Saturday, 9 October 2010

Remembering, forgetting and reconstructing the Rebellions

When one talks of a collective trauma more often than not one is thinking about extreme events marked by violence and by the high number of victims.[1] The Holocaust, the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, events in Darfur and the battle of Verdun fall into this category. However, despite their clearly lesser scale, the rebellions in 1837 and 1838 can also be seen as a collective trauma in the history of Quebec. Yet, the defeat of the Patriotes does not appear to be an event of terrifying proportions. The disorders were confined to the Montreal district. Two hundred combatants were killed, a dozen villages torched, several hundred arrested, twelve executed and sixty or so transported to Australia. Things returned to normal quickly after the rebellions; the exiles returned to Lower Canada and, in some cases, to political life. The rebellions were not on the same scale as many contemporary events. The war for Greek Independence between 1821 and 1829 cost 120,000 lives. During the Paris uprising of 1848, several thousand rebels were killed, 1,500 were shot without trial and some 11,000 thrown into prison or deported. The Napoleonic Wars that took place several decades before the rebellions saw the deaths of between 500,000 and 700,000 people. But collective trauma is not simply a matter of scale.

Remembering and forgetting

Three films about the rebellions give a distinctly negative impression of a terrible tragedy. Nothing in the films moderates the miserable fate of Patriote characters or the general impression of a crushing and total defeat. Quand je serai parti, vous vivrez encore, a film by Michel Brault highlighted a young, isolated Patriote who hopelessly and helplessly tries to save his own skin after the failure of the rebellion. The nationalist director Pierre Falardeau made his film 15 février 1839 about the imprisoned Patriotes awaiting their execution that climaxes with the tearful separation of De Lorimier and his wife. In Quelques arpents de Neige, the Patriotes are poor habitants who live ‘a dog’s life’ and have nothing to lose. The hero of the film no longer believes in the political struggle and does not want to fight any more. Nevertheless, he is pursued by the British and after the woman he loves dies, he commits suicide trapped between British and American soldiers. La complainte des hivers rouges, a drama devoted to the rebellions, is one long list of complaints from French Canadians during and after the rebellions. In all these cases, the British appeared as one-dimensional figures generally malicious, inhuman and cruel persecutors. These representations of the rebellions provide a ‘victim’ discourse in which the British are characterised as bastards and French Canadians as gallant but heroic losers.

By contrast, historians often minimise the importance of the rebellions in the history of Quebec. It was a contingent event that fitted no notion of historical necessity and was consequently of little significance. It could have been avoided with a little more goodwill on both sides and what was being demanded by Patriotes could have been achieved by reform. The fact that historians talk of ‘rebellions’ rather than ‘revolution’ have led some to suggest a desire to limit the significance of the event. ‘Every rebellion,’ Elinor Kyte Senior argued ‘is a story of failure, for if the insurgents are victorious, it is no longer rebellion but revolution’.[2] Yet for Lionel Groulx, even the word ‘rebellion’ was too strong as he could never admit that the virtuous French Canadians could give themselves over to revolutionary impiety. The Patriotes may have been defenders of the nation but were mistaken in their anticlericalism and calls for democracy. For Groulx, in 1837 there was no rebellion but resistance to a police operation that began with the failed attempt to arrest the Patriote leaders in Montreal. The outrageous exaggeration of the dramatic character of the rebellions as portrayed in film combined with a sense of the remoteness of the rebellions demonstrate the difficulty of constructing a balanced representation of these events. [3]

For a long time, the rebellions appeared either as a taboo subject or as a case for special pleading.[4] In a history textbook used for several decades with young children, Guy Laviolette presented the history of Canada using twenty themes but although discussion of the first half of the nineteenth century included the battle of Chateauguay in 1812 and the restoration of parliamentary and responsible government by Lafontaine in 1848, there was no mention of the rebellions.[5] Criticism was made of this book in the following terms

Pour survivre et prendre la place qui nous revient au Canada, il va falloir d’abord que nos jeunes connaissent objectivement l’histoire des deux Canadas et celle du reste du monde. Une meilleure connaissance de leur pénible évolution historique depuis la conquête et une plus grande maturité intellectuelle devraient leur permettre, en cette deuxième moitié du vingtième siècle de faire leur option avec une plus grande lucidité.[6]

The subject’s appearance in schools coincided with puberty and even books for adults came with a ‘health warning’: we are now examining a subject that is both delicate and difficult! Laurent-Olivier David saw the rebellion as a ‘glorious war’ led by ‘most honourable men’ but such musings suggested that he encouraged the rejection of authority and in 1892, curé Louis-Eugène Duguay complained that his Les Patriotes de 1837-1838, a seditious book, was being given as a prize in the schools in his diocese. Clearly, the rebellions were a subject for adults. Children needed to be protected from the issue largely, it can be argued because of the criticism of the Church by the Patriotes and because, until after 1945, conservative, nationalist Catholicism dominated the historiography. In many countries there are historical subjects that are difficult or even painful for their populations but rarely are historical subjects reserved for adults. In Quebec, however, the issue of the rebellions is not a case of collective guilt that a society refuses to recognise or maintaining ignorance in the interests of a particular, generally governing class.

Today, the control of the Church has been lessened, conservatism no longer dominant Quebecoise society and people no longer defend the Pauline doctrine that resistance to established authorities is unacceptable and unchristian. Since 2002, in May, the Journée des Patriotes has been celebrated. The Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste and other organisations in Quebec had for a long time wanted a day in honour of the Patriotes of 1837-1838. Thus, on 27 November 2001, Bernard Landry, then Prime Minister of Quebec proposed a motion to the National Assembly for the establishment of the Journée nationale des Patriotes. He began his speech by making it clear that he regarded the rebellions as important in three respects

…in recognising our nation, for her political liberty and for the establishment of democratic government.

He continued stating that:

Our collective memory will never forget the tragic and bloody end of this episode...or the profound significance of the fighting on the lives of men and also women…The battle was for responsible government.

Landry then drew brief comparisons with the Upper Canadian rebellion as ‘similar to that of the Patriotes’ and finally placed the rebellion in the context of:

…the movement for national emancipation that affected Europe and South America at the same time...from 1804 to 1830, Serbia, Greece, after years...of oppression, Belgium, Brazil and Bolivia...[7]

Landry’s exposition reflected the ways in which the rebellions were perceived by the establishment in Quebec. They were about achieving responsible government, something he appears to equate with contemporary movements for national emancipation. In doing so he appears to confuse the rebellions as a means of political change and the rebellions as an expression of revolutionary principles. Although responsible government was achieved within a decade of the rebellions, whether it was a direct consequence of them or something that would have occurred anyway is debatable. National emancipation is something that has yet to be achieved: Quebec may have a form of home rule but it does not have independence.

In principle, official recognition of the place of Patriotes in the history of Quebec ended the long-term refusal to accept the historical importance of the rebellions. However, it took 164 years before this occurred including sixteen years when the Parti Québécois, the spiritual descendent of the Parti Patriote in that both sought the political sovereignty of the Quebecois people, was in power. Even then, it was unwilling to create a new public holiday by recognising the Patriote festival that occurs on 25 November, the anniversary of the battle of Saint-Denis. The Journée des Patriotes took the place of the fête de Dollard that itself had replaced the fête de la Reine Victoria. It was a case of renaming a public holiday that had already been named twice. For many, the establishment of the Journée des Patriotes was a case of too little, too late and it is not surprising that there was a significant degree of outrage at the ingratitude of government for the sacrifice of those who had been prepared to give their lives for their country.

It is not the first time that Patriote commemoration has been approached in this way. In 1895, the first monument to Jean-Olivier Chénier, the heroic leader at Saint-Eustache in 1837, was unveiled. The debate over Patriote monuments, however, had begun forty years earlier. In 1853, prompted perhaps by the success of the Rebellion Losses Act four years earlier, there were demands for a monument for the Patriotes in Montreal. E.-R. Fabre, the president of the Institut-Canadien took up the challenge organising a committee that proposed a threefold commemoration: a monument in Montreal to commemorate the 12 Patriotes executed in 1838 and 1839; a second at St-Denis in memory of his brother-in-law, C.-O Perrault and his companions who were killed in the battle, and finally a monument to Chénier and the Patriotes of Saint-Eustache. The committee called for donations to fund the monuments from members of the Institut and others across the province. Even so the amount collected was insufficient and only the monument to the executed Patriotes was built in Montreal’s cemetery and unveiled in 1858. The Saint-Jean Baptiste Association initially subscribed $100 to the fund but this decision was overturned by eight conservative members and nine liberals left the Association in protest. This explains why only a thousand people were present when the monument was installed in contrast to the over 10,000 who attended the ceremonies when an identical obelisk was unveiled in the memory of Duvernay three years earlier. His obelisk, erected by conservative members of the Association, makes no mention of Duvernay’s role as a Patriote and effectively severed him from the rebellions. In many respects, these two monuments encapsulated the tensions between liberals and conservatives and help to explain why the rebellions remained such a contested issue within French Canadian politics. Some French Canadians collected subscriptions for memorials while others opposed the commemoration of figures who would remind onlookers of divisive struggles in the past.

From the 1850s through to the 1880s, ultramontane nationalism dominated French Canada and after Confederation liberal nationalism was increasingly marginalised. Nevertheless, liberal nationalism did not die out and its electoral support hovered around 40% during the 1870s and 1880s. Though there were significant differences between the two approaches to French Canadian nationalism, the two groups did cooperate during the 1880s over proposals for a national theatre in Montreal that would act as a meeting place for nationalists whatever their political hue. Originally the Monument national was planned to back on to the Champ de Mars, where a balcony would allow speakers to address crowds at the traditional site for political rallies. Inadequate funding led to be project being abandoned in 1884 but five years later it was revived by L.-O. David and was successfully opened in 1893, albeit on a different site. The early 1890s also saw increasing demands for a commemoration of Chénier led by Dr David Marcil, a legislative councillor and former mayor of Saint-Eustache. In 1891, he exhumed Chénier’s remains from their location in the Saint-Eustache cemetery reserved for babies who died unbaptised and sought to have them interred at the Patriote monument in Montreal. This was opposed by Édouard-Charles Fabre, bishop of Montreal who said that since Chénier had ignored the commands of Lartigue he could not be buried in consecrated ground. [8] The Club Chénier, founded by liberal supporters of Marcil, established a fund to carry out the ambitions of the Institut Canadien of 1853 to build him his monument.

This proved far from easy. While there was sympathy from Montreal’s liberal middle-class, church opposition to the veneration of the Patriotes remained a serious obstacle. La Minerve, normally supportive of the Patriote position, was highly critical of what it saw as a partisan effort for revenge against the clergy. As a result, Marcil’s scheme proved less than popular. Contributions came almost exclusively from Montreal’s middle-class, the same group that made up most of its opponents. The Club Chénier itself abandoned the highly regarded plans for the monument by Philippe Hébert, a renowned sculptor in favour of a somewhat banal monument designed by Alfinso Pelzer, an obscure American artist. The understated unveiling in 1895 showed the extent to which the rebellions remained divisive. Marcil spoke at the Monument national later that evening and made links between 1837 and the more recent Northwest rebellion of 1885 and other speakers noted similarities between Chénier and other ‘freedom fighters’ around the world. However, the speeches of the Toronto MP J. D. Edgar and the criminal lawyer Henri St Pierre expressed a more moderate stance noting that Chénier represented the idea of ‘Canada first’ and that Canadians were one people. The confused discourse of the speeches was exacerbated by the audience cheering the memory of both the Patriotes and the queen at the end of the service

In the first twenty years of the twentieth century, this position was strengthened by the threat to British-French equality that was finally shattered by the conscription crisis during the First World War. As Bourassa’s vision of expansive bicultural nationalism evaporated, it was replaced by the ideas of Lionel Groulx, the first professor of Canadian history at the University of Montreal. [9] For Groulx, nationalism was grounded in his belief that God had assigned the French Canadians a specific national task and he fused Roman Catholicism with the ethnic core of the nation so completely that for several decades, the two were inseparable. This was a nationalism reunited by faith. The Dollard monument unveiled in 1919 was representative of his approach to nationalism but it was also extended to the Patriotes who were re-Catholicised. The Patriotes were no longer guilty of anti-clerical liberalism but seen as heroes of Catholic nationalism. Groulx effectively rewrote the history of the rebellions with a Catholic slant and in the 1926 Patriote monument exonerated their sins. He argued, first, that Lartigue had not excommunicated the Patriotes; secondly, that the parish priests had sided with the Patriotes, and lastly Lartigue was sympathetic to the Patriote position. Groulx’s exoneration ignored the fact that the 1926 monument commemorated those executed in 1839 for rebelling twice and trying to establish a republican Lower Canada where there would have been separation between Church and State. His approach to the rebellions was selective and it was this that enabled him to rehabilitate the Patriotes. After ninety years, the Patriotes had become martyrs of French Canadian liberty and were now appropriate subjects for a patriotic monument. The earlier monuments of 1858 and 1895 were sidelined largely because they were the product of a divided French Canadian nationalism: the Chénier monument celebrated one small episode and the Institut Canadien offering was tucked away in a cemetery. The 1926 Patriote monument sanitised the memory of the movement by establishing a national and public memorial reflecting Groulx’s vision of a united and Catholicism nationalism. In 1895, hundreds attended the unveiling of the Chénier monument; in 1926 an estimate 250,000 people were present when the monument to Papineau, De Lorimier and Wolfred Nelson was inaugurated. This merging of competing nationalisms was the product of politics reflected in public history and public memory.

Commemoration was not confined to Montreal and in the major locations of rebellion in 1837 and 1838, public memories are reinforced through plaques, streets and other locations named after prominent Patriote leaders, the preservation of important contemporary buildings and monuments. [10] At St-Charles, for example, the maison Chicou-Duvert, the location for the assembly of the Six-Comtés on 23 October 1837 is preserved. There is also a plaque opposite the house erected by the Commission des Monument Historiques du Québec celebrating the assembly with an inscription in English and French that includes ‘the assembly…that set forth the principles of responsible government’. In the Parc des Patriotes, a Patriot Monument was built by the Comité de L’Action Patriotique in 1937 listing those killed in the battle on 25 November 1837. In 1982, the Comité des Patriotes erected a plaque to commemorate the Column of Liberty of 23 October and five years later the Commission municipale put a plaque on the wall of the local church listing the 24 Patriotes buried in its cemetery. Commemoration of the rebellion extends to NSW where 58 French Canadians were transported. Place names like Canada Bay and Exile Bay and a monument at Cabarita Park in Concord, Sydney, unveiled in May 1970, by Pierre Trudeau, attest to their presence in Australia.

Parallel to the growth in commemoration there has been a trend to minimise those things that arouse public interest in the rebellions. Both among historians and in some teaching programmes, there has been a tendency to minimise the spectacular, enthralling and romantic episodes in the rebellions in favour of those things that are somewhat duller. So forget the battles and concentrate on the Ninety-Two Resolutions as if this gives people a better understanding of what 1837 means to modern Quebecois society and its history. Is it surprising that the Quebecois are not interested in their history though they take their history more seriously than British Canada?[11] The problem, as exemplified by Gérard Bouchard, is that assertions about the rebellion and the Patriote project tend to be qualified by the need for historical if not emotional veracity.

Avant comme après l’insurrection de 1837-1838, ce sentiment [national], de plus en plus accuse, a trouvé des expressions intellectuelles et politiques très disparates, voire contra­dictoires, en deçà desquelles on peut toutefois déceler une sorte de dénominateur commun [prenant la forme d’]une volonté d’aménager sur le territoire québécois un espace francophone doté des institutions nécessaires à sa survie et dont [ces élites] seraient les titulaires légitimes.[12]

If one puts the contents of his ideas to one side and focus on their form we find that his is an abstract rationalisation of the situation that lacks concrete reference to character or event. This reflects much modern writings on Quebec by her historians. The focus is not on producing a coherent narrative of ‘our’ history in which the actions, behaviour and motivation of people is central, the traditional approach to history, but on abstractions such as ideologies, economic crises and social class and class consciousness. For Bouchard, it is the national ‘sentiment’ that is the key to understanding the rebellions and consequently it is morphed into a historical actor with a conscience and a will. Perhaps dealing with ideas is easier than dealing with people but the result is an editing out of the humanity of the rebellions by removing the people who played a role in the events. This dehumanising of the past removes the awkwardness and unpredictability of people and the absurdity of events by placing them beneath a veil of scientific rationality. Representations of the rebellions remain problematic within Quebecois historical thinking and the difficulty or impossibility of building an adequate representation of these events may be seen as a collective trauma.

Trauma in history

In theory, ‘trauma’ indicates a violent shock that occurs within the environment. In its first sense, a trauma is a physical wound, fracture etc. It is generally the case with physical trauma that the greater the shock, the greater the trauma. However, psychological shock is more complex and the relationship between the intensity of the event and its effect can be unequal. A person who falls from the tenth floor of a building will undoubtedly kill himself but people who experience traumatic events can be left without serious psychological after-effects. This is exemplified by Bruno Bettelheim, who experienced the horrors of the Nazi death camps and yet went on to have a long career as a psychoanalyst and prolific author. On the other hand, people can experience serious trauma without being able to identify the precise event that caused it. Even if the relationship between the violence of an event and its traumatic effects is variable, the impact of that event is never without some connection to the individual’s emotional psychology and repressed memory. Mental representation has two faces. It is a mental ‘reproduction’ of the world but it also has the function of psychological representation. Psychological elements and emotional conflicts project themselves within the representations of things that allow a degree of objectivisation. Representation combines memory and psychological energy that together provide the fuel through which mental representations become real for individuals.

Traumas are generally situated between two extremes depending on whether the violence of a situation (the traumatic event) or its psychological results are more important. Take the case of a meteorite that plunges through the atmosphere and demolishes my house causing me a violent nervous shock. It could have a profound psychological impact on me but psychological issues played no part in the genesis of my trauma. Its source was external. Trauma of this type has been compared to a tree that has lost in branches. If the tree is healthy and its roots have not been touched then there is no reason why the branches should not grow again and the tree survive. At the other extreme, there are traumas that result from predominantly internal psychological problems that become irrationally obsessive and often cause overwhelming torment. A well-known example of this was published in 1909 by Freud under the pseudonym of ‘Rat Man’. The patient presented with obsessional thoughts and behaviours that he felt compelled to carry out. The case received its name from a torture he had heard about from a military officer, where rats would eat their way into the anus of the victim. The patient then felt a compulsion to imagine that this fate was befalling two people dear to him, his fiancée and his father. The irrational and compulsive nature of this obsession is revealed by the fact that the man had the greatest regard for his fiancée and that his revered father had actually died several years earlier. Freud argued that these compulsive ideas and similar thoughts were produced by conflicts consisting of a combination of loving and aggressive impulses relating to the people concerned.[13] In this case, to continue the analogy, such is the depth of the trauma that its obsessive character reaches the tree’s roots and has the power to destroy it.

All traumas are situated between these two extremes and, as a result, it is the simultaneous connection between a real traumatic event and its individual impact that determines the level of psychological dysfunction. There is all the difference in the world between the traumatic effects produced by an ‘act of God’ such as a hurricane or earthquake and those produced by a human, intentional act because the existence of a ‘will’ behind a terrifying act impacts on its traumatic effect. In that sense an act of God is absurd while it is the intentionality of the human act that gives traumatic events significance and is a consequence of how they are represented. If an event already has significance then it will have effects that are as varied as the significance itself. In some cases, the intentionality behind a traumatic event helps the development of its representation by channelling its effects into a reaction. For example, the invasion of Iraq was a direct consequence of the traumatic events of 11 September 2001. At a strategic level, the invasion was questionable but in terms of collective psychology it effectively erased the state of terror into which the United States was plunged after the attacks. In other cases, intentionality can be presented in the form of an aggravating factor, a way of converting an event into something else; for example, by developing hatred and contempt for others. The traumatic effect depends not simply on the material event per se but on the ways in which that event is perceived by individuals and the ways in which it is integrated into individual and collective memory. Trauma corresponds to a situation where, for one reason or another, the representation of a terrible event is greater than our capacity to absorb it.

The trauma of the rebellions

The extent to which the rebellions of 1837-1838 constitute a trauma means looking at the symbolic nature of the event. For this reason, the case of the Rat Man is not without relevance since the unbearable death of the father is at the centre of what we have a tendency to call failure. However, what is remarkable in the representation of the rebellions is this sense of failure rather than one of victory. No-one has highlighted this better than Hubert Aquin in his text devoted to the rebellions.[14] According to Aquin, the really traumatic event in 1837 was the victory at Saint-Denis. It was a victory that the Patriotes did not expect and they remained completely paralysed by it because it involved them in an unexpected way in real combat where it has been necessary for them to overcome or die. As they believed that they would never win any conflict with the colonial authorities, it only remained for them to die and to sell their lives dearly to save their honour. Aquin identified this sense of defeatism with the individuals involved in the rebellions. In fact, the Patriotes did well to emerged victorious from the battle at Saint-Denis given that they had little going for them. Defeatism was not evident at Saint-Denis but is a characteristic of ways in which the historical representation of the event was subsequently constructed. This sense of fatalism appears to be a defence mechanism that seeks to reduce the effects of the rebellions by removing references to the unforeseen event at Saint-Denis. The Patriotes had to lose; it was written! The rebellions could not end differently. However, the actions of those who took part in the events of 1837 show a very different state of mind than the quiet demoralisation of Aquin. Take, for example, the scene when Georges-Étienne Cartier and his companions braved the frozen waters of the Richelieu under fire to bring ammunition that the rebels in Saint-Denis needed. Much more than the ultimate defeat of the rebellion, the victory at Saint-Denis has been pushed into the background. The current festival on 25 November shows that some people believe that the memory of the battle of Saint-Denis should be celebrated and that rather than allowing people to forget their history we should not just acknowledge those who died for their country but recognise their victory.

Just like the notion of victory, any real sense of courage is absent from representations of events in 1837 while examples of cowardice, escape and panic are ever-present themes. Curé Paquin, author of the Journal historique de la rébellion à Saint-Eustache, provides the tone when he described in extremely comic ways the rout of the combatants and the flight of the Patriote leaders.[15] After their expedition to Sainte-Rose was rebuffed by local habitants, the Patriotes fled as fast as they could.

Ils se pressèrent tellement que plusieurs se heurtèrent et se blessèrent même en sautant à la hâte et tous ensemble dans leurs voitures; ils ne ralentirent leur course que quand ils furent au milieu des leurs à St-Eustache, et même là ils croyaient encore avoir l’ennemi à leurs trousses.[16]

The flight of Amury Girod is the model for the anti-hero. When faced by British troops, Girod persuaded his men to occupy and defend the church while he fled claiming that he was seeking reinforcements. Instead of coming to the aid of the Patriotes of Saint-Eustache, who faced overwhelming odds, the men of Saint-Benoit thought only of Girod’s flight and wanted to hand him over to the British. Having shamefully misled various people and having stolen a horse to make his escape, Girod committed suicide when cornered by loyalists. The description of the flight of Étienne Chartier, the Patriote curé of Saint-Benoit is also comic.

M. Chartier, qui se trouvait alors au village, fut tellement pressé de se sauver dès qu’il eut entendu quelques coups de canon, qu’il n’eut pas le temps de prendre sa voiture qui était chez le Dr. Chénier, et qu’il se sauva à pied. À quelque distance du village il se jeta dans une traîne qui passait avec deux femmes et cinq ou six enfants en bas âge; mais bientôt, trouvant que cette traîne n’allait pas assez vite, il se remit à courir de plus belle et courut ainsi pendant une demi-heure au moins avec une foule de fuyards, ne le cédant à personne en agilité.[17]

Here the comic effect comes from the fact that the leaders were in the vanguard of the panic that afflicted, men, women and children and combatant and non-combatants in a form of grand chaotic movement. Rather than standing their ground under fire from British troops and loyalists, the Patriote leaders led the way in attempting to escape.

These scenes of panic are numerous in the historiography of the rebellions. According to Paquin, Féréol Peltier, Hubert and the brothers of de Lorimier escaped from Saint-Eustache before the battle.[18] At Saint-Charles, it was Thomas Storrow Brown who fled. In the rebellion in November 1838, it was the flight of Côté after the skirmish at Lacolle and Robert Nelson from the battle at Odelltown of which people remarked. It was, however, the escape of Papineau that has taken on such symbolic significance if only because of its visibility. It has become a familiar event, something that the ordinary Quebecois know from the history of the rebellions or from his biography. A matter of controversy at the time and since, it has even become the subject of several songs!

In 1862, Félix Poutré, traitor and police informer published a fraudulent historical account entitled Échappé de la potence: souvenirs d’un prisonnier d’État canadien en 1838 in which he pretended that he had been one of the main organisers of the rebellion in 1838. [19] For many years, the account of Félix Poutré was the best-selling book on Canadian history. His exploits were turned into drama by Louis Fréchette called Félix Poutré written in 1892 that was for a long time the most performed play in the Canadian theatre. Analysis of the text revealed the circumstances of the fraud but for the Canadian public it was his role as a forger rather than as a traitor that was recognised. By contrast, Jean-Olivier Chénier, one of the true heroes of the rebellion in 1837 was ignored by the general public while Poutré’s popularity was massive.[20] Even when individuals pointed to the significance of Chénier and his history, there was a lack of emphasis on his courage and heroism. It is striking to compare the paucity of discussion of Chénier with the creative richness of the discourse on Poutré. This reflected the focus of collective representation of the rebellions on a sense of shame to the detriment of a sense of courage and pride.

A symbolic perspective

Behind the denial of Patriote victory, complicity in pessimism and the cult of the traitor lays fear of the Patriote revolutionary agenda. A number of works, including those by Gérard Mendel, argue that power and authority were grounded in relationships with parental figures.[21] The revolution can be seen as the symbolic death of these figures. However, the historiography of the rebellions beginning with Papineau’s Histoire de l’insurrection du Canada published in 1839 is riven by a refusal to accept blame for the revolutionary agenda. The replacement of the battle of Saint-Denis by the peaceful Patriote assemblies between May and October 1837 show that the denial of the revolutionary heritage of 1837 still remains. What defines a revolutionary moment is its aim to reverse the established structures through extra-legal means. It is certainly possible that the independence of Lower Canada could have been achieved through legal, non-revolutionary means but this would have been difficult to realise because it was unable to escape from the contradictions of the symbolic system. For a movement that aims at self-determination for the people, it is necessary to act outside the remit of existing legal systems and this is not only a question of circumstances, it is a matter of structures. The sovereignty of the people or the nation is founded on legal rights but a national revolution that seeks to establish that self-determination cannot be restricted by those rights. Illegality is inherent in revolution and in the seizure of sovereignty. Self-determination cannot simply be achieved through reforms. Sovereignty is not demanded, it is taken. It is because political change symbolically rests on the death of the figure of parental authority that revolution is violent. Revolutionary violence is not necessary because it is the only way of changing things, it is necessary because it is the only way of representing and resolving the contradictions in the competing symbolic systems of alienation and freedom.

The Patriotes in 1837 and 1838 were involved in a revolutionary movement and the military confrontations provide evidence of conflict between different versions of legitimacy. In the eyes of the colonial government, taking up arms was an act of high treason. However, for citizens who no longer recognised the legitimacy of government, direct action was a duty. The transformation of the crimes of lèse-majesté and high treason into heroic acts was the essence of the conflict over legitimacy that was at the heart of the revolution and calls for national independence. The problem of recognising the character of Patriote heroes such as Chénier and the unwillingness to recognise the significance of the victory at Saint-Denis is that to do so means accepting the existence of a revolutionary movement for change at work in 1837 and 1838.

This screening of the past reflects the current official ideology that promotes the sovereignty of Quebec through democratic steps and without political violence or recourse to illegality. This explains why the term ‘independence’ has been replaced by ‘sovereignty’. Although there may be little semantic difference between the two terms, there are importance symbolic differences especially the connotation that independence implies a more confrontation approach to the Quebec question. This refusal to accept that conflict might be necessary has justifiable seen been as a weakness by opponents of the sovereignty project and they reinforced the point by emphasising the notion of ‘separation’. Those calling for sovereignty made little attempt to counter the separatist argument and this seem to confirm its power as a means of inspiring people to demand change and fear among those opposing it. It can be argued that the refusal of the sovereignty movement to recognise the importance of symbolic violence is a major reason for its failure. The critical question is whether it is possible to establish Quebec as a sovereign power without destroying Canada. In many respects, the referendums in 1980 and 1995 were a repeat of the failure of the rebellions in 1837 and 1838.

The irrational fear of political violence among the population that has a limited grasp of its history is a paradox that appears to defy logic. The traumatic character of the rebellions can be explained by the limited extent to which the revolutionary agenda has attached itself to popular representation of the past. The rebellions of 1837 and 1838 remain the only revolutionary event in the history of Quebec and of Canada though a strong case could be made for Louis Riel’s rebellion in the 1880s. There is an intense incongruity between established symbolic systems and actual experience of revolution and it is this, as much as anything else that explains the extent to which the revolutionary agenda has been ignored by history.

A dramatic perspective

Why, if the impact of the rebellions on individuals involved was not too great, has it had such a traumatic effect on the community at large? Take the famous scene of the escape of Papineau in Louis Fréchette’s drama Papineau: drame historique canadien en quatre actes et neuf tableaux first performed in 1880. Fréchette is sympathetic to Papineau and had written the play in his honour and used this controversial event to put Papineau in the most favourable light.[22] In the play, Wolfred Nelson ordered Papineau to take cover from the fighting thinking that Papineau was of more use alive than dead. Papineau refused to leave wishing to face death like the others. Then Nelson reproves him for his egotism

Vous ne pensez qu’à votre réputation, alors que vous devriez penser à votre devoir envers le pays!

Papineau has a reputation that he should be willing to sacrifice for the good of his country. At that moment, a woman and child make an oath to fight to the death highlighting the degrading nature of the gesture that Nelson required of Papineau. This is followed by a passionate speech by Papineau in which he compared what was expected of him with what was required of Christ.

Les femmes... les enfants... Je comprends ce que le Christ a pu souffrir au jardin des Oliviers!

Fréchette contrasted the irony of Garden of Olives where Christ began the process that led to his crucifixion with Papineau’s protest that he was being asked to survive. What then was his suffering compared to that of Christ? Certainly, there was no physical suffering but there was moral suffering and what Papineau must suffer because of his escape will be the loss of his reputation. Unlike the women and children who will fight to the death, he was going to live a long life, condemned, the butt of sarcasm and ridicule, something reinforced by his escape dressed as a woman. He will never again be a politician of the first rank and this was a torment for an individual who had known such glory. Fréchette showed us was a man who was being forced to give up his spiritual roots and who will suffer as a result of this.

The moral misery that exists in Fréchette’s Papineau is a survival strategy that can only poison the individual’s existence. In this case, it shows that we can not escape our collective membership; it is a part of ourselves. How can we be happy individually, while the community to which we belong is experiencing hardship? It can, however, be explained sociologically. A small middle-class developed that related more to the colonial state than its own origins. All individuals alienated from the community have the same internal exile, the same narcissistic suffering and even guilt.

At an end?

The failure of the rebellions was followed by the Durham Report. Durham judged French Canadian society harshly concluding that it was not viable and unable to establish a suitable national identity. It was ‘a people without history and without literature’. Durham’s judgement was not malicious; it is the opinion of a gardener who judges that a shrub that has been badly planted has no chance of thriving and that it would be better if it was cut down. However, the intention behind Durham’s words is all the more devastating since he was not entirely wrong: the fact is that French Canadians in 1837 had little to offer. Unlike other peoples who rose up against monarchies and empire, French Canadians were not numerous or rich and did not have a long history or remarkable cultural heritage. People without a state, they had neither a past nor a future. Conscious of their weakness, French Canadians had little regard for either England or France and only wished to preserve their language and their religious faith. Heinz Weinmann maintains that the rejection of England to whom French Canadians transferred their allegiance after being abandoned by France was far more traumatic than the political violence itself. [23]

Durham maintained that individual rights should be preserved and that the operation of a democratic political system would provide the means for their ‘natural’ demise and assimilation. Repression in 1837 and 1838 was of a limited nature and civic freedoms quickly restored because the revolutionaries of 1837-1838 never recovered from their defeat. This has generally been interpreted as evidence that the revolutionary spirit had never been a real option for French Canadians. Most imperial powers at the time wanted their colonial domination to be light and peaceful. It was always the actions of revolutionary movements that led them to be authoritarian and repressive. We cannot measure the traumatic effect of the Rebellions of 1837-1838 without taking into account its background. The rebels were subjected to repression because they represented the single attempted seizure of power by the French Canadian community and represented the beginnings of greater collective awareness and calls for greater political responsibility.

[1] This paper began life as a translation of Marc Collin ‘Les Rébellions de 1837-1838: un traumatisme collectif’, available on The paper was originally given on 23 May 2008 to Groupe d’Etudes Psychanalytiques Interdisciplinaires (GEPI) à l’université du Québec à Montréal. I have, however, made some additions to elucidate some of the issues raised and some deletions where I found translation difficult.

[2] Senior, Elinor Kyte, Redcoats & Patriotes: The Rebellions in Lower Canada 1837-38, (Canada’s Wings Inc), 1985, p. 1.

[3] See, Létourneau, Jocelyn, Passer à l'avenir: histoire, mémoire, identité dans le Québec d'aujourd'hui, (Boréal), 2000.

[4] On the historiography of the rebellions and the problems this generated, see blog above.

[5] Laviolette, Guy, Histoire du Canada, (Frères de l’Instruction chrétienne), 1951.


[7] Assemblée nationale, ‘Souligner l’importance de la lutte des Patriotes de 1837-1838’, Débats de l’Assemblée nationale, 27 November 2001.

[8] Marcil and later his son kept the bones in an urn. They were passed to Henry Birks, a goldsmith in 1924 who kept them in one of his vaults until 1954 when they were given to the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society. They were finally buried, with the agreement of the Church, in the cemetery at St-Eustache in July 1987.

[9] Groulx, Lionel, Mes Mémoires, 4 Vols. (Fides), 1970-1974, is a valuable autobiography while Giguère, Georges-Émile, Lionel Groulx, Biographie, (Bellarmin), 1978, and Boily, Frédéric, ‘Catholicisme et nationalisme chez Lionel Groulx’, Canadian Studies, Vol. 51 (2001), pp. 187-199, provide a more critical stance.

[10] The Patriote website has over forty pages devoted to monuments.

[11] [11] Osborne, Ken, ‘Teaching history in schools: a Canadian debate’, Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 35, (5), (2003), pp. 585-626; Jedwab, Jack, Influencing Quebec and Canada’s Futures and Pride in the Past, (Association for Canadian Studies), 2007.

[12] Bouchard, Gérard, ‘Une nation, deux cultures: Continuités et ruptures dans la pensée québécoise traditionnelle’, in Bouchard, Gérard, (dir.), La construction d’une culture: le Québec et l’Amérique française, (PUL), 1993, p. 5.

[13] Wertz, Frederick J., ‘Freud’s case of the Rat Man revisited: an existential-phenomenological and socio-historical analysis’, Journal of Phenomenological Psychology, Vol. 35, (4), (2003), pp. 47-78.

[14] Aquin, Hubert, ‘L’art de la défaite, considérations stylistiques’, Liberté, Vol. 7, nos 1 et 2, (1965), reprinted in Blocs erratiques, (Typo), 1998.

[15] Journal historique des événements arrivés à Saint-Eustache, pendant la rébellion du comté du lac des Deux-Montagnes depuis les soulèvements…, Montréal, John Jones, 1838, cit, Globensky, Maximilien, La Rébellion de 1837 à Saint-Eustache, 1883, extended edition, 1889, reprinted (Éditions Du Jour), 1974, pp. 41-116.

[16] Ibid, Journal historique des événements arrivés à Saint-Eustache, p. 55.

[17] Ibid, Journal historique des événements arrivés à Saint-Eustache, p. 61.

[18] Ibid, Journal historique des événements arrivés à Saint-Eustache, p. 62.

[19] Collin, Marc, Mensonges et vérités dans les Souvenirs de Félix Poutré, (Septentrion), 2003.

[20] Collin, Marc, Autour de Chénier, les Rébellions et la conscience historique canadienne et québécoise, thèse de doctorat, Université Laval, 2005, to be published as Le coeur de Chénier, (Éditions du Boréal), 2009.

[21] See especially, Mendel, Gérard, La révolte contre le père, (Payot), 1968 and Une histoire de l'autorité: Permanences et variations, (La Découverte), 2002 in which he developed his ideas on socio-psychoanalysis structured around power and authority. One of the principal merits of Mendel’s socio-psychoanalysis lies in the fact that it strives to understand how organisational reality influences individual psychic reality, including in its unconscious dimension. A collective practice, it aims to study how actors, in the framework of their daily professional activity, and organised into specific groups (homogeneous in terms of profession), reflect by themselves on the forces that impact their personality. The working hypothesis of socio-psychoanalysis is that the hold of organisations on individuals is such that the latter have very little power over their acts of work; whence the negative psychological effects with their harmful socio-economic consequences. See, Arnaud, Gilles, ‘Poweract and Organizational Work: Gérard Mendel’s Socio-psychoanalysis’, Organization Studies, Vol. 28, (3), (2007), pp. 409-428.

[22] Fréchette was the principal literary figure of French-speaking Canada, its unofficial poet laureate, the only nineteenth century French Canadian writer to be well known outside Canada. His La Voix d’un exilé , written in 1866 when he exiled himself to Chicago to protest at Confederation that he saw the end of French Canada, was used as propaganda by the Rouge party in Canada. One twentieth-century critic has called its ‘violence of...language’ unsurpassed in Canadian literature. According to what may be an apocryphal account, when Fréchette became the province’s establishment poet in 1880, he bought up all the copies of La Voix he could find and burned them. See, Blais, Jacques, ‘Louis Fréchette’, DCB, Vol. 13, pp. 55-56.

[23] Weinmann, Heinz, Du Canada au Québec, Généalogie d’une histoire, (Hexagone), 1987.

No comments: