Quebec 1837-1839

The Patriotes Rebellion

By Mitch Abidor

Ludger Duvernay

By the 1830s the frustrations that had been building up in Lower Canada (the former New France, the former Canada, and the future Quebec) since the defeat of 1759 had reached a boiling point. In 1832 the elections held at Montreal’s Place des Armes resulted in the deaths of three members of the largely French- and Irish immigrant supported Patriot Party. These reformists were opposed by the pro-British forces, the English colonial authorities and their strong-arm men of the Doric Club.

The Patriots, led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, opposed the British colonialists and had been calling for an American-style democracy. Two Patriot journalists, the Irishman Daniel Tracey and French-Canadian Ludger Duvernay had even been arrested for writing in the local press articles that said that “it is certain that before long all of America must be republican.”

The Patriots, after several years of agitation for an elective Legislative Assembly and increased local powers, in 1834 addressed London directly with their 92 Resolutions, the key points of which seem fairly modest: the elected Assembly and control of the budget. The elections of that year were a triumph for the Patriots, and the English party began a campaign of threats to keep the French population in place.

It took three years for the British government to respond to the 92 resolutions, and when they did — with the so-called 10 resolutions — it was a stinging rejection of the Canadian demands.

Demonstrations were held throughout the province, culminating in October 1837 in the Assembly of the Six Counties in Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu, north of Montreal. At the assembly, Papineau, more than ever the leader of the Canadian people, delivered a speech calling for people “of whatever origin, language or religion” to organize themselves, and elect their own judges and militia officers in opposition to the English.

Papineau did not call for open revolt, though others, like the Anglo-Canadian Dr. Wolfred Nelson, said that the “time has come to melt our plates and our tin spoons to make bullets.”

Finally, on November 23, 1837 armed rebellion began, when Patriot troops led by Wolfred Nelson defeated British troops in the Richelieu valley town of Saint-Denis. Though the number killed on each side was equal, the strength and tenacity of the Patriot forces shook the British, and they retreated from the battlefield.

The leader of the Patriots, Papineau, was not in the town. In an incident that is still controversial, he had left the area, some saying for the good of the cause (as he'd be able to serve it in the future), while others accused him of cowardice.

The second battle, at Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu, resulted in a crushing defeat for the Patriots. This time the British were ready for a tough fight, and the Royal Scots attacked the Patriot positions in force, killing 150 and losing only three.

Though at this point many of the principal Patriot leaders fled Canada for exile in the US, the resistance to the British was not yet over. The British commander, Sir John Colborne, himself led the attack on Saint-Eustache, just northwest of Montreal. The arrival of 1500 enemy troops drove many of the Patriots to flee, but others decided to fight it out to the end. Barricaded in the town church they were bombarded for hours, a cannonade in which the local priest participated. All hope lost, the Patriots attempted to escape, but were gunned down. Again the casualties tell the tale: 66 Patriots killed, three British.

Enraged by the persistence of the rebellion the British troops went on a rampage, burning and pillaging rebellious villages. Papineau, from his American exile, remained optimistic: “I sometimes believe, despite the immense disasters we've already suffered, that Providence will bring about the day when we will be employed in freeing our unfortunate country.”

And in fact the rebellion was not yet over. From their exile just across the border in Upstate New York, the Patriots formed a secret group, the Frères Chasseurs, and, in 1838, plotted to set off a wider rebellion. This time they clearly called for a republic, and issued a Declaration of Independence, written by Dr. Wolfred Nelson’s brother, Robert. Poorly organized, the troops gathered on the night of November 3 to await the orders of their leaders. Hearing nothing, the troops dispersed. Robert Nelson hadn’t yet given up, and on November 9, after a failed attempt to seize arms, he led a diminished force against militia troops in Odelltown. Seeing that defeat was inevitable, Nelson fled the scene for the US and, with this, the Patriotes Rebellion came to an end. This time the repression was even fiercer: the British troops burned everything in their path in the region south of Montreal, and arrested hundred of rebels for treason. Many were jailed, others sent to the penal colony in Australia, and seventeen were hung for their role in the uprising.

Papineau was to later to return to Canada, and in 1867 Lower Canada joined the Canadian Confederation as Quebec.