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 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, 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 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.

After years of failed efforts at peaceful change, Mackenzie in 1837 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 full rebel group was dispersed by loyalists from the tavern. There was a small, second confrontation soon afterwards in Brantford, but again the insurgents were dispersed.

Mackenzie and other rebel leaders fled 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.

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.

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.