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Political Changes, The Rebellions of 1837

Francis Bond Head, Navy Island, soil exhaustion, William Lyon Mackenzie, British governors

In Lower Canada, the movement for political change threatened to become a revolution. Lower Canada’s farming economy suffered from overcrowding and soil exhaustion. French Canadian society was threatened with a decline in living standards and gradual impoverishment. Ethnic conflict exacerbated this economic challenge. French Canadians were concentrated in the hard-pressed countryside while British immigrants dominated the towns, where they controlled commerce and industry and had the ear of government. Continued immigration threatened French Canadian predominance, even in the countryside.

French Canadian lawyers, journalists, and others blamed French Canada’s problems on British domination. They warned that French Canadians would become merely the impoverished servants of British commercial interests and argued that the solution lay in a French Canadian nation. Nationalism, an almost unknown concept in the 18th century, became a powerful factor in Lower Canadian politics.

Lower Canada’s assembly became the center of conflict between English-speaking and French-speaking Canadians. The assembly was dominated by the Patriote Party, which was supported by French Canadian voters and led by French Canadian middle-class professionals. Some English-speaking reformers also supported it. The assembly, however, was constantly opposed by the British governors and their appointed councils. In 1834 the assembly requested fundamental changes, embodied in a document called the Ninety-Two Resolutions. Britain rejected the Ninety-Two Resolutions in 1837 and authorized the governor to override the assembly almost entirely. Mass protests were called and soon turned into armed rebellion.

Patriote leader Louis Joseph Papineau, a seigneur who wanted to preserve or restore many aspects of traditional French Canadian society, was a reluctant revolutionary who soon fled across the border to exile in the United States. But radical urban professionals and disgruntled rural peasants joined forces against British rule. In November 1837 they defeated British soldiers at Saint-Denis, but about two weeks later at Saint-Eustache, the British prevailed in a fierce conflict in which several hundred were killed or wounded. Within a few days after that battle, the British military dispersed all the rebel forces. The constitution was suspended, and British control in the colony was soon restored. In November 1838 a second brief outbreak, organized by Patriote exiles in the United States, was also quelled.

Armed rebellion also broke out in Upper Canada. In elections called in 1836 by a new governor, Francis Bond Head, supporters of the government had won a majority of the assembly seats. Radicals lost hope for peaceful change. Amidst a brief economic downturn that made times hard for Upper Canadian farmers, William Lyon Mackenzie called on his supporters in rural Upper Canada to march on Toronto in December 1837. Head had sent the local garrison to Lower Canada, but loyal citizens quickly defeated the small, ill-organized rising, with only one death in the fighting around Toronto. Mackenzie and many supporters fled to the United States and attempted to foment further risings from a base on Navy Island in the Niagara River.

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