Lower Canada Rebellion

The Lower Canada Rebellion (French: rébellion du Bas-Canada), commonly referred to as the Patriots' War (Guerre des patriotes) in French, is the name given to the armed conflict in 1837–38 between rebels and the colonial government of Lower Canada (now southern Quebec). Together with the simultaneous rebellion in the neighbouring colony of Upper Canada (now southern Ontario), it formed the Rebellions of 1837–38 (rébellions de 1837–38).

Lower Canada Rebellions
Part of the Rebellions of 1837–1838

The Battle of Saint-Eustache, Lower Canada.
Date6 November 1837 — 10 November 1838
Lower Canada, present-day Quebec
Result Military suppression of Patriote rebellion and defeat of sympathizer interventions
Unification of Upper and Lower Canada into the Province of Canada.
Commanders and leaders
  • John Colborne
  • Charles Gore
  • Lewis Odell
  • John Scriver
  • George Augustus Wetherall
  • 1,380 regulars, rising to 10,000 by mid-1838
  • 33,000 Canadian militia
  • ≈ 4,100 Patriotes
  • 25,000 sympathizer militia[1]
Casualties and losses
  • 20–68 combat dead
  • 47 wounded
  • 73–130 dead
  • 1,600 wounded or captured
  • 29 executed for treason
  • 58 deported to Australia

As a result of the rebellions, the Province of Canada was created from the former Lower Canada and Upper Canada.


The rebellion had been preceded by nearly three decades of efforts at political reform in Lower Canada,[2] led from the early 1800s by James Stuart and Louis-Joseph Papineau, who formed the Parti patriote and sought accountability from the elected general assembly and the appointed governor of the colony. After the Constitutional Act 1791, Lower Canada could elect a House of Assembly, which led to the rise of two parties: the English Party and the Canadian Party. The English Party was mostly composed of the English merchants and bourgeoisie and had the support of bureaucrats and the old seigneurial families. The Canadian Party was formed by aristocrats, French or English. The Catholic Church did not openly advocate for any political party but tended to support the English party.[3] With the power in the hand of the population, the French-Canadian business class needed support from the population more than from the British business class. The population being mostly French-Canadian in Lower Canada, most of those elected at the House of Assembly were French-speaking and supported the French-Canadian business class. The House of Assembly gave an illusion of power to French-Canadians, but the Executive and Legislative Councils advised the governor, who could veto any legislation.[4] Both councils were made of people chosen by the English party.[3] The appointed legislative council was dominated by a small group of businessmen known as the Château Clique, the equivalent of the Family Compact in Upper Canada.

In the early 19th century the economy of Lower Canada changed drastically. Lumber started to be more important than the fur trade or agriculture, which caused fear for those working in the fields.[3] Activists in Lower Canada began to work for reform in a period of economic disfranchisement of the French-speaking majority and working-class English-speaking citizens. The rebellion opposed the injustice of colonial governing as such in which the governor and the upper house of the legislature were appointed by the Crown. Many of its leaders and participants were English-speaking citizens of Lower Canada. French-speakers felt that English-speakers were disproportionately represented in the lucrative fields of banking, the timber trade, and transportation.

In 1807–12, Sir James Henry Craig was governor. He encountered multiple crises. He called elections three times in 16 months because he was not satisfied with the people elected - even though they were the same each time.[5] Craig thought that the Canadian Party and its supporters wanted a French-Canadian republic. He also feared that if the United States tried to invade Lower Canada, the Canadian Party would collaborate. In 1810, Craig imprisoned journalists working for the newspaper Le Canadien. Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, the leader of the Canadian Party and editor of the newspaper, was put in jail. That created a crisis in the party about who would be in the leadership.[3]

During the War of 1812 many rumours circulated in the colony of a possible invasion. The French-Canadians were dependent on the protection of Britain, which created a certain unity in the colony during wartime.[3]

At the same time, some among the English-speaking business elite advocated a union of Upper and Lower Canada to ensure competitiveness on a national scale with the increasingly-large and powerful economy of the United States (some rebels had been inspired by the success of the American War of Independence). Unification of the colony was favoured by the British-appointed governor, George Ramsey, Earl of Dalhousie. In Lower Canada, the growing sense of nationalism among English- and the French-speaking citizens was organized into the Parti canadien, which, after 1826, was called the parti patriote.

Louis-Joseph Papineau submitted his "Ninety-two Resolutions" after protesters were shot in Montreal.

In 1811, James Stuart became leader of the Parti canadien in the assembly, and in 1815, reformer Louis-Joseph Papineau was elected as its speaker in Lower Canada. The elected assembly had little power since its decisions could be vetoed by both the legislative council and the governor, all of whom were appointed by the British government. Dalhousie and Papineau were soon at odds over the issue of uniting the Canadas. Dalhousie forced an election in 1827, rather than accept Papineau as assembly speaker. Dalhousie mistakenly hoped that the elected members would change and then decided to prorogue the parliament. The population reacted by sending a petition signed by 87,000 people to London against Dalhousie.[5] Reformers in England had Dalhousie reassigned to India, but the legislative council and the assembly were still unable to reach a compromise.

From 1828 to 1832, there was a brief calm, and the assembly was able to pass several important laws. In 1832, the Patriote newspapers published controversial articles about the Legislative Council, and both heads of the newspapers got arrested. That created a huge tension in the population against the British government, especially when the army shot three people in a crowd during the elections of 1832 and nobody was arrested.[5]

After hearing about the 99 grievances submitted by Robert Gourlay, Papineau wrote the "Ninety-two Resolutions" while he was secretly co-ordinating with Upper Canada. After protestors were shot in Montreal in 1832, Papineau had to submit the list of "resolutions" to the governor himself. The document that was presented to the House of Assembly on January 7, 1834 and had 92 demands to the British government.[5] By 1834, the assembly had passed the Ninety-two Resolutions, outlining its grievances against the legislative council. The goal was to group all together, in a single document, the people's grievances. It was addressed to the British government to tell it the problems of the colony.[5] The Patriotes were supported by an overwhelming majority of Lower Canada's population of all origins. There were popular gatherings all around the colony to sign a petition that was sent to London to show that the document was popular.[5] In 1834, the Parti patriote swept the election by gaining more than three quarters of the popular vote.

When London received the resolutions, they asked Governor Lord Gosford to analyze it. At first, he was trying to attract the Patriotes away from Papineau and his influence. However, the same governor created a loyal militia made of volunteers to fight the Patriotes. In 1836, the government was able to vote some subsidies to the administration during the assembly because the assembly members from the City of Quebec decided to go against Papineau. The period of calm did not last long because a month later, Papineau found Gosford's secret instructions, which said that the British never planned on accepting the resolutions.[5]

However, the reformers in Lower Canada were divided over several issues. A moderate reformer, John Neilson, had quit the party in 1830 and joined the Constitutional Association four years later. Papineau's anticlerical position alienated reformers in the Catholic Church, and his support for secular, rather than religious, schools resulted in opposition by the powerful Bishop, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, who called on all Catholics to reject the reform movement and to support the authorities, forcing many to choose between their religion and their political convictions.

In 1837, the Russell resolutions rejected all of the Patriotes' resolutions and gave the right to the governor to take subsidies without voting in the assembly. It also said that the legislative council would continue to be chosen by the Crown. The Russell Resolutions were adopted in Westminster by a huge majority.[5]

Organizing for armed conflict

Leaders of the Patriote movement approved the formation of the paramilitary Société des Fils de la Liberté during the Assembly of the Six Counties, in October 1837.

Papineau continued to push for reform. He petitioned the British government, but in March 1837 the administration of Lord Melbourne rejected all of Papineau's requests. After the Russel Resolutions were announced, the Patriotes used their newspapers to organize popular gatherings, with the purpose of informing people about their positions. For example, they encouraged people to boycott British produce and illegally import goods from the United States. The gatherings took place all around Lower Canada, and thousands participated. Papineau attended most gatherings in the summer of 1837, to ensure that people would pressure the government only by political measures, such as the boycott of British produce.

Governor Gosford tried to forbid those gatherings but they were attended even by those loyal to him. At the end of the summer, many of Gosford's local representatives quit, in a show of support for the Patriotes. Gosford hired loyal people and tried to gain the Patriotes' trust by appointing seven French-Canadian members to the Legislative Assembly. In September and October 1837, a group of more radical Patriotes tried to intimidate the colonial government by going out into the street and rioting near the homes of certain loyalists. At the end of October, the largest of the Patriotes' gatherings took place in Saint-Charles, led by Wolfred Nelson. It lasted for two days and formed La Confédération des Six-Comtés.[5]

Papineau organized protests and assemblies and eventually approved formation of the paramilitary Société des Fils de la Liberté during the assemblée des six-comtés. In his last speech before the armed conflict, Papineau said that it is not the time to fight yet. He thought that there were still political actions that could be taken to avoid fighting. Wolfred Nelson made a speech immediately afterwards, saying that he disagreed with Papineau and thought that it was time to fight. After the Assemblée des Six-Comtés, the Patriotes were divided between supporters of Papineau and supporters of Nelson. On the other side, the supporters of the Russell Resolutions called a Constitutional Association led by Peter McGill and John Molson, and held gatherings around the province calling for government troops to return order to the colony.[5]

Government forces engage Patriote rebels during the rebellion.

On November 6, 1837, Les Fils de la Liberté were holding a meeting in Montréal, when the Doric Club began fighting with them. That caused violence and vandalism everywhere in the city of Montreal. Arrest warrants were then issued for those responsible for the fight, which they considered to be the leaders of the Assemblée des Six-Comtés.[5] The first armed conflict occurred in 1837 when the 26 members of the Patriotes who had been charged with illegal activities chose to resist their arrest by the authorities under the direction of John Colborne. Arrest warrants against Papineau and other assembly members were issued. They left Montréal and hid in the countryside.[5] Papineau escaped to the United States, and other rebels organized in the countryside.

On November 16, Constable Malo was sent to arrest three Patriotes. He transported them from Saint-Jean, accompanied by 15 people. The prisoners were liberated in Longueuil, where 150 Patriotes were waiting for them. The victory significantly improved the morale of the Patriotes, who knew that the event meant they could expect government troops would soon intervene. However, the Patriotes were not quite ready to fight regular soldiers.[3] Led by Wolfred Nelson, they defeated a government force at the Battle of Saint-Denis on November 23, 1837. He had 800 people ready to fight, half of them equipped with firearms. With confidence among the Patriote supporters wavering, Nelson threatened them to make sure that they would not leave. Papineau was not there during the fight, which surprised many people.[3]

Government troops soon beat back the rebels, defeating them at Saint-Charles on November 25 and at Saint-Eustache on December 14, burning a rebel outpost after their second victory. On December 5, the government declared martial law in Montreal. At the Battle of Saint-Charles, the Patriotes were defeated. General Brown was confident but was not a capable commander. There was no discipline in the camp. Different people offered support to Brown by offering him men, but he turned down all the offers. Once the battle started, Brown escaped the fight. After the Battle of Saint-Charles, Nelson tried to keep Saint-Denis safe, but there was nothing to do since knew there was no hope. The main leaders, including Papineau, O'Callaghan, and Nelson, left for the United States.[3] The last battle of the rebellions was the Battle of Saint-Eustache. When the battle came, on December 14, 1837, there were between 500 and 600 people ready to fight. The government forces were expecting strong resistance and so had brought 2,000 men. Most Patriote leaders were killed or fled during the battle. The Battle of Saint-Eustache was a significant defeat. The defeat of the rebellions can be explained by the fact that the Patriotes were not quite ready to fight.[3]

When news of the arrest of the Patriote leaders reached Upper Canada, William Lyon Mackenzie launched an armed rebellion in December 1837. After the insurrection, the government prepared for another armed conflict. It reorganized the whole organization, mostly in the urban areas like Montréal and Quebec. At the time, the government had 5,000 regular troops stationed in Lower Canada, and knew that the leaders of the Patriote movement were hiding in the United States. As such, the government maintained contact with spies in the United States, and the American government kept their British counterparts informed of rebel activity.[6] In February 1838, rebel leaders who had escaped across the border into the United States raided Lower Canada. During the summer of 1838, the Patriotes in the United States formed a secret society, called Frères chasseurs, intending to invade Lower Canada from the United States. The secret group also had members in Lower Canada itself, who would assist in the invasion. The goal was an independent state of Lower Canada.[6]

Two major armed conflicts occurred when groups of Lower Canadian Patriotes, led by Robert Nelson, crossed the Canada–US border in an attempt to invade Lower Canada and Upper Canada, overthrow the colonial government, and establish two independent republics. A second revolt began with the Battle of Beauharnois in November 1838, which was also suppressed by the British. The Frères Chasseurs had camps around Lower Canada, in which they were arming themselves. Their main camp was in Napierville. They had many participants but not enough weapons. They were planning on taking control of the road between the United States and Napierville, but were intercepted by volunteers. The Frères Chasseurs were defeated in 30 minutes.[6] Shortly afterward, Robert Nelson and other members came from Napierville to take control of the same area. However, volunteers were already waiting and had help from the Loyal Rangers of Clarenceville. This time, the battle lasted longer, but the Frères Chasseurs were ultimately defeated. Then, three secondary camps were scattered very easily by armed volunteers.

After those camps were destroyed, most Patriotes left the camps when they heard government forces approaching, and the latter were ultimately barely involved in the second uprising of the Patriotes.[6] The British government subsequently dispatched Lord Durham to investigate the cause of the rebellion. His report in 1839 recommended for the Canadas to be united into one colony (the Province of Canada) to assimilate the French-speaking Canadiens into English Canadian culture. For Durham, the fact that there was two groups (English and French) created a hostile environment. He thought that the way to solve to problems in Lower Canada was to assimilate the French-Canadians to eliminate the inferiority feeling of the French-Canadians and end all problems in that colony.[5] He also recommended accepting the rebels' grievances by granting responsible government to the new colony.


The green, white, and red tricolour used by the Parti patriote between 1832 and 1838.

After the first insurrection, the Pied-du-Courant Prison in Montreal was overfull. In July, Durham emptied it. When hostilities resumed in 1838, the prison filled with even more prisoners. Martial law was declared. This allowed the government to imprison people without reason. Ninety-nine prisoners from the second rebellion were sentenced to death. Twelve were hanged; the last hanging is dramatized in the 2001 film February 15, 1839. The government feared that the populace would sympathize with the prisoners. So, 141 prisoners from Lower and Upper Canada were instead sent to work camps in Australia. In 1844, they were allowed to return. Although they had to pay for their fare home, most had returned by 1845.[5]

After the military defeat of the Patriotes, Lower Canada was merged with Upper Canada under the Act of Union. The Canadiens had a narrow majority in the new political entity, but with continued emigration of English-speakers to Canada West, that dominance was short lived. Eight years after the Union, an elected responsible government was set up in the united Province of Canada. The instability of this new regime (see Joint Premiers of the Province of Canada) eventually led to the formation of the Great Coalition. 1867 brought another major constitutional change and the formation of the Canadian Confederation.

The Lower Canada Rebellion, along with the Upper Canadian Rebellion, is often seen as an example of what might have occurred in the United States if the American Revolutionary War had failed. In Quebec, the rebellion, as well as the parliamentary and popular struggle, is now commemorated as the Journée nationale des Patriotes (National Patriots' Day) on the Canadian statutory holiday, Victoria Day. Since the late 20th century, the day has become a symbol for the Quebec independence movement and, to a lesser extent, a symbol of Canada's small republican movement.


  • Thomas Storrow Brown (1803–1888)
  • Jean-Olivier Chénier (1806–1837)
  • François-Marie-Thomas Chevalier de Lorimier (1803–1839)
  • Amury Girod (1800–1837)
  • James Ard (1802–1840)
  • Edmund Bailey O'Callaghan (1797–1880)
  • Robert Nelson (1794–1873)
  • Wolfred Nelson (1791–1863)
  • Louis-Joseph Papineau (1786–1871)

See also


  1. Andrew Bonthius | The Patriot War of 1837–1838: Locofocoism With a Gun? | Labour/Le Travail, 52 | The History Cooperative Archived 2008-10-11 at the Wayback Machine
  2. Morgan, Jan Henry, Welcome Niall O'Donnell, Immigrant (A Chronicle of Lower Canada: Book One), Chantecler Press, Ottawa, 1992
  3. Ouellet, Fernand. (1980). Lower Canada, 1791-1840 : social change and nationalism. Claxton, Patricia. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. ISBN 0-7710-6921-9. OCLC 6498327.
  4. Paquet, Gilles. (1988). Lower Canada at the turn of the nineteenth century : restructuring and modernization. Wallot, Jean-Pierre, 1935-. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association. ISBN 0-88798-135-6. OCLC 19768507.
  5. Laporte, Gilles, 1961- (2015). Brève histoire des patriotes. Québec (Québec). ISBN 978-2-89448-817-1. OCLC 909317079.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  6. Bernard, Jean-Paul (1996). The Rebellions of 1837 and 1838 in Lower Canada. Ottawa: Canadian Historical Association. ISBN 0-88798-161-5. OCLC 36030701.

Further reading

  • Boissery, Beverly. (1995). A Deep Sense of Wrong: The Treason Trials, and Transportation to New South Wales of Lower Canadian Rebels after the 1838 Rebellion, Toronto: Dundurn Press, 367 p. (ISBN 1550022423)
  • Brown, Richard. Rebellion in Canada, 1837–1885: Autocracy, Rebellion and Liberty (Volume 1) (2012) excerpt volume 1; Rebellion in Canada, 1837–1885, Volume 2: The Irish, the Fenians and the Metis (2012) excerpt for volume 2
  • Buckner, Philip Alfred. (1985). The Transition to Responsible Government: British Policy in British North America, 1815–1850, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 358 p.
  • Burroughs, Peter. (1972). The Canadian Crisis and the British Colonial Policy, 1828–1849, Toronto: MacMillan, 118 p.
  • Decelles, Alfred Duclos. (1916). The "Patriotes" of '37: A Chronicle of the Lower Canadian Rebellion, Toronto: Glasgow, Brook & Co., 140 p. [translated by Stewart Wallace]
  • Ducharme, Michel. "Closing the Last Chapter of the Atlantic Revolution: The 1837–38 Rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada," Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 116 (2):413–430. 2006
  • Dunning, Tom. "The Canadian Rebellions of 1837 and 1838 as a Borderland War: A Retrospective," Ontario History (2009) 101#2 pp 129–141.
  • Greer, Allan (1993). The Patriots and the People: The Rebellion of 1837 in Rural Lower Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 385 p. (ISBN 0802069304) (preview)
  • Senior, Elionor Kyte. (1985). Redcoats and Patriotes: The Rebellions in Lower Canada, 1837–38, Ontario: Canada's Wings, Inc., 218 p. (ISBN 0920002285)
  • Mann, Michael (1986). A Particular Duty: The Canadian Rebellions 1837–1839, Salisbury (Wiltshire): Michael Russel Publishing, 211 p.
  • Tiffany, Orrin Edward]. (1980). The Relations of the United States to the Canadian Rebellion of 1837–1838, Toronto: Coles Pub., 147 p.
  • Ryerson, Stanley Bréhaut (1968). Unequal Union: Confederation and the Roots of Conflict in the Canadas, 1815–1873, Toronto : Progress Books, 477 p.
  • Manning, Helen Taft (1962). The Revolt of French Canada, 1800–1835. A Chapter in the History of the British Commonwealth, Toronto: Macmillan Company of Canada, 426 p.
  • Kinchen, Oscar Arvle (1956). The Rise and Fall of the Patriot Hunters, Toronto: Burns and Maceachern, 150 p.
  • Morison, John Lyle (1919). British Supremacy and Canadian Self-Government, 1839–1854, Toronto: S. B.Gundy, 369 p.
  • Schull, Joseph (1971). Rebellion: the Rising in French Canada 1837, Toronto: Macmillan, 226 p.

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