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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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)