Home PageSite MapSite IndexHow to Use This SiteGlossaryContact Us Acknowledgements Image
Canada in the Making
Canada in the MakingSpecific Events & Topics
Primary Sources
Teachers' Resources
Biographies & Reference
Specific Events & Topics
Maps & Images
Français
Image
Image
Themes:
Constitutional History
Image
Aboriginals: Treaties & Relations
Image
Pionniers et Immigrants
Image
Image

PDF Version | Word Version | Rich Text Format | Text Format

Watercolour: The Insurgents, at Beauharnois, Lower Canada, 1838 - NAC/ANC C-013392
Copyright/Source

The Rebellions of 1837 and 1838

The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada in 1837 and 1838 remain controversial to this day. Did they contribute to the winning of responsible government, or did they slow down this process? Were the rebels heroes or demagogues? This page will look at the historical context of these events, and allow you to read some primary sources to make up your own mind.

Lower Canada

Upper Canada

The Durham Report
Bibliography

Related Topics:

Responsible Government
Canada's Constitutional History

Lower Canada Rebellions

Watercolour: View of Québec City, 1838 - NAC/ANC C-000516
Copyright/Source

Background
After the passing of the Constitutional Act, 1791, Upper and Lower Canada were governed by an elected House of Assembly and a Legislative Council that was appointed. These Legislative Councils, responsible only to the governor, were controlled by a group of elites in both provinces. In Lower Canada, its critics called this group the Château Clique.

The wishes of the Legislative Council often came into conflict with those of the Assembly. Three issues formed the focus of these conflicts:

  • Control over revenues and expenses.

  • An executive that was not responsible to the elected Assembly.

  • Control of the provincial civil service.

The Legislative Council wielded greater power and often ignored the Assembly's legislation. The Assembly retaliated by frequently refusing to finance the Legislative Council's projects.

Image
 

Craig to CastleReagh, June 5th, 1809
(Craig discusses difficulties controlling the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada.)

READ the summary
Image

Image
 

Craig to Liverpool, March 30th, 1810
(Craig considers dissolving the Assembly.)

READ the summary
Image

Image
 

Craig to Liverpool, May 1st, 1810
(Craig recommends suspending the constitution and reuniting Canada.)

READ the summary
Image

Image
 

Murray to Kempt, September 29th, 1828
(Instructions for the new Lieutenant-governor; may face problems.)

READ the summary
Image

Rising Nationalism
In addition, there was resurgence nationalism after the War of 1812. This took two forms. On one hand, Canadians of British descent were rallying against the perceived threat from the United States.

On the other hand, French Canadians were led by Louis-Joseph Papineau and the Parti canadien (renamed Parti patriote in 1826) to promote their culture, rights and interests. This movement became increasingly radical until there was a split in the early 1830s. Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine became the leader of the moderates while Papineau remained at the head of the radicals. In 1834, the radicals made their demands known in the Ninety-Two Resolutions.

Image
 

The Ninety-two Resolutions, 21 February, 1834
(Demands of Papineau and his colleagues in the Lower Canada House of Assembly.)

READ the summary
Image

Watercoulour: Papineau addressing a crowd - NAC/ANC C-073725
Copyright/Source

Causes
By late 1837, a number of factors pushed Lower Canada into armed insurrection:

  • The international economic downturn of the 1830s.

  • Crop failures in parts of Lower Canada in 1837, which left many farmers near starvation.

  • An increase in immigration from the British Isles.

  • An outbreak of cholera, brought by immigrants.

These factors contributed to ethnic and social divisions in the province, and led to a series of clashes. The Assembly refused to approve any money bills, which ground all public works to a halt and the government to a standstill.

The Triggers
In March 1837, the Russell Resolutions rejected all the major demands of the Patriotes. The Patriotes began to boycott British goods and began organizing rallies. Preparations began for armed insurrection. On November 16, 1837, the government attempted to arrest the leaders of the Parti patriote. The leaders fled to the countryside and the rebellion began.

Image
 

Lord Jmhn Russell's Ten Resolutions, March 6, 1837
(Gives reasons why the legislative council cannot be elective.)

READ the summary
Image

Lithograph: Back View of the Church of St. Eustache and Dispersion of the Insurgents, 1837 - NAC/ANC C-000396
Copyright/Source

The Fighting
Most of the fighting took place in three main battles: the Battle of St-Denis (which was won by the rebels), the Battle of St-Charles and the Battle of St-Eustache (both won by British forces). Because the government had anticipated the insurrection and had moved troops into the province, the rebellion was quickly crushed. Papineau and other nationalist leaders fled to the United States.

Many of the rebels who fled found support there. In November 1838, they returned to Lower Canada with hopes of sparking a mass uprising. Once again, they were quickly suppressed.

Aftermath
The Roman Catholic clergy and moderates in the province had always been opposed to violence. Combined with the vigorous response of the British forces, militant nationalism was largely eliminated in Lower Canada.

Image
 

Right. Hon. John C. Poulett Thompson to Lord John Russell, 31st October., 1839
(Describes the mood of people in Lower Canada after the rebellion.)

Image

Despite this, however, the violence and destruction caused by British forces and local volunteers in suppressing the rebellions would later lead many to demand compensation for their losses.. This, in turn, led to the Rebellion Losses Bill of 1849. This bill was highly controversial because the Tories believed former rebels would receive funds. The bill was passed, however, proving that responsible government was finally a reality in the province of Canada.

Image
 

Rebellion Losses Bill, 1849

READ the summary
Image

In addition, the Durham Report, with its strongly racist overtones, has remained a source of resentment ever since.

To learn more about the rebellions of 1837 and 1838:

Upper Canada Rebellion

Painting: William Lyon Mackenzie - NAC/ANC C-011095
Copyright/Source

Background
After the passing of the Constitution Act, 1791, Upper and Lower Canada were governed by an elected House of Assembly and a Legislative Council that was appointed. These Legislative Councils, responsible only to the governor, were controlled by a group of elites in both provinces. In Upper Canada, its critics called this group the Family Compact.

The Legislative Council wielded greater power and often ignored the Assembly's legislation. The Assembly retaliated by frequently refusing to finance the Legislative Council's projects.

The Reform Movement
Born out of social and economic tensions after the War of 1812, the Reform Party began to challenge the dominance of the Anglican Church and the Family Compact. As in Lower Canada, the movement had factions. Moderate reformers were led by Robert Baldwin and sought responsible government; radical reformers wanted to build a society and economy based on the United States. William Lyon Mackenzie led the most extreme faction.

Image
 

First report on the state of the representation of the people of Upper Canada …, 16th March, 1831
(Notes the negative effects of "an imperfect state of representation.")

READ the summary
Image

Image
 

Proceedings… on the affairs of the colony, 1836
(Mackenzie outlines some of the concerns of the Upper Canada House of Assembly.)

READ the summary
Image

Causes
Several issues formed the focus of resentment in the colony:

  • The Council's control over revenues and expenses.

  • An executive not responsible to the elected Assembly.

  • The council's control of the provincial civil service.

  • The council's control of the clergy reserves in the province.

  • The Council's land-granting policies

In addition, there were other factors:

  • The international economic downturn of the 1830s.

  • Widespread crop failures in Upper Canada in 1837.

The Triggers
Lieutenant-Governor Sir Francis Bond Head, in an effort to get the Assembly to support his government, directly intervened in the elections of 1836. He succeeded in winning a conservative majority.

This interference convinced Mackenzie that armed insurrection was the only remaining solution. The opportunity came when Head moved all of the British forces out of the province to suppress the Lower Canada rebellion.

Lithograph: Attack & defeat of rebels at Dickinson Landing, Upper Canada, 1838 - NAC/ANC C-001032
Copyright/Source

The Fighting
Between December 5 and 8, a group of about 1,000 rebels gathered at Montgomery's Tavern in York (Toronto). This Loyalist militia quickly won initial small skirmishes in the city. Many rebels sought refuge in the United States, and some continued to attack from there in 1838. This too was defeated by British forces. Mackenzie escaped to the United States, where he remained in exile until 1849.

Aftermath
The Family Compact's power was greatly increased by the Upper Canada rebellion and the fear it generated. This effect was temporary as moderates soon rose to prominence. The Durham Report was greeted with enthusiasm by reformers, although its recommendations for responsible government were not put into effect until 1848.

To learn more about the rebellions of 1837 and 1838:

The Durham Report

Drawing: Lord Durham - NAC/ANC C-121846
Copyright/Source

The rebellions precipitated a royal commission, which was convened to investigate the factional strife in the Canadas. Headed by Lord Durham, this commission resulted in the Report on the affairs of British North America (often called the Durham Report).

The report made a number of controversial recommendations:

  • A union of Upper and Lower Canada.

  • Responsible government, dominated by the English inhabitants of the Canadas.

  • Colonial control of internal affairs (but in a very limited sense).

  • Assimilation of the French-speaking population.

The recommendation for a union of the Canadas was adopted in the Act of Union, 1840, which laid the foundation for the next wave of change resulting in Confederation in 1867.

Image
 

Instructions to Lord Durham from Lord Glenelg, 20 January, 1838

READ the summary
Image

Image
 

Report on the affairs of British North America

READ the summary
Image

Image
 

Act of Union, 1840

READ the summary
Image

Bibliography

Buckner, P.A. Rebellions of 1837. The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica Foundation of Canada, 2000. (Online: <http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?TCE_Version=A>, accessed November 8, 2002).

Creighton, Donald. The empire of the St. Lawrence. Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada Limited, 1956.

Francis, R. Douglas, Richard Jones and Donald B. Smith. Origins: Canadian history to confederation. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company Canada Inc, 1992.

Ouellet, Fernand. The Insurrections. Readings in Canadian History: Pre-Confederation. Eds. R. Douglas Francis and Donald B. Smith. Toronto: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994, 330-344.

Senior, Elinor Kyte. Redcoats and Patriotes: The Rebellions in Lower Canada 1837-38. Ottawa: Canada's Wings, 1985.

Wade, Mason. The French Canadians 1760-1967. 1, 1760-1911. Toronto: MacMillan of Canada, 1968.

Image
Image
  ImageTop of Page Image
Image Image
Image