Lower Canada Rebellion

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Flag used by the Patriotes between 1832 and 1838

The Lower Canada Rebellion is the name given to the armed conflict between the rebels of Lower Canada (now Quebec) and the British colonial power of that province. Together with the simultaneous Upper Canada Rebellion in the neighbouring colony of Upper Canada, it formed part of the Rebellions of 1837.

Leaders of the Lower Canada Rebellion:

However, the rebellion of Lower Canada continued in 1838 and is often called Les rébellions de 1837-38 in Quebec. The actions of the rebels resulted in the declaration of martial law and a first armed conflict occurred in 1837 when the 26 members of the Patriote movement who had been charged with illegal activities chose to resist their arrest by the authorities under the direction of John Colborne. In 1838, two major armed conflicts occurred when groups of Lower Canadian Patriotes led by Robert Nelson crossed the American border in an attempt to invade Lower Canada and Upper Canada, drive the British army out and establish independent republics.

These events are often misreported, which moves the attention away from three decades of political battles between the Parti patriote of James Stuart and Louis-Joseph Papineau, which was seeking responsible government for the colony, and the unelected British Executive and Legislative Councils in the former French colony, which were dominated by a small group of mainly businessmen known as the Chateau Clique, the equivalent of the Family Compact in Upper Canada.

The movement for reform took shape in a period of economic disenfranchisement of the French-speaking majority and working class English speaking citizens. However, the rebellion was not about language but centered on the unfairness of colonial governing as as such, many of the leaders and participants were English-speaking citizens of Lower Canada. In banking, the timber trade, and transportation, Anglophones were seen as disproportionately represented. However, the Roman Catholic church discouraged French-Canadians from commercial activities, asserting it was God's will that they remain an agrarian society. (Out of 775 identified rebels from Lower Canada, 388 were farmers.) At the same time, some among the Anglophone business elite were advocating for a union of Upper and Lower Canada in order to ensure competitiveness on a national scale with the increasingly large and powerful economy of the United States. The unification of the colony was a plan favoured by the British-appointed governor, George Ramsey, Earl of Dalhousie. The reaction was a growing sense of nationalism among English and the French-speaking citizens, which solidified into the Parti canadien. (After 1826 called the Parti patriote.)

In 1811, James Stuart became leader of the Parti canadien in the assembly and in 1815, reformer Louis-Joseph Papineau was elected Assembly speaker. The Assembly, while elected, had little power; its decisions could be vetoed by a legislative council and the governor appointed by the British government. Dalhousie and Papineau were soon at odds over the issue of uniting the Canadas, and Dalhousie forced an election in 1827 rather than accept Papineau as speaker. Sympathizers to the reform movement in England had Dalhousie forced from his position and reappointed to India. Still, the legislative council and the assembly were not able to reach a compromise, and by 1834, the assembly had passed the Ninety-Two Resolutions, outlining its grievances against the legislative council. At that point, the Patriote movement was supported by an overwhelming majority of the population in all origins.

Later in 1834 the Parti Patriote swept the election with more than three-quarters of the popular vote. However, the reformers in Lower Canada were divided over several issues. A moderate reformer named John Neilson had quit the party in 1830 and joined the Constitutional Association 4 years later. Papineau's anti-clerical position alienated reformers in the Catholic Church, and his support for secular rather than religious schools made him a powerful enemy in Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue. Lartigue called on all Catholics to reject the reform movement and support the authorities, forcing many to choose between their religion and their political convictions.

However, Papineau continued to push for reform. He petitioned the British government to bring about reform, but in March of 1837 the government of Lord Russell rejected all of Papineau's requests. Papineau then organized protests and assemblies, and eventually approved the paramilitary Société des Fils de la Liberté during the Assemblée des Six-Comtés.

Papineau escaped to the United States, but the rebels set themselves up in the countryside, and, led by Wolfred Nelson defeated a British force at St. Denis on November 23. However, the British troops soon beat back the rebels, defeating them at Saint-Charles on November 25 and at Saint-Eustache on December 14. Saint-Eustache was then pillaged and ransacked. On December 5th, martial law was declared in Montréal.

When news of the arrest of the Patriote leaders reached Upper Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie launched an armed rebellion in December of 1837. While this revolt was quickly put down, the rebellion in Lower Canada continued into the following year. Leaders who had escaped across the border into the United States raided Lower Canada in February of 1838, and a second revolt began at Beauharnois in November of the same year. This too was crushed by the British.

Meawhile, Britain had dispatched Lord Durham to investigate the cause of the rebellion. His report recommended that the Canadas be united into one colony (the Province of Canada) so as to assimilate the French-speaking Canadiens into the culture of the British Empire. However, he recommended acceding to the rebels' grievances by granting responsible government to the new colony.

The rebellion of the Patriotes Canadiens of Lower Canada is often seen as the example of what could have happened to America if the American Revolutionary War had failed. Following the military defeat of the Patriotes, Lower Canada was merged with Upper Canada under the Union Act and the Canadiens became a minority in the new political entity. Eight years after the Union, a responsible government was set up in the united Province of Canada. The great instability of this new regime (see Joint Premiers of the Province of Canada) eventually led to the formation of the Great coalition, and another major constitutional change, the Canadian Confederation of 1867.

In Quebec, the rebellion is commemorated as the Journée nationale des patriotes (Patriots Day) by the use of the Canadian Statutory Holiday, Victoria Day.


  • Lepailleur, François-Maurice. 1980. Land of a Thousand Sorrows. The Australian Prison Journal 1840-1842, of the Exiled Canadien Patriote, François-Maurice Lepailleur. Trans. and edited by F. Murray Greenwood. University of British Columbia Press, Vancouver. ISBN 0-7748-0123-9.

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