Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Loyalist organisations

Faced by the claims of the Patriotes, the Loyalists increasingly felt feel the need to organise themselves. This followed on the many meetings in support for the Ninety-Two Resolutions that took place during the summer of 1834 and the crushing of the British in the elections that autumn. During the year, several societies were formed by both Patriotes and Loyalists. The first was then Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste established by the Patriotes in 1834 open to French Canadians, the Irish, Americans, in fact anyone who sympathised with their cause. Later, similar organisations were set up by the Loyalists: St George’s Society, St Andrew’s Society, St Patrick’s Society and the German Society. During 1834, these associations organised meetings and popular gatherings to denounce the Ninety-Two Resolutions, to support the Constitution and to mobilise the loyalist population.

The Loyalist organisations were brought together under an umbrella organisation in January 1835 with the creation of the Montreal Constitutional Association (MCA). The Quebec Constitutional Association (QCA), a similar constitutional association had been established in Quebec the previous November.[1] These associations were set up to defend the Constitution of 1791 and preserve the Legislative Council in its existing form. In this way, the British sought to defend their interests as the dominant minority against the democratic aspirations of the Canadian French majority. Constitutional assemblies were held across Lower Canada and regional constitutional associations were formed in the following months largely in areas where the British were concentrated.

The constitutional associations organised popular assemblies. On 31 July 1835, around 5,000 people met in Quebec to reaffirm their loyalty to the British Crown and their commitment to the Empire, denounced the unruly nature of the Assembly and, in a report to the Governor, demanded that the government maintain justice. Similar loyalist assemblies were held in Montreal. In December 1835, the MCA organised a meeting that more than 1,500 people attended at Tattersall’s; 4,000 to 5,000 people attended a further assembly at the Place d’Armes de Montréal on 6 July 1837[2]; and, on 23 October, the same day as the Patriote assembly at St-Charles, between 2,000 and 7,000 Loyalists met in the city.[3] However, the Loyalists were not content with forming associations and organising popular assemblies and, especially at the end of 1835 established paramilitary organisations. The Gosford Commission predicted that the British colonists would never agree, with what they looked like a French Republic in Canada without an armed struggle. Adam Thom defended the formation of the British Rifle Corps

L’organisation, pour se combiner avec la détermination morale et la force physique, doit être autant militaire que politique. Il faut une armée aussi bien qu’un Congrès. Il faut des piques et des carabines aussi bien que de la sagesse...Appelons donc un congrès provincial immédiatement et portons à 800 le British Rifle Corp de Montréal, qui est son entier complément, envoyons des députés pour soulever les sympathies des provinces voisines. [4]

On 22 December, Loyalists requested the Governor to approve the creation of British Rifle Corp. Gosford refused arguing that the rights of the British were not in danger and that, even if it were the case, they would be protected better by the army. Ignoring Gosford’s views, the British Rifle Corp organised in the last weeks of 1835 and at the beginning of 1836 and several public assemblies in Montreal included militiamen: more than 600 on 7 January and over 800 on 20 January. An assembly planned for the following day was cancelled following Gosford’s proclamation banning paramilitary organisations. Although this led to the demise of the British Rifle Corps, it did not prevent a group of young Loyalists establishing the Doric Club that published its manifesto on 12 March 1836.

If we are deserted by the British government and the British people, rather than submit to the degradation of being subject of a French-Canadian republic, we are determined by our own right arms to work out our deliverance...we are ready...to pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

The Victoria Club, a similar organisation was established in Quebec on 1 September 1837. It started to patrol the Upper Town from 3 November and had several confrontations with local Patriotes.

During November 1837, following the skirmish in Montreal on November 6, there was a clear division in the approaches to the problem of the Patriotes between Colborne and Gosford. While the governor still believed in conciliation, Colborne recognised that a military solution would probably be necessary and consequently began to arm loyalist volunteers. Between 8 and 10 November, he armed ten companies, each of eighty men, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dyer: the Royal Fusiliers, The Queen’s Light Dragoons, Montreal Volunteer Cavalry, Royal Quebec Volunteers and the Megantic Volunteers etc. Some of these troops would accompany the 3,000 regular troops in the province during the rebellions. In some areas, the Loyalists volunteers used the existing militia organisation to structure their movement. In the War of 1812, the militia was recruited from single people between the ages of 18 and 30 who served for three months. This model was used to recruit 250 militiamen in St-Jean in 1837 that contained local Patriotes during the rebellions and in Granby where the militia was especially active and received weapons from Colborne. Patriotes also used the existing militia organisation to recruit and arm supporters. In St-Denis, for example, the Patriotes elected new officers and recruited Patriote militiamen, though they were poorly armed. However, the purpose of their organisation was not to foment rebellion but to resist arbitrary arrests.

The mobilisation of loyalist forces and their organisation into armed groups largely took place before the Patriotes. This shows the loyalist strategy of taking the initiative in the conflict, a feature until the conclusion of the rebellions. By deciding to protect their own interests, Loyalists sought to precipitate conflict if only to prevent Gosford from continuing the policy of conciliation.

Unlike the Loyalists, who were well armed, thanks to Colborne or rich private supporters, the Patriotes were poorly armed and, after their sole victory at St-Denis, were unable to resist the British army. To precipitate conflict, Loyalists caused the Patriotes to fear for their safety and provoked them into taking action to protect themselves. Wolfred Nelson described the situation clearly.

Ils [les bureaucrates] voulurent forcer le peuple à prendre les armes et à assumer la défense pour leur vie et leurs propriétés. Ils représentèrent ensuite cette action comme une rébellion contre la Couronne d’Angleterre.

O’Callaghan compared the situation in Lower Canada with Ireland, his birthplace.

On voulait comme Castlereagh en Irlande, pousser le peuple à la violence, puis abolir ses droits constitutionnels. Dans l’histoire de l’union de l’Irlande avec l’Angleterre, vous retracerez comme dans un miroir, le complot de 1836-37 contre la liberté canadienne.

O’Callaghan stated that the government knowingly armed the volunteers, issued arrest warrants arbitrarily to excite the people and then, having thrown people into a panic, shouted that there was a rebellion.

Provocation reached its peak on 6 November 1837 with the monthly meeting of the Fils de la Liberté. At the beginning of November, the government had purged the magistracy replaced some magistrates with known supporters. As rumours of the state of readiness for armed confrontation by the Patriotes circulated, magistrates issued a proclamation banning all processions and demonstrations. The Fils de la Liberté agreed to cancel their parade and gather on private ground to hold their meeting. The day before the meeting, Montreal was papered with posters inviting the loyalists to a meeting at noon on the Place-d’Armes to crush the rebellion. The magistrates did nothing to disperse the Doric Club or the loyalists from holding their meeting though they did ban any demonstration. The loyalists went to Bonacina’s inn where they threw stones over a fence at Patriotes. This was followed by a riot that ended with the reading of the Riot Act. The Fils de la Liberté dispersed but were chased through the city by members of Doric Club. That evening, loyalists tried to burn Papineau’s house and ransacked the buildings of the Vindicator.

The street fighting on 6 November and the inflammatory remarks made previously by Patriote leaders at St-Charles during the assembly of the Six-Comtés on 22 October, led the government to issue arrest warrants against leading Patriotes for sedition and in some cases high treason. Although most Patriote leaders were able to escape, arbitrary arrests were made in several areas. On 17 November, for example, constable Malo and eighteen members of the Montreal Volunteer Cavalry arrested two Patriotes at St-Jean. Good communications made it possible for the Patriotes to intercept the detachment with Longueuil and release the prisoners. The arbitrary arrests forced the Patriotes to flee or to arm themselves for resistance.

Loyalists were not simply involved in provoking the rebellion, they played an active role it its repression. They joined forces with regular British troops to confront Patriote rebels in their strongholds and took a particular part in the destruction of villages. Adam Thom encouraged the pillaging of French Canadian villages

L’histoire du passé prouve que rien de moins que la disparition de la terre et la réduction en poussière de leurs habitations ne préviendra de nouvelles rébellions au sud du Saint-Laurent, ou de nouvelles invasions de la part des Américains.

The attitude of loyalist volunteers during the battle of St-Eustache and in the burning of St-Benoît illustrates what Thom called for. In December 1838, Colborne led his troops towards the Deux-Montagnes. He had 2,000 men including volunteers from the Queen’s Light Dragoons, the Montreal Volunteer Fusiliers, the Montreal Volunteer Cavalry and volunteers led by Globensky who came from St-Eustache. After the Patriote defeat at St-Eustache, volunteers, helped by regular soldiers, pillaged the village and then set in on fire. [5] The following day, they moved towards St-Benoît where Jean-Joseph Girouard, the local leader, sent habitants to Colborne with instructions to surrender. However, this did not prevent the volunteers from burning the village. Loyalists were also particularly active in the repression of the rebellion the following year.

The Loyalists played a major role in the outcome of the Rebellions of 1837-1838. They refused to accept the possibility of a French Canadian state and took all necessary means to preserve British dominance in Lower Canada. With this intention, they formed in constitutional associations to exert pressure on the colonial authorities not to yield to French Canadian demands. They also established paramilitary groups of volunteers who helped raise tension in the province that helped cause the armed struggle and then repressed the rebels and the civil population.

It seems that the tactics worked since the union of the Canadas in 1841 placed French Canadians in the minority within a widened State. Confederation in 1867 reinforced the marginalisation of French Canadians by giving them a degree of cultural and social autonomy within the Province of Quebec, but within the overarching and British-dominated structures of the federal State. This was a very distant step from that envisaged by Loyalists in 1837.


[1] See, Groupe de recherche sur les rébellions de 1837-38, Rapport sur les activités de l’Association constitutionnelle de Québec (1834-38), Montréal, 10 septembre 1986.

[2] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 133-134.

[3] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 231-258.

[4] Montreal Herald, 12 December 1835

[5] Grignon, Claude-Henri, ‘The St. Eustache Loyal Volunteers’, La Revue des Deux-Montagnes, numéro 2, (1996), pp. 83-86.

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