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Louis-Joseph Papineau
Chapter XIII - The Rebellion and its Causes


ON the morrow of some great revolution, disaster or defeat, men naturally discuss the causes of the event, and strive to place the responsibility where it is due. For long years, historians debated the question whether it was Grouchy's disobedience to the emperor's orders, or a blunder of Napoleon himself, that gave the victory to Wellington on the field at Waterloo. In Canada the question is still asked whether it was precipitation on the part of Montcalm or the inaction of Vaud-reuil that made it such an easy task for Wolfe to win the day beneath the walls of Quebec. In like manner the apportionment of the responsibility for bringing about the sad events of 1837 rests with the tribunal of posterity. Did Papineau advise a recourse to violence, or was it O'Callaghan and Nelson who organized the fatal rising of the Canadians? Before as well as after the crisis, Papineau invariably repudiated the charge of having sought to wrest by violence the reforms which the English government refused to grant in compliance with his constitutional remonstrances. "O'Connell," he declared, "is my model, and like him I will employ for the attainment of my ends those peaceful means which the English constitution places at my disposal." If such were his intentions, it must be admitted that his own words often belied them, for there is no mistaking the bellicose nature of his furious orations. It is not in the public arena that we must seek for proof of his real designs. His letters show no trace of warlike intentions, but merely indications of a wavering spirit, which leave on the mind the impression that had he seen his way he would have followed the example of the English colonies in 1774; nor do the minutes of the "Comity Constitutionnel" of Montreal, whose proceedings were conducted in secrecy, throw any light on Papineau's views. In November, 1834, after the Montreal election which had involved the death of three Canadians shot down by the troops, Papineau dictated the following for his friends in Quebec: "The Patriotes of this city would have avenged this massacre, but they were so poor and so badly organized that they were not fit to meet regular troops." He then goes on to ask them whether they considered it advisable to prepare for an armed resistance. Writing in 1844 to Christie, Papineau said: "The overt acts of 1837 were sudden and unpremeditated, and they imperilled the position of England more seriously than is commonly thought. The smallest success at Toronto or Montreal would have induced the American government, in spite of the president, to support the movement." This declaration is calculated to give the impression that Papineau was, at the time, negotiating with friends in the United States. The passage quoted can hardly be explained otherwise.

Nelson, who was in command at St. Denis, repudiated the primary responsibility for the unfortunate conflict. "The whole initiative," he says, "came from Papineau. I was his assistant, his subaltern, and not his superior. I acted entirely in obedience to his orders and to his suggestions." It is but fair to state that when Nelson made this declaration (in 1849) he had quarrelled with his former friend.

Dr. O'Callaghan, who left Montreal at the same time with Papineau in order to accompany him to St. Hyacinthe and St. Marc, states, in writing to Garneau in 1852, that there was nothing premeditated in the rising of 1837; that it was a spontaneous explosion provoked by the order for the arrest of Papineau and Nelson. O'Callaghan, an Irishman who had joined Papineau through hatred of the British government, and who was elected for Yamaska by the influence of the great tribune, was a born conspirator himself, and, of course, saw conspiracies in everything done by his enemies. To his mind the events of 1837 were simply the application to Canada of the methods adopted in Ireland, where the English government provoked uprisings which they were prepared in advance to crush; and this for the purpose of justifying afterwards the extreme measures of repression inflicted on that unhappy country. Gosford, according to O'Callaghan, had forced a crisis upon the Canadians in order to render unavoidable a suspension of the constitution of 1791. His letter is, nevertheless, well worth quoting:

"I do not agree with your logic as regards the movement of '37. You say \je le blame puisqiiil n'a pas reussi, et qui I a eu de si tristes consequences pour nous.' This is a post hoc, ergo propter hoc, which is not authorized by the school. My dear Sir, if you will look carefully through Lord Gosford's despatches of 1836, as well as those of the colonial secretary of that and preceding and subsequent years, you will find that Gosford recommended the suspension of your constitution more than a year before there was any shadow of an outbreak.

"The truth is, the government both in Quebec and Downing street determined on abolishing the Lower Canada assembly, and only sought a pretext to justify its violence. Debartzch, who was Gosford's 'confidence man,' came to coax or browbeat me in '36 into voting for the supplies, and when he found me inebranlable, he very plainly told me that the result would be, that Papineau and I would be hanged! About that time Gosford recommended that the Lower Canada assembly should be abolished. Debartzch no doubt was in the secret, saw the consequences and founded his prophecy or threat or warning on the knowledge he had of the programme.

"It was Castlereagh and the Irish Union over again. Goad the people into violence and when they fall victims to the snares, abolish their constitutional rights. Read the history of Ireland and its legislative union with England, and you will see, as in a mirror, the plot of 1836-7 against Canadian liberty.

"The movement of '37, as far as I had any knowledge, was the movement of the government against peaceable citizens in order to hurry the latter in an indignant resistance of personal violence. When they dragged and isolated poor peasants, in the early part of 1837, from the Lake of Two Mountains into Montreal jail for assault, which they call treason, where was the movement? When they pulled down The Vindicator office, where was the movement? When they dragged Davignon and his friend, tied with ropes, from St. Johns through Chambly to Longueuil, to irritate the habitants— then peaceable and quiet—where was the movement ?

"The truth is, the whole was a settled plan of Gosford, Ogden and Debartzch to goad and drive individuals into a resistance to personal violence so as to make out a case with which the minister might be able to go down to parliament and ask for the destruction of the act of 1791. And lest that should not suffice, Colborne backed it up by saying in one of his despatches, months before any opposition had been offered, that Papineau was drilling troops somewhere near Three Rivers. This is as far as my memory serves me, for I have not the despatch by me. It was written somewhere in 1837, and you can probably turn to it. I recollect well calling Mr. Papineau's attention to it, at the time, and suggesting to him the propriety of contradicting it, for I was personally cognizant of the falsehood of the statement—but as is his wont and habit too often, he treated the thing with contempt—for it was the most atrocious lie I ever saw in print.

"I saw as clearly as I now see that the country was not prepared. But you might as well whistle to a tornado, as endeavour to contend against the deep and damnable conspiracy that was prepared and had burst forth against the rights and liberties of the people.

"The immediate fons et origo of the whole matter was the refusing of the supplies in 1836. The government thereupon set about bringing a collision a la Castlereagh en Irlande. They called out and armed volunteers, issued warrants a tort et a, travers, and when they had the people maddened by insult they called it a rebellion. If you are to blame the movement, blame, then, those who plotted and contrived it, and who are to be held in history responsible for it. We, my friend, were the victims, not the conspirators, and were I on my death-bed, I could declare before heaven that I had no more idea of a movement or resistance when I left Montreal and went to the Richelieu River with Papineau than I have now of being bishop of Quebec. And I also know that Mr. Papineau and I secreted ourselves for some time in a farmer's house in the Parish of St. Marc, lest our presence might alarm that country and be made a pretext for rashness. The issuing of warrants and the arrest of Davignon, followed by the affair at Longueuil, came on shortly after, and matters were beyond the control of any individuals. The movement, therefore was begun in the Castle St Lewis, and we were like straws, hurried away by the torrent and the debacle."

Let us take again the evidence of another of the actors in the drama of 1837—Robert S. M. Bouchette, who subsequently was for many years commissioner of customs at Ottawa. His word will have the more weight from the fact that, owing to his social standing and his tastes, he was far more closely connected with the governor's party than with that of the French Canadians. When Lord Russell's resolutions became known in Quebec, he considered them to be a violation of the privileges of the House, took sides with Papineau and placed himself at the disposal of Nelson. Having been taken prisoner at Moore's Corners, he was sent to Montreal. During his imprisonment, Colonel Dundas, a personal friend, wrote to him expressing regret at seeing him in so unfortunate a position, and deploring especially having learned that he had been arrested as a rebel Bouchette replied in forcible and eloquent terms, as may be seen by the following quotation from his very able letter:

"At this period (1834) and under the circumstances adverted to, commenced my political career. The side I took in the questions at issue was in accordance with my convictions, though it was at variance with my tastes, for it tended to alienate from me many of my friends, most of whom stood in the ranks of my political opponents. Nevertheless, I resigned myself to the sacrifice, and did so the more readily owing to the prevalence in my mind of that lethargy of social feeling that makes one alike indifferent to the frowns as to the blandishment of society. My professional pursuits and the rights of the people henceforward divided and altogether engrossed my whole attention. When I say the rights of the people, I do not mean those abstract or extravagant rights for which some contend, but which are not generally compatible with an organized state of society, but I mean those cardinal rights which are inherent to British subjects, and which, as such, ought not to be denied to the inhabitants of any section of the empire, however remote.

"A thorough knowledge that these rights were denied to the Canadian people, in practice, that we had the shadow and not the substance of the British constitution, that the wheels of government were clogged by corruption, that the most unworthy partiality poisoned the fountains of trust, of office and power, that irresponsibility pervaded every department of the local government, in fact that the colony was the devoted nursery of mere home patronage; a thorough knowledge, I say, of these grievances nerved my advocacy of the cause and lent new vigour to my exertions as an individual, to obtain a reform of these odious abuses and the more general introduction of elective institutions which I conceived to be the only effective remedy against existing evils.

"Since 1834 the political horizon had gradually darkened; the legislative assembly boldly resorted to its constitutional privilege of withholding the supplies — the breach hence became wider. In 1837, Lord John Russell proposed and parliament passed his famous Canadian Resolutions — resolutions more impolitic if possible than they were despotic. Well might Sir Robert Peel in the debates on the Canada question, charge the ministry with want of foresight in not sending out an army to Canada with the resolutions, for they must have anticipated that no set of freemen boasting of the title of British subjects could tamely submit to the political degradation they comported. Lord John Russell's measure provoked universal indignation. Meetings were held in all the most popular counties of the province, and the people boldly declared those resolutions to be a flagrant violation of their constitutional rights. Their language was strong—excitement ran high—and that excitement was greatly enhanced by the virulence of the opposite party, who called themselves the Constitutionals, or conservative party, i.e., the conservators of existing abuses.

"The meetings alluded to were held through the summer. In October last the famous meeting of the five (strictly, six) counties was held at St. Charles. The proceedings of this meeting, though by no means more demonstrative of the state of public feeling than the resolutions adopted at previous public meetings, were nevertheless made, sometime subsequently, the groundwork of a series of arrests comprising all the leading public men of the colony, to the number of forty or fifty. It was this violent and ill-advised measure of the executive government that forced the people into resistance; and this brings me to the consideration of an expression of yours which I am sure you will think unmerited when the circumstances are made known—I mean the words 'gratuitous revolt.'

"Indeed, I trust I have already said enough to convince you that if there was a revolt at all, it was anything but gratuitous. I don't think that you, the people of the British Isles, would calmly stand by and see your warmest and ablest friends and supporters arrested, and the liberties of the people thus jeopardized ! Bolingbroke would have blushed for the country which in such a conjuncture had not boldly stood forward in defence of Liberty. This was absolutely the position of Lower Canada after the adoption of the debasing resolutions of Lord John Russell.

"The Canadians rallied around their assembly and asserted its constitutional rights, and for thus doing they were deemed traitorous and seditious. As well might one deem the popular meetings of London or Birmingham subversive of the king and constitution. But in truth, in the strict acceptation of the term, there was no definitely planned revolt, but the people spontaneously, and without concert, determined upon protecting their leaders. This put numbers in arms and gave to the country an appearance of pre-concerted rebellion, but there was no such thing, and if proof were requisite it could be found in the unprepared state of the people in point of armament, there being generally two or three pitch-forks and as many scythes and flails to one fowling piece, and this not always of the best.

"Had a decided revolt been meditated it must have been easy to procure from the adjacent States such munitions of war as would have efficiently armed the whole Canadian population. But the immediate aim of the country was not the overthrow of British dominion, it was a movement of self-protection against an arbitrary exercise of ministerial and judicial power, and the resistance was in some instances the more desperate from the apprehension entertained that the government had designated several victims."

The events of 1837 were the inevitable outcome of various causes imputable primarily to the successive ministers of the colonies, who were quite indifferent about Canadian affairs and ill-informed as to the real intentions of our people and as to the plans of their opponents. In 1791, the province was given a constitution, liberal in its letter but too susceptible of being diverted from its object. From the first day it went into operation, the Canadians saw that the government was striving to restrict its advantages. And when they made complaint the answer was, to bear in mind that they were the descendants of Frenchmen who had been deprived of all participation in public affairs, and should, therefore, not be so anxious to obtain from the British government what they did not enjoy under the French regime. With a constitution which allowed the executive to govern as it pleased, were we not still under the arbitrary regime so justly condemned? "See the splendid constitution the king has given you," our adversaries seemed to say, "it is a noble instrument; but you are not to use it." Under the law, our ancestors were British subjects, but that noble quality of citizenship, good though it might be in theory, practically meant nothing for them ; they could claim nothing on that score, except of course in times of danger to the state, when they might shed their blood in defence of the country like ordinary British subjects.

Such was the initial error of the colonial office. Had the Canadians been given forthwith the full privileges of citizenship, how much trouble would have been avoided! It is useless to object that to have admitted them to the executive and to the legislative council would have been to subordinate the English element to the French, and that the latter would have abused their ascendency. That evil forecast has not stood the impartial test of history as it evolves itself from day to day in the province. At any rate, it would have been only fair to make the experiment, particularly in view of the fact that the home government and the governor were in a position to see that no injustice should be inflicted on the English speaking element.

The chief fault of the Act of 1791, which, in the hands of right-minded men, would have met all the needs of the country, was that it left too much scope for the exercise of arbitrary power. So great is man's infirmity that he is ever prone to commit abuses, and any and all power placed in his hands should be coupled with a counterpoise. This the wisdom of the fathers of the American constitution enabled them thoroughly to understand and apply in their great work, in which the liberty of the individual stands surrounded with safeguards. There is nothing of the kind in the constitution of 1791, which places no restraint whatever on the action of the executive, save its responsibility to the colonial office. Finding that this system of government put no check whatever on the encroachments of the governor and his friends, the legislative assembly, led by Papineau, undertook to erect barricades around the government. For six years the Crown was without supplies, an abnormal state of things, which the government met by drawing from the military chest; it was a condition of permanent anarchy and illegality.

What was to be done to put an end to this deadlock? Papineau felt that he could not surrender without the sacrifice of hopes which he held sacred, and submission to conditions which permanency would render intolerable. But the wiser course would surely have been to refrain from adopting the extreme course of perpetually refusing the supplies, and to persist in claiming redress of grievances from the home government. This mode of proceeding would have taken more time, but in the end it would have brought about the triumph of right.

As the lessons of history are generally lost on the people, and men in power acquire wisdom only under the pressure of calamity, the government forgot the lesson of the American revolution, then so recent and so striking. Not only in Quebec, but in each and all of the colonies, the men of Downing street held on to the reins until the people threatened to take them from their hands. Let us see, for instance, what occurred in Australia. It was not until 1824 that the colony was granted a semblance of a government, which was somewhat improved in 1842. This colony was not definitely endowed with 156 the privilege of dealing with its own affairs until 1856, after thirty years of persistent claiming of its rights. Up to that date all the officials in the country were appointed in London. It is not difficult to imagine the result of such a system, especially in a province such as ours, where a racial question presented itself, over and above the abuses common to all the colonies, and rendered the problem more complicated. "When we examine into the system of government in these colonies," remarks Lord Durham in his report, "it would almost seem as if the object of those by whom it was established had been the combining of apparently popular institutions with an utter absence of all efficient control of the people over their rulers."

As above stated, the government refused to recognize the Canadians as British subjects on the same footing with the other inhabitants of Canada. The governor and his entourage looked upon them as a conquered people of inferior race, who were to be kept under, as it were, by the fear of the sword of Brennus. That feeling had taken possession of what constituted "society," in those days, in Montreal and Quebec. In this pseudo aristocratic circle reigned a spirit of hostility towards the French Canadians, who were carefully excluded from its ranks. No opportunity was lost of slighting and insulting them. This select circle included the official class, the bureaucracy, the whole of the governor's party—the Chateau clique—so called, and the officers of the regiments then in Canada. All these people really believed that they were made of different clay from the descendants of the old colonists, and looked down upon them from the height of their own insolent snobbishness. They considered that the country belonged to them by right of conquest and that they were entitled to use it and exploit it for their own exclusive advantage, and they had no scruple in doing so. There were amongst them what might be called official dynasties, which had come to consider their positions as hereditary for their special benefit. Writing to Dominick Daly, provincial secretary, in 1847, Lord Gosford, than whom no one had had better opportunities to know them, called the clique "a domineering faction, which could be satisfied with nothing short of absolute power, and this ought to have been resisted and suppressed by a steady, uniform, and undeviating regard for the interest of the majority of the people."

"They hold the chief offices of the state," said a contemporary writer, "possess what were then considered large incomes, make constantly a great display and set the fashion. When the military first come amongst us they find certain persons high in office to whom they deem it wise to pay their court. .... The whole Canadian population constitutes the object of the hatred of this ruling class, and that portion living in the country, which chance 158 brings into to™, are subjected to their special contempt and ill-treatment."

These contemptible insults cannot justify a rebellion, but it is, nevertheless, manifest that this unceasing assumption of disdain was not of a nature to permit a mingling of the two elements whose true interest it was to come to a mutual understanding. In social life, under any circumstances, a wound to self-love creates eternal ill-will; but national self-love is still more susceptible, and any slight to that sentiment involves a degree of humiliation which can hardly be overlooked. Behind these wretched annoyances, which may seem insignificant to one who is not himself subjected to them, loomed up the conviction, only too strikingly confirmed by the conduct of successive incumbents of the colonial office, that the object of the English government was to crush the French Canadians.

As far back as 1808, had not Craig entertained the idea of uniting Lower Canada with the neighbouring province, for the purpose of denationalizing our people? Was not the entrusting of the public instruction in the province to the Royal Institution (an English Protestant institution) an attempt to lay hands on our Canadian youth? The union scheme of 1822 was, it is true, put aside, but with the secret determination to revive it sooner or later. Being fully cognizant of the views current in England in our regard, what possible reliance could Papineau place on promises of reform which were constantly broken ? Distrust in the long run became his habitual mood, until it culminated in utter exasperation, often the source of reckless deeds.

In "The Life of Cartier" it is pointed out that the whole movement prior to 1837, was not of a popular character. Papineau had not embodied in his statement of grievances any of those burning questions which go to the hearts of a people, such as religious persecution, or direct attempts to destroy their language. The privileges of the House of Assembly, the voting of the supplies by the representatives of the people, the encroachment on the rights of the other chamber, were all, so far as the good habitants of Lower Canada knew, so many abstract questions, about which they understood nothing whatever. Owing to atavistic influence the governor's arbitrary rule was not for them an unbearable yoke. Happy in the peaceful possession of their farms, in the free practice of their religion, and the use of the French language, they led a quasi patriarchal existence. What more was needed to satisfy their simple, frugal tastes ? Finding in the farm the wherewithal to feed and clothe themselves, and having, therefore, but a trifle to pay in the shape of indirect taxes—and the customs duties were in fact very low—they were self-supporting and in an enviable state of independence. The Canadian settler was therefore inclined to remain indifferent as 160 regards political agitation, and nothing short of the trumpet tones of Papineau could have roused him from his lethargy and brought him into line. He felt that he had grievances to complain of, because Papineau told him so; he believed, though he could not see.

But does not the admission that such was the state of mind of so large a section of the Canadian people force us to admit that Papineau's complaints were groundless ? Not at all! Quite a large proportion of the Canadian population had a full sense of their position, and were well aware that the abuses they then complained of and combated, were fraught with evil results for the future. Besides, is it not manifest that the commission of an act of injustice towards a single individual constitutes a menace to the whole? That is a truth of experience demonstrated by the political history of England,


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