Chapter 11. Politics to 1860

11.9 Early Reformism and Reformers

Several attempts were made to expand the influence of the Lower Canadian assembly before and during the War of 1812. As Canadien assemblymen became more adroit at using their legislative powers to block and delay bills, they sought trade-offs that would at the very least limit the authority of the executive. Pierre Bédard (1762-1829), a leading francophone lawyer and co-founder of the opposition Parti Canadien, called for Colonial Office oversight of the executive. Bédard’s request indicated that the assembly was not calling for an end to British rule, and that it trusted London more than it trusted the governor and his clique. That recommendation went nowhere, and the second decade of the 19th century witnessed a hardening of positions in the government of Lower Canada. A handful of dominant personalities emerged at that time who would be influential in government politics for the next generation or two.

Parti Canadien

Louis-Joseph Papineau (1786-1871), a seigneur and lawyer, began his rise to leadership of the Canadien cause in the assembly around 1815. His father, Joseph Papineau (1752-1841), had been a member of the assembly and a notary as well. An exploration of their two lives and trajectories reveals some of the profound changes that were underway in Lower Canadian society.

Joseph was a monarchist, a position that was consistent with anti-revolutionary sentiment in Canada. The murder of Louis XVI was an affront to many in Canada, as the king of France had occupied the position of protector of the colony, was the undisputed head of state, and was thought to rule by the will of God (divine right). Men like Papineau Sr. found it easier to transfer loyalty to a British monarch (who was, in any event, a Hanoverian with deep roots in Germany) than to be sentimental about France after the Revolution. Joseph did, however, break with the ancien régime in one respect: he renounced his Catholicism, something that should have made him a favourite of the assimilationist Château Clique. But Papineau Sr. was ideologically the enemy of the executive. His philosophy was increasingly liberal, meaning that he favoured opportunity for individual Canadiens to prosper and thus to challenge established elites.

Louis-Joseph carried these attitudes forward. (In at least one respect, however, he circled back on Joseph: Papineau Jr. embraced seigneurial feudalism as being in the best interest of Canadien culture.) He entered politics in 1810, just as French-Canadian nationalism was beginning to take shape, and he campaigned for the preservation of traditional Canadien institutions. Of these, the Catholic Church occupied a conflicted position. Louis-Joseph was educated in the Séminaire de Québec but he followed his father’s path of renouncing the faith. The ideals of the Church were by this time seen as too conservative and reactionary to sit well with the liberal professionals. Also, reformers viewed the Lower Canadian Church as a buttress to the Château Clique. By 1815 Papineau’s popularity in the Parti Canadien was enough to see him elected Speaker of the Assembly, a position that came with a nice salary.[1] Without real authority beyond the assembly, the Parti did what it could to thwart the assimilationist urges of the Clique; in turn, this obstructionism hardened the resolve of British Party (a.k.a. the Château Clique, the Lower Canadian Tories) to achieve the elimination of French-Catholic culture.

In 1822 members of the Château Clique proposed the union of Upper and Lower Canada. This was clearly another try at assimilation that would weaken the French-Canadian hold on the assembly and thus on the laws around culture, education, and language. Papineau and an anglophone ally, John Neilson (1776-1848), travelled to London to persuade the House of Commons to reject the union. The Clique’s initiative failed and Papineau was able to take credit for this setback. The idea of union as a means to achieve the end of French-Catholic culture did not, however, go away. Through the 1820s and the 1830s the Château Clique advocated for a reunification of the Canadas. The separation imposed by the Constitutional Act had cost Montreal its western hinterland, so there was an economic issue, but principally the goal of the Clique was to swamp the francophone population with the rapidly expanding number of anglophones to the west.

Robert Gourlay

Reformers in Upper Canada faced similarly obdurate opponents in the Family Compact. One of the first to challenge the Tory elite was Robert Gourlay. Not long after he arrived in Upper Canada from Scotland in 1817, Gourlay began  building a coherent reform movement. Gourlay was an early statistician (Malthus used his work on British farmers), and his innovative survey of farmers in the Niagara district revealed that Tory economic and political priorities were holding back land sales, farm development, and general prosperity. By banning American settlers from the region they were cutting off Canadian landowners from prospective buyers. Land that should be in production, therefore, was not. Gourlay’s strident criticisms of the Family Compact and his many efforts to effect political change were unsuccessful. After spending some time in jail and in exile, he became a spent force in Upper Canadian affairs. His technique in confronting authority was never especially pretty: “Through the columns of the Niagara Spectator he poured out an extraordinary torrent of abuse against ‘the vile, loathsome and lazy vermin of Little York,’ and others hostile to him.”[2] Still, he opened the floodgates of criticism in the colony and they would not be shut again for several decades.

Key Points

  • Reformers in Lower Canada sought to empower Canadiens and vouchsafe their culture while taking a secularist position in opposition to the clergy.
  • The leading reformers in Lower Canada were drawn from the liberal professionals and the seigneurial class.
  • Reform in Upper Canada began as a critique of Toryism and its efforts to manipulate the land market.

  1. Fernand Ouellet, “PAPINEAU, LOUIS-JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed October 6, 2014, .
  2. F. Wise, “GOURLAY, ROBERT FLEMING,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9 (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003). Accessed October 6, 2014, .


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Canadian History: Pre-Confederation - 2nd Edition Copyright © 2020 by John Douglas Belshaw is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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