Sunday, 19 December 2010

Introducing Loyalists and Patriotes

When I say Canadiens, to whom do I refer? The hyphenated Canadien-francais only appeared after the rebellion period. Helen Taft Manning argued that

The French-speaking inhabitants of the Lower St Lawrence Valley were the only part of the population who laid claim to the title of Canadian, and it was accorded to them freely by the English-speaking residents in the province.[1]

Traditionally the Patriotes and the rebellions have tended to be associated with a school of separatist historiography in which their rebellion is seen as the first symbolic step in a struggle to overthrow British imperialism and fulfil Quebec’s right to national self-determination. The rebellion’s failure is seen as the launch pad for British domination that is viewed by some as continuing to this day. More recent readings such as those by Alan Greer in his The patriots and the people, throw further nuances on such an interpretation of the rebellions. Greer sees the rebellions as falling into the framework of a general questioning of governance that occurred in the Western world in the nineteenth century, often known as ‘The Age of Revolutions’, therefore downplaying the localised inter-ethnic conflict aspect of events. Bernier and Salée[2] have also challenged the ethnic division thesis, taking the statement from Ernest Gellner as their premise that ‘Nationalism is not what it seems, and above all not what it seems to itself.’[3]

These studies do not deny the Patriote role in the development of a distinctive ideology that questioned structures of colonial rule, but in the case of Bernier and Salée, they stress the movement as one of emancipation, as opposed to separation. They do not dismiss the presence of the national question in Patriote debates surrounding the rebellion, but for them it does not constitute the instigating factor. They argue that the national question was not uniquely what stirred the Patriotes into taking up arms, but merely formed part of a number of contributing issues related to the wider social and political context. Nationalist discourse therefore is seen as an ‘epiphenomenon’, as opposed to the motivation behind the rebellions.

This is an important rereading of the Patriote movement. Instead of being viewed in terms of a narrow exclusive nationalism with an emphasis on their role in the development of an independent Quebec based on the exclusion of difference, the inclusive nature of their thought is stressed. In contrast to models of national identity from later in the nineteenth and early twentieth century that were founded on exclusion of other, the Patriote vision was not limited uniquely to the descendants of 1760. It is in direct opposition therefore to the claims of many commentators and historians who have pigeonholed Patriotes within a narrow nationalist framework. The Patriote message was addressed to all citizens of Lower Canada, whatever their ethnic or linguistic background, ready to participate in the construction of a new society. We cannot ignore the Patriote critique of the ‘Ancien regime’ and it is easy to read a liberation project into Patriote writings, but care must be taken to differentiate between the questioning of colonial injustices and the desire to break with the mother country.

The loyalist movement that was established after 1833 was distinguished from its predecessors in being organised to a greater extent. In 1810, 1822 and in 1827, the different loyalist groups each had a political programme, solid membership and a means of disseminating its ideological message but they tended to be short-lived. After 1833, the loyalist movement had a permanent structure and hierarchical organisation ensuring that a degree of institutional and ideological continuity lasted until shortly after the 1837-1838 rebellions. Between 1833 and 1838, the loyalist movement experienced less fluctuation in support largely because of the threat from its rival, the Parti Patriote. The movement reacted to the effect of the political and economic situation and in particular to the actions of the Patriote movement. Between 1834 and 1838, the Constitutional Associations of Quebec and Montreal formed the core of the movement from which radiated the majority of loyalist activities (electoral committees, national associations and paramilitary groups). The initiatives taken in Quebec and Montreal were found generally across Lower Canada though on lesser scale.

The demise of Patriote radicalism in the aftermath of the rebellions in 1837 and 1838 was followed by the break up of the alliance of loyalist constitutional associations in 1839 and 1840. In part, this was the result of the end of ideological conflict between radical and more moderate reformers but also reflected the changing political environment especially different attitudes to the union project contained in Durham’s Report. The loyalist alliance contained individuals from different and conflicting political positions but those differences were contained by the need to counter the radical Patriote threat. Once that threat had evaporated, the old divisions re-appeared. For British loyalists, union in 1841 represented the containment of French Canadian domination while for those moderate Patriotes, who had been unwilling to accept the republican radicalism of Papineau and his supporters and who had supported a constitutionalist solution, union signified assimilation, a threat to their existence as a distinct ethnic group. The critical question for them was how to manage union: to call for French Canadian separatism or work within the union structure and mould it to French Canadian advantage. The 1840s saw the working out of these solutions as the new province moved towards responsible government. Yet a strong sense of Tory Loyalism of the 1830s remained and was evident in the debates in 1849 on the Rebellion Losses Bill. Colonel Bartholomew Gugy, a veteran of the Rebellions, summed up loyalist opinion

There were many other projects which it would be most desirable to continue, but what assistance could be given if the funds were pledged to reward those who had resorted to resistance; now the word loyalist is a term of reproach, for the law was to reward those who had rebelled; they flourished while loyalists were beggared, and many of them disgraced in Canada East...It would be against the conscience of protestants that that money should not be applied to a more holy purpose than paying those who made war against the Queen...They should reflect that Eastern Canada was not exclusively inhabited by French Canadians. Those English inhabitants were patient, and would be slow to rebel; but say when you tax them exclusively for this purpose will you not goad them? - Would they tax that class to pay those who rebelled, or would they tax both, to pay those who did their duty?...He hoped that he had not been misunderstood in the expression of his sentiments, he would never change them - never! never! never.[4]

Again, later in the debate

What! when the late government urged, impelled the Loyalists into activity by appeals of the most stirring kind, appeals which had been made to himself (Col. G.), was that activity to be imputed to them as a crime, and by a British governor general? Were they to be branded, as they had been in this House, as Goths and Vandals, as robbers, as incendiaries, as assassins? And were they to be taxed by this majority to reward and propitiate the men who had been guilty of every excess, and had avowed, as they still avowed, their design to sever the connexion with England? To act in that spirit would be making a most ungrateful return to the Loyalists. It would be, too, a manifest violation of the plighted faith and honour of the Crown. Now, of that faith and honour: who was the guardian in this colony? Not the majority in this House surely. No; but the governor general alone. [5]

The 1837-1838 rebellions represented a rejection of the colonial past but it also eliminated particular lines of development, reformist as well as conservative.


[1] Ibid, Taft-Manning, Helen, The Revolt of French-Canada, 1800-1835: A Chapter in the History of the British Commonwealth, p. 10.

[2] Ibid, Bernier, Gérald and Salée, Daniel, ‘Les patriotes, la question nationale et les rebellions de 1837-1838 au Bas-Canada’, in Sarra-Bournet, Michel & Saint-Pierre, Jocelyn, (eds.), Les Nationalismes au Quebec du xix au xxi siècle, pp. 26-36.

[3] Gellner, Ernest, Nations and Nationalism, (Blackwell, 1983), p. 56

[4] Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada 1849, 13 February 1849, Vol. 8, t. 1, pp. 662, 664-665.

[5] Debates of the Legislative Assembly of United Canada 1849, 2 March 1849, Vol. 8, t. 2, p. 1101.

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