The ‘Patriotes’ of ’37 / A Chronicle of the Lower Canada Rebellion

Produced by Al Haines

Advance of the British troops on the village of St. Denis, 1837. From a colour drawing by C. W. Jefferys.

Advance of the British troops on the village of St. Denis, 1837.
From a colour drawing by C. W. Jefferys.



A Chronicle of the Lower
Canadian Rebellion




Copyright in all Countries subscribing to
the Berne Convention


The manuscript for this little book, written by me in French, was handed over for translation to Mr Stewart Wallace. The result as here presented is therefore a joint product. Mr Wallace, himself a writer of ability and a student of Canadian history, naturally made a very free translation of my work and introduced some ideas of his own. He insists, however, that the work is mine; and, with this acknowledgment of his part in it, I can do no less than acquiesce, at the same time expressing my pleasure at having had as collaborator a young writer of such good insight. And it is surely appropriate that an English Canadian and a French Canadian should join in a narrative of the political war between the two races which forms the subject of this book.


OTTAWA, 1915.





  From a colour drawing by C. W. Jefferys.
  From a portrait in the Dominion Archives.
Facing page 16
  After a lithograph by Maurin, Paris.
   “        “     22
  From a print in the Château de Ramezay.
   “        “     60
  Map by Bartholomew.
   “        “     69
  From a print in M’Gill University Library.
   “        “   128



The conquest of Canada by British arms in the Seven Years’ War gave rise to a situation in the colony which was fraught with tragic possibilities. It placed the French inhabitants under the sway of an alien race—a race of another language, of another religion, of other laws, and which differed from them profoundly in temperament and political outlook. Elsewhere—in Ireland, in Poland, and in the Balkans—such conquests have been followed by centuries of bitter racial warfare. In Canada, however, for a hundred and fifty years French Canadians and English Canadians have, on the whole, dwelt together in peace and amity. Only on the one occasion, of which the story is to be told in these pages, has there been anything resembling civil war between the two races; and this unhappy outbreak was neither widespread nor prolonged. The record is one which Canadians, whether they be English or French, have reason to view with satisfaction.

It does not appear that the Canadians of 1760 felt any profound regret at the change from French to British rule. So corrupt and oppressive had been the administration of Bigot, in the last days of the Old Regime, that the rough-and-ready rule of the British army officers doubtless seemed benignant in comparison. Comparatively few Canadians left the country, although they were afforded facilities for so doing. One evidence of good feeling between the victors and the vanquished is found in the marriages which were celebrated between Canadian women and some of the disbanded Highland soldiers. Traces of these unions are found at the present day, in the province of Quebec, in a few Scottish names of habitants who cannot speak English.

When the American colonies broke out in revolution in 1775, the Continental Congress thought to induce the French Canadians to join hands with them. But the conciliatory policy of the successive governors Murray and Carleton, and the concessions granted by the Quebec Act of the year before, had borne fruit; and when the American leaders Arnold and Montgomery invaded Canada, the great majority of the habitants remained at least passively loyal. A few hundred of them may have joined the invaders, but a much larger number enlisted under Carleton. The clergy, the seigneurs, and the professional classes—lawyers and physicians and notaries—remained firm in their allegiance to Great Britain; while the mass of the people resisted the eloquent appeals of Congress, represented by its emissaries Franklin, Chase, and Carroll, and even those of the distinguished Frenchmen, Lafayette and Count d’Estaing, who strongly urged them to join the rebels. Nor should it be forgotten that at the siege of Quebec by Arnold the Canadian officers Colonel Dupré and Captains Dambourgès, Dumas, and Marcoux, with many others, were among Carleton’s most trusted and efficient aides in driving back the invading Americans. True, in 1781, Sir Frederick Haldimand, then governor of Canada, wrote that although the clergy had been firmly loyal in 1775 and had exerted their powerful influence in favour of Great Britain, they had since then changed their opinions and were no longer to be relied upon. But it must be borne in mind that Haldimand ruled the province in the manner of a soldier. His high-handed orders caused dissatisfaction, which he probably mistook for a want of loyalty among the clergy. No more devoted subject of Great Britain lived at the time in Lower Canada than Mgr Briand, the bishop of Quebec; and the priests shaped their conduct after that of their superior. At any rate, the danger which Haldimand feared did not take form; and the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 made it more unlikely than ever.

The French Revolution profoundly affected the attitude of the French Canadians toward France. Canada was the child of the ancien régime. Within her borders the ideas of Voltaire and Rousseau had found no shelter. Canada had nothing in common with the anti-clerical and republican tendencies of the Revolution. That movement created a gap between France and Canada which has not been bridged to this day. In the Napoleonic wars the sympathies of Canada were almost wholly with Great Britain. When news arrived of the defeat of the French fleet at Trafalgar, a Te Deum was sung in the Catholic cathedral at Quebec; and, in a sermon preached on that occasion, a future bishop of the French-Canadian Church enunciated the principle that ‘all events which tend to broaden the gap separating us from France should be welcome.’

It was during the War of 1812-14, however, that the most striking manifestation of French-Canadian loyalty to the British crown appeared. In that war, in which Canada was repeatedly invaded by American armies, French-Canadian militiamen under French-Canadian officers fought shoulder to shoulder with their English-speaking fellow-countrymen on several stricken fields of battle; and in one engagement, fought at Châteauguay in the French province of Lower Canada, the day was won for British arms by the heroic prowess of Major de Salaberry and his French-Canadian soldiers. The history of the war with the United States provides indelible testimony to the loyalty of French Canada.

A quarter of a century passed. Once again the crack of muskets was heard on Canadian soil. This time, however, there was no foreign invader to repel. The two races which had fought side by side in 1812 were now arrayed against each other. French-Canadian veterans of Châteauguay were on one side, and English-Canadian veterans of Chrystler’s Farm on the other. Some real fighting took place. Before peace was restored, the fowling-pieces of the French-Canadian rebels had repulsed a force of British regulars at the village of St Denis, and brisk skirmishes had taken place at the villages of St Charles and St Eustache. How this unhappy interlude came to pass, in a century and a half of British rule in Canada, it is the object of this book to explain.



The British did not treat the French inhabitants of Canada as a conquered people; not as other countries won by conquest have been treated by their victorious invaders. The terms of the Capitulation of Montreal in 1760 assured the Canadians of their property and civil rights, and guaranteed to them ‘the free exercise of their religion.’ The Quebec Act of 1774 granted them the whole of the French civil law, to the almost complete exclusion of the English common law, and virtually established in Canada the Church of the vanquished through legal enforcement of the obligation resting upon Catholics to pay tithes. And when it became necessary in 1791 to divide Canada into two provinces, Upper Canada and Lower Canada, one predominantly English and the other predominantly French, the two provinces were granted precisely equal political rights. Out of this arose an odd situation. All French Canadians were Roman Catholics, and Roman Catholics were at this time debarred from sitting in the House of Commons at Westminster. Yet they were given the right of sitting as members in the Canadian representative Assemblies created by the Act of 1791. The Catholics of Canada thus received privileges denied to their co-religionists in Great Britain.

There can be no doubt that it was the conciliatory policy of the British government which kept the clergy, the seigneurs, and the great body of French Canadians loyal to the British crown during the war in 1775 and in 1812. It is certain, too, that these generous measures strengthened the position of the French race in Canada, made Canadians more jealous of their national identity, and led them to press for still wider liberties. It is an axiom of human nature that the more one gets, the more one wants. And so the concessions granted merely whetted the Canadian appetite for more.

This disposition became immediately apparent with the calling of the first parliament of Lower Canada in 1792. Before this there had been no specific definition of the exact status of the French language in Canada, and the question arose as to its use in the Assembly as a medium of debate. As the Quebec Act of 1774 had restored the French laws, it was inferred that the use of the French language had been authorized, since otherwise these laws would have no natural medium of interpretation. That this was the inference to be drawn from the constitution became evident, for the British government had made no objection to the use of French in the law-courts. It should be borne in mind that at this period the English in Canada were few in number, and that all of them lived in the cities. The French members in the Assembly, representing, as they did, nearly the whole population, did not hesitate to press for the official recognition of their language on a parity with English.

The question first came up in connection with the election of a speaker. The French-Canadian members, being in a majority of thirty-four to sixteen, proposed Jean Antoine Panet. This motion was opposed by the English members, together with a few of the French members, who nominated an Englishman. They pointed out that the transactions between the speaker and the king’s representative in the colony should be ‘in the language of the empire to which we have the happiness to belong.’ ‘I think it is but decent,’ said Louis Panet, brother of Jean Antoine, ‘that the speaker on whom we fix our choice, be one who can express himself in English when he addresses himself to the representative of our sovereign.’ Yet the majority of the French members stuck to their motion and elected their speaker. When he was sworn into office, he declared to the governor that ‘he could only express himself in the primitive language of his native country.’ Nevertheless, he understood English well enough to conduct the business of the House. And it should not be forgotten that all the sixteen English members, out of the fifty composing the Assembly, owed their election to French-Canadian voters.

Almost immediately the question came up again in the debate on the use of the French language in the publication of official documents. The English members pointed out that English was the language of the sovereign, and they contended that the exclusive official use of the English language would more quickly assimilate the French Canadians—would render them more loyal. To these arguments the French Canadians replied with ringing eloquence.

‘Remember,’ said Chartier de Lotbinière, ‘the year 1775. Those Canadians, who spoke nothing but French, showed their attachment to their sovereign in a manner not at all equivocal. They helped to defend this province. This city, these walls, this chamber in which I have the honour to speak, were saved partly through their zeal and their courage. You saw them join with faithful subjects of His Majesty and repulse attacks which people who spoke very good English made on this city. It is not, you see, uniformity of language which makes peoples more faithful or more united.’

‘Is it not ridiculous,’ exclaimed Pierre Bédard, whose name will appear later in these pages, ‘to wish to make a people’s loyalty consist in its tongue?’

The outcome of the debate, as might have been expected, was to place the French language on a level with the English language in the records and publications of the Assembly, and French became, to all intents and purposes, the language of debate. The number of English-speaking members steadily decreased. In the year 1800 Sir Robert Milnes wrote home that there were ‘but one or two English members in the House of Assembly who venture to speak in the language of the mother country, from the certainty of not being understood by a great majority of the House.’

It must not be imagined, however, that in these early debates there was any of that rancour and animosity which later characterized the proceedings of the Assembly of Lower Canada. ‘The remains of the old French politeness, and a laudable deference to their fellow subjects, kept up decorum in the proceedings of the majority,’ testified a political annalist of that time. Even as late as 1807, it appears that ‘party spirit had not yet extended its effects to destroy social intercourse and good neighbourhood.’ It was not until the régime of Sir James Craig that racial bitterness really began.

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