Thanks to the Blyth Festival’s revival of the play 1837: The Farmers’ Revolt this summer, some new attention was drawn to a crucial moment in Canadian history that’s often forgotten or, worse, treated as a comic opera.
For many, the 1837 Rebellion led by the hot-headed newspaper publisher and politician William Lyon Mackenzie has never been treated seriously because in military terms it was an abject failure. But the rebels in Ontario (Upper Canada then) and the concurrent unsuccessful rebellion in Quebec, profoundly shaped the Canada we live in today. While on Remembrance Day we celebrate those who offered up their lives to protect democracy in two World Wars, we should do more to celebrate those who won democracy for Canada in the first place in that 1837 uprising, sometimes at the cost of their lives.
What we seldom think about today is how different Canada might have been without those rebel farmers. There had been talk since Ontario’s first Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe about the need to create an aristocracy in the province. A small clique of wealthy people nicknamed the Family Compact saw themselves as that aristocracy. Although there was an elected Legislative Assembly, the real power resided in the Executive Council, a body appointed to advise the Lieutenant Governor who answered to the British government.
Throughout the 1830s the Reform Party led by Mackenzie and like-minded democrats, battled the Family Compact for control of the colony. The Tories, the representatives of the Family Compact in the Assembly, managed to control the elected body for most of that time, helped by the fact you had to be a landowner with a paid-up deed to be able to vote.
In 1835 the Reformers won a majority in the Assembly and were determined to change things. Mackenzie conducted a committee to hear grievances from settlers against the government and collected them in a thick printed report. That year the assembly used its ultimate weapon, refusing to support a bill that would provide money to run the government. Government employees went unpaid, which caused hardship and resentment.
It also stirred the new Lieutenant Governor Sir Frances Bond Head into action. He distrusted democracy, declaring it unnatural that the pyramid should be inverted and put the majority of citizens at the top while putting the elite at the bottom. In the 1836 election, despite the Lieutenant Governor traditionally having a non-partisan role, he actively campaigned, telling voters, most of whom had originally come from Britain, that a vote for Reform was a vote against the king.
Bond Head got his way and Reform was soundly defeated but unrest in rural areas increased, leading to armed groups training for rebellion. In December 1837, 700-800 rebels gathered north of Toronto, planning to seize the capital city. But they were often unarmed and poorly trained and strategic mistakes by the rebel leaders meant they were quickly defeated when the government troops arrived. Many were captured. More than 20 were hanged and others sent to Australia.
Mackenzie escaped and his popularity among farmers is demonstrated by the fact many risked their lives to help him to the U.S. border, despite a 1,000-pound reward offered for his capture.
But the two rebellions got the attention of the British government and Lord Durham was sent to investigate. His report recommended reforms that set the colonies on a path to the democracies we have today. It wouldn’t have happened, however, without the rebel farmers.◊