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Patriotes Rebellion

The Rébellion des patriotes is the name given to the armed conflict between the rebels of French Canada and the British colonial power in Lower Canada (now Quebec). Together with the simultaneous Upper Canada Rebellion in the neighbouring colony of Upper Canada, it forms part of the Rebellions of 1837.

This event is often misreported, which moves the attention away from three decades of political battles between the Parti Canadien of Louis-Joseph Papineau, which was seeking responsible government for the colony, and the unelected British executive and legislative bodies in the former French colony, which was dominated by a small group known as the Chateau Clique, the equivalent of the Family Compact in Upper Canada. The movement for reform took shape in this period of economic disenfranchisement of the French-speaking majority. In banking, the timber trade, and the transportation trade, Anglophones were disproportionately represented (for example, Anglophones accounted for 5% of the population of Rimouski in 1842, but 50% of the businessmen). At the same time, many among the increasingly Anglophone business elite were pushing for a union of Upper and Lower Canada, a plan favoured by the British-appointed governor, George Ramsey, Earl of Dalhousie. The reaction was a growing sense of nationalism among the French-speaking majority, which solidified into the Parti Canadien, later called the Parti Patriote.

Reformer Louis-Joseph Papineau was elected speaker of the colonial assembly in 1815. The assembly, while elected, had no real power; its decisions could be vetoed by a legislative council and governor appointed by the British government. Dalhousie and Papineau were soon at odds over the issue of uniting the Canadas, and Dalhousie forced an election in 1827 rather than accept Papineau as speaker. Sympathizers to the reform movement in England had Dalhousie forced from his position and reappointed to India. Still, the legislative council and the assembly were not able to reach a compromise, and by 1834, the assembly had passed The Ninety-Two Resolutions, outlining its grievances against the legislative council.

Later in 1834 the Parti Patriote swept to power with more than three-quarters of the popular vote. However, the reformers in Lower Canada became divided over several issues. A moderate reformer named John Neilson quit the party and formed a Constitutional Association to push for non-violent reform. Papineau's anti-clerical position alienated reformers in the Catholic Church, and his support for secular rather than religious schools made him a powerful enemy in Bishop Jean-Jacques Lartigue. Lartigue called on all Catholics to reject the reform movement and support the authorities, forcing many to choose between their religion and their political convictions.

However, Papineau continued to push for reform. He attempted to petition the British government to bring about reform, but in March of 1837 the government of Lord Russell rejected all of Papineau's requests. Papineau then organized protests and assemblies, and eventually created an armed group in Montreal.

In November of 1837, Lord Gosford, then governor of Lower Canada, launched a pre-emptive attack on the Patriotes, who were planning a rebellion for December 4. The Patriotes were caught by surprise. Papineau escaped to the United States, but the rebels set themselves up in the countryside, and defeated a British force at St. Denis on November 23. However, the British troops quickly crushed the completely disorganized rebels. The rebels were defeated at Saint-Charles on November 25, and another group was similarly defeated at Saint-Eustache on December 14. Saint-Eustache was then burned to the ground.

Meanwhile, Papineau was in frequent contact with, and sympathized with, William Lyon Mackenzie, and Mackenzie launched his simultaneous revolt in neighbouring Upper Canada in December of 1837. While this revolt was quickly put down, the rebellion in Lower Canada continued into the following year. Leaders who had escaped across the border into the United States raided Lower Canada in February of 1838, and a second revolt began at Beauharnois in November. This too was crushed by the British.

Afterwards, Britain dispatched Lord Durham to investigate the cause of the rebellion. He recommended that the Canadas be assimilated into one colony (the Province of Canada) so as to assimilate the Canadiens into the culture of the British Empire. However, he recommended acceding to the rebels' grievances by granting responsible government to the new colony.

The rebellion of the Patriotes Canadiens of Lower Canada (now Quebec) is often seen as the example of what could have happened to America if the American Revolutionary War had failed. Following the military defeat of the patriots, Lower Canada was annexed to Upper Canada in order to assimilate the Canadien people under the Union Act. Forced to be a minority nation in a new political system, they were renamed the French-Canadians by the British majority. However, the responsible government they called for and, despite their defeat, secured, formed the basis for Canada's modern parliamentary democracy.