The Rebellions of 1837-1838
The Rebellions of 1837-1838
1 2 3
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
1 2
Insurgents at Beauharnois, Lower Canada (Katherine Jane Ellice, National Archives of Canada, C-013392)
In 1837 and 1838, insurrections exploded in Lower and Upper Canada. While moderates wanted to reform the political system, radicals yearned to fundamentally change society.

It was an economically difficult time. In Lower Canada, poor harvests brought many Canadians to the brink of famine. The discriminatory policy of Upper Canada's lieutenant-governor Francis Bond Head regarding Family Compact and recently-arrived British immigrants, infuriated the long-established colonists of American origin. Reformists in Upper Canada and the Patriot Party in Lower Canada held the majority in each of their respective assemblies. The moderates, who represented the majority of members in both parties, called for responsible government. The minority radicals, however, demanded that the two colonies become independent and be replaced by republics, similar to those found in the United States. These movements followed an international trend, since many countries at the time were wrought with political movements calling for systematic reform.

In Upper Canada, insurrections resulted from, among other things, dissatisfaction with the Family Compact. In Lower Canada, a battle was being waged between the Assembly controlled by the Patriot Party, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, and the British minority that controlled the Executive Council and the Legislative Council. In the autumn of 1837, trouble broke out in the two colonies. The insurrection of Upper Canada, led by William Lyon MacKenzie, was quickly overturned. In Lower Canada, the rebellions were more widespread in 1837, but the patriots there were equally defeated by John Colborne's troops. In response, Great Britain sent Lord Durham with the mandate of finding a solution. He offered to grant responsible government and unite the two colonies to assimilate the French Canadians. By 1838, the rebellions had intensified. In the two colonies, rebels launched numerous cross-border raids from the United States. In both cases, the insurrections were quelled by British troops and volunteers who had remained loyal to British authorities. It's worth mentioning that the 1838 Upper Canada insurrection was much more significant than that of 1837. Rebels launched several cross-border raids from the United States. Greatly influenced by the Americans, Mackenzie proclaimed the republic of Upper Canada on December 13, 1837, while Robert Nelson did the same for Lower Canada on February 28, 1838. The failure of these insurrections discredited the violence-advocating radicals in the eyes of the general public, who shifted their support to the moderates. The union of Upper and Lower Canada would eventually be proclaimed in 1840, but citizens would have to wait until 1848 for the British Government to grant them responsible government.

Lower Canada
The colony that is now the province of Quebec.

Upper Canada
The colony that is now the province of Ontario.

Francis Bond Head
Colonial administrator born in England in 1793. He made a military career for himself in the Royal Engineers and became a major. He left the army in 1825 and became a mine supervisor in Latin America. He was sent to
Upper Canada in 1835 as lieutenant governor. He was well received by reformists and named a few of them to the Executive Council. Head governed, however, without consulting the Executive Council, and its members resigned a few months later. The Assembly, dominated by reformists, voted against him in a motion of non-confidence. Head dissolved the Assembly and demanded that new elections be held. He ran in the elections and walked away with an overwhelming victory, since the majority of the new members were conservatives who supported him. He went on to attack the reformists who had opposed him. In the end, he lost the support of moderate reformists and walked right into the hands of extremists who were united under the leadership of William Lyon MacKenzie. While Head cannot be held directly responsible for the insurrection in Upper Canada, some of his decisions, including his plan to send all British troops in Upper Canada to quash the insurrection in Lower Canada, did not help. He was removed from office in 1838 and never served in public office again. He died in 1875.

Family Compact
Small group of public servants in
Upper Canada who dominated the Executive Council, the Legislative Council and public administration. They were united by family bond, favoritism, and a common political vision. They strove for development underscored by loyalty to Great Britain and hostility toward the United States.

Patriot Party
The majority party in the Assembly at the time, it promoted French-Canadian nationalism. Its ranks also included a minority of Anglophones. The party called for
responsible government.

Form of government whose power is not held by one single person, and whose Head of State is not a hereditary monarch but an elected president.

Uprising that strives to overturn the established power.

Patriot Party
The majority party in the Assembly at the time, it promoted French-Canadian nationalism. Its ranks also included a minority of Anglophones. The party called for
responsible government.

Louis-Joseph Papineau
Chief patriot, lawyer, lord. Elected for the first time in 1809, he eventually became the leader of the
Patriot Party. He fought as a captain in the war of 1812 against the Americans. Initially a moderate reformer, his position hardened over time. In 1834, he was a signatory of the 92 Resolutions that called for responsible government. Overwhelmed by the escalading violence, he fled to the United States when an arrest warrant was put out against him. He played a silent role during the Rebellions of 1837-1838. As a lord, he refused to associate himself with the 1838 declaration of independence that proposed to abolish the seigneurial system. He returned from the United States in 1845 when an amnesty was granted. He was elected a member of the Assembly of United Canada in 1848, but did not enjoy the same leadership that he had enjoyed before 1837, and had to cede his place to Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine. Refusing to be among the leading figures, he withdrew from politics in 1854, and protested the decision to abolish the seigneurial system. He called for national conservatism that supported the clergy and the seigneurial system. He had to deal with the most radical elements of the Patriot Party who wanted social and economic revolution, including the abolishment of the seigneurial system and the diminished role of the Catholic Church. A complex and controversial individual, he dominated political life in Lower Canada for the first third of the 19th century.

Executive council
Committee that administers legislation. Originally its members were named and directed by the governor, who could make decisions contrary to the opinion of the majority of Assembly members.

William Lyon MacKenzie
Politician born in Scotland in 1795. He arrived in
Upper Canada in 1820. In 1824, he published the first issue of his newspaper, the Colonial Advocate, which supported reformist ideas. In his forthright and forceful manner, he denounced the Family Compact, which contributed much to his popularity. He ran in the 1828 elections and was voted into the Assembly. He was frequently expelled from the Assembly for his verbal attacks, but voters continued to re-elect him. Defeated in the 1836 elections, he decided to lead a military expedition toward Toronto on December 6, 1837. Poorly led, his troops were easily chased away by a few loyalist guards. Mackenzie then fled to the United States where he planned a new attack, which was equally defeated by the Canadian militia. He spent 10 years in the United States in exile. Having been pardoned by the government, he returned in 1849 and was again elected as a member of the Assembly. He died in 1861.

John Colborne
Military serviceman and politician. A veteran of the Napoleonic wars, he was the lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada from 1828 to 1836, before being named Commander of British forces in Canada. He became the true governor general in 1838 when Lord Gosford resigned from this position. He subsequently introduced military rule and governed with the help of a special 22-member council. He personally led British forces during the Rebellions of 1837-1838. Colborne was nicknamed the "vieux brűlot" (old flame) when British troops and volunteers burned down numerous villages. He was called back to Great Britain in 1839 and ended his military career as the Commander of British forces in Ireland. He opposed Lord Durham's
Lord Durham project to unite Upper Canada and Lower Canada. He felt that the Canadians' fear of being assimilated would only make the situation much more explosive. He also repudiated the idea of the British government granting responsible government, because he was opposed to colonies having even the slightest amount of autonomy. An extremely disciplined man, he was one of Britain's greatest generals at the time. His view of Canadians is the object of great dispute among the historical community. Cold and cruel to some, he also showed a certain deal of clemency to others by asking Durham to grant amnesty to the patriots of 1837 and only hung 12 of the 99 individuals who were sentenced to death after the insurrection of 1838.

Lord Durham
Politician and diplomat. In February 1838, he was named governor general to succeed
John Colborne, who had been the interim governor since Lord Gosford's resignation. Assuming this new duty in May 1838, he was given the responsibility of studying the causes of the rebellions and recommending solutions. In an attempt to ease tensions, he granted, on Colborne's advice, amnesty to the patriots of 1837, and exiled a few others without following due process. This illegal measure resulted in such protest among Anglophones that the British government refused to sanction his measures. Furious, Lord Durham submitted his resignation in November 1838, and was replaced by Colborne. He did, however, have sufficient time to study the situation to submit his report. He recommended uniting Upper Canada and Lower Canada to accelerate the assimilation of French Canadians into English culture. He also requested that Canada be better integrated into the British Empire, along with the introduction of responsible government. To improve the Canadian economy, he proposed the development of commerce. He was considered by some to be one of the founders of the Commonwealth.

Robert Nelson
Chief patriot and doctor. Although an Anglophone, he was one of the leaders of the
Patriot Party and was a member of the Assembly from 1827 to 1838. He did not participate in the first insurrection in 1837, but was nevertheless imprisoned as a suspect only to be later released due to a lack of evidence. He then fled to the United States to continue the fight. A member of the radical fringe group of the Patriot Party, he supported armed struggle and started groups of clandestine armies called the Frčres chasseurs, many of which were located on the south shore of Montreal. In February 1838, he proclaimed himself president of the republic of Lower Canada, and announced the abolishment of the seigneurial system. He led the second insurrection in November 1838, but volunteers in Lacolle and Odeltown quickly quashed his invasion launched from the United States. He then sought refuge in Vermont, where he practiced medicine. He never returned to Canada, despite an amnesty, which he received in 1845. Robert Nelson represented the radical tendency of the patriot movement that wanted social and economic revolution. Inspired by the American Revolution and the revolutionary movements that were taking place at the same time in Europe, he called for, among other things, the abolishment of the seigneurial system, the separation of Church and State, the status of republic for Lower Canada, and equality among Native people, Anglophones and Francophones.

Seigneurial (landlord) system
Form of land distribution and occupation established in New France in 1627. The seigneur (Lord) granted land to people called censitaires (tenants), who paid certain dues (either in the form of money or agricultural goods).

Responsible Government
Form of government in which the members of the
Executive Council must be selected from the Assembly's majority party. To remain in power, the government must always obtain the support from the majority of members.

Created in 1917, it is a loose, voluntary association of Great Britain and most of its former colonies. Each State is sovereign and can establish its external policy as it chooses.

Legal act that grants official exemption from punishment and cancels any sentences.