The Upper Canada Rising of 1837

Written by William Raffle. Edited by Emma Ward.

A dip in the economy, a huge influx of immigrants and positions of power held by a clique with business ties; these were the circumstances faced by Upper Canada during the 1830’s.

Upper Canada (modern day Ontario) was created as a colony, in 1791, so that English speakers would not have to abide by the French customs of Lower Canada (Quebec).  It was ruled by a lieutenant-governor who was the representative of Britain.  Appointed by him was the Executive Assembly and below them an elected Legislative Assembly (comparable to the House of Lords and Commons).  The Executive held the real power and had come to be dominated by a group known as the Family Compact.

The Family Compact were a tight-knit group of men who sought to consolidate power and control policy by appointing their followers to influential positions.  They became the key advisors to a succession of lieutenant-governors who needed guidance on a country of which they had little knowledge.

By the 1830’s power had been held by the Family Compact for around 20 years.  In the legislature there was opposition by a loose group of reformers who found a loud voice (albeit the voice of a liar and firebrand) in William Lyon Mackenzie.  Mackenzie was elected to office but soon found himself removed from parliament by the Executive who would not tolerate his comments about the corruption of the government.

The disaffected of Upper Canada could not be conveniently defined by just one issue. However one can generalise that the reformers main support came from immigrants from the United States and Ireland and tended to belong to religious groups such as Baptists, Methodists etc. who also felt oppressed by the strong power that the Churches of England and Scotland had in the colony.

Things came to a head when orders from Britain were announced reducing the powers of the Legislative.  Mackenzie called for the organization of political unions and claimed that over 200 such groups had formed. The real figure seems more likely to be around 20. Mackenzie rallied a group of conspirators, convincing reforming politicians that he had popular support. When Francis Bond Head, the lieutenant-governor, sent out all the regular troops in the colony to help put down the nationalist uprising in Lower Canada (where the Francophone population had also had enough of British rule), Mackenzie seized his chance. He persuaded popular support by drawing analogies to the American Revolution where land was granted to patriots and confiscated from tories, and claimed that the patriotes of Lower Canada had won their battle of St Denis (which they had in fact lost) and that victory would be theirs simply by moving on the capital.  They resolved to march on Toronto on the 7th of December 1837.

John Rolph, a reformer who Mackenzie had agreed would be leader of their new provisional government, passed on a message on the 3rd of December that the authorities had got wind of the plan and that they must move immediately.  Men began gathering at the rebel base, Montgomery’s Tavern, just north of Toronto on Monday the 4th of December.

Around five hundred rebels gathered and were noticed by men loyal to the government.  A number of shots were exchanged and a warning sent to the governor in Toronto.  Head sent out a party under a flag of truce calling for a peaceful dispersal and promising them amnesty if they complied.  The leader of this party was John Rolph.  Head had no idea he was one of the rebels.  Rolph urged the rebels to continue and march on Toronto but Mackenzie dithered and asked for Head’s promises in writing.

Despite new arrivals coming in, Mackenzie’s forces deserted over the next few days.  Meanwhile local tories had reinforced the government forces who marched on Montgomery’s Tavern and routed the remaining rebels.

This may seem like the end but Mackenzie pressed on, fleeing to America and attempting an invasion of Canada from across the Niagara River. Loyalist militia sent to deal with him actually prolonged the troubles, as they killed the American crew of a merchant paddle steamer who were supplying the rebels on their temporary base at Navy Island. This caused outrage in the United States and opportunists and idealists flocked to Mackenzie’s cause which dragged on in the form of border raiding for almost a year until brought to an end by US and British diplomacy. Mackenzie was arrested by the US for violating neutrality laws.

Traditionally historians have seen the uprising as a decisive move in bringing on more responsible government. The Durham report on the state of British America, commissioned in response to the uprisings of Upper and Lower Canada, found the Family Compact as the cause of Upper Canada’s troubles, slamming them as ‘a petty, corrupt, insolent Tory clique’. He recommended their self-serving network be dismantled. More recent interpretations though suggest the violence caused Britain to tighten imperial control on Canada and delayed democratic reform. The question remains; would the Durham report have been commissioned at all without the violent actions of Mackenzie and his followers?