Address of the Constitutional Association of the City of Montreal to the Inhabitants of the Sister Colonies

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Address of the Constitutional Association of the City of Montreal to the Inhabitants of the Sister Colonies
December 13, 1837

When sedition and rebellion have boldly proclaimed themselves, in the most populous and prosperous portions of this once contented and apparently loyal Province, and when anarchy and confusion have set the laws at defiance, and outraged the harmony an quiet of social life, the question naturally arises, to what circumstances of oppression, or to what unredressed grievances such a calamitous state of things is to be ascribed.

The Constitutional Association of this city has undertaken the important duty of answering the enquiry, and of explaining to the inhabitants of our Sister Colonies, as succinctly as the nature of the subject will admit, the real cause of the discontent which has called into being the active disturbances at present, most unhappily, and at the same time most unjustifiably, existing in Lower Canada.

At the conquest of the Province of Quebec by the British arms, the greater proportion of its inhabitants chose to remain in the Province1, trusting to the generosity of their conquerors, rather than to return to the country of their ancestors2; they became British subjects by the mere fact of their provincial residence3, and subsequent civil and political benefactions conferred upon them, demonstrated their well-placed trust in the generosity of the British Government4.

The full exercise of their religious worship, the complete enjoyment of their ancient civil laws, and the undisturbed use of their native language, were among the number of civil and social privileges, guaranteed to them5; and political privileges, of equal extent to those enjoyed by the British provincial inhabitants, were, in addition, subsequently bestowed upon them.6

The uncongeniality of the French laws as a system of provincial civil jurisprudence, with the spirit and feelings of British settlers, and their expressed desire for a change from the petty tyranny of a Governor and Council to the freedom of a Representative Provincial Government - procured still greater advantage for the French Canadians7. In the year 1791, the division of the Province of Quebec into the two separate Provinces of Lower Canada and Upper Canada, was carried into effect, and a Constitution, essentially similar to that of the Parent State, was conferred upon each, whilst, at the same time, universal suffrage, was, in effect, granted to their inhabitants8.

It was conceived that this measure, by which one division should consist, as much as possible, of those who were well inclined to the English laws, and the other, of those who were attached to the French laws, was best adapted to put an end to all disputes of a legal sort - to reconcile the jarring interests and opposite views of the provincial inhabitants - to prevent a great degree of animosity and confusion, from their rotted opposition of interests and to obviate dissatisfaction from a great ascendancy of one party over another in a united Legislature.

Two objections to the measure were, however, neglected by the Minister of the day9, that it fostered a population of foreigners10 in a British colony, and that it contained no provision, whereby the inhabitants of the British Islands should be totally excluded from settling themselves in Lower Canada11.

The experience of fifty years of separation between the Provinces, and the present insurrectionary and seditious spirit exhibited in Lower Canada, plainly show how far the advantageous results anticipated from that impolitic and undesired measure have been realized.

The possession of the right of almost universal suffrage, and of a numerical popular majority of the provincial constituency, gave the complete command of the Representative branch of the Legislature to the French Canadians, who soon exhibited a perfect knowledge of their advantage, and of that exclusive spirit which has since invariably actuated all their proceedings, and grown into a firm determination to accomplish their final purposes of the destruction of the interests and rights of the provincial inhabitants of British and Irish origin, and of the provincial connexion subsisting with the Parent State.

A cursory examination of the composition of the House of Assembly, from its establishment, will shew that, with scarcely an exception, no individual of British or Irish origin has been returned to serve as a member of that body by a French Canadian majority, unless as a pledged supporter of French Canadian principles12; with scarcely an exception, no provincial law has been passed, how much soever required for the support of the interests or the protection of the rights of the inhabitants of British and Irish origin, and that even these legal exceptions were invariably of the temporary nature, and subject to the capricious pleasure of French Canadian majorities. The spirit of the legislation of that body will shew that its temporary character was adopted to render the Province the more completely subject to their control, or to enable them the more easily to take advantage of their excepted predominance, for the abrogation of those very temporary laws which they had been constrained to pass. The political principles of that body will shew a fixed opposition to British interests, not only in their aversion to or rejection of every measure, which would tend to the introduction of capital and of a British population into the Province, as, for example, an effectual system for the registration of mortgages, and an abrogation of the feudal tenure13; but also in their positive introduction and adoption of every measure likely to tend to the privation of British and Irish rights, or to the destruction of British and Irish interests, such as the existing county division of the Province, by which the British and Irish constituency in the seigniories has been completely swamped in the greater numbers of the French Canadians, and their defeated attempt to deprive their fellow-subjects of British and Irish origin in the cities, tenants of leasehold property in copartnership, from a right of voting for Members of the Assembly. The claim of that body, for the sole management and disposal of the whole revenue of the Province, has constantly had in view the attraction into their own hands of the entire provincial authority, and the subjection of the Executive Government to their arbitrary will14. From their first insidious attempt in 1795, to obtain the repeal of the permanent appropriation contained in the Act of 1774, for the support of the civil government and the administration of justice, thereby to subject the Executive Government to their good pleasure, for any further support than the pittance they then agreed to allow, through the whole course of the financial difficulties, which they have never allowed to slumber, by means of their annual supply bills, their difficulties as to the items of that supply, their resolution in 1822 not to grant permanent supplies, or supplies during the Sovereign's life, their delegations to England in 1828, and the whole category of their agitation upon the subject, down to the year 1831, when the full accomplishment of their long sought desires was obtained from the good faith of the British Government, by the repeal of the permanent appropriations; their first, last, great object was to obtain possession of the provincial revenues, well knowing that by this means the Government would be cast into their hands. Finally, the detail of the grievances of this body, as representing the opinions of their constituency, the so called great mass of the population, completes the evidence of their exclusive interests: in them will be found, the abrogation of the Charter granted to the British American Land Company15, by means of which the Assembly sought to assume management of the waste lands in the townships, and thereby to prevent the settlement therein of a British and Irish population16; the repeal of the Tenures Act, by which a commutation of seigniorial tenure may be effected, from their apprehension of its leading to th introduction into the Province of British capital; their indisposition to encourage the settlement of the townships of this Province, because they are principally inhabited by a British, Irish and American population; their unwillingness to co-operate with Upper Canada, in the extensive improvements in progress in that Province, by which its settlement and prosperity might be augmented, and like advantages might thereby accrue to the British and Irish inhabitants of Lower Canada; and their pertinacious endeavours to render the Legislative Council elective, because in it alone were to be found the means of opposing their exclusive pretensions, and of protecting British interests17. The history of the House of Assembly in its composition, its legislation, its spirit, and political principle, fully establishes the aim which its members have constantly kept in view, the aggrandizement of the population of French and the oppression of that of British.

The recorded testimony of a French Canadian leader, and one of the delegates to England, in 1828, to represent the grievances of his fellow-countrymen, an since that time, their paid agent for similar purposes corroborates the views taken by the Constitutional Association; he declared, in his examination before the Canada Committee of the House of Commons, in 1828, that "the establishment of the English law as applicable to property held in the townships on the tenure of free and common soccage would be an infringement of the rights belonging to the French Canadians, if not done by the Legislature of Lower Canada; that the French laws should be allowed to continue all over the country; that facilities should have been given to the French Canadians to settle in the Townships; that the means of going there should have been given to them; that a system of education, according to the notions and ideas of the French Canadians, should have been followed; that the desire of the French Canadians must necessarily be to keep up their own institutions, and to preserve their laws in every part of the country; that the Legislative Council should be composed of men who would side with the mass of the people, and, in effecting this latter arrangement, that its natural effect would be to secure the means of extending the French laws and the French Canadian system over Lower Canada."

In the full and complete security of their persons and property, in the free and unrestricted enjoyment of their religious worship, their ancient civil laws, their native and beloved language, and of an equality of rights and privileges in the provincial representative government with their fellow-subjects of British and Irish origin, in possession, moreover of a numerical popular majority, the French Canadians could have no sympathies in common with the people of another race and speaking another language, no inducement to divest themselves of prejudices dear to them alike from the associations of country and the recollections of life, or to abandon habits and customs which they cherished and to which they were firmly attached, for the questionable advantages to be obtained from assimilation with strangers, whom they were taught to disregard; and the natural consequence has been, that, in proportion as the French Canadian population has increased, these evils have likewise increased, until the repugnance to British interest and British connexion has finally assumed the form of open and declared rebellion.

The French Canadian population were thus not only nationally inclined to mark their active opposition to their fellow-subjects of British and Irish origin, but they have been taught to consider them as strangers and trespassers upon their soil; they have been taught to feel towards them none of those kindly sympathies which united together subjects of the same country and possessors of the same rights; they have in fine been taught to believe themselves oppressed by their fellow-subjects of British and Irish origin, and to imagine that they possessed the power of expelling their oppressors18. Overlooking moral feebleness in physical capability, desperate men made an open livelihood by influencing the population of French origin to acts of violence; missionaries of insurrection, by their own example, ostentatiously shewed to them the manner of setting the laws at defiance; and individuals loaded with every species of personal contempt, aggravated a local pressure into popular tumult, or embittered an unimportant grievance into bloodshed. In all cases, the object was attained, active discontent was introduced into the passive population, and noon day meetings gradually ripened into sedition and rebellion.19

It is this exclusive French Canadian spirit alone which has given rise to all the discontent existing in this Province, it is this which has in fact made the question one of national origin and not of political party, in it is to be discovered the source of all the disturbances which have brought sedition and rebellion in their train, and in it alone is to be found a full and complete answer to the enquiry, to what causes the present unhappy condition of this Province is to be ascribed.

Peter McGill, member of the Legislative Council from January 1832 to March 1838.

This conclusion is borne out, by the text-book of the complaints of the French Canadian Representatives, adopted in 1834, the famous ninety-two Resolutions of the House of Assembly, in which will be found a detail of grievances and abuses which that body knew to be either altogether redressed, or in active course of being so; reference is therein principally had to those which have been alluded to: the introduction of the elective principle into the composition of the Legislative Council the abrogation of the Tenure Act, and the disposal of the whole revenue of the Province; the two former have been most wisely refused, the latter as unwisely granted. By their admission, therefore, no real oppression exists in the Province, and no real grievance, consistent with the preservation of British supremacy, remains unredressed.

The French Canadian leaders have endeavoured to excite the sympathy of the citizens of the United States, and of the professed republicans in the Upper Canada, in behalf of themselves and their fellow-countrymen, by constantly appealing to their assistance for the support of popular institutions and popular rights, as if their real views were republican, and as if that form of government favoured by the French Canadian population. It is sufficient to meet this fallacious inference with a direct denial, as being contrary to fact, and to the habits, feelings and customs of that population, and as being altogether disproved by the evident principle of all the measures which have been proposed or approved by the French Canadian population, or its Representatives in Provincial Parliament assembled. These plainly shew that their views did not extend beyond the means of securing their own exclusive designs and intentions.

Although hitherto the voice of supplication in favour of British and Irish provincial grievances has been unheeded, amidst the clamours of an insurrectionary faction, these loyal subjects still confidently trust in the magnanimity of the Mother Country, and still anticipate from her justice, an entire redress of their unmerited and patiently endured grievances.

It is in the midst of disorder and disturbance, that the Constitutional Association of this city presumes to claim the sympathies of the inhabitants of the Sister Colonies, and their assistance, if required, for the protection of the rights and privileges of British subjects, and the maintenance of the connexion of the Province with the Mother Country.

PETER McGILL, Chairman,
WM. BADGLEY, Secretary.

Montreal, Dec. 13, 1837.


1. It is arguable whether staying or leaving was a matter of "choice" for most inhabitants. It would be truer to say that those few who had the financial means to depart and the opportunity to re-settle somewhere else within the Kingdom of France had a choice to leave or to stay.

2. It is most irrational to suggest that one can "return" to a country located on a continent they have never visited.

3. It was not a mere fact of their residence. Read Articles of Capitulation of Montreal.

4. The "civil and political benefactions" were of course granted as concessions. "There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation." — George Washington, in Washington's Farewell Address, 1796

5. This is a most exaggerated depiction of the extent of the small portion of justice granted by the Act of 1774, when the civil disqualification of the Catholics was in theory ended. In practise, the injustice continued, as the Catholics, who formed a great majority of the population, were severely underrepresented in all bodies attached to the provincial State.

6. Fearing to loose it all after the taking of the Bastille, the British government conceded, in 1791, 28 years after the cession of the country, the establishment of a constitutional government. "I am persuaded that it is a point of true Policy to make these Concessions at a time when they may be received as matter of favour, and when it is in Our own power to regulate and direct the manner of applying them, rather than to wait 'till they shall be extorted from Us by a necessity which shall neither leave Us any discretion in the form, nor any merit in the substance of what we give." — Grenville to Dorchester, October 20, 1789

7. It should indeed have procured a great advantage to the mass of the people over the minority of interested seigneurs and merchants who had thus far confiscated all the power to the majority. But as Baron Glenelg observed: "The Constitution of 1791, from the earlier years at least in the history of Canada, might be said not to be administered. It might have been very advantageous for the people of Canada if it had been so; but the Executive Government took part with one race, against the other—it took part with the English race, instead of being the umpire and arbitrator between both. All the honours and emoluments flowed in the same channel, and thus the popular institutions were severed, for the Canadians, from the Government, and they obtained no advantage through them. This was done while the Government usurped practically the funds of the State. Those funds were in the hands of the Governors—abuses crept in, and at length they prevailed to such an extent that many of the English united with the French race to obtain a redress of grievances." — Charles Grant, 1st Baron Glenelg, Speech on the Affairs of Canada (18 Jan., 1838), PD, 3rd ser., Vol. 40, cols. 162-77, in Morning Chronicle, 19 Jan., 1838, p. 2.

8. Article XX of the Constitutional Act of 1791. The suffrage was not universal, but often described as amounting to it in practice. Compared to the situation prevailing in Great Britain, that of Lower Canada appeared most liberal, in many respects. Even women, often widows, being under Lower Canadian civil law the rightful owners or tenants of properties whose value was sufficient to qualify, exerted their right to vote. Read "Right to vote of Québec women", on the Web site of the Directeur général des élections du Québec

9. The Ministry of William Pitt the Younger.

10. Foreigners! Canadians born in Canada are foreigners! The insult still exists today, the majority of Quebecers being told that they can "go back" to France if they are not happy in British North America (which is called Canada since 1867).

11. Indeed, the British subjects from Great Britain were never excluded from settling within a province also consisting of other British subjects, albeit of a different nationality.

12. And what would those "French Canadian principles" have been? Equality to all British subjects without regards to the origin of their ancestors, their language or religion? No taxation without representation?

13. From John Stuart Mill's review of Canadian affairs: We hear it, forinstance, in every speech, and read it in every newspaper, that the Canadians are an ignorant peasantry, who, being hoodwinked by their seigneurs, and by their lawyers, are fighting to preserve the feudal system. Some scribes have actually dropped the expression, “heritable jurisdictions,” as if any such thing existed in Canada. More discreet advocates have urged the hostility of the party to the Canada Tenures Act [6 George IV, c. 59 (1825)]: a law enacted by Parliament to facilitate the conversion of the feudal tenures into the tenure of free and common socage, under the English law. Now the Commissioners expressly declare that this pretended attachment to the bad parts of the old French law of landed property does not exist. “We believe,” say they (General Report, p. 34 [PP, 1837, XXIV, 216]), “that the injurious tendency of heavy fines on the transfer of property, as well as of other obstacles to its free transmission, are beginning to be generally acknowledged, and that in reality there is less difference on this point than might at first sight appear; so that if the evils of the feudal tenure had not unfortunately been seized as topics for political declamation, and thrown into the general mass of subjects of party contest, they would probably receive an early remedy by common consent. In the views now expressed by leading Canadians of French origin, there is no desire whatever to perpetuate the onerous parts of the tenure, and the people have been moved, in some cases, to represent the inconvenience.” After citing instances, the Commissioners say that a Committee of Assembly in 1834 “exhibited a feeling very favourable to the extinction, on reasonable terms, of the burthens of the seigneurial tenure;” that on the other great point, the inconveniences of the French law of mortgage, the House of Assembly expressed “just and liberal views more than ten years ago,” [p. 224,] and that the distracted state of the province, and not any desire “to adhere to institutions no longer fitted to the intelligence of the age,” is the cause why a remedy has not yet been applied. The objections of the Assembly to the Canada Tenures Act are stated by the Commissioners; they are numerous and weighty: we mention two of them; that, being framed in ignorance of the pre-existing law, it unsettled titles and destroyed existing rights, and also, “that it was far too favourable to the seigneur.” [Pp. 216-17.] If this complaint proceeded from a people hoodwinked by their seigneurs, it says much for the public spirit and honourable feeling of the seigneurs. The Commissioners, after a full examination, declare all the objections to be valid; and recommend (what Parliament has since voted) that as soon as the question of compensation can be adjusted with the colony for the rights created under the Tenures Act, the Act shall be repealed, and the reform of the law of landed tenures left to the Provincial Parliament. [Pp. 217-20.] The fault which the Canadians find with the English tenures, is not the feudal customs which they are intended to replace, but those which they introduce. According to the usual custom of men who despise “theory,” English legislators could hit upon no other means of getting rid of institutions which were supposed to be bad, than by transplanting their own, bodily. They could not manage to introduce, in place of the feudal tenures, the full and absolute property in land, which is common under English law, without introducing along with it the complicated and expensive English modes of conveyance (those which existed under the French customs being, according to the Commissioners, “simple, expeditious, and cheap,” [p. 214,]) and without introducing the feudal institution of primogeniture. Now it is one of the properties of this favourite institution of aristocracy, that no people who have ever lived under anything else can bear it. “The people of all origins on this continent,” say the Commissioners, “greatly prefer the equal division, which existed under the French law;” and the feeling is nowhere stronger, they say, than in the townships where there is not a single French inhabitant. [Pp. 214-15.] Accordingly the Commissioners recommend that the French methods of conveyance be restored, and the English tenures divested of the incident of primogeniture. Will the English public learn from this how grossly the dislike of the French Canadians to innovations in their social arrangements has been exaggerated, and how little credit is due, not merely to the ministerial press, but to Lord Glenelg, when he accuses the popular party of being the illiberal party, an “oligarchy hostile to improvement—unfriendly to commerce—attached to the obsolete notions of former times?”

14. The arbitrary will of the elected House of Assembly of the Province?? If parliamentary representation can be considered to exert an "arbitrary" will, how are we to qualify the will exerted by an unelected Council?

15. "As a member of the Legislative Council since January 1832, the Honourable Peter McGill – for members of council were all honourable men – was active in Lower Canada’s largest land deal. Organized in 1832 by Russell Ellice and Nathaniel Gould, McGill’s London partner, the British American Land Company was sold over a million acres in the Eastern Townships for the sum of £110,321 sterling, by the British government. It thus had a stranglehold on much of the undeveloped agricultural land in the colony. McGill, along with Moffatt, was appointed a commissioner in Canada for the company in 1834. The commissioners’ most important duty, overseeing the purchase of 147 different tracts of land in the developed regions of the townships, was completed by June 1835, thus ensuring almost absolute control over the subsequent agricultural and industrial development of the region." — Robert Sweeny. "McGill, Peter", in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, retrieved April 22, 2008

16. Or maybe the House of Assembly sought "to assume management of the waste lands in the townships" because it was interior legislation and because the British American Land Company's monopoly over a million acres of land was anti-constitutional?

17. Here the author associates "British Interests" with his own private interests in the British American Land Company.

18. The power to expel a large civilian population was in fact in the hands of the same kind of oligarchy which a few generations before had expelled the Acadians from their lands.

19. This would make for a good description of what his own party had indeed achieved.

See also

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