Log Cabin Chronicles

Old Quebec City

Photograph/John Mahoney



The Patriote Rebellion, 1837-38

The Lower Canada Rebellion of 1837-38 was one of those conflicts, like the English Civil War, the American Civil War, or the French Revolution, where the presumed justness of the cause was tarnished by the ultimate escalation to bloodshed.

Some 325 people, all but 27 of them rebels, were killed in the six armed clashes between the Patriotes and the combined force of British troops and volunteers. Of the 99 participants condemned to death for their role in the uprising, 12 were actually hanged. Of the others, 56 were exiled to Australia, eight to Bermuda and the rest released.

All told, 1700 Lower Canadians were taken prisoner during the Rebellion. As 1837-38 Rebellion specialist Prof. Gilles Laporte notes on his website dedicated to the Patriotes, that mass round-up, out of a population then totaling 630,000, would be the equivalent of 17,000 people arrested during the 1970 October Crisis war measures raids.

The Rebellion left deep scars on the French-Canadian soul that surface even today, with the flash of red, white, and green Patriote flags at a Fete Nationale parade. It's been a standing policy of the Parti Quebecois to create a holiday on Nov. 23 to commemorate the Patriotes' sole battle victory, in the village of St. Denis, south of Montreal.

(An interesting and important footnote to that battle is that a young George-Etienne Cartier, future Father of Confederation, was a brave participant, indeed his efforts in leading reinforcements to the scene turned the tide in the Patriotes' favour.)

There are, to this day, nagging questions about just what kind of uprising the Rebellion was. Boiled done to its essentials, the fight was about democratic freedom - the right of a duly elected assembly to make decisions without them being overturned by a privileged bunch of appointees (the Chateau Clique) in cahoots with the church and the mercantile establishment.

Historians have long debated whether it was essentially a "racial" struggle, to use the term in vogue in the 19th Century to describe what we now call nationalist or linguistic. Or was it a class-based socio-economic revolution, in which both French and English were involved in proportion to their numbers.

This would normally be a sterile debate, confined to a lecture hall, among people with pipes and patches on the elbows of their tweed jackets. That debate, though, is likely to move to the water cooler and bus stop if a new film just out captures a lot of attention.

The movie is called Quand je serai parti, vous vivrez encore (When I'm gone, you'll live on), the latest work from noted Quebec cineaste Michel Brault, a National Film Board alumnus and auteur of Les Ordes, a previous examination of violence used for political ends - the FLQ crisis.

With the help of $1.6 million from Telefilm Canada, Brault, an outspoken sovereigntist, has spun a tale of one Francois-Xavier Bouchard, a young French-Canadian who signs on with the Patriotes, then in exile plotting a second invasion after the first botched Rebellion of 1837.

According to advance reviews (the film opens Friday), the players in the drama are depicted in far more black and white terms than historical fact would support: The English are all racist and cruel, the French all noble and brave.

While unquestionably, the record shows a wave of British brutality in the wake of the uprising - the burning of three villages and dozens of farms for starters - it is far from clear that it was a simple English versus French fight.

Indeed, the initial movement was enthusiastically enjoined by many English Quebecers whose rights were just as infringed by the Chateau Clique as their French-speaking neighbors. The uprising had the backing of groups from the Loyalist Eastern Townships and, among other opinion-makers, had the support of John Neilson of the Quebec Gazette.

The group that the film hero Bouchard joins was actually led by Dr. Robert Nelson, a relative of Lord Horatio of Trafalgar fame. Nelson, and his older brother Wolfred, also a doctor, are two of the central figures of the Rebellion.

Ironically, Brault's film comes out at about the same time as a new work on the life of Robert Nelson, by Montreal writer Mary Soderstrom (The Words on the Wall: Lower Canada's forgotten hero in the 1837 Rebellion). Soderstrom suggests that influenced by Nelson, a passionate libertarian, the Rebellion was more of a failed revolution than a struggle by the French to overthrow their English masters.

So, 162 years after the fact, the Rebellion debate rages on.

CBC logo Peter Black is a writer living in Quebec City, where he is the producer of Quebec A.M. -- CBC Radio's popular English-language morning show (91.7 FM, 6-9, Mon.-Fri).

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