Revolt in Canada

English law had been established there by proclamation in 1763, but by the wise Act of 1774 French civil law was restored, and free exercise of the Roman Catholic religion guaranteed. Probably all would have gone tranquilly with the Province had its French population been left to themselves. But they had restless neighbours in Upper Canada. Englishmen, and especially Scots and Ulstermen, had settled there in large numbers, busy, pushing men of business, traders, and farmers, developing their land with energy, overflowing, as their children multiplied, into the territory of their French fellow-subjects, and there forming a British party, impatient of the antique legal procedure, the foreign law of land tenure, and the sleepy, unbusinesslike ways of the Lower Province. Hence arose friction which soon became chronic. The Legislative Council, nominees of the Crown, naturally favoured the British section, thereby finding themselves at issue with the Representative Assembly. Discontent had been smouldering for many years, and at last matters came to a crisis. The Representative Assembly resolved to resist further encroachment. Headed by Louis Papineau, a militia officer and Member for Montreal, they drew up a protest and laid their grievances before the Governor, Lord Gosford.

They complained of arbitrary infringement of the Constitution and other matters, demanded that the Legislative Council should be made elective, and ended by refusing to vote supplies. Public meetings were held, and addressed in inflammatory language by Papineau, who dwelt on the example set by the United States in resisting tyranny. Lord Gosford met matters with a high hand. Warrants were issued for the arrest of certain representatives ; resistance to their execution resulted in violence, and the transition to rebellion was as speedy as probably it was involuntary. Proximus ardet - the flame spread to Upper Canada, of which the people had grievances of their own, though of a different kind from those of their French neighbours, and a rising took place under the leadership of one McKenzie, a revolutionary journalist. But the chief danger arose from the sympathetic action of certain American citizens, who, to the number of several hundreds, assembled under a person named Van Rensselaer, and took possession of Navy  Island in the Niagara River, forming part of Canadian territory. At the present day, with the dense population of the United States and rapid means of transit, such a position of affairs would undoubtedly prove extremely critical; happily the British authorities proved able to deal with it successfully. The rebels being ill-prepared for impromptu war, Lord Gosford put down the rising in Lower Canada, though not without considerable bloodshed. In Upper Canada, the Governor, Major Head, better known afterwards as Sir Francis Head, an amusing writer, sent every regular soldier at his command to the assistance of Lord Gosford, and, declaring he would rely on the loyal Canadians to suppress the rebellion, handed over 6,000 stand of arms to the Mayor of Toronto. The people responded gallantly, delighted by this mark of confidence ; ten or twelve thousand men assembled under arms, and a single encounter with McKenzie's force was enough to decide the fate of the revolt. Desultory skirmishing took place with bodies of American " sympathisers " at various points along the frontier before the affair could be said to be over, and there can be no doubt that, had the United States Government adopted a less friendly attitude, British rule in Canada might have stood in very great jeopardy.

The Imperial Parliament was summoned to meet on January 16, 1838, to consider the Canadian situation. A Bill was introduced suspending the Constitution of Lower Canada, and empowering the Queen to appoint a Governor and Special Council, who should assume for the time all the functions of the legislature in that Province. The Duke of Wellington, as leader of the Opposition in the Lords, and Sir Robert Peel in the Commons, supported the Government, and the only opposition was offered by the Radicals. Brougham attacked the Bill in a speech of which Melbourne complained as " a most laboured and extreme concentration of bitterness." In the other House the chief point of interest to readers of the debate at this day lies in a speech by Mr. W. E. Gladstone, the Tory Member for Newark, who taunted Mr. Joseph Hume and the Radicals with their failure to perform in session their boastful promises during the recess.

The Governor appointed under the Act was the Earl of Durham, a man of remarkable ability, who had embraced Radical principles with great ardour. This, however, did not prevent him interpreting his office as that of a practical dictator-he far exceeded the powers vested in him by the Act. In dealing with offenders he would not stoop to the only way of obtaining convictions - that of packing juries - and adopted the arbitrary course of ordering into exile those connected with the late rebellion, on pain of death if they returned.

Looking back to the existing state of things, it is impossible to question the real clemency and wisdom of the new Governor's ordinances ; nevertheless, they were at once attacked in the Imperial Parliament, and vigorously denounced as tyrannical and unconstitutional. Lord Durham had made many enemies in both Houses. Lord Lyndhurst and the Tories joined forces with Lord Brougham and the Radicals in pressing Ministers to disallow the ordinances of which they had already approved. Brougham perceived the opportunity of discomfiting the hated Melbourne, and he pressed it. The Ministry were not strong enough to resist. Lord Durham was recalled, and, though his recommendations were ultimately carried into effect by making Canada a self-governing colony, he never recovered the unmerited disgrace he had suffered. Proud, impetuous, and sensitive, he fell into ill-health, and died in 184o at the age of forty-eight. His end must ever be regarded as one of those misfortunes arising out of Party government, for his policy has been amply vindicated since, lying as it does at the foundation of the whole modern scheme of Colonial government.


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