Colonial Militia in Canada

From Academic Kids

From the founding of new France until the establishment of a professional Canadian army the colonial militia played an extremely important role in the defence of Canada.


New France

Military service has been part of Canadian life since the 1600s in New France, where colonists were required to serve in local militia to support regular units of the French army and navy. In the English-speaking colonies, the Royal Navy was responsible for front-line defence while the frontiers inland were guarded mainly by militia. The first militia companies appeared in Nova Scotia as early as 1720; the city of Halifax was itself largely settled by former soldiers and sailors, whose militia units were formalized in 1753.

In the long struggle between the French and British colonies, British and American troops found the Indian-style tactics of the Canadian militia to be a formidable adversary, underscored by George Washington's defeat at Great Meadows and Braddock's embarrassment at the Monongahela River. The British response was to create new "ranger" and "light infantry" units adept at woodland warfare. When France conceded Canada to Great Britain in 1763, defence of the territory remained a duty shared by French and British colonists, Indian nations and the regular forces of Britain. As the colonies advanced to nationhood, its people would be called to their own defence three times in the next 100 years.

The American Revolution

In the aftermath of the revolution came an exodus of 50,000 Loyalists into the Canadas, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, joined by many of the Six Nations Iroquois who had remained loyal to Great Britain. Since many of the new Canadians were also veterans of Loyalist regiments, they brought both the British sympathies and the military training to establish competent professional forces to oppose the perceived American threat. Called "fencibles," the new units were organized within the British army, but charged wholly with the defence of their home colonies. Their professional presence also enhanced training for the citizen militia and established many traditions that continue to modern times..

The War of 1812

In 1812, with the United Kingdom engaged in Europe, the United States took the opportunity to declare war and launch another attempt to capture Canada and expand westward into Indian territories. While British redcoats did most of the fighting, Canadian militia and allied Indian warriors proved to be a vital part of Canada's defence.

The merit of British professional commanders was illustrated by Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry, a French Canadian, in Lower Canada (Quebec.) As soon as war was declared, Brock hastened to capture the American post on Lake Huron at Michilimackinac. Besides closing a key crossing on the Great Lakes, his success earned the admiration and loyalty of the Indian leader, Tecumseh. Brock then led a force of his troops along with colonial militia, fencibles and Tecumseh's Indians to capture Fort Detroit, securing the upper Great Lakes.

In the east, the French Canadians a fought a crucial battle at Châteauguay, south of Montreal. With a force of just 350 Canadiens and 50 allied Indians, de Salaberry turned back a column of 4000 Americans moving on Montreal.

Brock died a Canadian hero as he repelled the American landing at the Battle of Queenston Heights and Tecumseh was later killed at the Battle of the Thames. Many engagements proved to be bloody but indecisive, including the Battle of Lundy's Lane near Niagara Falls, Ontario, the burning of both York (Toronto) and Washington, and in numerous naval engagements on the Great Lakes. When the war concluded in 1814, nothing material had changed for the European powers. The Treaty of Ghent restored all pre-war boundaries. Canadians, meanwhile, discovered the seeds of nationhood in their victories and their sacrifices, while their allies, the Indian nations, saw their hopes for secure boundaries of their own vanish.

The Fenian Raids

In the late 1860s, the Fenian Brotherhood was an association of 10,000 Irish-American veterans of the American Civil War who plotted to free Ireland from British rule by striking at the United Kingdom's colonies that lay within easy striking distance. In response, 20,000 Canadians volunteered for militia service. The first serious raid came in June 1866 with 850 Fenians attacking at Ridgeway in the Niagara region, then withdrawing quickly back across the border. Militia units skirmished with the Fenians sporadically until 1871. The raids ended after unsuccessful attacks at Eccle's Hill in Quebec and in the northwest frontier, near the Manitoba border. The Fenians accomplished little, but the Canadian colonies came to recognize a shared need for a vigilant and coordinated defence: a key factor leading to confederation of the provinces into one country in 1867.


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