Read CHAPTER VI - THE ROYAL COMMISSION of The 'Patriotes' of '37, A Chronicle of the Lower Canada Rebellion, free online book, by Alfred D. Decelles, on

A general election followed soon after the passing of the Ninety-Two Resolutions and revealed the strength of Papineau’s position in the country. All those members of the Patriote party who had opposed the Resolutions Neilson, Cuvillier, Quesnel, Stuart, and two or three others suffered defeat at the polls. The first division-list in the new Assembly showed seventy members voting for Papineau as speaker, and only six voting against him.

The Resolutions were forwarded to Westminster, both through the Assembly’s agent in London and through Lord Aylmer, who received the address embodying the Resolutions, despite the fact that they demanded his own impeachment. The British House of Commons appointed a special committee to inquire into the grievances of which the Resolutions complained; but there followed no immediate action by the government. The years 1834 and 1835 saw much disturbance in British politics: there were no less than four successive ministers at the Colonial Office. It was natural that there should be some delay in dealing with the troubles of Lower Canada. In the spring of 1835, however, the government made up its mind about the course to pursue. It decided to send to Canada a royal commission for the purpose of investigating, and if possible settling, the questions in dispute. It was thought advisable to combine in one person the office of chief royal commissioner and that of governor of Canada. To clear the way for this arrangement Lord Aylmer was recalled. But he was expressly relieved from all censure: it was merely recognized by the authorities that his unfortunate relations with the Assembly made it unlikely that he would be able to offer any assistance in a solution of the problem.

The unenviable position of governor and chief royal commissioner was offered in turn to several English statesmen and declined by all of them. It was eventually accepted by Lord Gosford, an Irish peer without experience in public life. With him were associated as commissioners Sir Charles Grey, afterwards governor of Jamaica, and Sir George Gipps, afterwards governor of New South Wales. These two men were evidently intended to offset each other: Grey was commonly rated as a Tory, while Gipps was a Liberal. Lord Gosford’s appointment caused much surprise. He was a stranger in politics and in civil government. There is no doubt that his appointment was a last resource. But his Irish geniality and his facility in being all things to all men were no small recommendations for a governor who was to attempt to set things right in Canada.

The policy of Lord Glenelg, the colonial secretary during Gosford’s period of office, was to do everything in his power to conciliate the Canadian Patriotes, short of making any real constitutional concessions. By means of a conciliatory attitude he hoped to induce them to abate some of their demands. There is, indeed, evidence that he was personally willing to go further: he seems to have proposed to William IV that the French Canadians should be granted, as they desired, an elective Legislative Council; but the staunch old Tory king would not hear of the change. ‘The king objects on principle,’ the ministers were told, ’and upon what he considers sound constitutional principle, to the adoption of the elective principle in the constitution of the legislative councils in the colonies.’ In 1836 the king had not yet become a negligible factor in determining the policy of the government; and the idea was dropped.

Lord Gosford arrived in Canada at the end of the summer of 1835 to find himself confronted with a discouraging state of affairs. A short session of the Assembly in the earlier part of the year had been marked by unprecedented violence. Papineau had attacked Lord Aylmer in language breathing passion; and had caused Lord Aylmer’s reply to the address of the Assembly containing the Ninety-Two Resolutions to be expunged from the journals of the House as ’an insult cast at the whole nation.’ Papineau had professed himself hopeless of any amendment of grievances by Great Britain. ’When Reform ministries, who called themselves our friends,’ he said, ’have been deaf to our complaints, can we hope that a Tory ministry, the enemy of Reform, will give us a better hearing? We have nothing to expect from the Tories unless we can inspire them with fear or worry them by ceaseless importunity.’ It should be observed, however, that in 1835 Papineau explicitly disclaimed any intention of stirring up civil war. When Gugy, one of the English members of the Assembly, accused him of such an intention, Papineau replied:

Mr Gugy has talked to us again about an outbreak and civil war a ridiculous bugbear which is regularly revived every time the House protests against these abuses, as it was under Craig, under Dalhousie, and still more persistently under the present governor. Doubtless the honourable gentleman, having studied military tactics as a lieutenant in the militia I do not say as a major, for he has been a major only for the purposes of the parade-ground and the ball-room is quite competent to judge of the results of a civil war and of the forces of the country, but he need not fancy that he can frighten us by hinting to us that he will fight in the ranks of the enemy. All his threats are futile, and his fears but the creatures of imagination.

Papineau did not yet contemplate an appeal to arms; and of course he could not foresee that only two years later Conrad Gugy would be one of the first to enter the village of St Eustache after the defeat of the Patriote forces.

In spite of the inflamed state of public feeling, Lord Gosford tried to put into effect his policy of conciliation. He sought to win the confidence of the French Canadians by presiding at their entertainments, by attending the distribution of prizes at their seminaries, and by giving balls on their feast days. He entertained lavishly, and his manners toward his guests were decidedly convivial. ‘Milord,’ exclaimed one of them on one occasion, tapping him on the back at a certain stage of the after-dinner conversation, ’milord, vous étés bien aimable.’ ‘Pardonnez,’ replied Gosford; ’c’est lé vin.’ Even Papineau was induced to accept the governor’s hospitality, though there were not wanting those who warned Gosford that Papineau was irreconcilable. ‘By a wrong-headed and melancholy alchemy,’ wrote an English officer in Quebec to Gosford, ’he will transmute every public concession into a demand for more, in a ratio equal to its extent; and his disordered moral palate, beneath the blandest smile and the softest language, will turn your Burgundy into vinegar.’

The speech with which Lord Gosford opened the session of the legislature in the autumn of 1835 was in line with the rest of his policy. He announced his determination to effect the redress of every grievance. In some cases the action of the executive government would be sufficient to supply the remedy. In others the assistance of the legislature would be necessary. A third class of cases would call for the sanction of the British parliament. He promised that no discrimination against French Canadians should be made in appointments to office. He expressed the opinion that executive councillors should not sit in the legislature. He announced that the French would be guaranteed the use of their native tongue. He made an earnest plea for the settlement of the financial difficulty, and offered some concessions. The legislature should be given control of the hereditary revenues of the Crown, if provision were made for the support of the executive and the judiciary. Finally, he made a plea for the reconciliation of the French and English races in the country, whom he described as ’the offspring of the two foremost nations of mankind.’ Not even the most extreme of the Patriotes could fail to see that Lord Gosford was holding out to them an olive branch.

Great dissatisfaction, of course, arose among the English in the colony at Lord Gosford’s policy. ‘Constitutional associations,’ which had been formed in Quebec and Montreal for the defence of the constitution and the rights and privileges of the English-speaking inhabitants of Canada, expressed gloomy forebodings as to the probable result of the policy. The British in Montreal organized among themselves a volunteer rifle corps, eight hundred strong, ’to protect their persons and property, and to assist in maintaining the rights and principles granted them by the constitution’; and there was much indignation when the rifle corps was forced to disband by order of the governor, who declared that the constitution was in no danger, and that, even if it were, the government would be competent to deal with the situation.

Nor did Gosford find it plain sailing with all the French Canadians. Papineau’s followers in the House took up at first a distinctly independent attitude. Gosford was informed that the appointment of the royal commission was an insult to the Assembly; it threw doubt on the assertions which Papineau and his followers had made in petitions and resolutions. If the report of the commissioners turned out to be in accord with the views of the House, well and good; but if not, that would not influence the attitude of the House. They would not alter their demands.

In spite, however, of the uneasiness of the English official element, and the obduracy of the extreme Patriotes, it is barely possible that Gosford, with his bonhomie and his Burgundy, might have effected a modus vivendi, had there not occurred, about six months after Gosford’s arrival in Canada, one of those unfortunate and unforeseen events which upset the best-laid schemes of mice and men. This was the indiscreet action of Sir Francis Bond Head, the newly appointed lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, in communicating to the legislature of Upper Canada the ipsissima verba of his instructions from the Colonial Office. It was immediately seen that a discrepancy existed between the tenor of Sir Francis Bond Head’s instructions and the tenor of Lord Gosford’s speech at the opening of the legislature of Lower Canada in 1835. Sir Francis Bond Head’s instructions showed beyond peradventure that the British government did not contemplate any real constitutional changes in the Cañadas; above all, it did not propose to yield to the demand for an elective Legislative Council. This fact was called to the attention of Papineau and his friends by Marshall Spring Bidwell, the speaker of the Assembly of Upper Canada; and immediately the fat was in the fire. Papineau was confirmed in his belief that justice could not be hoped for; those who had been won over by Gosford’s blandishments experienced a revulsion of feeling; and Gosford saw the fruit of his efforts vanishing into thin air.

A climax came over the question of supply. Lord Gosford had asked the Assembly to vote a permanent civil list, in view of the fact that the government offered to hand over to the control of the legislature the casual and territorial revenues of the Crown. But the publication of Sir Francis Bond Head’s instructions effectually destroyed any hope of this compromise being accepted. In the session of the House which was held in the early part of 1836, Papineau and his friends not only refused to vote a permanent civil list; they declined to grant more than six months’ supply in any case; and with this they made the threat that if the demands of the Patriotes were not met at the end of the six months, no more supplies would be voted. This action was deemed so unsatisfactory that the Legislative Council threw out the bill of supply. The result was widespread distress among the public officials of the colony. This was the fourth year in which no provision had been made for the upkeep of government. In 1833 the bill of supply had been so cumbered with conditions that it had been rejected by the Legislative Council. In 1834, owing to disputes between the Executive and the Assembly, the legislature had separated without a vote on the estimates. In 1835 the Assembly had declined to make any vote of supply. In earlier years the Executive had been able, owing to its control of certain royal and imperial revenues, to carry on the government after a fashion under such circumstances; but since it had transferred a large part of these revenues to the control of the legislature, it was no longer able to meet the situation. Papineau and his friends doubtless recognized that they now had the ‘Bureaucrats’ at their mercy; and they seem to have made up their minds to achieve the full measure of their demands, or make government impossible by withholding the supplies, no matter what suffering this course might inflict on the families of the public servants.

In the autumn of 1836 the royal commissioners brought their labours to a close. Lord Gosford, it is true, remained in the colony as governor until the beginning of 1838, and Sir George Gipps remained until the beginning of 1837, but Sir Charles Grey left for England in November 1836 with the last of the commissioners’ reports. These reports, which were six in number, exercised little direct influence upon the course of events in Canada. The commissioners pronounced against the introduction of responsible government, in the modern sense of the term, on the ground that it would be incompatible with the status of a colony. They advised against the project of an elective Legislative Council. In the event of a crisis arising, they submitted the question whether the total suspension of the constitution would not be less objectionable than any partial interference with the particular clauses. It is evident from the reports that the commissioners had bravely survived their earlier view that the discontented Canadians might be won over by unctuous blandishments alone. They could not avoid the conclusion that this policy had failed.