Read CHAPTER X - THE LORD HIGH COMMISSIONER of The 'Patriotes' of '37, A Chronicle of the Lower Canada Rebellion, free online book, by Alfred D. Decelles, on

The rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada profoundly affected public opinion in the mother country. That the first year of the reign of the young Queen Victoria should have been marred by an armed revolt in an important British colony shocked the sensibilities of Englishmen and forced the country and the government to realize that the grievances of the Canadian Reformers were more serious than they had imagined. It was clear that the old system of alternating concession and repression had broken down and that the situation demanded radical action. The Melbourne government suspended the constitution of Lower Canada for three years, and appointed the Earl of Durham as Lord High Commissioner, with very full powers, to go out to Canada to investigate the grievances and to report on a remedy.

John George Lambton, the first Earl of Durham, was a wealthy and powerful Whig nobleman, of decided Liberal, if not Radical, leanings. He had taken no small part in the framing of the Reform Bill of 1832, and at one time he had been hailed by the English Radicals or Chartists as their coming leader. It was therefore expected that he would be decently sympathetic with the Reform movements in the Cañadas. At the same time, Melbourne and his ministers were only too glad to ship him out of the country. There was no question of his great ability and statesmanlike outlook. But his advanced Radical views were distasteful to many of his former colleagues; and his arrogant manners, his lack of tact, and his love of pomp and circumstance made him unpopular even in his own party. The truth is that he was an excellent leader to work under, but a bad colleague to work with. The Melbourne government had first got rid of him by sending him to St Petersburg as ambassador extraordinary; and then, on his return from St Petersburg, they got him out of the way by sending him to Canada. He was at first loath to go, mainly on the ground of ill health; but at the personal intercession of the young queen he accepted the commission offered him. It was an evil day for himself, but a good day for Canada, when he did so.

Durham arrived in Quebec, with an almost regal retinue, on May 28, 1838. Gosford, who had remained in Canada throughout the rebellion, had gone home at the end of February; and the administration had been taken over by Sir John Colborne, the commander-in-chief of the forces. As soon as the news of the suspension of the constitution reached Lower Canada, Sir John Colborne appointed a provisional special council of twenty-two members, half of them French and half of them English, to administer the affairs of the province until Lord Durham should arrive. The first official act of Lord Durham in the colony swept this council out of existence. ‘His Excellency believes,’ the members of the council were told, ’that it is as much the interest of you all, as for the advantage of his own mission, that his administrative conduct should be free from all suspicions of political influence or party feeling; that it should rest on his own undivided responsibility, and that when he quits the Province, he should leave none of its permanent residents in any way committed by the acts which his Government may have found it necessary to perform, during the temporary suspension of the Constitution.’ In its place he appointed a small council of five members, all but one from his own staff. The one Canadian called to this council was Dominick Daly, the provincial secretary, whom Colborne recommended as being unidentified with any political party.

The first great problem with which Lord Durham and his council had to deal was the question of the political prisoners, numbers of whom were still lying in the prisons of Montreal. Sir John Colborne had not attempted to decide what should be done with them, preferring to shift this responsibility upon Lord Durham. It would probably have been much better to have settled the matter before Lord Durham set foot in the colony, so that his mission might not have been handicapped at the outset with so thorny a problem; but it is easy to follow Colborne’s reasoning. In the first place, he did not bring the prisoners to trial because no Lower-Canadian jury at that time could have been induced to convict them, a reasonable inference from the fact that the murder of Weir had gone unavenged, even as the murderers of Chartrand were to be acquitted by a jury a few months later. In the second place, Colborne had not the power to deal with the prisoners summarily. Moreover, most of the rebel leaders had not been captured. The only three prisoners of much importance were Wolfred Nelson, Robert Bouchette, and Bonaventure Viger. The rest of the Patriote leaders were scattered far and wide. Chenier and Girod lay beneath the springing sod; Papineau, O’Callaghan, Storrow Brown, Robert Nelson, Cote, and Rodier were across the American border; Morin had just come out of his hiding-place in the Canadian backwoods; and LaFontaine, after vainly endeavouring, on the outbreak of rebellion, to get Gosford to call together the legislature of Lower Canada, had gone abroad. The future course of the rebels who had fled to the United States was still doubtful; there was a strong probability that they might create further disturbances. And, while the situation was still unsettled, Colborne thought it better to leave the fate of the prisoners to be decided by Durham.

Durham’s instructions were to temper justice with mercy. His own instincts were apparently in favour of a complete amnesty; but he supposed it necessary to make an example of some of the leaders. After earnest deliberation and consultation with his council, and especially with his chief secretary, Charles Buller, the friend and pupil of Thomas Carlyle, Durham determined to grant to the rebels a general amnesty, with only twenty-four exceptions. Eight of the men excepted were political prisoners who had been prominent in the revolt and who had confessed their guilt and had thrown themselves on the mercy of the Lord High Commissioner; the remaining sixteen were rebel leaders who had fled from the country. Durham gave orders that the eight prisoners should be transported to the Bermudas during the queen’s pleasure. The sixteen refugees were forbidden to return to Canada under penalty of death without benefit of clergy.

No one can fail to see that this course was dictated by the humanest considerations. A criminal rebellion had terminated without the shedding judicially of a drop of blood. Lord Durham even took care that the eight prisoners should not be sent to a convict colony. The only criticism directed against his course in Canada was on the ground of its excessive lenity. Wolfred Nelson and Robert Bouchette had certainly suffered a milder fate than that of Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, who had been hanged in Upper Canada for rebellion. Yet when the news of Durham’s action reached England, it was immediately attacked as arbitrary and unconstitutional. The assault was opened by Lord Brougham, a bitter personal enemy of Lord Durham. In the House of Lords Brougham contended that Durham had had no right to pass sentence on the rebel prisoners and refugees when they had not been brought to trial; and that he had no right to order them to be transported to, and held in, Bermuda, where his authority did not run. In this attitude he was supported by the Duke of Wellington, the leader of the Tory party. Wellington’s name is one which is usually remembered with honour in the history of the British Empire; but on this occasion he did not think it beneath him to play fast and loose with the interests of Canada for the sake of a paltry party advantage. It would have been easy for him to recognize the humanity of Durham’s policy, and to join with the government in legislating away any technical illegalities that may have existed in Durham’s ordinance; but Wellington could not resist the temptation to embarrass the Whig administration, regardless of the injury which he might be doing to the sorely tried people of Canada.

The Melbourne administration, which had sent Durham to Canada, might have been expected to stand behind him when he was attacked. Lord John Russell, indeed, rose in the House of Commons and made a thoroughgoing defence of Durham’s policy as ‘wise and statesmanlike.’ But he alone of the ministers gave Durham loyal support. In the House of Lords Melbourne contented himself with a feeble defence of Durham and then capitulated to the Opposition. Nothing would have been easier for him than to introduce a bill making valid whatever may have been irregular in Durham’s ordinance; but instead of that he disallowed the ordinance, and passed an Act of Indemnity for all those who had had a part in carrying it out. Without waiting to hear Durham’s defence, or to consult with him as to the course which should be followed, the Cabinet weakly surrendered to an attack of his personal enemies. Durham was betrayed in the house of his friends.

The news of the disallowance of the ordinance first reached Durham through the columns of an American newspaper. Immediately his mind was made up. Without waiting for any official notification, he sent in his resignation to the colonial secretary. He was quite satisfied himself that he had not exceeded his powers. ’Until I learn,’ he wrote, ’from some one better versed in the English language that despotism means anything but such an aggregation of the supreme executive and legislative authority in a single head, as was deliberately made by Parliament in the Act which constituted my powers, I shall not blush to hear that I have exercised a despotism; I shall feel anxious only to know how well and wisely I have used, or rather exhibited an intention of using, my great powers.’ But he felt that if he could expect no firm support from the Melbourne government, his usefulness was gone, and resignation was the only course open to him. He wrote, however, that he intended to remain in Canada until he had completed the inquiries he had instituted. In view of the ’lamentable want of information’ with regard to Canada which existed in the Imperial parliament, he confessed that he ’would take shame to himself if he left his inquiry incomplete.’

A few days before Durham left Canada he took the unusual and, under ordinary circumstances, unconstitutional course of issuing a proclamation, in which he explained the reasons for his resignation, and in effect appealed from the action of the home government to Canadian public opinion. It was this proclamation which drew down on him from The Times the nickname of ‘Lord High Seditioner.’ The wisdom of the proclamation was afterwards, however, vigorously defended by Charles Duller. The general unpopularity of the British government, Duller explained, was such in Canada that a little more or less could not affect it; whereas it was a matter of vital importance that the angry and suspicious colonists should find one British statesman with whom they could agree. The real justification of the proclamation lay in the magical effect which it had upon the public temper. The news that the ordinance had been disallowed, and that the whole question of the political prisoners had been once more thrown into the melting-pot, had greatly excited the public mind; and the proclamation fell like oil upon the troubled waters. ’No disorder, no increase of disaffection ensued; on the contrary, all parties in the Province expressed a revival of confidence.’

Lord Durham left Quebec on November 1, 1838. ’It was a sad day and a sad departure,’ wrote Buller. ’The streets were crowded. The spectators filled every window and every house-top, and, though every hat was raised as we passed, a deep silence marked the general grief for Lord Durham’s departure.’ Durham had been in Canada only five short months. Yet in that time he had gained a knowledge of, and an insight into, the Canadian situation such as no other governor of Canada had possessed. The permanent monument of that insight is, of course, his famous Report on the Affairs of British North America, issued by the Colonial Office in 1839. This is no place to write at length about that greatest of all documents ever published with regard to colonial affairs. This much, however, may be said. In the Report Lord Durham rightly diagnosed the evils of the body politic in Canada. He traced the rebellion to two causes, in the main: first, racial feeling; and, secondly, that ’union of representative and irresponsible government’ of which he said that it was difficult to understand how any English statesman ever imagined that such a system would work. And yet one of the two chief remedies which he recommended seemed like a death sentence passed on the French in Canada. This was the proposal for the legislative union of Upper and Lower Canada with the avowed object of anglicizing by absorption the French population. This suggestion certainly did not promote racial peace. The other proposal, that of granting to the Canadian people responsible government in all matters not infringing ‘strictly imperial interests,’ blazed the trail leading out of the swamps of pre-rebellion politics.

In one respect only is Lord Durham’s Report seriously faulty: it is not fair to French Canadians. ‘They cling,’ wrote Durham, ’to ancient prejudices, ancient customs, and ancient laws, not from any strong sense of their beneficial effects, but with the unreasoning tenacity of an uneducated and unprogressive people.’ To their racial and nationalist ambitions he was far from favourable. ‘The error,’ he contended, ’to which the present contest is to be attributed is the vain endeavour to preserve a French-Canadian nationality in the midst of Anglo-American colonies and states’; and he quoted with seeming approval the statement of one of the Lower Canada ‘Bureaucrats’ that ’Lower Canada must be English, at the expense, if necessary, of not being British.’ His primary object in recommending the union of the two Cañadas, to place the French in a minority in the united province, was surely a mistaken policy. Fortunately, it did not become operative. Lord Elgin, a far wiser statesman, who completed Durham’s work by introducing the substance of responsible government which the Report recommended, decidedly opposed anything in the nature of a gradual crusade against French-Canadian nationalism. ‘I for one,’ he wrote, ’am deeply convinced of the impolicy of all such attempts to denationalize the French. Generally speaking, they produce the opposite effect, causing the flame of national prejudice and animosity to burn more fiercely. But suppose them to be successful, what would be the result? You may perhaps Americanize, but, depend upon it, by methods of this description you will never Anglicize the French inhabitants of the province. Let them feel, on the other hand, that their religion, their habits, their prepossessions, their prejudices if you will, are more considered and respected here than in other portions of this vast continent, and who will venture to say that the last hand which waves the British flag on American ground may not be that of a French Canadian?’