The Rebellion in Rebellion & Confederation

Tuesday, January 24, 2017
A painting of the battle of Saint-Eustache, fought December 14, 1837. This image is featured as part of the 1867: Rebellion & Confederation exhibition (McCord Museum, M4777.6).

Our new travelling exhibition, 1867: Rebellion & Confederation, explores the 30 years of Canadian history that culminated in Canadian confederation. This blog series will share the stories and artifacts found inside our 1867 exhibition. In the process, I think you’ll see that Canada’s past is not only interesting, but also still very relevant to us in the present. For this blog I’ll be discussing the “rebellion” in 1867: Rebellion & Confederation.

Nowadays, we tend to think about Canada as a nation of peace, order and good government. Other countries have or are currently experiencing violent revolutions, but not us! The truth, however, is that Canada has had its fair share of rebels and revolutionaries – and in 1837 and 1838, some of them organized what would become a very bloody uprising. In the end, the rebels were not successful, but some of them went on to lead the push for democratic rights, and even helped to negotiate Confederation in 1867!

Why were Canadians rebelling back in 1837? To answer that question, we need to go back to the early 1800s, when Canada was known as British North America and was controlled by Great Britain. There were six colonies in this vast territory – Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Lower Canada and Upper Canada. Each colony had an elected assembly, but true power was actually in the hands of the British-appointed governors. Many people began to resent their lack of political rights, and some began to push for more democracy. Some were inspired by examples of democratic revolutions they had read about in other countries, such as the United States of America and France.

It is important to understand that in the 1800s, popular ideas about democracy were very different. For example, the six colonies had hundreds of Indigenous nations inside their borders, but Indigenous peoples were largely excluded from voting. Women were also excluded from voting – and few minorities were represented in legislatures.1 The rebels of 1837-1838 did desire a more democratic society – they wanted power to rest with the elected assemblies, instead of appointed governors. But they expected those assemblies to be full of white men and to be elected by white men. They weren’t interested in giving democratic rights to many other groups in society.2    

The governors opposed even this limited vision of a more democratic society and refused any reforms. In 1834 in Lower Canada (now Quebec), a pro-democracy political party called the Patriote Party submitted 92 resolutions demanding more rights to the British government, but the government rejected their demands. In Upper Canada, similar demands from reformers were also brushed aside.

A brown horn with copper-coloured metal on the blunt end and a small metal ring attached to each end.
A horn used to store gunpowder, used by Léon Quemeneur-Laflamme at the Battle of Saint-Denis. The horn is part of the 1867: Rebellion and Confederation exhibition (Canadian Museum of History, 2002.125.173).


By the summer of 1837, tensions had reached a breaking point. In Lower Canada, the Patriote party decided political action was not enough and began to create paramilitary organizations. When the government responded by ordering the arrest of Patriote leaders, violence broke out. The first battle took place on November 23, when a force led by rebel Wolfred Nelson defeated British troops at Saint-Denis. The poorly organized and inadequately armed rebels were not able to repeat their win, and in the battles that followed the British quickly gained the upper hand, winning victory after victory. By the end of December, most of the remaining rebels had fled to the United States.

A painting of the battle, with soldiers fighting in the foreground. In the background, several buildings are on fire.
A painting of the battle of Saint-Eustache, fought December 14, 1837. This image is featured as part of the 1867: Rebellion and Confederation exhibition (McCord Museum, M4777.6).


In Upper Canada (now Ontario), the rebels decided to attack Toronto while all the British soldiers were occupied fighting the Patriotes in Lower Canada. Unfortunately for them, the Governor heard of their plan and assembled 1500 volunteers to fight the much smaller force of ill-equipped rebels. Just as in Lower Canada, by the end of the year, most of the rebels had fled across the border to America.

The rebels in both Lower Canada and Upper Canada tried again in 1838, invading from the United States. The vast majority of Canadians did not join their cause, however, and by the end of 1838 the rebels had been soundly defeated. The cost to put down the rebellion had been high – martial law had been declared, and in Lower Canada, entire villages were burned to the ground. The rebellion destroyed lives, with nearly 1500 people arrested, 250 deported to Australia or Bermuda and 50 others hanged.

1867: Rebellion & Confederation has some fascinating artifacts associated with the rebellions. There are weapons that were used by both the rebels and the government forces, as well as portraits of rebels that were made in prison. Here you can see a portrait of Wolfred Nelson, who went from rebel to reformer, trying to achieve greater democratic rights through peaceful methods. He wasn’t alone, either – another young rebel who had fought at the battle of Saint-Denis, George Étienne Cartier, would go on to become a leading politician in Lower Canada and would go down in history as a father of Confederation – but that’s a story for another time.

A head-and shoulders profile drawing of Wolfred Nelson. He is wearing a coat with a large collar and has large sideburns..
Patriote leader Wolfred Nelson, drawn by fellow rebel Jean-Joseph Girouard, 1837-1838. Girouard’s numerous portraits of imprisoned Patriotes are now displayed as part of the 1867: Rebellion and Confederation exhibition (Library and archives Canada).

Not all the rebels were lucky enough to have another chance to fight for their rights, however. The box pictured here is one of several carved by prisoners in Upper Canada. One side of the box commemorates two Upper Canadians who were executed for their role in the rebellions - Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews.
A small wooden box. Inscribed on the side facing the camera are the words “In memory of Lount and Matthews, executed at Toronto 12th April 1838. Time will tell why.”
One of several small boxes engraved by prisoners held by the state after the 1837 and 1838 rebellions. Photo: Aaron Cohen/CMHR (Simcoe County Museum, 1996.10.1)


In the end, the rebellions were unsuccessful in achieving greater democratic rights for the residents of Upper and Lower Canada. That struggle would go on for many years and it would only be in the latter part of the twentieth century that all Canadians won the right to vote. Nonetheless, the rebellions marked one step on the journey to democratic rights. And it wasn’t the end of the violence and unrest that plagued that journey. In my next blog, we’ll talk about the struggle for responsible government and the riots, duels and arson that accompanied it.

Located in our Level 1 Gallery, 1867 was originally developed by the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec and was adapted by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Beginning with the rebellions of 1837-1838, it explores the struggle for liberty, democracy and rights that led to the proclamation of Confederation on July 1, 1867.


1 Ezekiel Hart, who was Jewish, was elected to the Assembly of Lower Canada (now Quebec) in 1807. It would be many more years, however, before either women or people from a visible minority were elected to office in what would become Canada. See the Dictionary of Canadian Biographyhttp://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hart_ezekiel_7E.html.

2 In fact, in 1834, many members of Lower Canada’s Patriote Party – who would later lead the rebellions – voted for an absolute ban on women’s right to vote. See Margaret Conrad and Alvin Finkel, History of the Canadian Peoples, Volume 1: Beginnings to 1867 (Toronto: Pearson Longman, 2006), p. 286.