The 'Patriotes' of '37 - Part 2

Part 2

Lord Gosford arrived in Canada at the end of the summer of 1835 to find himself confronted with a discouraging state of affairs. A short session of the a.s.sembly in the earlier part of the year had been marked by unprecedented violence. Papineau had attacked Lord Aylmer in language breathing pa.s.sion; and had caused Lord Aylmer's reply to the address of the a.s.sembly containing the Ninety-Two Resolutions to be expunged from the journals of the House as 'an insult cast at the whole nation.' Papineau had professed himself hopeless of any amendment of grievances by Great Britain. 'When Reform ministries, who called themselves our friends,' he said, 'have been deaf to our complaints, can we hope that a Tory ministry, the enemy of Reform, will give us a better hearing? We have nothing to expect from the Tories unless we can inspire them with fear or worry them by ceaseless importunity.' It {48} should be observed, however, that in 1835 Papineau explicitly disclaimed any intention of stirring up civil war. When Gugy, one of the English members of the a.s.sembly,[1] accused him of such an intention, Papineau replied:

Mr Gugy has talked to us again about an outbreak and civil war--a ridiculous bugbear which is regularly revived every time the House protests against these abuses, as it was under Craig, under Dalhousie, and still more persistently under the present governor. Doubtless the honourable gentleman, having studied military tactics as a lieutenant in the militia--I do not say as a major, for he has been a major only for the purposes of the parade-ground and the ball-room--is quite competent to judge of the results of a civil war and of the forces of the country, but he need not fancy that he can frighten us by hinting to us that he will fight in the ranks of the enemy. All his threats are futile, and his fears but the creatures of imagination.

Papineau did not yet contemplate an appeal {49} to arms; and of course he could not foresee that only two years later Conrad Gugy would be one of the first to enter the village of St Eustache after the defeat of the _Patriote_ forces.

In spite of the inflamed state of public feeling, Lord Gosford tried to put into effect his policy of conciliation. He sought to win the confidence of the French Canadians by presiding at their entertainments, by attending the distribution of prizes at their seminaries, and by giving b.a.l.l.s on their feast days. He entertained lavishly, and his manners toward his guests were decidedly convivial.

'_Milord_,' exclaimed one of them on one occasion, tapping him on the back at a certain stage of the after-dinner conversation, '_milord, vous etes bien aimable_.' 'Pardonnez,' replied Gosford; '_c'est le vin_.' Even Papineau was induced to accept the governor's hospitality, though there were not wanting those who warned Gosford that Papineau was irreconcilable. 'By a wrong-headed and melancholy alchemy,' wrote an English officer in Quebec to Gosford, 'he will trans.m.u.te every public concession into a demand for more, in a ratio equal to its extent; and his disordered moral palate, beneath the blandest smile and the {50} softest language, will turn your Burgundy into vinegar.'

The speech with which Lord Gosford opened the session of the legislature in the autumn of 1835 was in line with the rest of his policy. He announced his determination to effect the redress of every grievance. In some cases the action of the executive government would be sufficient to supply the remedy. In others the a.s.sistance of the legislature would be necessary. A third cla.s.s of cases would call for the sanction of the British parliament. He promised that no discrimination against French Canadians should be made in appointments to office. He expressed the opinion that executive councillors should not sit in the legislature. He announced that the French would be guaranteed the use of their native tongue. He made an earnest plea for the settlement of the financial difficulty, and offered some concessions. The legislature should be given control of the hereditary revenues of the Crown, if provision were made for the support of the executive and the judiciary. Finally, he made a plea for the reconciliation of the French and English races in the country, whom he described as 'the offspring of the two foremost nations {51} of mankind.' Not even the most extreme of the _Patriotes_ could fail to see that Lord Gosford was holding out to them an olive branch.

Great dissatisfaction, of course, arose among the English in the colony at Lord Gosford's policy. 'Const.i.tutional a.s.sociations,' which had been formed in Quebec and Montreal for the defence of the const.i.tution and the rights and privileges of the English-speaking inhabitants of Canada, expressed gloomy forebodings as to the probable result of the policy. The British in Montreal organized among themselves a volunteer rifle corps, eight hundred strong, 'to protect their persons and property, and to a.s.sist in maintaining the rights and principles granted them by the const.i.tution'; and there was much indignation when the rifle corps was forced to disband by order of the governor, who declared that the const.i.tution was in no danger, and that, even if it were, the government would be competent to deal with the situation.

Nor did Gosford find it plain sailing with all the French Canadians.

Papineau's followers in the House took up at first a distinctly independent att.i.tude. Gosford was informed {52} that the appointment of the royal commission was an insult to the a.s.sembly; it threw doubt on the a.s.sertions which Papineau and his followers had made in pet.i.tions and resolutions. If the report of the commissioners turned out to be in accord with the views of the House, well and good; but if not, that would not influence the att.i.tude of the House. They would not alter their demands.

In spite, however, of the uneasiness of the English official element, and the obduracy of the extreme _Patriotes_, it is barely possible that Gosford, with his _bonhomie_ and his Burgundy, might have effected a modus vivendi, had there not occurred, about six months after Gosford's arrival in Canada, one of those unfortunate and unforeseen events which upset the best-laid schemes of mice and men. This was the indiscreet action of Sir Francis Bond Head, the newly appointed lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, in communicating to the legislature of Upper Canada the _ipsissima verba_ of his instructions from the Colonial Office. It was immediately seen that a discrepancy existed between the tenor of Sir Francis Bond Head's instructions and the tenor of Lord Gosford's speech at the opening of the legislature of Lower Canada in 1835. {53} Sir Francis Bond Head's instructions showed beyond peradventure that the British government did not contemplate any real const.i.tutional changes in the Canadas; above all, it did not propose to yield to the demand for an elective Legislative Council.

This fact was called to the attention of Papineau and his friends by Marshall Spring Bidwell, the speaker of the a.s.sembly of Upper Canada; and immediately the fat was in the fire. Papineau was confirmed in his belief that justice could not be hoped for; those who had been won over by Gosford's blandishments experienced a revulsion of feeling; and Gosford saw the fruit of his efforts vanishing into thin air.

A climax came over the question of supply. Lord Gosford had asked the a.s.sembly to vote a permanent civil list, in view of the fact that the government offered to hand over to the control of the legislature the casual and territorial revenues of the Crown. But the publication of Sir Francis Bond Head's instructions effectually destroyed any hope of this compromise being accepted. In the session of the House which was held in the early part of 1836, Papineau and his friends not only refused to vote a permanent civil {54} list; they declined to grant more than six months' supply in any case; and with this they made the threat that if the demands of the _Patriotes_ were not met at the end of the six months, no more supplies would be voted. This action was deemed so unsatisfactory that the Legislative Council threw out the bill of supply. The result was widespread distress among the public officials of the colony. This was the fourth year in which no provision had been made for the upkeep of government. In 1833 the bill of supply had been so c.u.mbered with conditions that it had been rejected by the Legislative Council. In 1834, owing to disputes between the Executive and the a.s.sembly, the legislature had separated without a vote on the estimates. In 1835 the a.s.sembly had declined to make any vote of supply. In earlier years the Executive had been able, owing to its control of certain royal and imperial revenues, to carry on the government after a fashion under such circ.u.mstances; but since it had transferred a large part of these revenues to the control of the legislature, it was no longer able to meet the situation. Papineau and his friends doubtless recognized that they now had the 'Bureaucrats' at their mercy; and {55} they seem to have made up their minds to achieve the full measure of their demands, or make government impossible by withholding the supplies, no matter what suffering this course might inflict on the families of the public servants.

In the autumn of 1836 the royal commissioners brought their labours to a close. Lord Gosford, it is true, remained in the colony as governor until the beginning of 1838, and Sir George Gipps remained until the beginning of 1837, but Sir Charles Grey left for England in November 1836 with the last of the commissioners' reports. These reports, which were six in number, exercised little direct influence upon the course of events in Canada. The commissioners p.r.o.nounced against the introduction of responsible government, in the modern sense of the term, on the ground that it would be incompatible with the status of a colony. They advised against the project of an elective Legislative Council. In the event of a crisis arising, they submitted the question whether the total suspension of the const.i.tution would not be less objectionable than any partial interference with the particular clauses. It is evident from the reports that the commissioners had {56} bravely survived their earlier view that the discontented Canadians might be won over by unctuous blandishments alone. They could not avoid the conclusion that this policy had failed.

[1] He was really of Swiss extraction.




When the legislature of Lower Canada met in the autumn of 1836, Lord Gosford earnestly called its attention to the estimates of the current year and the accounts showing the arrears unpaid. Six months, however, had pa.s.sed by, and there was no sign of the redress of grievances. The royal commission, indeed, had not completed its investigations. The a.s.sembly, therefore, refused once more to vote the necessary supplies.

'In reference to the demand for a supply,' they told the governor, 'relying on the salutary maxim, that the correction of abuses and the redress of grievances ought to precede the grant thereof, we have been of opinion that there is nothing to authorize us to alter our resolution of the last session.'

This answer marked the final and indubitable breakdown of the policy of conciliation without concession. This was recognized by {58} Gosford, who soon afterwards wrote home asking to be allowed to resign, and recommending the appointment of a governor whose hands were 'not pledged as mine are to a mild and conciliatory line of policy.'

Two alternatives were now open to the British ministers--either to make a complete capitulation to the demands of the _Patriotes_, or to deal with the situation in a high-handed way. They chose the latter course, though with some hesitation and perhaps with regret. On March 6, 1837, Lord John Russell, chancellor of the Exchequer in the Melbourne administration and one of the most liberal-minded statesmen in England, introduced into the House of Commons ten resolutions dealing with the affairs of Canada. These resolutions recited that since 1832 no provision had been made by the a.s.sembly of Lower Canada for defraying the charges for the administration of justice or for the support of the civil government; that the attention of the a.s.sembly had been called to the arrears due; and that the a.s.sembly had declined to vote a supply until its demands for radical political changes were satisfied. The resolutions declared that though both the bodies in question might be improved in respect of their composition, it {59} was inadvisable to grant the demand to make the Legislative Council elective, or to subject the Executive Council to the responsibility demanded by the House of a.s.sembly. In regard to the financial question, the resolutions repeated the offer made by Lord Aylmer and Lord Gosford--namely, to hand over to the a.s.sembly the control of the hereditary, territorial, and casual revenues of the Crown, on condition that the a.s.sembly would grant a permanent civil list. But the main feature of the resolutions was the clause empowering the governor to pay out of the public revenues, without authorization of the a.s.sembly, the moneys necessary for defraying the cost of government in the province up to April 10, 1837. This, though not exactly a suspension of the const.i.tution of Lower Canada and a measure quite legally within the competency of the House of Commons, was a flat negative to the claim of the Lower-Canadian a.s.sembly to control over the executive government, through the power of the purse or otherwise.

A long and important debate in Parliament followed on these resolutions. Some of the chief political leaders of the day took part in the discussion. Daniel O'Connell, the great {60} tribune of the Irish people, took up the cudgels for the French Canadians. Doubtless it seemed to him that the French Canadians, like the Irish, were victims of Anglo-Saxon tyranny and bigotry. Sir George Grey, the colleague of Gosford, Lord Stanley, a former colonial secretary, and William Ewart Gladstone, then a vigorous young Tory, spoke in support of the resolutions. The chief opposition came from the Radical wing of the Whig party, headed by Hume and Roebuck; but these members were comparatively few in number, and the resolutions were pa.s.sed by overwhelming majorities.

[Ill.u.s.tration: Wolfred Nelson. From a print in the Chateau de Ramezay.]

As soon as the pa.s.sage of the resolutions became known in Canada, Papineau and his friends began to set the heather on fire. On May 7, 1837, the _Patriotes_ held a huge open-air meeting at St Ours, eleven miles above Sorel on the river Richelieu. The chief organizer of the meeting was Dr Wolfred Nelson, a member of the a.s.sembly living in the neighbouring village of St Denis, who was destined to be one of the leaders of the revolt at the end of the year. Papineau himself was present at the meeting and he spoke in his usual violent strain. He submitted a resolution declaring that 'we cannot but {61} consider a government which has recourse to injustice, to force, and to a violation of the social contract, anything else than an oppressive government, a government by force, for which the measure of our submission should henceforth be simply the measure of our numerical strength, in combination with the sympathy we may find elsewhere.' At St Laurent a week later he used language no less dangerous. 'The Russell resolutions,' he cried, 'are a foul stain; the people should not, and will not, submit to them; the people must transmit their just rights to their posterity, even though it cost them their property and their lives to do so.'

These meetings were prototypes of many that followed. All over the province the _Patriotes_ met together to protest against what they called 'coercion.' As a rule the meetings were held in the country parishes after church on Sunday, when the habitants were gathered together. Most inflammatory language was used, and flags and placards were displayed bearing such devices as '_Papineau et le systeme electif_,' '_Papineau et l'independence_,' and '_A bas le despotisme_.'

Alarmed by such language, Lord Gosford issued on June 15 a proclamation calling on all loyal {62} subjects to discountenance writings of a seditious tendency, and to avoid meetings of a turbulent or political character. But the proclamation produced no abatement in the agitation; it merely offered one more subject for denunciation.

During this period Papineau and his friends continually drew their inspiration from the procedure of the Whigs in the American colonies before 1776. The resolutions of the _Patriotes_ recalled the language of the Declaration of Independence. One of the first measures of the Americans had been to boycott English goods; one of the first measures of the _Patriotes_ was a resolution pa.s.sed at St Ours binding them to forswear the use of imported English goods and to use only the products of Canadian industry. At the short and abortive session of the legislature which took place at the end of the summer of 1837, nearly all the members of the a.s.sembly appeared in clothes made of Canadian frieze. The shifts of some of the members to avoid wearing English imported articles were rather amusing. 'Mr Rodier's dress,' said the Quebec _Mercury_, 'excited the greatest attention, being unique with the exception of a pair of Berlin gloves, viz.: frock coat of {63} granite colored _etoffe du pays_; inexpressibles and vest of the same material, striped blue and white; straw hat, and beef shoes, with a pair of home-made socks, completed the _outre_ attire. Mr Rodier, it was remarked, had no shirt on, having doubtless been unable to smuggle or manufacture one.' But Louis LaFontaine and 'Beau' Viger limited their patriotism, it appears, to the wearing of Canadian-made waistcoats. The imitation of the American revolutionists did not end here. If the New England colonies had their 'Sons of Liberty,' Lower Canada had its '_Fils de la Liberte_'--an a.s.sociation formed in Montreal in the autumn of 1837. And the Lower Canada Patriotes outstripped the New England patriots in the republican character of their utterances. 'Our only hope,' announced _La Minerve_, 'is to elect our governor ourselves, or, in other words, to cease to belong to the British Empire.' A manifesto of some of the younger spirits of the _Patriote_ party, issued on October 1, 1837, spoke of 'proud designs, which in our day must emanc.i.p.ate our beloved country from all human authority except that of the bold democracy residing within its bosom.'

To add point to these opinions, there sprang up all over the country {64} volunteer companies of armed _Patriotes_, led and organized by militia officers who had been dismissed for seditious utterances.

Naturally, this situation caused much concern among the loyal people of the country. Loyalist meetings were held in Quebec and Montreal, to offset the _Patriote_ meetings; and an attempt was made to form a loyalist rifle corps in Montreal. The attempt failed owing to the opposition of the governor, who was afraid that such a step would merely aggravate the situation. Not even Gosford, however, was blind to the seriousness of the situation. He wrote to the colonial secretary on September 2, 1837, that all hope of conciliation had pa.s.sed. Papineau's aims were now the separation of Canada from England and the establishment of a republican form of government. 'I am disposed to think,' he concluded, 'that you may be under the necessity of suspending the const.i.tution.'

It was at this time that the Church first threw its weight openly against the revolutionary movement. The British government had accorded to Catholics in Canada a measure of liberty at once just and generous; and the bishops and clergy were not slow to see that under a republican form of government, {65} whether as a state in the American Union or as an independent _nation canadienne_, they might be much worse off, and would not be any better off, than under the dominion of Great Britain. In the summer of 1837 Mgr Lartigue, the bishop of Montreal, addressed a communication to the clergy of his diocese asking them to keep the people within the path of duty. In October he followed this up by a Pastoral Letter, to be read in all the churches, warning the people against the sin of rebellion. He held over those who contemplated rebellion the penalties of the Church: 'The present question amounts to nothing less than this--whether you will choose to maintain, or whether you will choose to abandon, the laws of your religion.'

The ecclesiastical authorities were roused to action by a great meeting held on October 23, at St Charles on the Richelieu, the largest and most imposing of all the meetings thus far. Five or six thousand people attended it, representing all the counties about the Richelieu.

The proceedings were admirably staged. Dr Wolfred Nelson was in the chair, but Papineau was the central figure. A company of armed men, headed by two militia officers who had been dismissed for disloyalty, and {66} drawn up as a guard, saluted every resolution of the meeting with a volley. A wooden pillar, with a cap of liberty on top, was erected, and dedicated to Papineau. At the end of the proceedings Papineau was led up to the column to receive an address. After this all present marched past singing popular airs; and each man placed his hand on the column, swearing to be faithful to the cause of his country, and to conquer or die for her. All this, of course, was comparatively innocent. The resolutions, too, were not more violent than many others which had been pa.s.sed elsewhere. Nor did Papineau use language more extreme than usual. Many of the _Patriotes_, indeed, considered his speech too moderate. He deprecated any recourse to arms and advised his hearers merely to boycott English goods, in order to bring the government to righteousness. But some of his lieutenants used language which seemed dangerous. Roused by the eloquence of their leader, they went further than he would venture, and advocated an appeal to the arbitrament of war. 'The time has come,' cried Wolfred Nelson, 'to melt our spoons into bullets.'

The exact att.i.tude of Papineau during {67} these months of agitation is difficult to determine. He does not seem to have been quite clear as to what course he should pursue. He had completely lost faith in British justice. He earnestly desired the emanc.i.p.ation of Canada from British rule and the establishment of a republican system of government. But he could not make up his mind to commit himself to armed rebellion. 'I must say, however,' he had announced at St Laurent, 'and it is neither fear nor scruple that makes me do so, that the day has not yet come for us to respond to that appeal.' The same att.i.tude is apparent, in spite of the haughty and defiant language, in the letter which he addressed to the governor's secretary in answer to an inquiry as to what he had said at St Laurent:

SIR,--The pretension of the governor to interrogate me respecting my conduct at St Laurent on the 15th of May last is an impertinence which I repel with contempt and silence.

I, however, take the pen merely to tell the governor that it is false that any of the resolutions adopted at the meeting of the county of Montreal, held at St Laurent {68} on the 15th May last, recommend a violation of the laws, as in his ignorance he may believe, or as he at least a.s.serts.--Your obedient servant,


At St Charles Papineau was even more precise in repudiating revolution; and there is no evidence that, when rebellion was decided upon, Papineau played any important part in laying the plans. In later years he was always emphatic in denying that the rebellion of 1837 had been primarily his handiwork. 'I was,' he said in 1847, 'neither more nor less guilty, nor more nor less deserving, than a great number of my colleagues.' The truth seems to be that Papineau always balked a little at the idea of armed rebellion, and that he was carried off his feet at the end of 1837 by his younger a.s.sociates, whose enthusiasm he himself had inspired. He had raised the wind, but he could not ride the whirlwind.

[Ill.u.s.tration: South-Western Lower Canada, 1837.]




As the autumn of 1837 wore on, the situation in Lower Canada began to a.s.sume an aspect more and more threatening. In spite of a proclamation from the governor forbidding such meetings, the _Patriotes_ continued to gather for military drill and musketry exercises. Armed bands went about the countryside, in many places intimidating the loyalists and forcing loyal magistrates and militia officers to send in their resignations to the governor. As early as July some of the Scottish settlers at Cote St Joseph, near St Eustache, had fled from their homes, leaving their property to its fate. Several houses at Cote St Mary had been fired upon or broken into. A letter of Sir John Colborne, the commander of the forces in British North America, written on October 6, shows what the state of affairs was at that time:

In my correspondence with Col. Eden I have had occasion to refer to the facts {70} and reports that establish the decided character which the agitators have lately a.s.sumed. The people have elected the dismissed officers of the militia to command them. At St Ours a pole has been erected in favour of a dismissed captain with this inscription on it, 'Elu par le peuple.' At St Hyacinthe the tri-coloured flag was displayed for several days. Two families have quitted the town in consequence of the annoyance they received from the patriots. Wolfred Nelson warned the patriots at a public meeting to be ready to arm. The tri-coloured flag is to be seen at two taverns between St Denis and St Charles. Many of the tavern-keepers have discontinued their signs and subst.i.tuted for them an eagle. The bank notes or promissory notes issued at Yamaska have also the same emblem marked on them. Mr Papineau was escorted from Yamaska to St Denis by a numerous retinue, and it is said that 200 or 300 carriages accompanied him on his route.

He has attended five public meetings lately; and at one of them La Valtrie, a priest, was insulted in his presence. The occurrence at St Denis was certainly {71} a political affair, a family at St Antoine opposed to the proceedings of W. Nelson, having been annoyed by the same mob that destroyed the house of Madame St Jacques a few hours before the shot was fired from her window.

Special animosity was shown toward the Chouayens, those French Canadians who had refused to follow Papineau's lead. P. D. Debartzch, a legislative councillor and a former supporter of Papineau, who had withdrawn his support after the pa.s.sing of the Ninety-Two Resolutions, was obliged to flee from his home at St Charles; and Dr Quesnel, one of the magistrates of L'Acadie, had his house broken into by a mob that demanded his resignation as magistrate.

On November 6 rioting broke out in Montreal. The Doric Club, an organization of the young men of English blood in the city, came into conflict with the French-Canadian _Fils de la Liberte_. Which side provoked the hostilities, it is now difficult to say. Certainly, both sides were to blame for their behaviour during the day. The sons of liberty broke the windows of prominent loyalists; and the members of the Doric Club completely wrecked {72} the office of the _Vindicator_ newspaper. It was only when the Riot Act was read, and the troops were called out, that the rioting ceased.

Up to this point the _Patriotes_ had not indulged in any overt acts of armed rebellion. Some of their leaders, it is true, had been laying plans for a revolt. So much is known from the correspondence which pa.s.sed between the leading _Patriotes_ in Lower Canada and William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the rebellion in Upper Canada. Thomas Storrow Brown, one of Papineau's lieutenants, wrote to Mackenzie asking him to start the ball rolling in Upper Canada first, in order to draw off some of the troops which Sir John Colborne had ma.s.sed in Lower Canada. But all calculations were now upset by events which rapidly precipitated the crisis in the lower province.