captured at Caughnawaga by the Iroquois, who were allied with the British.
The Patriotes defeated a small British force at Beauharnois on 9 November, but then scattered as a larger force approached. Within a week the second outbreak had been put down, almost entirely by the actions of the local volunteers, who rampaged across the country, leaving a trail of devastation. The makeshift prisons were filled with insurgent suspects and 108 men were convicted by courts-martial. Rumours of risings and invasions from the U.S. continued, but there was no substance to them and even Papineau departed North America for exile in Paris.
Between the two uprisings, 99 captured militants were condemned to death but only 12 went to the gallows, while 58 were transported to the penal colony of Australia. In total the six battles of both campaigns left 325 dead, 27 of them soldiers and the rest rebels. Thirteen men were executed (one by the rebels), one was murdered, one committed suicide, and two prisoners were shot.
The causes of the rebellions remain controversial. Some historians point to the inherent weaknesses of the constitutional arrangements in Lower Canada, which gave the elected Assembly the power to thwart the executive but not to control it, and they blame the British government for failing to respond adequately to the legitimate grievances of the French Canadian majority. But this interpretation ignores the ethnic division in Lower Canada and the economic and social tensions of the 1830s. The underlying cause was the conflict between the French Canadian majority, which demanded that all power be centralized in the popularly elected Assembly, which it controlled, and the British minority, which was no less determined to resist French Canadian domination.
The Patriote leadership to some extent drifted into rebellion, which it was ill equipped to win, and many moderate French Canadians opposed the use of force, including the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, which benefited from the defeat of the anticlerical Patriote leadership. Still, the revolt had widespread support among the French Canadian population and Papineau and his lieutenants earned a lasting place in the hearts of French Canadian nationalists.
The influence of the radicals in the colony was eventually undermined, and more moderate leaders, such as Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, reconstructed the reform movement. The rebellions, and their more limited counterpart in 1837 in Upper Canada, led directly to the appointment of Lord Durham and the Durham Report, which recommended that the Canadas be united into one colony, as the British minority in Lower Canada — particularly the merchant class — had long demanded. This in turn led to the introduction of what became known as responsible government.
Without some form of political union between the anglophone minority in Lower Canada and the large, anglophone population in Upper Canada, it is doubtful whether any British government could have delivered political reform — especially responsible government — to Lower Canada any sooner. It is even more doubtful whether any union could have been forced on the French Canadians without widespread resistance. In this sense, the rebellion in Lower Canada did break the impasse of the mid-1830s.
Even among conservative historians who see the rebellions as unnecessary bloodletting, which complicated and probably delayed the transition to greater self-government, there remains considerable sympathy for the attempts of the rebels to establish a more democratic and popular system of government in Lower Canada.