Thursday, 6 January 2011

Paramilitary Loyalism

The formation of the national societies and the MCA and QCA with their branch associations provided a broadly constitutionalist approach to loyalism. As extra-parliamentary organisations, they sought to influence government, criticise policy when necessary and lobby on behalf of their own interests. Although this may have been a legitimate means of challenging the growing hegemony of the Parti Patriote and the wider Patriote movement, its impact of colonial policy in the mid-1830s was limited since it was grounded in the need for some form of conciliation with the Patriote movement as a means of heading off more extreme republican demands. It was the growing physical rather than ideological threat from radical Patriotes that resulted in the formation of loyalist paramilitary groups from late 1835.

British Rifle Corps

The British Rifle Corps (BRC) only existed between 12 December 1835 and 20 January 1836, but was extremely active. During its 39 days, it held 13 activities and 7 meetings.[1] The formation of the BRC is often associated with the MCA because it was formed immediately after its decision to form committees of vigilance in Montreal. [2] However, Filteau argued that Adam Thom[3] was behind the formation of the BRC and its reorganisation as the British Legion which he did not distinguish from the Doric Club. [4]

On 12 December 1835, a meeting was called at the Jones Long Room as the result of an anonymous message in the Montreal Gazette. Around 400 people attended and decided that it was necessary to establish a paramilitary group to protect the interests of the British population. Three days later, a committee was instructed to obtain arms and munitions. It also decided to inform Gosford of their intentions and seek his approval: a letter to that effect was sent on 22 December. The signatories of the letter were individuals active in the MCA: Dr Thomas Arnoldi, son of the founder of the German Society and Francis Hunter, member of the central committee of the MCA, both future members of the Doric Club; Robert Weir, member of the MCA, Aaron P. Hart, lawyer and Robert McKay. [5]

On 28 December, through Walcott his civil secretary, Gosford responded to the letter refusing to ratify the formation of the BRC. He argued that the interests of the British inhabitants of the colony were not threatened and that, even if they were, those interests would be best protected by British regular troops. For Gosford, the formation of a paramilitary organisation was an affront to public order in a time of peace.[6] The BRC received the response on 31 December and sent a further letter to Gosford in which they clarified their intentions and sought to refute his argument that the colony was peaceful. Above all, the second letter sought to show that British interests were under threat. It denounced the activities of Papineau especially his seditious language and the revolutionary ideas being spread by the French Canadian deputies in the Assembly designed to spread a spirit of hatred for the British. Both the violence that accompanied the 1834 elections and the incendiary letter by Clément Sabrevois de Bleury, a militia captain who called for greater commitment by his men in training for military action were used to justify the BRC’s position. [7]

On 7 January, the group met again with their numbers swelled to 600 people who marched to the Place-d’Armes.[8] However, on 15 January, Gosford with the support of the Executive Council ordered the dissolution of the BRC and declared it illegal and unconstitutional. As a result, the BRC held a dissolution meeting on 20 January. Although the group dissolved, several of its members were outraged at being treated as traitors and send a new letter to Gosford to express their opposition. [9] This group formed the Montreal British Legion, a non-military organisation. Some of the younger members of the BRC joined the Doric Club, a more radical and paramilitary organisation.

The Doric Club

Adam Thom increasingly believed that it was necessary to establish a social club and paramilitary organisation to counter the threat from ‘French domination’. His articles in the Montreal Herald were aimed at the members of the short-lived BRC, banned by Gosford in January 1836. It was from among its younger and more militant and radical members that the Doric Club evolved. [10] It became ‘the armed and secret wing of the Constitutionalists and was organised and led by John Shay, a young anglophone from Montreal’. [11] Gosford estimated that it had as many of 2,000 members.

On 16 March 1836, the young loyalists published their manifesto. The group was largely tolerated by Colborne despite Gosford’s opposition. The manifesto made clear its members’ opposition to the policy of tolerating and conciliating the French Canadians

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 manifesto was only signed by one person: Dr Thomas Walter Jones, a descendent of one of the earliest British settlers in Montreal and a noble French Canadian family. This has led some historians to argue that the loyalist organisations were now involved in conflict at national level and that they opposed French Canadian domination over British subjects. Gérard Filteau argues that the formation of the Doric Club was part of a British conspiracy led by British officials who channelled loyalist fears and, as a result, deliberately raised levels of tension between the British and French Canadians.[12] The growing conflict between loyalists and supporters of the Parti Patriote came to a head in the street fighting in Montreal on 6 November 1837 between members of the Doric Club and supporters of the Fils de la Liberté.


[1] Ibid, Muzzo, Johanne, Les mouvements réformiste et constitutionnel à Montréal, 1834-1837, p. 95.

[2] Ibid, Muzzo, Johanne, Les mouvements réformiste et constitutionnel à Montréal, 1834-1837, p. 102.

[3] ‘Adam Thom’, DCB, Vol. 12, pp. 874-877.

[4] Filteau, Gerard, Histoire des patriotes, 3 Vols. Montreal, 1939-1941, p. 171.

[5] Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, 6 Vols. Québec, 1848-1855, Vol 4, pp. 147-148.

[6] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, pp. 143-144.

[7] Ibid, pp. 143-147.

[8] Ibid, Muzzo, Johanne, Les mouvements réformiste et constitutionnel à Montréal, 1834-1837, p. 98.

[9] Ibid, Christie, Robert, History of the late province of Lower Canada, 1791-1841, Vol. 4, pp. 144-145.

[10] Senior, Elinor Kyte, Les habits rouges et les Patriotes, (Vlb éditeur), 1997, p. 32.

[11] Ibid, Senior, Elinor Kyte, Les habits rouges et les Patriotes, p. 32

[12] Filteau, Gérard, Histoire des Patriotes, (Les éditions Univer), 1980, pp. 292-293.

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