Read CHAPTER III - 'THE REIGN OF TERROR' of The 'Patriotes' of '37, A Chronicle of the Lower Canada Rebellion, free online book, by Alfred D. Decelles, on

During the session of 1805 the Assembly was confronted with the apparently innocent problem of building prisons. Yet out of the debate on this subject sprang the most serious racial conflict which had yet occurred in the province. There were two ways proposed for raising the necessary money. One, advocated by the English members, was to levy a direct tax on land; the other, proposed by the French members, was to impose extra customs duties. The English proposal was opposed by the French, for the simple reason that the interests of the French were in the main agrarian; and the French proposal was opposed by the English, because the interests of the English were on the whole commercial. The English pointed out that, as merchants, they had borne the brunt of such taxation as had already been imposed, and that it was the turn of the French farmers to bear their share. The French, on the other hand, pointed out, with some justice, that indirect taxation was borne, not only by the importer, but also partly by the consumer, and that indirect taxation was therefore more equitable than a tax on the land-owners alone. There was, moreover, another consideration. ’The Habitants,’ writes the political annalist already quoted, ’consider themselves sufficiently taxed by the French law of the land, in being obliged to pay rents and other feudal burthens to the Seigneur, and tythes to the Priest; and if you were to ask any of them to contribute two bushels of Wheat, or two Dollars, for the support of Government, he would give you the equivocal French sign of inability or unwillingness, by shrugging up his shoulders.’

As usual, the French-Canadian majority carried their point. Thereupon, the indignation of the English minority flared forth in a very emphatic manner. They accused the French Canadians of foisting upon them the whole burden of taxation, and they declared that an end must be put to French-Canadian domination over English Canadians. ‘This province,’ asserted the Quebec Mercury, ’is already too French for a British colony.... Whether we be in peace or at war, it is essential that we should make every effort, by every means available, to oppose the growth of the French and their influence.’

The answer of the French Canadians to this language was the establishment in 1806 of a newspaper, Le Canadien, in which the point of view of the majority in the House might be presented. The official editor of the paper was Jean Antoine Bouthillier, but the conspicuous figure on the staff was Pierre Bedard, one of the members of the House of Assembly. The tone of the paper was generally moderate, though militant. Its policy was essentially to defend the French against the ceaseless aspersions of the Mercury and other enemies. It never attacked the British government, but only the provincial authorities. Its motto, ‘Notre langue, nos institutions et nos lois,’ went far to explain its views and objects.

No serious trouble resulted, however, from the policy of Le Canadien until after the arrival of Sir James Craig in Canada, and the inauguration of what some historians have named ‘the Reign of Terror.’ Sir James Craig, who became governor of Canada in 1807, was a distinguished soldier. He had seen service in the American Revolutionary War, in South Africa, and in India. He was, however, inexperienced in civil government and apt to carry his ideas of military discipline into the conduct of civil affairs. Moreover, he was prejudiced against the inhabitants and had doubts of their loyalty. In Canada he surrounded himself with such men as Herman W. Ryland, the governor’s secretary, and John Sewell, the attorney-general, men who were actually in favour of repressing the French Canadians and of crushing the power of their Church. ’I have long since laid it down as a principle (which in my judgment no Governor of this Province ought to lose sight of for a moment),’ wrote Ryland in 1804, ’by every possible means which prudence can suggest, gradually to undermine the authority and influence of the Roman Catholic Priest.’ ’The Province must be converted into an English Colony,’ declared Sewell, ’or it will ultimately be lost to England.’ The opinion these men held of the French Canadians was most uncomplimentary. ’In the ministerial dictionary,’ complained Le Canadien, ’a bad fellow, anti-ministerialist, democrat, sans culotte, and damned Canadian, mean the same thing.’

Surrounded by such advisers, it is not surprising that Sir James Craig soon took umbrage at the language and policy of Le Canadien. At first he made his displeasure felt in a somewhat roundabout way. In the summer of 1808 he dismissed from the militia five officers who were reputed to have a connection with that newspaper, on the ground that they were helping a ‘seditious and defamatory journal.’ One of these officers was Colonel Panet, who had fought in the defence of Quebec in 1775 and had been speaker of the House of Assembly since 1792; another was Pierre Bedard. This action did not, however, curb the temper of the paper; and a year or more later Craig went further. In May 1810 he took the extreme step of suppressing Le Canadien, and arresting the printer and three of the proprietors, Taschereau, Blanchet, and Bedard. The ostensible pretext for this measure was the publication in the paper of some notes of a somewhat academic character with regard to the conflict which had arisen between the governor and the House of Assembly in Jamaica; the real reason, of course, went deeper.

Craig afterwards asserted that the arrest of Bedard and his associates was ‘a measure of precaution, not of punishment.’ There is no doubt that he actually feared a rising of the French Canadians. To his mind a rebellion was imminent. The event showed that his suspicions were ill-founded; but in justice to him it must be remembered that he was governor of Canada at a dangerous time, when Napoleon was at the zenith of his power and when agents of this arch-enemy of England were supposed to be active in Canada. Moreover, the blame for Craig’s action during this period must be partly borne by the ‘Bureaucrats’ who surrounded him. There is no absolute proof, but there is at least a presumption, that some of these men actually wished to precipitate a disturbance, in order that the constitution of Lower Canada might be suspended and a new order of things inaugurated.

Soon after Bedard’s arrest his friends applied for a writ of habeas corpus; but, owing to the opposition of Craig, this was refused. In July two of Bedard’s companions were released, on the ground of ill health. They both, however, expressed regret at the tone which Le Canadien had adopted. In August the printer was discharged. Bedard himself declined to accept his release until he had been brought to trial and acquitted of the charge preferred against him. Craig, however, did not dare to bring him to trial, for no jury would have convicted him. Ultimately, since Bedard refused to leave the prison, he was ejected at the point of the bayonet. The situation was full of humour. Bedard was an excellent mathematician, and was in the habit of whiling away the hours of his imprisonment by solving mathematical problems. When the guard came to turn him out, he was in the midst of a geometrical problem. ‘At least,’ he begged, ’let me finish my problem.’ The request was granted; an hour later the problem was solved, and Bedard was thrust forth from the jail.

Sir James Craig was a man of good heart and of the best intentions; but his course throughout this episode was most unfortunate. Not only did he fail to suppress the opposition to his government, but he did much to embitter the relations between the two races. Craig himself seems to have realized, even before he left Canada, that his policy had been a mistake; for he is reported on good authority to have said ’that he had been basely deceived, and that if it had been given to him to begin his administration over again, he would have acted differently.’ It is significant, too, that Craig’s successor, Sir George Prevost, completely reversed his policy. He laid himself out to conciliate the French Canadians in every way possible; and he made amends to Bedard for the injustice which he had suffered by restoring him to his rank in the militia and by making him a judge. As a result, the bitterness of racial feeling abated; and when the War of 1812 broke out, there proved to be less disloyalty in Lower Canada than in Upper Canada. But, as the events of Craig’s administration had clearly shown, a good deal of combustible and dangerous material lay about.