Canada's failed revolution: the rebellions of 1837-1838

We publish here a collected series of articles on the 1837-1838 Rebellions of Upper and Lower Canada (original available at Fightback). It is important that Marxists understand the place of these important events in the history of the class struggle in Canada and Quebec.

Canadians! It has been said that we are on the verge of a revolution. We are in the midst of one; a bloodless one, I hope, but a revolution to which all those which have been will be counted as mere child’s play.

- William Lyon MacKenzie, 1837

Canada has always been portrayed as a country in which the class struggle has been exempt; that the history of the country is that of a people who prefer evolution to revolution, in which law and order has flourished and persevered. However, nothing could be further from the truth. The history of Canada is a history rich in class struggle: rich in struggles for the overthrow of the established order and the establishment of a new one.

The rebellions of 1837-1838 in Upper and Lower Canada constitute one of the most important episodes of this history. It was a classic example of a situation in which the class contradictions reached a point where an open confrontation had to break out.

Le Patriote Image Henri JulienLe Patriote / Image: Henri Julien

The myth surrounding the rebellions makes one believe that this was simply one of the first manifestations of French-Canadian nationalism, while the insurrection in Upper Canada is hardly worth mentioning.

In this way, the history of this struggle is depicted as purely French-Canadian history, specifically for the liberation of Francophones from Anglophone domination. This allows the Quebecois bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie to justify the struggle for independence today under the banner of the defence of “Quebecois culture” and “the French language”.

However, if we look more closely, we see that the movement of the Patriots was not a movement that confined itself only to fighting for the rights of French-Canadians. The leaders of the movement in Lower Canada rejected this idea in numerous speeches. In reality, the rebellions were a class struggle, a struggle to eliminate colonialism. It was a struggle led by the petty-bourgeoisie of the Canadian colonies, supported by the small proletariat and the people against the colonial power which was defended by the merchant bourgeoisie, the colonial administrators and their armed forces, the nobles and the clergy. The Rebellions were the aborted bourgeois revolution in Canada.

An important task is to understand how the rebellions are regarded in Canadian history or even American history. What is the significance of the rebellions? Why did they breakout? What was the cause of the monumental defeat? What was the impact on the history of the rest of the country? Almost 180 years later, these are essential questions for all Marxists who want to understand Canadian history.

A complex colonial heritage

The rebellions broke out in the colonies where the class composition was rather complicated. Canada in 1830 did not fit into any preconceived schema. As Lenin and Trotsky noted, the rapid development of capitalism in some countries, and the subordination of the rest of the world to these nations creates unique situations in colonial and semi-colonial countries.

Canada was not an exception. The class composition was very complicated and was the result of a history with several abrupt changes. This history must be briefly outlined in order to understand how the rebellions developed.

With the English Revolution of 1648 led by Cromwell, the bourgeoisie became one of the dominant classes in England and capitalism rapidly developed. Under Cromwell, colonialism became more and more “energetic”, and the colonies developed systematically to the benefit of the English with their development occurring essentially on a capitalist basis.

In this way, we can explain the rapid development of a bourgeoisie in the American colonies, a bourgeoisie which became more and more conscious of its own interests and realized that its interests were divergent with those of the British Crown. The American Revolution completely demonstrated this divergence. The nascent American bourgeoisie succeeded in liberating itself from the chains of colonialism through a revolutionary war.

But in the French colonies, particularly in New France, things were very different. When England officially took possession of New France in 1763, which eventually became the Province of Quebec, the colony was under a seigneurial system.

It was the French King who granted the colony to a merchant trading company which re-divided the land between the seigneurs, who then distributed small plots of land to small land holders who became known as “habitants”. It was these habitants who had to pay taxes and rent – often arbitrarily – to the seigneurs, and the seigneurs had the rights to lumber, water, fishing, hunting, minerals, lime, stone, sand and so on. The real owner of the land however remained the King of France.

There was an important difference between the habitants of New France and the peasants in France: in New France, the habitants were obligated to work on their land but many were able to escape to the nearby forests, where they became trappers or participated in the fur trade. This mobility of the habitants resulted in unstable class relations which were less crystallized than in France.

With the establishment of the regime in New France, there were the seeds of future capitalism. In 1627, a charter granted the company of One Hundred Associates a monopoly on the fur trade. The fur trade helped to enrich the French monarchy but also encouraged the development of a relatively powerful merchant bourgeoisie in New France. On the other hand, this nascent bourgeoisie was not strong enough to oppose the monarchical authority. The merchants made important profits but were also heavily taxed in order to enrich the monarchy.

The ruling class in New France was therefore a complex mixture of feudal, religious and merchant elements. From the start, seigneuries (lordships) were granted to the King’s officials, to different religious orders and merchants. The state in New France was essentially a military regime where the church shared power with military authorities.

Another important difference was that in France, the absolutist regime had hundreds of years to perfect its domination. In New France, the semi-feudal regime was artificially transposed and contained the seeds of commercial capitalist interests; it was a system that was very unstable right from the start.

When England took control of New France in 1763, many questions arose. What was to be done with the seigneurial system? What were the Canadians going to do?

The merchants wanted free trade and representative institutions, but in the end the seigneurial system was maintained. The English military made an alliance with the Catholic Church and the seigneurs, against the aspirations of the rising merchants. Giving representative institutions to the Province of Quebec was refused; the military regime remained. It is obvious that it wasn't in the interest of the Crown to permit representative institutions to the Francophone majority oppressed by a tiny Anglophone minority.

We should also note that the class relations remained essentially the same after the conquest of Quebec. 140 of the 200 seigneurs remained and the others were replaced by the English. Many French merchants were ruined, but Anglophones took their place. The difference is obviously the creation of the national question, with the domination of the English over the Francophones subjects. This question will be discussed in more detail later on.

The American Revolution and the arrival of the loyalists

The American Revolution marks an important qualitative change in world history and in the history of Canada as well. Never before had the bourgeois revolution been conducted on such a scale. For the first time in the history of America, the people broke free from their colonial oppressors; Lenin spoke of this revolution as “one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars.”

Analyzing the failure to spread the revolution to Quebec and the other Canadian colonies is beyond the scope of this article. But it is important to analyze one of the most important consequences of the revolution for the subject at hand: the arrival of the loyalists in Canada.

During and after the American War of Independence, tens of thousands of Americans settled in the English colonies of Quebec, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick.

Around 7,500 settled in what is now Ontario and this led to the Constitutional Act of 1791, which declared the separation Quebec into two distinct colonies: Upper Canada, which was Anglophone, and Lower Canada, which had a Francophone majority.

At the political level, the Constitutional Act granted Upper and Lower Canada elected legislative assemblies for the first time in history. Yet this was not a question of a simple gift made to Canadian subjects: with the newly republican United States to the south, there was a great risk that Canadians would demand democracy as well. And with the French Revolution breaking out previous to this, the movement for democracy was gaining momentum and was having repercussions all over the world.

Moreover, the secretary of state for the British colonies shortly after the storming of the Bastille in France wrote that it was wise “to make concessions at the moment when they will be seen as a favour and we can manage and direct their implementation rather than waiting and having them torn from us by force.” Here we see the real intentions of the Crown with this concession that had the appearance of democracy.

The Act of 1791 and the development of the new provinces

In spite of this concession, the elected assemblies in Upper and Lower Canada were not sovereign governments. Effectively, there was a governor general above the assemblies, chosen by London who also personally selected the members of the executive and Legislative Council (the upper house) of each province. All of the bills adopted in the assemblies had to be approved by the non-elected legislative council, followed by the governor.

In other words, the assembly decided nothing at all, while the real power was in the hands of the governor chosen by London and its Legislative Council. Between 1822 and 1836, 234 bills adopted in the assembly were rejected by the unelected Legislative Council in Lower Canada. In Upper Canada, 300 bills were rejected.

Therefore, this semblance of a democratic concession was nothing of the sort. Lord Durham, who was charged with investigating the rebellions of 1837 and 1838, correctly said that the political regime seemed to be established specifically with the purpose of creating anger in the colonies.

On the economic front, the development in Upper and Lower Canada took paths that were a bit different following the division into two provinces.

In Lower Canada, the seigneurial system remained, but there was an important phenomenon that arose: the purchase of seigneuries and non-cultivated land by rich merchant English capitalists. There was therefore a growing interpenetration of interests of merchant capitalists and seigneurial interests. For example, in 1833, the British American Land Company came into the possession of 850,000 acres in the eastern townships.

Assemblée des six comtés painting Image public domainAssemblée des six comtés / Image: public domain

The alliance between the colonial administrators, the seigneurs and the clergy (who possessed two million acres of the land, compared with six million for the seigneurs), and merchant capitalism was therefore reinforced. They formed what became known as the “Chateau Clique”, a clique that dominated the economy and the politics of Lower Canada. It was this clique that dominated the unelected legislative council. It should also be noted that this clique was comprised of primarily English and French seigneurs not to mention the tacit alliance with the Francophone clergy.

In the second province of Upper Canada, the seigneurial system did not exist. The Crown granted free land to loyalists in Upper Canada which was developed on the basis of capitalist agriculture. It should however be noted that the loyalists were not a majority of the population of Upper Canada. According to historian Stanley B. Ryerson, they accounted for only one quarter of the population in 1812. The definition a loyalist was precise: anyone who was born in America or who lived there during the revolution, had performed valuable services to the crown and had left the United States during the war or afterwards. In Upper Canada, the desertion deadline from the United States in order to be considered a loyalist was established in 1798. However, these people were not the only ones to leave the United States for Canada: the migration of the loyalists also led to a migration of simple farmers looking for land, and it was only the loyalists who were given special privileges like free land.

In addition, the land was distributed in order to artificially create an aristocracy in the province and a differentiation even inside of the loyalist population. Indeed, for the free plots of land, the Crown granted 200 acres to loyalist soldiers who fought in the American Revolution but 5,000 acres were given to the officers. As well, one seventh of the land was reserved for the Church of England and one seventh for the Crown. The Crown lands were then seized by rich merchants and privileged government functionaries.

The spirit of these measures was to artificially create a military, merchant and clerical aristocracy, dependent on the Crown for its privileges and allied with the King's functionaries, so that Upper Canada could become a bulwark against republican and anti- colonial ideas. This aristocracy became baptized as the “Family Compact”.

In the end, in both provinces, a tiny clique composed of the Church, the colonial administration, the merchant capitalists and the seigneurs (in Lower Canada) formed a reactionary bloc, a bloc that was not homogenous, but had an interest in defending the interests of the Crown.

In the beginning of the 19th century, the development of capitalist industry began in both provinces, with an emerging proletariat and an industrial bourgeoisie. This ultimately prepared the ground for a conflict between the merchant bourgeoisie and its clique, and the embryo of the industrial bourgeoisie.

The development of capitalist industry in Canada essentially met the needs created by Napoleon's blockade in Europe against the British Empire. The Crown required wood and ships and it was in Upper and Lower Canada in which the necessary resources were located. The lumber industry developed and the number of shipyards multiplied in both provinces. This was the first - albeit relatively small - industrial boom in Canada.

Nonetheless, capitalist industry needs roads, means of communication, transportation and a well-developed division of labour in order to come to full fruition. However, in Upper and Lower Canada, the grip of the Family Compact and the Chateau Clique greatly hindered the development of these requirements.

In Upper Canada, rich land owners would leave their land uninhabited and untouched. Quite often, land owners did not even live there. Many rich landlords were simply holding onto the land for reasons of speculation in order to sell it later for a good price. In this way, there were immense tracts of deserted tracts of land interposed between the inhabited lands.

This complicated communication and transportation in addition to adversely affecting the division of labour. As well, the merchant bourgeoisie preferred to invest in speculation on the land than invest in industry. The fledgling industry was constantly in need of capital.

William Lyon MacKenzie, the main reformist leader in Upper Canada, brilliantly explained in the first issue of the reformist journal the Colonial Advocate, how the economy of the colonies was subordinated to the interests of the British metropolis and its lackeys:

“We earnestly desire to see established, throughout Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, efficient societies for the improvement of arts and Manufactures. We would like to see the manufacturer not quite four thousand miles from the farmer. We would like to see less apathy, not only in the government but in the governed, in regard to this important topic. Our foreign commerce, confined and shackled as it is, and as it has been, is entirely in the hands of the British capitalists; our lumber trade is merely encouraged to support British worn-out shipping. We are inundated – glutted with British manufactures.”

William Lyon Mackenzie Image Archives of OntarioWilliam Lyon Mackenzie / Image: Archives of Ontario

In Lower Canada, the situation was also difficult due to colonial constraints. Land which was newly purchased by rich English capitalists was also left untouched. The division of land into seigneuries and the monopoly on the land by rich merchants hindered the industrialization of agriculture.

The growing monopoly of the land was a way to squeeze the inhabitants on their territory and prevent them from spreading onto larger plots of land. Therefore, with the growth of the population, space would run out and a sizable part of the population would be forced to move into the cities to find work. Yet in the cities as well, there was a shortage of capital, and the inhabitants as well as the numerous immigrants from England and Ireland were forced to leave for the United States. In the nineteenth century, tens of thousands of Canadian families left for America.

The colonial system, founded on the enrichment of the metropolis, was a hindrance to the development of emerging industrial capitalism. Since 1784, Canadian trade with the West Indies and the United States was severely limited. The Navigation Laws established that all transportation of commodities headed to or from Canada had to be conducted with British ships. The exorbitant prices of British commodities resulted in Canadian farmers becoming more and more indebted.

It is also important to note the impact of the British Corn Laws on Canada. The Corn Laws were such that if the price of wheat fell below a certain level, the wheat could not be imported from the colonies to England. Wheat was a major part of production mainly in Upper Canada. The Corn Laws, in addition to other limitations to trade with countries other than England, were an enormous restriction to trade.

In summary, the colonial interests of the British Empire, defended in the two Canadas by the merchant bourgeoisie, the landlords and seigneurs, the Church and the colonial administration became an immense barrier to the development of the productive forces in the colonies. It was necessary to throw off this colonial structure in order to ensure that the full development of capitalism in Canada which, at the time, was a progressive step forward in the history of the country.

The birth of the movement in the colonies

 It is in this context that two parallel movements arose in the early 1800s. The Reform Movement in Upper Canada, and movement around the Parti canadien in Lower Canada, which would later be called the Parti patriote.

These movements were first and foremost movements to reform the government of the provinces in favour of a real democracy. They were inspired by similar movements, especially those of their American neighbours. For example, during the 1831-1832 parliamentary session, Thomas Lee of the Parti patriote, deplored the fact that the Canadians had not made common cause with the Americans in 1775. Louis-Joseph Papineau, one of the most prominent leaders of the Patriotes, declared that “it is certain that before too long, all the Americas must be republican.” In his book Histoire de l’Insurrection, written after the events, Papineau explains: “It is not the English statutes which will resolve the immediate future of Canada; this future is written in the declarations of the rights of man and in the political constitutions that our good, wise and happy neighbours, the independent Americans, have been given.” The bourgeois-democratic character of the movement is implicit in the struggle against the yoke of the British Empire.

In Upper Canada, the Reformers called for “responsible government,” that is to say one which is accountable to the people, not the King. In Lower Canada, the Patriotes called for an elected Legislative Council, rather than one appointed by a governor who was himself appointed by the King. It was another way of saying they wanted a government responsible to the people.

Another important demand was control of the budget by elected representatives. In both provinces, the unelected Council could set the budget, even against the will of the elected Assembly. The Patriotes and the Reformers demanded that the budget be controlled by the elected representatives of the people.

In 1830, William Lyon MacKenzie, the main leader of the movement in Upper Canada, put forward a five-point program:

  1. An executive accountable to the province for its conduct;

  2. Control of provincial revenues by the legislature;

  3. The independence of the judiciary;

  4. Reform of the Legislative Council;

  5. Equal rights for all religions and complete separation of church and state.

In August 1837, a political meeting in Trafalgar, Upper Canada, adopted a request for freedom of commerce. This was a reflection of the economic problems faced by colonies. That same year, MacKenzie clearly expressed the need to free the country's industry in an article in his newspaper The Constitution:

“The question today is not between one reigning family or another, between one people and another, between one form of government or another, but a question between privilege and equal rights, between law sanctioned, law fenced in privilege, age consecrated privilege, and a hitherto unheard of power, a new power just started from the darkness in which it has slumbered since creation day, the Power of Honest Industry .”

In Lower Canada, the Patriotes' demands were essentially the same. In 1833, Papineau proposed a convention to discuss a new constitution. The spirit of Papineau's demands was to allow Canada to reform its own constitution. In 1834, the Patriotes presented to the British Crown the famous 92 Resolutions, demanding the supremacy of parliament, the right to amend their constitution, and the right to control public spending. It also called for an end subordination and political exclusion of francophones, who had little to no representation in decision-making bodies of the state.

In Lower Canada the demand for free trade was more confused, but in 1834, the tactic was to boycott British products in favour of domestic products. It was a tactic inspired by that of the Americans before their revolution. This was a way to protest against the high cost of British goods, and against the restrictions on freedom of commerce. The boycott movement would gain momentum in 1837.

The struggle taking shape was the political expression of an emerging capitalist system in revolt against the straitjacket of colonial force imposed upon it. Ultimately, the struggle between the Councils and Assemblies, the struggles for responsible government in Upper Canada and the elected Legislative Council in Lower Canada, reflected this impasse and the need for a revolutionary transformation of social relations of production. The development of capitalism in Canada needed the overthrow of colonial rule.

In hindsight, it is clear that the demands of the movements in the colonies were leading to a logical conclusion: they had to escape the clutches of the British Crown, to become independent. The British Empire had never yielded an inch without fighting fiercely to maintain its power, and it would be no different this time.

Despite this, the movements were not initially for independence as such. For example, the 92 Resolutions of 1834 simply asserted that if the Crown made no concessions to the colony, Lower Canada should “look elsewhere” remedies for his problems. But the first of these resolutions began by affirming allegiance to the Crown.

It was only much later, in the mid 1830s, that the goal of independence began to take clearer shape in the two provinces. As the struggle developed, it was clear that the British Empire would not give democracy as a gift, and that it would have to be acquired by the separation from the Crown. The radicals within movement, under pressure from the masses, would eventually realize this and openly demand independence.

Class in the Rebellions

As mentioned, the ruling classes united against any development of the colony were the rich capitalist merchants, colonial administrators, the Church, and the seigneurs of Lower Canada. These form a bloc opposed to reforms, and even more so to the independence of the colonies.

It is important to note that within the Church, there was a significant difference between the higher levels and the lower clergy. The higher clergy definitely supported the British Empire, but some francophone priests supported the Patriotes , with some even giving active support to the resistance against British forces in 1837. This is explained by the fact that the higher clergy was entirely dependent on colonial authorities for their power, which meant that they had a vested interest in its continuation. Meanwhile the lower clergy, rooted in local communities, was much closer to the masses, and could see and feel their misery caused by colonial oppression.

As for the seigneurs of Lower Canada, they were all on the side of the Crown, except one: Louis- Joseph Papineau himself! But Papineau was truly the exception; the others were loyal to the Crown, whether anglophone or francophone. The seigneurial system had been maintained after the conquest by the British and was now part of the colonial power. It was obvious to the seigneurs that any movement succeeding in overthrowing colonial rule would effectively lead to a solution to the agrarian question which would have inevitably ended the seigneurial system and land monopolies. This would have meant the end of the power of large landowners, which they were not willing to accept.

The big merchant bourgeoisie of the colonies was of course a counter-revolutionary force. They had no interest in severing ties with the “mother country.” The merchant bourgeoisie derived their power, wealth and privileges from their position in the colonial trade. They depended on trade restrictions to preserve their wealth and power, and as increasingly important landowners, naturally they insisted that the colonial system and land monopolies remain intact.

The numerically weak middle bourgeoisie however, did support the concerns of the Reformers and the Patriotes to some extent. But the movement would eventually split between the radicals and the moderates, leaving the middle bourgeoisie on the moderate side. This layer saw themselves prevented from developing fully by the colonial system and its obstacles, but it was politically weak, and lacked confidence in its ability to fight against the colonial power or survive without it. Hence the hesitation and divisions on whether to support the movement.

The leadership of the movement for the emancipation of the colonies fell mainly to the petty bourgeoisie, the liberal professionals. The movement's leaders included John Rolph, Thomas Morrison, William Baldwin, Jean-Olivier Chénier, and Wolfred Nelson, who were all doctors, the lawyer Papineau, the journalist MacKenzie, etc. The social weight of the petty bourgeoisie had increased considerably in the 20 years preceding the Rebellions; between 1815 and 1838 they had gone from 331 to 939 individuals in Lower Canada. The professional petty bourgeoisie in this period comprised 74% of the deputies in the Assembly of Lower Canada and was the core of the Parti patriote. It is easy to understand why.

At the time, the basic social infrastructure such as schools were very underdeveloped, and accessible to only a few people. A large portion of peasants and workers were illiterate and the road to parliamentary political involvement was very difficult to navigate. In this context, it was the people who had the most contact with the broader population, whether doctors, lawyers, or journalists, to whom fell the burden of representing their interests.

This petty-bourgeois social layer could see with their own eyes the sufferings of the people and the delayed development of all the normal amenities of a civilized society, schools, hospitals, the justice system, etc. Therefore they naturally tended to take part in the movement for reform. This explains their dominant role.

The peasantry - the habitants as they were called in Lower Canada - were the largest class in the colonies. Historian Allan Greer explains in his book The Patriots and the People how they actively participated in the revolutionary movement in Lower Canada in 1837. However, he noted that their action remained constantly under the supervision of the Patriots leaders, and that they never played independent role. This is typical of the peasant class. The habitants , scattered throughout the territory and even more isolated from each other than French peasants, could not be an independent force capable of leading the revolution. As we said earlier, the habitants enjoyed a certain social mobility which French peasantry did not, which made them an even more heterogeneous class.

What was the specific place and role of the Canadian proletariat in the Rebellions? It is clear that the proletariat was not able to play a leadership role in the movements of Patriotes or the Reformers. It had only been a few years that the unions had appeared on Canadian territory. However, despite a low level of organization and their low numbers, Canadian workers left their stamp on the movement and within political parties struggling against the aristocracy in both provinces. MacKenzie said that the workers were "those on whom we can count."

In 1834, the trade unionists of Montreal gave their support to the 92 Resolutions, while two years later, in Quebec City, the workers signed a declaration of confidence in Louis-Joseph Papineau. The newspaper La Minerve wrote that “in Quebec City, as in Montreal, there is the massive participation of workers at Patriotes meetings.” It is clear that the working class would support and play an important role in the approaching Canadian revolution.

The conflict between bourgeoisie and proletariat made its way into the pages of the reactionary newspapers: one of them, the Montreal Gazette, urged merchants to force their employees not to vote for the Patriotes !

Increasingly, the Parti patriote and the Reformers of Upper Canada echoed the pressure of the working class and the habitants, and revealed the latent class contradictions in Canadian society. The Vindicator, the radical Patriotes newspaper in Lower Canada, wrote with remarkable clarity:

“Traders as a group are a useful class, but they are not the most patriotic. … They attach more importance to financial independence than political independence. They would gladly wear the most ignominious chains if they were gold. … To establish a healthy political society, we must turn to the classes whose work is the real source of wealth.”

We have already said that MacKenzie stated that the workers were the ones the movement could rely on. But he went further in his propaganda. In an address to York County published in May 1837, MacKenzie wrote “Work is the true source of wealth.” Later, he added: “How are the services of a bank … required to produce the wealth and prosperity which, as I have shown, are the result of a useful application of labour and industry? In no way whatsoever.”

We can see that as time progressed, the movement for the liberation of Canada took on a more clear class character. It is obvious that the working class supported and played an important role in the movement, without being powerful enough to form the leadership. But nature abhors a vacuum; with the bourgeoisie not strong enough politically and the proletariat too small and undeveloped to lead the revolution, the leadership of the colonial liberation movement fell mainly upon the petty bourgeoisie, the liberal professionals - for better or for worse.

Radicalization and splitting of the movement

The patriot movement and the reform movement both passed through a period of radicalization. Confronted with the constant refusals from London to give in to anything, the demands became more insistent and the idea of independence gained ground. However, the radicalization of the movement had its downside: the split between the radicals and the moderates. This is a phenomenon that is unique to all revolutions in history: there is always a wing that looks to simply find a compromise in order to take their place in the sun, while another is pushed down the road towards the revolutionary transformation of society.

During this entire period that preceded 1836-1838, the approach of the reformist leadership of the Patriots was to turn to the Crown for a solution regarding the problems in the colonies. They hoped that the Crown would grant the colonies the right to improve their lot and were seeking a compromise within the limits of the system.

This was the spirit of the 92 Resolutions of 1834 in Lower Canada. The resolutions were not written to be read by the masses: endless sentences, written in a language that seems intentionally complex demonstrates this. The resolutions were not intended to galvanize the people, but to convince London.

Even though the resolutions were not a declaration of independence, it was these resolutions that confirmed the split between the radicals and the moderates. It was John Nelson, owner of a print shop and one of the leaders of the Patriot Party, who formed a right-wing group within the Patriots and ended up distancing himself from the party after the publication of the 92 Resolutions. The moderate wing that Nelson led considered them to be too radical: “From the moment we attack the constitution, we unleash popular passions.” Within Nelson's group at the time was A. Cuvillier, a member of the administrative council of the Bank of Montreal, who ended up leading a militia against the Patriots in 1837! We see here that even at this time, 60 years after the American Revolution, the embryo of the 'progressive' bourgeoisie in Canada had already given up overthrowing colonial rule and was looking to make a favourable deal with the aristocracy. By the 1830s, fear of a popular movement that was “too radical” was stronger than their desires to cut ties with Britain amongst a layer of the Patriots.

As soon as the right jumped ship, the radical Patriots radicalized even more and they had the support of the population. In 1834, a petition supporting the 92 Resolutions gathered 80,000 names from a population of approximately 600,000. An election in the same year was basically seen as a referendum on the 92 Resolutions (which formed the Patriot's electoral program), and the Patriot Party gained 77 per cent of the votes. John Neilson, the moderate, lost his seat. In Lower Canada, the 92 Resolutions were approved by a large majority of the population, which included English and Irish people. While the Canadian Party (predecessor of the Patriot Party), had Francophone nationalist tendencies, the Patriots became a party of the masses in the province, including Anglophones and Francophones, and became the vehicle by which new organs of power were created in 1837 in Lower Canada.

In Upper Canada, the movement also passed through a period of radicalization in the 1830s. In 1828, the reformists won the majority in the assembly and passed a vote of “no confidence” in the Executive Council by a majority of 37 out of 38 votes. By the end of 1834, in Upper Canada the Canadian Alliance Society was formed. This was an organization of Patriots which had the objective to educate the masses and to carry out political propaganda with the goal of “entering into close alliances with any similar association Lower Canada or the other colonies.” Mackenzie, the main leader of the reformists in Upper Canada, who was himself a radical, was, in 1834, elected as the first mayor in the history of Toronto, one of the most important cities in Upper Canada.

The political evolution of Mackenzie was a completed expression of the process of radicalization of the movement. In 1831, MacKenzie wrote to John Neilson, then Patriot leader:

“There is a lot of irritation among the people about the procedures of this House, but the system is so corrupt that ... I do not see the cure right now. The people could petition, but what would that serve? The more I understand the system, the more I hate it, and the more I feel disposed to do my best ... to change things.”

MacKenzie was therefore a determined leader, and he did not see how Canadians could reach their aspirations within the existing system. His political experience would lead him to the conclusion that only an armed revolutionary uprising and the independence of Upper Canada could lead to the desired reforms. It was a trip to the United Kingdom, where he saw how Ireland was treated, that convinced him that the system that must be changed. MacKenzie turned from reformer to revolutionary. He was the man at the head of mass meetings across the province in the summer of 1837, and at the head of the revolutionary uprising of December 1837. He saw that Canada was “on the verge of a revolution.”

When MacKenzie and his supporters became more radical in the 1830s, some of the reformers distanced themselves from him. These were mostly Methodists, a religious group led by Egerton Ryerson. The Methodists wanted certain reforms, in particular to counter the hegemony of the Church of England. They were deprived of the right to celebrate marriages or receive land for the construction of chapels or cemeteries. For those reasons, they opposed the colonial aristocracy. However, the Methodists opposed the idea of independence and the growing radicalism of MacKenzie.

Just as in the other revolutionary movements in history, the living struggle between reformism and revolution was in full swing in Canada.

The crisis of the 1830s

The constant refusal of the Crown to grant bourgeois-democratic reforms would have the effect of radicalizing the movement. This was exacerbated by the economic crisis which first broke out in England in 1825.

It started with a major financial collapse. Many British banks disappeared and thousands of companies went bankrupt. The crisis spread to the United States and France, but British investors were the most affected. There was deflation in several sectors, including cotton, textiles and metals. Of course, as colonies, the Canadian provinces were also hit by the crisis.

The crisis deepened throughout 1836 and 1837, when a financial crisis began in New York, resulting in a cessation of activities by American banks. Canadian banks would also cease operations.

The economic crisis added to the existing difficulties of the Canadian provinces. Agricultural methods were outdated, and land monopolies limited the possibility of improving them. The underdeveloped transport network limited the prospect of exporting agricultural products. Farmers quickly found themselves in deep poverty and a debt cycle exacerbated by the crisis. This meant that they could not find outlets for their surplus.

All this favoured a massive exodus to the United States, but also led to the radicalization of the masses that supported the Patriotes and reformers. In 1837, the situation reached a critical point. On the one hand, the Canadian masses could no longer bear the old state of affairs. On the other hand, the government and the ruling classes were also in deep crisis, with the organization of Patriote and Reformer meetings across the two provinces attracting thousands of people. On both sides, it was no longer possible to live as before.

Nationalist struggle or class struggle?

The Lower Canada Rebellion is often presented as an isolated event, ignoring the Upper Canada Rebellion which occurred at the same time. The Lower Canadian uprising is portrayed as a manifestation of “French Canadian” nationalism, while the abortive insurrection in Upper Canada is hardly worthy of attention.

There is no denying that the specific oppression of French-speaking Lower Canadians played a role in rallying the masses to the cause. The many prejudices faced by Francophones probably explain the radicalization of the movement in Lower Canada relative to its counterpart in Upper Canada. Moreover, the movements in Upper and Lower Canada clearly lacked coordination, which suggests that they were independent of each other.

However, the Patriotes refuted the idea that it was primarily a Francophone nationalist movement. As the conflict developed, the class character of the Rebellions became clearer and the Francophone nationalist character largely went by the wayside. In addition, evidence of solidarity between the movements in Upper and Lower Canada is plentiful, shattering the idea that the Patriotes ’ movement was an isolated nationalist event.

The Patriotes’ newspaper La Minerve wrote:

The colonial consciousness of Canadians shone not 'against the English' but at the sight of the exploiters: French-Canadians do not tend to have exclusive power; they have no national hatred against the English; and as soon as an inhabitant of the country shows that he is really a citizen, one no longer makes a distinction. But those who regard Canada as an exclusive trading post, a place where one can live off the public purse or enrich oneself in order to return to live elsewhere; those who speculate on the properties of the country; they cannot reasonably be recognized as citizens of a country which they do not recognize as theirs and which they would abandon if necessary by shaking the dust from their feet.

This could hardly be clearer. The struggle in Lower Canada was not specifically against the oppression of culture and language, but against the unbearable exploitation of colonial lords, merchants and administrators. That is, against those who were callously enriching themselves on the backs of the habitants and workers.

Papineau himself commented on what he thought of the struggle: “We pretended to believe that our complaints are the fruit of our differences of origin and of Catholicism, when it is commonplace that the ranks of the liberals count a majority of men of all beliefs and origins. But what can be said in support of this argument when we see Upper Canada, where there are few Catholics, and where almost all the inhabitants are of English origin, denounce the same evils and demand the same reforms.”

In 1837, a popular assembly of the county of Deux-Montagnes declared:

We have never maintained, and on the contrary we have always rejected, the unfortunate national distinctions which our common enemies have wickedly sought and seek to foment among us. ... As for us, whatever the fate of the country, we shall work without fear and without reproach, as in the past, to assure to all the people without any distinction, the same rights, equal justice and common liberty.

National divisions were the tools of the ruling classes. The Patriotes of Lower Canada fought against division on national or linguistic lines. The struggle was a class struggle against the yoke of the aristocracy, led by the petty bourgeoisie and supported by the workers and the habitants. What a striking contrast to Jacques Parizeau, who advocated independence with only the support of Francophone Quebecers!

It's true that the Parti canadien, ancestor of the Parti patriote , was very nationalist. The motto of its newspaper Le Canadien was unequivocal: “Our institutions, our language, our laws.” However, the Patriotes would move away from this narrow nationalism over the course of the struggle. We see this in the radical Patriote newspaper Le Libéral , which stated: “ The progress of civilization is marked everywhere by a coordinated progression ... in the reform 'of institutions and laws' and we could even say 'the language' of a country” and added “[the English language] will share with the French its empire over all classes of society.” As the movement became more radical, the tendency towards a narrow French-Canadian nationalism was pushed to the sidelines.

The many demonstrations of solidarity from the Reformers of Upper Canada to their comrades in Lower Canada must also be noted. MacKenzie recounted a mass meeting held on August 14, 1837: “The meeting is over. I believe there were over 600 people present. Never have I seen such excitement ... Everywhere, we hear 'Hurray for Papineau!'”

A statement by the Toronto Reformers on July 31, 1837 stated:

The Reformers of Upper Canada are invited by all ties of sentiment, interest, and duty to make common cause with the citizens of Lower Canada, whose coercion if it succeeds will no doubt one day be ours.

Such solidarity demonstrations were not uncommon, especially in 1837. They displayed that the movement went much further than the specific oppression of French Canadians. The main lesson of this period is the exact opposite of that which Quebec nationalists draw from it. When the movement was at its inception, it tended to be dominated by nationalist ideas. But as the movement grew and became radicalized, it discarded its nationalist ideas and fought for the unity of all religions, nationalities and linguistic groups against the British Crown and for democratic republican administration. A victory for the revolution in the two Canadas is probably the only time to date that the Quebec national question could have been resolved, either by a voluntary alliance or by a freely agreed-upon separation.

1834 was a year of significant radicalization for the Patriot movement. The 92 Resolutions, while not openly demanding independence, posed its possibility if the Crown did not respond positively to the grievances of Lower Canada. The same year also had the Patriots promoting the boycott of British products in protest. As well, the reaction became more and more brutal. For example, in June 1834, British troops opened fire on a peaceful assembly at the Champ de Mars field in Montreal.

In July, the Patriot Party established a permanent Central Committee composed of representatives of parish and county committees which had been established throughout Lower Canada since 1827. The Patriot movement was thus able to expand throughout the province.

In 1835, the authorities were faced with growing pressure from the masses of Lower Canada, who had overwhelmingly elected Patriots, in addition to a quarter of the adult population signing a petition in favour of the 92 Resolutions. In response, London set up a commission of inquiry headed by Lord Gosford, then lieutenant governor of the province. On September 30, 1836, the Assembly of Lower Canada adjourned its proceedings until a new constitution was granted.

A few months later, the Gosford Commission's findings were revealed, and the 10 Russell Resolutions, based on the report, were introduced in Parliament. Not only did the Crown refuse to grant an elected legislative council and responsible government, stating that this was tantamount to “true independence,” the governor would also be allowed to spend provincial revenues without consulting the assembly. As if that was not enough, regiments from New Brunswick were sent to Lower Canada. There was no doubt that the authorities were preparing for a showdown.

In response to this provocation by the British government, the London Working Men's Association, a Chartist organization, sent the Patriots a declaration in support of their struggle. This shows the increasingly clear class character of the movement, as well as its international importance. The address stated, among other things, “Do not think that the millions of workers in England share the feelings of your oppressors.” The Chartist organization also organized a protest meeting against the Russell Resolutions, as reported in the Vindicator newspaper: “The workers of London met today to defend the political rights of their Canadian comrades.” The powerful link between the struggles for colonial emancipation and the nascent labour struggle in England was thus established.

While the active support of the London workers was of invaluable symptomatic importance, the Patriots’ response to the Association shows what the Patriot movement really was, a class movement against British tyranny, and not only for French Canadians:

“Our people depend almost entirely, for their subsistence, on manual and intellectual labor. ... We despise the idler ... which only consumes what others produce.…

“Whichever attitude the course of things forces us to adopt, we are not fighting against the English people. We are only responding to the aggression of our tyrannical oppressors, who are also their oppressors.”

The Russell Resolutions added fuel to the fire. As early as May 1837, popular assemblies propagated throughout the province. The first, held at Saint-Ours, literally declared the independence of the province: “Looking at ourselves bound only by force to the English government ... we regard it as our duty, as our honour to resist, by all means presently in our possession, against a tyrannical power.”

In mid-June 1837, Lord Gosford forbade all popular assemblies in Lower Canada. Here, the reaction only provoked the revolution. Three days later, 4,000 people gathered at an assembly in Berthier, and another of the same size was held in Montreal. The assemblies began to propagate once more.

Within Lower Canada, local state institutions were virtually non-existent. There were no full-time representatives of the government in the countryside. There were officials responsible for the administration of everyday business, but only in urban areas. In the autumn of 1837, the Patriots began to establish a local administration, with elected judges and militia officers. A new government was emerging, through the very necessity of events. In addition, a patriotic paramilitary organization was founded, the Sons of Liberty, inspired by the organization of the same name created during the American Revolution.

Organs of a new power were thus established. Patriot power would obviously have to face British power, a situation of dual power being by nature unstable and temporary. The anti-Patriot newspaper Le Populaire was quite right when it said: "The revolution begins!”

The culmination of patriotic mobilization was the People's Assembly of the Six Counties of October 23, in which 5,000 people gathered in Saint-Charles. It was on this occasion that Dr. Wolfred Nelson declared that it was time to prepare for the armed resistance, to which Papineau was opposed: “Well! I differ in opinion with Monsieur Papineau. I contend that the time has come to melt our dishes and our tin spoons into bullets.”

The assembly reiterated what had been adopted in May at St. Ours, and sanctioned the Sons of Liberty. However, the assembly did not appeal to arms or insurrection. The initiative was then passed to the British forces. Joe Colborne, now at the Colonial Military Command, convinced the governor to issue arrest warrants against the Patriot leaders. The Patriots took refuge with their troops in the villages of the Richelieu Valley to defend themselves. The fighting was about to begin, and it was the Patriots who were in a defensive position, facing 6,000 men who had received superior arms and training.

The Patriots were mostly in Saint-Denis and Saint-Charles, and the attack on the British forces began on November 23 at Saint-Denis, at about nine o'clock in the morning. Some 800 Patriots led by Dr. Wolfred Nelson were waiting for the enemy, and only 100 were armed! The Patriots were barricaded in houses, and succeeded for six hours in repelling their adversary, who were trying to take the village. A hundred Patriots arrived from the neighbouring village and struck the English troops to defend Nelson. The colonial troops began to lose ground, and at three o'clock their commander, Colonel Gore, ordered a retreat. The Patriots, who were badly armed in addition to rudimentary preparation, had repulsed the powerful British army!

The news spread rapidly. On November 24th, Girod, a Patriot leader who was in Saint-Eustache, learned that Montreal was in a state of “extreme panic” and that there were scarcely any troops present. He decided that the time was right to try to seize the city, but the other leaders convinced him to give up this idea and remain on the defensive. Again, the leadership was reluctant to move forward. Girod himself said: “For the first time, I repent that I placed my trust in such hesitant people.”

The celebration was therefore short lived. Another attack on the British forces began on November 25 in Saint-Charles, not far from Saint-Denis. The commander of the Patriot forces, T. Storrow Brown, fled at the start of the confrontation, leaving his 200 men without leadership in the face of the enemy. The Patriots of Saint-Charles were massacred. Five days later, Colonel Gore returned to Saint-Denis to avenge his defeat, and burned the whole village with the exception of two houses. The victory of Saint-Denis was a thing of the past, and the British forces began the massacre of the Patriots and the complete destruction of Deux-Montagnes county, the bastion of the Patriots.

On December 5, martial law was proclaimed in the district of Montreal, and pillaging, destruction, and massacres began. On December 14, Saint-Eustache was burned to the ground by the British. Approximately sixty Patriots fell in the battle. The next day, it was Saint-Benoît's turn. A prison letter from Girouard described the destruction of the village: “Then began scenes of devastation and destruction more atrocious than one has ever seen, murder alone excepted, in a city taken by assault and given up to plunder after a long and painful siege.”

In February 1838, a new expedition from the United States was led by Robert Nelson and Dr. Côté. This was also impeded by the powerful British army, but is worth noting because of the “Declaration of Independence of Lower Canada” written by Nelson. It declared that the province was a republic, that the seigneurial tenures were abolished, that English and French would become the languages of public affairs, that equal rights would be granted to the natives - the “savages” as the document called them - etc. The document also contained important limitations, such as the fact that women would have been deprived of the right to vote. In any case, this document betrayed the true character of the movement of 1837-38, a bourgeois-democratic movement directed not against “the English” but against British tyranny.

In the end, the Patriot movement of Lower Canada was annihilated before it even had time to prepare a real insurrection, except for a few adventures in 1838, such as Nelson and Dr. Côté. The Patriots had enormous support among the masses of the province, but were not able to use this support to overthrow the colonial government. The twelve Patriot leaders hanged on February 15, 1839 will remain a symbol - a symbol of the class struggle, the struggle against oppression and exploitation.

Insurrection in Upper Canada

Similar to Lower Canada, the troubles in Upper Canada continued throughout 1838 but the decisive acts of the revolution occurred towards the end of 1837.

In 1836, the demands of the reformers for a responsible government were again refused by the Crown and a new governor general for the province, Sir Francis Bond Head, was in charge of delivering the news.

Bond Head tried to buy peace with the reformers by appointing two of them, Dr. Rolph and Robert Baldwin to the executive council. But they were never consulted and resigned in protest. As tensions raised between Bond Head and the reformers, he decided to dissolve the assembly in May 1836 and call new elections. Bond Head put into play his propaganda machine to intimidate the population to not vote for the “disloyal” reformers. He made reference to a so-called imminent invasion by the United States in order to justify a vote for the “Tories”. Drunken bandits were used to intimidate voters. This campaign of fear and propaganda may have worked in the electoral arena, but it only served to radicalize the reform movement.

On July 4th, 1836, the 60th anniversary of the American Declaration of Independence, MacKenzie and the reformers launched a new paper, The Constitution. This paper was openly radical, referencing the revolution and the overthrow of colonial authority.

In the spring of 1837 the Russell resolutions provoked a backlash among Lower Canadians and the reformers of Upper Canada gave their support to the struggle against the resolutions. On April 17th, 1883, an assembly of the Toronto Alliance Society denounced the resolutions and offered their support for the Patriots.

In July 1837, the Constitution unambiguously posed the question: “Will Canadians proclaim independence and take up arms?” On July 31st, 1837, a meeting of reformers in Toronto declared their support for Papineau and the Patriots and called for public meetings all over the province, with the election of delegates for a convention to be held in Toronto to make decisions about political conditions in Upper Canada. This statement in essence amounted to a declaration for a revolution. It should be noted that Dr. Rolph, a prominent reformer, did not sign the Toronto declaration.

The reformers, with MacKenzie at their head, began organizing political meetings all over the province, often met with enormous support. In the city of London, a reactionary journal, ironically called The Patriot, directly threatened MacKenzie and suggested that he should not show up there, otherwise he would be “prevented for good.” MacKenzie, upon arriving in London, was met with such overwhelming support that no incident took place. Between August and November, 200 meetings were held and 1,500 men were enlisted to lead the struggle for independence.

Battle of Montgomerys Tavern Image Canadian Military HeritageBattle of Montgomery's Tavern / Image: Canadian Military Heritage

In November, the reformers realized that the situation was getting worse in Lower Canada. The leadership of the reformers decided that the time for the insurrection had arrived. On December 7th when British troops were busy pacifying Lower Canada, the reform forces were supposed to: gather in Montgomery, three miles from Toronto and then they were to march on the city; seize the 4,000 weapons left at the Town Hall by Bond Head, arrest him and his councilors; declare the province independent; entrust a convention with the drafting of a new constitution; and declare Dr. Rolph, administrator of the provisional government. Rolph was to be in charge of making contact with Papineau and the Patriots. "The country was ripe for change," stated MacKenzie.

The declaration of independence that was to be distributed on December 7th was printed and remains one of the most daring and revolutionary documents in the country's history.

“Brave Canadians! Do you like freedom? I know that you do. Do you hate oppression? Who would dare to deny it? Then strap on your armor and overthrow the bandits who oppress and enslave our country ...

We can not find agreement with England ... they are never going to govern us justly or let us go - we are determined to not rest as long as we have not attained independence…”

Everything was ready for the assault on Toronto but at the last moment the plans were ruined by Dr. Rolph. Without even warning MacKenzie, Rolph gave orders to march on Toronto on December 4th, three days earlier than expected. The troops led by the reformer Samuel Lount were sent off before MacKenzie had the time to stop the disaster. Very few people had been informed of this and the majority were still preparing for the 7th, so instead of marching on Toronto on the 7th with 4,000, the reformers attacked on the 4th with only 200. The next day 800 reformers arrived, but very few had weapons and reinforcements started leaving when they took note of this situation.

On December 5th, reformer troops met a delegation sent by Bond Head to negotiate. The stance taken by the reformers during the negotiations was that they didn't want a truce but independence. And who was at the head of the delegation sent by the despised lieutenant governor? None other than Dr. Rolph and Robert Baldwin, another eminent reformer. This betrayal of two key leaders had a detrimental effect on the morale of the troops. Later, when the reformers tried obtain information about the attack that was being planned by Rolph, the former reformer had already fled.

On December 6th, forces loyal to Bond Head had arrived: 1,200 men, better armed and more prepared than the 600 poorly armed reformers remaining. In the meantime, the reformers had lost colonel Anthony Anderson, the only experienced military leader. This contributed to the disorganization of the reformers. MacKenzie's troops fought as best as they could but were forced to retreat, faced with an enemy that was too powerful. This was a fatal defeat for the Canadian insurrection and MacKenzie was forced to flee to the United States.

Other attempts were made later on, the most serious of which took place on December 13th on Navy Island, where a provisional government was proclaimed by MacKenzie, with the help of Americans. However this attempt was short lived. 600 men were on the island, half of which were Americans. On December 29th the American steamship Carolina, which was supposed to bring supplies to the revolutionaries, was torched by nearby loyalist forces.

The leadership of the provisional government was paralyzed. Van Ressenllaer, an American 'general' who in reality had very little experience or initiative, did nothing in response to the Carolina incident. MacKenzie meanwhile was only a shadow of the inspiring leader he was a few months earlier, the defeat in Toronto had completely demoralized him. Faced with a crisis of leadership, the revolutionary troops ended up leaving Navy Island on January 13th. Other attempts at an uprising from the United States were attempted in 1838, however most of them remained isolated and as the leadership of the movement was now in the hands of American sympathizers, this greatly aided loyalist propaganda.

The leaders of the movement were decimated, hanged, deported or imprisoned. On April 12th, 1838, Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, two of the most

prominent leaders of the reformers were hanged in a public square. After the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838, which saw 250 insurgents revolt against British troops, eleven more were hanged. The British wanted to ensure the complete submission of the revolutionary forces and, as in Lower Canada, they used terror. In January 1839, six other revolutionaries were hanged in front of the Windsor courthouse while another was hanged in London. A London Presbyterian minister declared at the time “May God take pity on us if we are led by the Tories – these ogres whose thirst for blood must be satisfied.”

The Canadian revolutionaries, ill-prepared and with a hesitant leadership, were met with ruthless British forces that were unleashed and enthusiastically drowned the revolution in blood.

Lack of leadership

The Patriots and the reformers had enormous support among the population of the two provinces, particularly in Lower Canada. So how was it that they were unable to carry out their program, as well as the revolution?

It is clear that the balance of forces was unfavorable in the Canadian provinces. The movements in Upper and Lower Canada were faced with a Great Britain that was armed to the teeth, at its height as a world power and therefore capable of concentrating its forces of repression against the provinces. Also, in contrast to the American revolution, which was able to count on aid from France, the Canadian provinces were left completely on their own. But these exterior factors alone cannot explain the defeat.

There is no doubt that the leadership of the movement in the two provinces was severely lacking. In a revolution, good leadership is necessary and quite often can make the difference between victory and defeat. At crucial moments in history, the victory or defeat of a movement can rest on the shoulders of a few, or even one individual.

In Upper Canada, the betrayal of the leadership destroyed the revolution. The fact that Rolph prematurely began the insurrection only to meet the reformers as a representative of Bond Head and then flee is the most fatal example of this. MacKenzie himself stated:

Influential people who promised to join our ranks and even the members of our executive committee who our premature and unfortunate action did not come to meet us and did not even communicate with us. I was incapable of of explaining their conduct which discouraged many and emptied our ranks.

In Lower Canada, the leadership of the Patriots was radicalized over the years, but they never prepared their supporters for an armed conflict with the colonial authority and even when this happened, the Patriot troops were on the defensive, without any preparation. Papineau himself stated two years later that: “I challenge the British government to contradict me when I say that none of us had prepared, intended or planned for an armed resistance.” The battle at Saint-Denis proved that the Patriots could defeat the British forces. If they had been prepared in advance by a leadership that understood the necessity of an armed uprising, the Patriots could have, without a doubt, installed a new republican government in Lower Canada, like that of their neighbours to the south. The impact on Upper Canada would have been immense: the entire situation would have been completely transformed.

Shooting of Col. Robert Moodie Image Toronto Public LibraryShooting of Col. Robert Moodie / Image: Toronto Public Library

Lord Durham, the man in charge of investigating the events of 1837-1838 in Lower Canada, said himself of the Rebellions that “The movement could have succeeded, even without the help of the United States, if the French-Canadians had been better prepared and if they had better leaders.” It must be underlined that the right-wing of the movement contributed to the Patriots being paralyzed.

The British troops, on the other hand, were duly prepared to crush the uprising. Having learned from its defeat at the hands of the Americans 60 years earlier, the Crown knew that it must nip the rebellion in the bud, before the Patriots had time to realize the necessity of an organized revolutionary uprising. Lord Durham himself confirms that the rebellion in Lower Canada had been “precipitated by the British, who had an instinctive sense of the danger of allowing more time for Canadians to prepare.” Thus, without political and military preparation and faced with a more powerful enemy, the Patriot troops were doomed to defeat. However, it could have been otherwise, had the leadership prepared its innumerable supporters for a real insurrection.

Therefore, the petty-bourgeois leadership of the movement led the movement to defeat. The liberal petty bourgeoisie, ardently sympathetic with the inhabitants and the proletariat, but confused as to the political program and the methods of struggle, rendered the revolutionary movement powerless due to their hesitations. The confusion was evident, particularly in Lower Canada, on the question of the abolition of seigniorial rights, which was not even included in the Patriots’ program. It was not until the Declaration of Independence in February 1838 that the question would be dealt with adequately, by demanding the abolition of these rights. Until then, the Patriots had an ambiguous position on the issue, which showed that the leadership had a quite narrow vision of the struggle that was taking shape, and basically, that the latter did not wish to profoundly change society.

The “weak repercussion” of the American revolution

There is no doubt that political leadership was lacking in the Canadian bourgeois revolution, but this explanation of the defeat is insufficient. We must be able to understand why the Canadian revolution was left with a reactionary bourgeoisie and such a frightened petty bourgeoisie, which was unable, or even unwilling, to rouse the people against the Crown. The analysis of European bourgeois revolutions before and after the rebellions will allow us to have a better understanding of the revolutionary process on the continent.

The bourgeois revolutions in England and France, especially the latter, are two classic bourgeois revolutions. As Marx explained in his articles on the Revolution of March 1848 in Prussia:

The revolutions of 1648 and 1789 were not English and French revolutions, they were revolutions in the European fashion. They did not represent the victory of a particular social class over the old political system; they proclaimed the political system of the new European society. The bourgeoisie was victorious in these revolutions, but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois ownership over feudal ownership, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, of partitioning [of the land] over primogeniture, of the rule of the landowner over the domination of the owner by the land, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic idleness, of bourgeois law over medieval privileges. The revolution of 1648 was the victory of the seventeenth century over the sixteenth century; the revolution of 1789 was the victory of the eighteenth century over the seventeenth. These revolutions reflected the needs of the world at that time rather than the needs of those parts of the world where they occurred, that is, England and France.

On the great French Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

In the heroic period of French history we saw a bourgeoisie, enlightened, active, as yet not aware of the contradictions of its own position, upon whom history had imposed the task of leadership in the struggle for a new order, not only against the outworn institutions of France but also against the reactionary forces of the whole of Europe.

What enabled the bourgeoisie to be victorious in the French Revolution? It was precisely the fact that the bourgeoisie was not conscious of the contradictions implied by their position, or rather thatthe antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and other oppressed strata of the nation had not developed. Marx says, on the subject of the English and French bourgeois revolutions:

In both revolutions the bourgeoisie was the class that really headed the movement. The proletariat and the non-bourgeois strata of the middle class had either not yet evolved interests which were different from those of the bourgeoisie or they did not yet constitute independent classes or class divisions.

Trotsky elaborated:

The bourgeoisie, consistently, in all its factions, regarded itself as the leader of the nation, rallied the masses to the struggle, gave them slogans and dictated their fighting tactics. Democracy bound the nation together with a political ideology. The people – urban petty-bourgeois, peasants and workers – elected bourgeois as their deputies, and the instructions given these deputies by their constituents were written in the language of a bourgeoisie coming to awareness of its messianic mission.

However, analyzing the revolutions of 1848, Trotsky stated that “The year 1848 already differs tremendously from 1789. In comparison with the Great Revolution, the Prussian and Austrian Revolutions surprise one with their insignificant sweep. In one way they took place too early and in another too late.” What does this mean?

History shows us that when bourgeois revolutions arise, the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat has already reached a certain degree of development and the bourgeoisie become frightened, see democratic concessions as a threat to its power and therefore goes over to the side of the reaction. It is sometimes hostile to monarchies and other remnants of the past, but is even more hostile to the proletariat, which is beginning to establish itself as a class with independent interests.

This is why we see the alliances in several countries between the capitalists and the remnants of feudal, monarchical, colonial or semi-colonial regimes, etc., alliances designed tosubduethe bourgeois revolution. In some cases, the interpenetration of capitalist and feudal interests renders the bourgeois and the feudalists almost inseparable. The bourgeoisie therefore becomes reactionary even before having secured the conditions for its own political domination. That is why we say that they arrivedtoo lateon the scene of history.

Thus the revolution of 1848 came too late in the sense that the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariathad already developed sufficiently to throw the bourgeoisie into the camp of reaction. In its “own” revolution, in 1848, the bourgeoisie preferred to maintain the monarchy rather than overthrow it. It preferred to share power with the supporters of the monarchy rather than risk rousing the proletariat and a movement that could go beyond the strictly bourgeois objectives (Republicanism, agrarian reform, etc.).

The bourgeoisie was no longer “the leader of the nation”, but turned against the nation. The revolution of 1848, on the scale of history, arrived too late to succeed in the manner of 1789.

In this context,the tasks of the bourgeois revolution, namely agrarian reform, the establishment of bourgeois democracy and the creation of a unified nation free from national oppression,are the tasks of the proletariat, which has become the only progressive class under capitalism.

But in this sense, the revolutions of 1848 arrivedtoo early, for the proletariat had not yet had time to form its own organizations, to separate itself completely from the bourgeoisie, and to gain the experience of struggle and cohesion necessary for the overthrow of the established order.

What does this tell us about the revolutionary process in North America?

The “classical” bourgeois revolution on the continent was the American Revolution of 1776. For the first time in the history of the Americas, a colony liberated itself from its colonial oppressor. The American Revolution changed the course of human history.

The nascent American bourgeoisie was able to unite the nation behind it in order to overthrow the regime of colonial oppression. Like the French Revolution, the American Revolution succeededbecause the antagonism was not sufficiently developed between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat and other oppressed layers. Unsurprisingly, the class contradictions in American society quickly surfaced, notably with Shay’s Rebellion in 1787 which was brutally crushed by the new regime.

What about 1837-1838? Stanley B. Ryerson, a well-known Canadian Marxist historian, said that the failure of the bourgeois-democratic revolution of 1837-1838 “resides in the insufficient development of industrial capitalism in the colony ... and consequently the absence of an organized working class ... Thus, the situation was not yet ripe for a democratic bourgeois revolution.”

This analysis is fundamentally flawed. In reality, the conditions described by Ryerson were not present at the time of the English Revolution of 1648, nor the American Revolution of 1776, nor the French Revolution of 1789. The bourgeoisie was able to carry out these revolutions precisely because the development of capitalism was in its early stages and the working class constituted a small minority, a simple embryo without independent class interests. This enabled the bourgeoisie to speak “in the name of the nation.”

Rather than creating conditions for a victoriousbourgeoisrevolution, the development of an organized working class, as Ryerson described it, is the prelude to a victoriousproletarianrevolution. The more the working class develops, the more reactionary the bourgeoisie becomes, particularly in colonial and semi colonial countries. Therefore, the role of the proletariat becomes more important.

The American Revolution of 1776 was not able to spread to what Canada was at the time. As the Canadian provinces remained under British colonial domination, the contradictions of the colonial regime, as explained above, began to develop and create the conditions for a revolutionary regime change during the 1830s.

But in 1837-1838 the Canadian bourgeoisie was already reactionary. The part of the bourgeoisie that supported the demands of the movements quickly disassociated itself from them when it became clear that a mass movement was needed for the overthrow of the established order. The bourgeoisie already had a greater fear of the revolution than it had contempt for colonial oppression. It preferred to ally with the Crown and share power, rather than overthrow it.

The class contradictions between the bourgeoisie and the small Canadian proletariat and other oppressed strata, farmers,habitantsand others, were sufficiently developed for the bourgeoisie to stand on the side of reaction. However, the proletariat was not sufficiently developed, not organized or sufficiently conscious, to take the lead. Thus the petty bourgeoisie took the lead role.

But the petty bourgeoisie of Canada, due to its intermediary position, vacillated. This behavior is characteristic of this class. The petty-bourgeois revolutionaries in Canada wanted a republic, modeled on America, but were hesitant about the idea of a real revolution. They wanted the result of the class struggle, without the struggle itself. They wanted a baby without going through the painful process of childbirth.

Marx, speaking about the Prussian Revolution of 1848, said that “Far from being a European revolution it was merely a weak repercussion of a European revolution in a backward country. Instead of being ahead of its century, it was over half a century behind its time.” In Canada, the rebellions were only a “weak repercussion,” sixty years after the American Revolution. Compared with 1776, the rebellions too, are “surprising in their insignificance.” The class contradictions of society have developed to the point where the bourgeoisie is comfortable enough in an alliance with the British colonial authorities to turn against the revolution. The Canadian petty bourgeoisie for its part, no longer wanted the colonial system and denounced its “abuses,” but did not want to carry the revolution to its conclusion.

It can therefore be said that 1848 is to 1789 in Europe, as 1837-1838 is to 1776 in America: the echo of a previous revolution in a country where the bourgeoisie has become reactionary, in a country where “national unity” has been made impossible due to the development of class contradictions. This is the historical significance of 1837-1838.

The general character of the revolution was that of a late, provincial revolution, led by a petty bourgeoisie, which in general wished nothing more than a place in the sun. This expressed itself in all aspects of the movement. The issue of women is a good example.

It was mentioned earlier that the “Declaration of Independence” of February 1838 guaranteed the right to vote only to men. This is just one example of latent sexism in Canadian society in general at the time. In 1834, the right to vote had been withdrawn from the women of Lower Canada by the Patriot members the assembly, which was met with general indifference. The strict distinction between male and female roles served as an almost universal principle.

Marx explained that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Indeed, in Canada the tradition of oppression and exclusion of women from all political activity did weigh heavily on society.

However that cannot explain everything, because tradition has not prevented women from playing a huge role in most of the great revolutions in history. The French Revolution resulted in the exclusion of women from the political process. Despite this, it was the “sans-culottes” women who played a leading role, pushing the revolution to go all the way, as opposed to the Girondists who wished to reach a compromise with the monarchy. Similarly, it was the workers in Petrograd who triggered the February Revolution, which put an end to the tsarist regime in Russia in 1917. Women, as an an oppressed group, have more to gain from the victory of a revolution, and are therefore doubly inclined to get involved to fight for the victory of the revolution.

What about the Rebellions of 1837-1838, the aborted Canadian bourgeois revolution?

The idea that the revolution in Canada was only the weak echo of the American Revolution also applies here. The leaders of the Patriot and reform movements, incapable of rousing the people with a view to real revolution and probably unwilling to do so, were even less able to mobilize the particularly oppressed strata of society (the Patriots would make a very late appeal to women). All this was the result of the backwardness of the Canadian revolution and the resulting poor leadership.

The American bourgeoisie, after having led the people - including women - into the revolutionary war, had time to turn into a reactionary force, crushing the left wing of the revolution and institutionalizing the oppression of women and blacks, among others. Canada has to a certain extent absorbed the manners of the descending phase of the American Revolution, without having had time to absorb the American revolutionary energy of the past in order to make its own bourgeois revolution. So it should be no surprise that women were not very enthusiastic about the Patriots’ call, as it was hesitating between reformism and revolution, and insistent that women remain contained in the “private” sphere.

It was a similar case with indigenous peoples. Unable to rally them in a meaningful way to the struggle, the Patriots faced the mistrust from the Kahnawake Iroquois in November 1837, who refused to help the Patriots, in an atmosphere of confusion and rumors of attack by the Patriots on Kahnawake. A detailed analysis of the relationship between Aboriginals and settlers is beyond the scope of this article, but it seems clear once again that the Patriots made little effort to seek solidarity with Aboriginal peoples' in the struggle against the yoke of the British Empire.

A new revolution must take place

The attempted bourgeois democratic revolution in Upper and Lower Canada failed, but the Rebellions paved the way for changes in the colonies. The first reform, that of the Act of Union of 1841, institutionalized the oppression of the French Canadians. The merger of Lower and Upper Canada and the formation of the United Province of Canada gave as many MPs to Canada West (predominantly English) as to Canada East (mostly French), even though Canada East had a much larger population. The stated goal was the assimilation of French Canadians, another classic example of the "divide and rule" strategy. Rather than letting the two colonies have their respective governments, which would favour a united struggle for democratic demands, the Crown preferred to unite them on the backs of the French Canadians, which would pit them against each other and make it easier to rule over thetwopeoples.

Although Canada is no longer a British colony today, the reforms of the second half of the nineteenth century remained incomplete, so that Canada never became a true democratic republic, and still has the British Queen on its currency today. Like everywhere else in the former colonial or semi-colonial countries, the bourgeoisie “solved” the democratic questions in a partial, incomplete, truncated way.

Canada has moved from a collection of British colonies, to an imperialist country that is actively involved in the plundering of the world and the defence of the capitalist system in the face of emerging social movements. Today, the task of getting rid of the last rotten relics of the monarchy, both for Quebecers and Canadians, is incumbent upon the working class of the whole country in its wider struggle to overthrow imperialism and the capitalist system it protects.

If the proletariat in 1837-1838, due to its embryonic state and the equally embryonic state of its organizations, was still lagging behind the petty bourgeoisie, the modern proletariat is now certainly in a position to play a dominant, independent political role. The Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, the Asbestos Strike of 1949, and the quasi-insurrectional general strike of 1972 in Quebec demonstrated the revolutionary potential of the working class.

The banner of the Patriots must now make way for the banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg: the banner of communism.