Rebellions of 1837–38

Upper and Lower Canada were thrown into turmoil from 1837–38, when insurgents mounted rebellions in each colony against the Crown and the political status quo. The revolt in Lower Canada was the more serious and violent of the two. However, both events inspired the pivotal Durham Report, which in turn led to the union of the two colonies (see Act of Union) and the arrival of responsible government — critical events on the road to Canadian nationhood.

Rebellion in Lower Canada

The Rebellion in Lower Canada was led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and his Patriotes, as well as more moderate French Canadian nationalists, who together dominated the elected Legislative Assembly. Since the 1820s, they had peacefully opposed the authority of the Roman Catholic Church and challenged the powers of the British governor and his unelected advisers (see Château Clique), demanding control over the way revenues raised in the colony were spent.

Rebellions of 1837, Lower Canada

Their political demands, which included democratic pleas for responsible government, were rejected in London. This, coupled with economic depression for French Canadian farmers in the 1830s, plus rising tensions with the largely urban anglophone minority, led to protest rallies across the colony and eventual calls by the more radical Patriotes for armed insurrection.

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).

There were two outbursts of violence, the first in November 1837, in a series of skirmishes and battles between Patriote rebels and trained British regulars as well as anglophone volunteers. The defeat of the disorganized rebels was followed by widespread anglophone looting and burning of French Canadian settlements. Papineau and other rebel leaders fled to the United States.

Insurgents at Beauharnois, Lower Canada
Insurgents at Beauharnois, Lower Canada, Artist: Katherine Jane Ellice, November 1838.

With the help of American volunteers, a second rebellion was launched in November 1838, but it too was poorly organized and quickly put down, followed by further looting and devastation in the countryside.

The two uprisings left 325 people dead, all of them rebels except for 27 British soldiers. Nearly 100 rebels were also captured. After the second uprising failed, Papineau departed the US for exile in Paris.

Rebellion in Upper Canada

The insurgency in Lower Canada inspired anglophone radicals in the neighbouring colony (Upper Canada) to take their own action against the Crown, although theirs would be a smaller, less deadly revolt.

Rebellions of 1837, Upper Canada

The Rebellion in Upper Canada was led by William Lyon Mackenzie, a Scottish-born newspaper publisher and politician who was a fierce critic of the Family Compact, an elite clique of officials and businessmen who dominated the running of the colony and its system of patronage. Mackenzie and his followers also opposed a system of land grants that favoured settlers from Britain, as opposed to those with ties to the United States many of whom were also denied political rights.

William Lyon Mackenzie
The fiery and principled Scot was the catalyst for the turbulent politics of the 1830s in Upper Canada.

In 1837, after years of failed efforts at peaceful change, Mackenzie convinced his most radical followers to try to seize control of the government and declare the colony a republic. About 1,000 men, mostly farmers of American origin, gathered for four days in December at Montgomery’s Tavern on Yonge Street in Toronto. On 5 December, several hundred poorly armed and organized rebels marched south on Yonge Street and exchanged gunfire with a smaller group of loyalist militia. The bulk of the rebel force fled in a state of confusion once the firing started.

Three days later, the remaining rebel group was dispersed from the tavern by loyalists, including about 120 Black soldiers under the command of Colonel Samuel Jarvis. Hundreds of Black Canadians volunteered for service during the rebellions, helping to create several fighting units — known as “Coloured Corps” — in Chatham, Toronto, Hamilton, Sandwich (Windsor) and along the border in the Niagara region.

There was a small, second confrontation soon afterwards in Brantford, but again the insurgents were dispersed. Mackenzie and other rebel leaders fled with about 200 followers to the US where, with the help of American volunteers, various rebel groups launched raids against Upper Canada, keeping the border in a state of turmoil for nearly a year. With the support of Americans who wished to liberate Canada from British rule, Mackenzie took control of Navy Island in the Niagara River— just upriver from the falls — and proclaimed a republic of Upper Canada. He was forced to withdraw on 14 January, after Canadian volunteers burned the rebel ship, Caroline, that was supplying Mackenzie’s forces and set it adrift over the falls (see Remember the Caroline).

The Caroline descending Niagara Falls after being set on fire by militiamen, 29 December 1837.

The insurgency fizzled after 1838. Mackenzie spent years in exile in New York, before returning to Canada following a government pardon in 1849. Others weren't so lucky. Although only three men —two rebels and one loyalist — were killed in the early stages of the rebellion, many captured rebels were executed by the government. (See also The Early American Republic and the 1837–38 Canadian Rebellions.)

Causes and Consequences

Historians have disagreed about how much popular support each rebellion received, and to what degree the uprisings were necessary. One argument is that they were the inevitable result of undemocratic, unworkable colonial systems, and an imperial government in London that was out of touch and unsympathetic to reform. Another view is that the insurgencies amounted to pointless bloodletting, which may have even slowed the pace of reform.

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).

One fact is clear: the rebellions prompted the appointment of Lord Durham and the writing of the Durham Report, which recommended the two colonies be united as one. The Province of Canada came into being in 1841, and this in turn led to the introduction of responsible government.

Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine
Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, joint premier of the Province of Canada, 1848-51, oil on canvas, by June Forbes McCormack (courtesy Government of Ontario Art Collection).
Robert Baldwin
Baldwin was the first popularizer of responsible government and one of the first proponents of a bicultural nation (courtesy Metropolitan Toronto Library).
Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine
Statue of Robert Baldwin and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine by Walter Seymour Allward, Parliament Hill, Ottawa, 25 April 2010 (Creative Commons/D. Gordon E. Robertson).
Act of Union
First page (National Archives of Canada/MG40, E1).

Although the rebel leaders were thwarted in their goals, Papineau and Mackenzie each found a place in history as unlikely folk heroes who fought bravely, if not carefully, for democratic ideals. Their failure paved the way for more moderate reformists, such as Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine in Canada East (formerly Lower Canada) and Robert Baldwin in Canada West (formerly Upper Canada), who would work together across language lines, to bring democratic reform and self-government to the newly united Canada.

Read More // Rebellions of 1837

Further Reading

  • G. Craig, Upper Canada (1963)

  • P.A. Buckner, The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America 1815-1850 (1985)

  • P.A. Buckner, The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America 1815-1850 (1985); G. Craig, Upper Canada (1963); Jacques Monet, The Last Cannon Shot (1967); Desmond Morton, Rebellions in Canada (1979); F. Ouellet, Social and Economic History of Québec (tr 1980) and Lower Canada 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism (1980); Colin Read, The Rising in Western Upper Canada (1980); Read and Ronald J. Stagg, The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada (1985); Elinor Kyte Senior, Redcoats and Patriotes: The Rebellions in Lower Canada 1837-38 (1985).

  • Jacques Monet, The Last Cannon Shot (1967)

  • Colin Read, The Rising in Western Upper Canada (1980)

  • F. Ouellet, Social and Economic History of Québec (tr 1980) and Lower Canada 1791-1840: Social Change and Nationalism (1980)

  • Desmond Morton, Rebellions in Canada (1979)

  • Read and Ronald J. Stagg, The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada (1985)