The Rebellions of 1837 and 2022 Compared

By Egor Evsikov

 

THE "FREEDOM CONVOY" protest in Ottawa in the first two months of 2022 was cheered by many Canadians as a long-awaited and pent-up expression of resistance to two depressing years of Government overreach. Critics, by contrast, magnified the event into an “illegal insurrection,” a media copy-cat version of the Capitol riot in Washington on Jan. 6, 2021. In keeping with their new role as guardians of orthodoxy, Canadian mainstream media predictably fixated on certain flags photographed in the first day or two and never actually seen: the Nazi Reich flag with swastika, and a battle flag commonly known as the Confederate flag. As an Ottawa resident who works downtown, I witnessed the protest daily but, try as I might, I failed to spot either flag.

When it comes to unusual banners, what I did see on several occasions in the sea of Canada and Quebec flags was the green-white-red tricolor with Henri Julien’s illustration of a Lower Canada rebel, known as “Le Vieux de ’37,” superimposed in the middle. As an old symbol of Canadian rebellion against unaccountable authority it  caught my attention. And pondering its appearance throughout the duration, I could not help but see parallels between events preceding the outbreak of the Upper and Lower Canada rebellions of 1837-38 and the recent tensions over lockdowns and restrictions imposed by the federal and provincial governments in 2020-22.

Epidemics, economic distress, political polarization, rural-urban estrangement — these were only a few of the common factors that fuelled the smouldering embers of 1837 and seemed to be present too in the spirit of 2022. Other common points between past and present that could be adduced to a greater or lesser degree were blue-collar alienation from the establishment, monopolization of wealth by a few, separatist sentiment, anxiety over immigration, moral and financial support for anti-government elements (including some originating south of the border), tall tales that resembled propaganda, invocations of “treason,” the rise of pro- and anti-government groups, the disproportionate use of force by authorities and a governmental system under strain because it was not sufficiently answerable to the populace.

There are methods for tracking these factors more precisely than my or someone else’s vague impressions. Scholars have recently been taking the mathematical techniques used, for example, to track predator-prey cycles in forest ecosystems and begun applying them to American history. Professor Peter Turchin, at the University of Connecticut, has analysed historical economic activity, demographic trends, and outbursts of violence, concluding that most societies’ histories are cyclic and that political instability peaks in certain decades at similar intervals with similar causes. Interestingly, his model is consistent with the new wave of internal strife underway today.[1] Applying Turchin’s theory, we can see indications that Canada too has entered a period of strife.

 

Epidemics

In Canada party strife had proceeded this spring to great lengths, the passions had been roused, antipathies, hatreds and personal animosities were in the height of bitterness… they exercised an unhappy influence by paralysing public measures. The most beneficial and liberal offers coming from one party were regarded with a jealous eye as originating in a sinister intention and rejected by the other. Instead of unanimity for the public welfare there reigned division, destruction and distrust.[2]  

 

Sound familiar? Yes. But it’s from an 1832 report identifying factors that would help contribute to an outbreak of political violence, albeit on a civil Canadian scale, within half a decade. Among these factors is that Upper and Lower Canada experienced deadly cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1834. In June 1832, the Carrick, sailing from Ireland, reached Canada with several sick immigrants on board. The first recorded death occurred on Grosse-Île, near Québec, and from there the illness spread like wildfire throughout the Canadas. On Jun. 14, 1832, Montreal’s La Minerve newspaper reported the spread:

 

Since Monday morning Montreal is in turmoil and the alarm is growing every minute. There is no longer a doubt that cholera is present. We recommend that the public observe strictly the Regulations of the Board of Health.[3]

 

The authorities, fearful of commercial losses by English merchants, refused to close the St. Lawrence to navigation, an omission that allowed ships to spread cholera upriver.[4] The authorities’ initial complacency and caution about overreacting to the epidemic later switched to ever-changing and confusing recommendations and regulations, such as using nose covers, wearing extra clothing, walking on tobacco leaves, and carrying camphor and herbs.[5] By the end of 1832, cholera claimed an estimated 10,000 lives in the Canadas (out of an estimated total population of around 700,000).[6] In Montreal and Québec, 10% of the population died.[7]

In the aftermath some Canadians blamed the British authorities in the mother country for the epidemic, calling its emigration policy negligent, if not deliberately malevolent. For example, the Bishop of Montreal, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, blamed “the invasion of our uncultivated land by British immigrants who threaten to drive us out of our country and reduce our ‘Canadien’ population, year after year, by the spread of disease.”[8] A second, less-deadly wave struck in 1834. Unfortunately the outbreaks of 1832 and 1834 were then followed by crop failures in 1833 and 1836 due to a recurring cycle of floods, drought, and insect swarms.[9] Not all these things could properly be blamed on the government, of course, But the high death toll and the failure of authorities to take sufficiently vigorous or sensible steps added to brewing political instability in Upper and Lower Canada, helping put the colonies on the path toward rebellion and repression.[10]

Now consider that Covid-19, according to public health officials, first reached Canada on Jan. 25, 2020, via a flight from China to Toronto airport. Even this claim may be inaccurate, since one-quarter of Canadian military members had Covid symptoms on a return flight home following the Military World Games in China in October 2019 and were sick for weeks afterwards.[11] But confronted with its arrival by January 2020 at the latest, the federal government initially declined to declare a public health emergency or suspend flights from China. Instead Prime Minister Trudeau fatuously pointed to alleged anti-Asian racial discrimination even as the new virus spread.[12] By March that complacency changed into drastic, arguably panicky travel restrictions and a tsunami of conflicting closures and restrictions on the daily lives of Canadians by Ottawa and its provincial counterparts that were prolonged based on unclear and unstable reasoning.

Ontario and Quebec’s restrictions were among the harshest in the world, despite comparatively low hospitalization and death rates. Indoor dining in restaurants and gyms in Toronto were ordered to close for months longer than in any major city in the world, earning it the nickname "the lockdown capital of North America."[13] Quebec introduced nightly curfews and banned private gatherings for months: police collected more than $30 million in fines by early 2021.[14]

The pandemic further undermined confidence in government by exposing serious shortcomings in public healthcare systems that aggravated the public health crisis. Short-staffed and underfunded hospitals and care facilities delayed and deferred diagnoses and treatment for other illnesses on a grand scale. This unsatisfactory response resulted in both a credibility crisis and a care crisis in the most populous provinces. The crisis in long-term care homes was exacerbated by staff abandoning their posts, resulting in deaths from neglect rather than the virus. In Ontario and Quebec, regular and reserve military members were activated to manage the situation and report on what they found: The report was leaked, alarming senior military planners but winning popular acclaim for the rank and file.[15] And claims that the health system could not cope with a crisis because of years of prior neglect and bad policy were not helpful in restoring faith in the authorities.

The immediate cause for the convoy protests was a new federal government vaccine mandate introduced on Jan. 15, 2022, requiring all truckers crossing the border from the United States into Canada to be vaccinated.[16] That once again seemed both harsh in effect and dubious in rationale. Previously, the truckers were exempt from mandatory vaccination due to their crucial role in the cross-border supply-chain and their largely solitary occupation, and there was no reason to think that exemption had contributed significantly to the pandemic. Moreover the new mandate compounded numerous other mandates and vaccine passports, which in some provinces banned unvaccinated Canadians from indoor dining, shopping malls, gyms, and even liquor stores.

Protests against the trucker vaccine mandate gained a significant popular following and gave voice to wider public discontent with restrictions. Participants and close observers of the protests on the ground in Ottawa and other cities witnessed a popular atmosphere comparable to Canada Day on Parliament Hill. Nationwide demands to repeal all public health restrictions were supported by many Canadians across the country at roadside demonstrations and popular rallies. But they were met with contempt from self-satisfied authorities.

 

The 1837 flag, seen at top left in this photo

 

 

Economics

I had long seen the country in the hands of a few shrewd, crafty, covetous men, under whose management one of the most lovely and desirable sections of America remained a comparative desert.[17]

 

Between 1815 and the mid-1830s the two Canadas were run by Canadian oligarchies that critics called the Family Compact in Upper Canada and the Château Clique in Lower Canada. A few influential families, a colonial elite united by business, military, educational, social, and marriage ties, controlled both government and the economy. They owned the best land and ran the most important businesses, the banks, courts, and the Anglican Church.

This local oligarchy was, in the eyes of some, increasingly corrupt and pretentious, seeking to completely monopolize all profitable activity and to control the best land as Crown Land or Clergy Reserves. They paid little attention to the plight of the habitant farmers of Lower Canada and the English-speaking farmers of Upper Canada, favouring their own and colonial commercial interests over those of local small enterprises.[18]

In the 1830s in Lower Canada, despite flourishing trade and industry, population growth and monopolization of wealth led to rising indebtedness. There was growing anxiety among farmers about whether their sons would ever be able to have farms of their own.[19] Anglophone elites in Lower Canada looked down upon the French Canadians and “generally believed that the habitants were simply bad farmers who, encouraged by the province’s archaic civil laws and tenure system, stubbornly resisted agricultural improvements of all sorts.”[20]

In a worrying parallel, the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in an unprecedented concentration of wealth: according to Oxfam, the world's ten richest men doubled their wealth.[21] This global trend was especially noticeable in Canada, with Canadian billionaires increasing their wealth by $78 billion in the first year and by another $111 billion in the second.[22] According to the Forbes annual billionaire report of Apr. 2021, 47 Canadian billionaires had about $270 billion in total wealth, accelerating a pre-existing trend. According to a 2016 Parliamentary Budget Office report, the richest 1% of Canadians controlled 26% of Canada's wealth. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives estimated that Canada's 87 richest families each hold, on average, 4,448 times more wealth than the typical family, and together these 87 families hold more wealth than the lowest-earning 12 million Canadians combined.[23]

Since the economic crisis of 2008-09 high levels of personal debt, stagnant incomes and lately a rise in inflation have driven an increasing number closer to poverty or into it. During the first year of the pandemic, the massive federal relief payments, so easily available, accelerated inflation, because they increased claims on wealth while actual wealth production was dramatically impaired by state restrictions.

Government-imposed public health restrictions, lockdowns, masks, physical distancing, capacity limits, and so on, led to the closure or disappearance of thousands of medium- and small-sized Canadian businesses that could not survive “online.” The resulting economic uncertainty during the pandemic caused underemployment and precarious employment.[24] According to analyst Irvin Studin: “[small] businesses were effectively regulated out of existence, or otherwise strangled, by the federal, provincial and municipal reaction to the pandemic.”[25]

By early 2022, the temporary payments ended and the economy rebounded with unemployment returning to pre-pandemic levels. However, in terms of stability and income, the quality of jobs did not bounce back, and a combination of high inflation and indebtedness further undermined the average Canadian's financial prospects. According to Ipsos in March 2022, 31% of Canadians said that they do not earn enough to pay their bills and debt payments, while 49% said they are within $200 of insolvency.[26]

The housing crisis became another major source of anxiety. Since the 2010s, skyrocketing house prices resulted in many young families giving up hope of ever owning their own home, something their parents’ generation considered normal. In the largest Canadian cities even high-income young professionals are denied prospective homeownership.[27]

In addition to growing disparities during the pandemic, there is an unprecedented disconnect between public services and public institutions on the one hand and the population on the other.[28] The civil service spent almost two years working by Zoom, email, and telephone — physically divorced from the general population. They did not lose their jobs or take cuts in pay to help support others. In a surprising number of cases instead they received generous bonuses.

Ironically, the truckers who came to downtown Ottawa to participate in Freedom Convoy protests were hoping that by honking their horns they would disrupt the working routines of Ottawa bureaucrats and force the government to negotiate. Naively they did not realize that government office buildings in downtown Ottawa have stood virtually empty since the pandemic started, or that the vast majority of their occupants were working remotely from their suburban homes. (Anyone looking around downtown could see the extraordinary myriad of “For Rent” signs on such buildings.)

It is also significant that, contrary to orthodox mythology about conservatism being an upper-class movement, a Nanos survey found that support for the protestors came mostly from younger and poorer Canadians, people who in most cases could not work remotely from home.[29] Their manifestos were naive and sometimes lacking in civic literacy, a sad efflorescence of the neglect of civics and history in the public schools. Their frustration over deteriorating living standards and dim economic prospects was a key driving force behind the convoy, even if most of their slogans were about mandates and freedom.

 

Immigration

The lines of conflict then were fundamentally political and incidentally ethnic … Certainly, this was coercive politics, but it was hardly racist.[30]

 

In the 1830s political tensions often pitted long-established residents, both Canadian- and American-born, against recent immigrants from the British Isles.[31] Immigration anxiety was especially prevalent in Lower Canada, given sensitivities about the position of Roman Catholic francophones in a nation, and on a continent, overwhelmingly English-speaking and Protestant. By the 1830s Lower Canada's resources were strained by rapid natural population growth due to the very high birth rate of French Canadians and the overall decline in child mortality, as well as the influx of English-speaking immigrants which threatened to upset the delicate ethnolinguistic balance of the colony.[32]

The population of Lower Canada increased from 161,000 in 1790 to over 500,000 by 1831.[33] The large-scale immigration and increased competition over limited economic opportunities created tensions, such as those in the Ottawa valley between recent Irish immigrants and French Canadians over the logging business, which led to several violent incidents in 1835-37 in Bytown (the future Ottawa) known as the Shiners’ War.[34] Still, Patriote leaders in Lower Canada included several anglophones and viewed as their opponents the ruling office-holders whom they denounced as “bureaucrats.” The party leaders were surprised that many poor English-speaking newcomers were hostile to the Patriotes.[35] This was however less surprising to those who had long cited immigration among their grievances. In 1832 an editorial in the anglophone Montreal Gazette lamented:

 

“They must rid themselves of their beggars and cast them by thousands on our shores … they must send us pestilence and death, they are preparing the fate of the Acadians for us.”[36]

 

Between 1828 and 1836 Upper Canada also experienced a large increase in population, about 50% in just eight years. With the exception of Iroquois natives and descendants of Loyalist refugees, long-established rural residents in the colony tended to support the Reformers led by William Lyon Mackenzie, a radical journalist and the first mayor of Toronto. They were opposed in the elections of 1836 by the Tories, led by the Family Compact.

The latter favoured immigration, thinking newcomers from Britain would be loyalists in a colony where a significant percentage of the long-standing Reformist residents were of American descent and their loyalty as well as their populism were correspondingly suspect. The Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, referred to the Reformers as “Yankee-loving traitors.”[37] By the Tory logic, the tide of immigration would strengthen loyalty to the Crown.[38] But the preferential treatment of recent immigrants antagonized many long-established residents.[39]

To make matters worse, an urban-rural divide contributed to the rising tensions of 1837. In both Upper and Lower Canada, the cities tended to support the government while rural residents were more sympathetic to the rebels.[40]

Now consider again the picture in 2021-22. On its way to Ottawa, the trucker convoy was cheered on by crowds of small-town and rural residents on highway overpasses, waving Canadian flags and signs. Downtown Ottawa residents were less sympathetic, even openly hostile (though thousands, many from the outskirts, did actually support the truckers on Parliament Hill in the carnival-like atmosphere). That difference reflected a long-standing political division in Canada, where downtown cores of major cities vote overwhelmingly for the Liberals, New Democrats, and Greens, while people in small towns and rural areas overwhelmingly vote Conservative or, in most of rural Quebec, for the Bloc.

In 2019, 21% of Canada's population was foreign-born, one of the highest among industrialized countries.[41] In the 2015 federal election, ridings with the largest percentage of recent immigrants voted Liberal by a landslide.[42] Following his election victory, Justin Trudeau, who campaigned on welcoming Syrian refugees into Canada, promised to further increase immigration, calculating that the issue is a political winner with Liberals and minority populations.

Even after the start of the pandemic, the Liberal government advocated bringing in 400,000 newcomers in 2021, a significant increase. According to polls, these plans became increasingly unpopular amid economic uncertainty and rising unemployment.[43] The anxiety over immigration seems to have contributed to growing anti-establishment populist sentiment in Canada.

Aware of the potential drawbacks of this aspect of the movement, leaders of the Freedom Convoy in 2022 and other anti-government protests of the previous year focused their opposition on government pandemic restrictions, attempting to portray their movement as multicultural and widely supported by new Canadians. Photographs provided evidence of visible minority support for the truckers, including Indo-Canadian and black truckers. At the same time some convoy leaders were associated with political groups which opposed high immigration, making it easier for their opponents, including news reporters, to label them far-right and racist.

Such leaders included politicians like Maxime Bernier, head of the People's Party of Canada, the only prominent Canadian politician during the Fall 2021 federal elections advocating for a significant decrease in immigration, and Randy Hillier, an independent member of the Ontario Legislature, who shared a meme on Twitter falsely alleging that Trudeau once said that he had a plan to replace “old stock” Canadians.

Similar opinions were also voiced by organizers like Pat King, who posted online about government policies: “There's an endgame: It's called depopulation of the Caucasian race.”[44] Then there was Steeve [sic] Charland, a former member of the nationalist group La Meute, known for its concern about the proportion of Caucasians in the population, organizing protests in Quebec against illegal immigration.[45] 

 

Loyalist vigilantes

By the autumn of 1837, the indignation of militant Constitutionalists knew no bounds. Treason, they believed, was rampant and the blame rested squarely on a pusillanimous government that refused to do its duty and send every agitator to the gallows.[46]

 

By the mid-1830s, opponents of both the Patriotes in Lower Canada and of Reformers in Upper Canada started to form groups of pro-government vigilantes. The first such group in Lower Canada was called the British Rifle Corps (BRC), organized in Montreal on Dec. 12, 1835.[47] About 600 men signed up, petitioned the authorities for arms, and vowed to protect the interests of the British population. However, on Jan. 20, 1836, the Lieutenant-Governor of Lower Canada, the Earl of Gosford, ordered the group dissolved; many joined the secretive Doric Club instead.

The Doric club was led by Adam Thom, editor-in-chief of the Montreal Herald, well known for its tirades against French-Canadians, and John Shay, a young accountant from Montreal. The Doric club quickly grew to an estimated 2,000 members who would often carry their familiar axe-handles to harass and attack Patriote gatherings.[48] This new loyalist and pro-government group was infuriated at being treated as troublemakers by the authorities, who were in their opinion not doing enough to fight sedition and protect the British cause.

On Nov. 6, 1837 rival demonstrations in Montreal degenerated into street fighting between members of the Doric Club and the Fils de la Liberté, a militant association of young Patriotes. Government troops stood by and watched as Doric gangs pursued Patriotes with clubs and stones and later attacked their homes, especially those of anglophone Patriotes who were seen as traitors.[49] This thrashing bitterly alienated Patriote supporters without appeasing Doric members who called for blood and hangings.[50] In Upper Canada, the Loyal Orange lodge played a similar role, including mob violence. The activities of these organizations, and the authorities' complacency, provoked the militarization of their Reform and Patriote opponents, who formed their own armed paramilitary groups and acquired weapons from the United States.

In another disquieting parallel, fortunately without significant violence, on Feb. 12, 2022, the Public Service Alliance of Canada union — representing thousands of people who never missed a paycheque while working at home for two years — organized a counter-protest against the truckers and their supporters. While traditionally unions are seen as champions of the downtrodden, PSAC is the main public sector union and represents what is now an entrenched and privileged elite, with pay, perks, pension plan, and especially job security unimaginable in the private sector. Moreover PSAC collaborated with a previously unheard-of and apparently spontaneous group calling itself Community Solidarity Ottawa (CSO). Led by activists Hassan Husseini and Brian Latour, CSO complained that the City and its police force had failed to protect city residents from “far-right insurgents and white supremacists.”[51] They called on the government to use force to end the trucker “occupation.”[52] 

The next day, Feb. 13, Sean Burges, a Ph.D. who is an instructor at Carleton University, learned that convoy supporters would pass through his neighbourhood on their way downtown. Using social media, Burges organized a group of residents and connected with CSO activists and left-of-centre Ottawa politicians Joel Harden and Shawn Menard. The counter-protest — again, a representative phalanx of persons apparently comfortable working at home in a locked-down society and getting paid by fortnightly direct-deposit from the Government of Canada — was soon in the hundreds and proceeded to trap the convoy supporters in their vehicles for nine hours, blockading Riverside Drive, harassing trucker supporters, and forcing them to retreat.

Once again, Ottawa police stood by. The incident was dubbed the “Battle of Billings Bridge” by fawning media, as activists declared what some must actually have believed was a victory.[53] Meanwhile politicians, academics, lawyers, media pundits, and others demanded increased social media censorship against anti-lockdown protestors; greater civil liberty restrictions; and more latitude for police and intelligence services to intervene in such events.[54] The complementarity of the counter-protest, political sympathy, and media coverage presented an unedifying spectacle of comfortable elites closing ranks.

Other incidents of anti-protest vigilantism included targeting an Ottawa church that dared to open its doors to Freedom Convoy members and provide them with food and shelter. Anti-convoy signs were attached to the fence near the church, accusing the church of "treason" and support for "terrorism." One sign declared: "A nest of Nazis. Burn it out,"[55] inspired, it would seem, by the destruction or vandalism of 68 churches across Canada in the summer of 2021.[56] The major "battle" between pro-vaccine anti-convoy "loyalists" and their opponents took place on social media with tweets, not on the streets with rocks and clubs. Many convoy protest supporters were "cancelled" on social media, with many platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube censoring or restricting some pro-convoy content. The GoFundMe crowdfunding platform raised more than $10 million in support for the convoy from approximately 120,000 donors, but on Feb. 4, GoFundMe permanently removed the campaign, claiming its organizers had violated the platform’s terms of service.[57]

Thereupon the crowdfunding effort was switched to GiveSendGo, whose site was quickly hacked, and donor information was leaked by persons unknown, identifying thousands of Canadians who donated most of the $8 million raised. The donors faced both a smear campaign online and government-pressured financial retaliation by their banks in which, with shades of the Family Compact and Château Clique, banks apparently meekly acquiesced.[58] Pro-government activists, prominent high-tech companies, and the Canadian government worked simultaneously, though possibly independently, to suppress and intimidate convoy supporters and participants.

 

Another banner of freedom seen during the protest: Indo-Canadian trucker

 

 

Government Response

THERE WERE similarities also in the tone if not intensity of the government response to the unrest of 1837. “By the beginning of 1838,” wrote Allan Greer, “Lower Canada was no longer a colony governed by British law; it was enemy territory occupied by military force … In the District of Montreal a régime of martial law prevailed as of 5 December 1837, and habeas corpus was no longer in effect. Even more draconian legal restrictions followed the insurrection of November 1838.”[59]

In the aftermath of the War of 1812, the British Empire and the United States enjoyed relatively peaceful relations, and London’s military commitment toward the defence of its North American colonies was minimal. As of November 1837, only eleven regular British infantry battalions were stationed in Canada, none fully manned.[60]

By the summer of 1838 unprecedented reinforcements had arrived including battalions from elite British regiments such as the Grenadier Guards and Coldstream Guards, and two regiments of regular British cavalry. These were augmented by various other units that had never been stationed in Canada — from Ireland, the West Indies, even from Mediterranean islands.[61] In addition numerous local volunteer units were raised from the loyal English- and French-speaking population, such as the Royal Montreal Cavalry and Glengarry Highlanders.[62] 

On Nov. 4, 1838, martial law was declared in Lower Canada, allowing authorities to bypass legislators and judges, some of whom were sympathetic to the rebels.[63] Suspension of civil liberties meant "open season on 'rebels'" in the aftermath of the uprising, and anyone accused of being a rebel or a sympathizer could be arrested and imprisoned, and have their property seized or destroyed without due process or legal recourse.[64]

In Upper Canada, the legislature passed the Lawless Aggression Act, which suspended habeas corpus, allowed for the confiscation of property, trials of civilians by courts-martial without juries, and gave constables and justices of the peace authority to disperse any unlawful meeting or assembly and to arrest participants and search their private residences without a warrant. [65]

During the first three weeks of the 2022 convoy protest, authorities were somehow surprised by its scale and capacity for spontaneous organization on matters from food to fuel. Ottawa Police requested assistance, claiming they were unprepared for a protest of such magnitude. Despite the protest's peaceful nature, by Jan. 31, 2022, police forces from across Canada including the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, Sûreté du Québec, Toronto, Hamilton, Vancouver, and many other municipal forces, deployed to Ottawa. These reinforcements included riot control and SWAT teams, snipers, surveillance drones, helicopters, and mounted units. Much of it seemed absurd and unnecessary to some Ottawa residents, as police proceeded to block more streets and bridges than the truckers did.[66] The daily cost of policing Ottawa ballooned to over $800,000.[67]

This unprecedented deployment — the real need for which was highly questionable — culminated in a massive joint police operation between Feb. 17 and 21 to force the protestors off Wellington Street. That police action resulted in the arrest of hundreds and the towing of hundreds of vehicles. On Feb. 14, the federal government invoked the Emergencies Act, declaring a "public order emergency" and granting police and financial institutions extraordinary powers. According to Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, under this Act, "trucks can be seized, their corporate accounts frozen and vehicle insurance suspended."[68] 

 

 

American Influence

Another common theme in 1837 and 2022 was the influence of ideas and movements from the United States.

“We have come to your rescue,” exclaimed John Ward Bridge of the Hunters Lodge, a pro-revolutionary American group. “We have heard the groans of your distress; and have seen tears of anguish, burning on the cheeks of your exiled companions. They have besought us to aid them and you in the great work of reform, and to establish on your own native soil, equal rights and equal privileges.”[69]  

From the outset, the rebels of Upper and Lower Canada found sympathy and assistance from the south of the border. Many Americans shared and supported the republican, anti-British sentiments of the Canadian rebels. Several American editors openly sided with the rebels, including William M. Swain and Jesper Harding from Philadelphia, who compared the Canadian rebels to the heroes of the American War of Independence fighting “British tyranny.”[70] After the Patriotes were defeated at Saint-Charles and Saint-Eustache the rebel leaders, including Mackenzie and Papineau, sought refuge in the U.S. Actual military and financial assistance mostly came from the border states, and many Americans in Vermont and upper New York joined secret societies known as the Hunters’ Lodges or assisted the rebels in their fight.[71]

In Feb. 1838 the preparation for new incursions into Canada became so brazen that President Martin Van Buren sent Generals Winfield Scott and John E. Wool to arrest armed Canadian rebels and their American supporters. However, these attempts to appease the British had little effect and on Feb. 28, 600 men led by Robert Nelson and Dr. Coté, armed with 1500 muskets and three cannons provided by American sympathizers, invaded Lower Canada from Alburg, Vermont.[72]  

Following the abrupt failure of the Upper Canada rebellion, its leader William Lyon Mackenzie fled to Buffalo, where, on Dec.11, 1837, he was greeted with enthusiasm. Several days later Mackenzie and his supporters helped themselves to arms and ammunition taken from the U.S. Army arsenal. They commandeered an American steamboat, the Caroline, and occupied Navy Island, a tiny piece of territory in the middle of the Niagara River three miles upstream from the Falls that belonged to Upper Canada. Navy Island became home to the short-lived “Republic of Canada” and the 2,500 men, including many Americans, who openly planned to “liberate” Canada from the British.[73] The ensuing Caroline Affair revealed U.S. support and created an international incident[74] even if the actual violence was limited.

The two most serious incursions took place towards the end of 1838 and involved mostly American nationals. In November 250 men led by Nils von Schoultz, a Swedish-born adventurer and French Foreign Legion veteran, crossed the St. Lawrence River near Prescott. In December 150 men attacked again near Windsor.[75] Both incursions failed because American authorities had by now agreed to cooperate with the British, to arrest the rebels and seal the border.[76]      

All that actual evidence of support was accompanied by rumours of foreign meddling, even tittle-tattle about malign Russian interference. Several articles appeared in British and Canadian newspapers claiming Russian aid to the Patriotes to undermine the British Empire: an alleged plot involving the Russian consulate in New York was investigated.[77] However, the rumours proved baseless.[78]

Again, fast-forward to the present. In 2022 the convoy protests found many enthusiastic supporters in the United States. According to Ottawa Police chief Peter Sloly, there was a "significant element" of American involvement.[79] Bruce Heyman, a former US ambassador to Canada, said he found it "incredibly scary" that Ottawa’s convoy protest was galvanizing the American right and Fox News.[80] The protest indeed became a cause célèbre, with media pundits such as Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, President Trump, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, and several lawmakers Chip Roy, Rand Paul, and Ted Cruz embracing the Canadian truckers and condemning the Trudeau government.[81] Americans also donated a significant percentage of the GoFundMe and GiveSendGo campaigns.[82] DeSantis and Cruz called for GoFundMe to be investigated after it froze roughly $9 million in donations. Republican attorneys general of Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and West Virginia supported them.[83] Many pundits, analysts, and experts in security and foreign affairs also alleged the sinister hand of Moscow behind the protests in Ottawa.[84]

 

Conclusion

There are of course many differences between the recent tensions in Canada in 2021-22 and those of the British North American colonies in the 1830s. Despite ominous coincidences, such as weapons and ammunition confiscated during the arrest of a few heavily armed protestors near Coutts, Alberta — which police admitted had no connection to the convoys — there were no substantiated signs of a planned armed insurrection or rebellion.

The 2022 convoy protests were overwhelmingly peaceful and enjoyed clear popular support among many ordinary Canadian families who spontaneously turned out to interact with, and cheer on, the truckers at intersections and highway bridges all across Canada and in downtown Ottawa, whose festive atmosphere was compared to Canada Day on the Hill.[85] However, the language some Canadians used, and the government's overreaction to the protest, were strikingly similar to those seen during the months preceding the outbreak of violence in 1837. From the outset, authorities, media, and those opposed to the protest made flagrant and indeed persistent overuse of inflammatory terminology about "insurrection," "occupation," "siege," "terrorism," and "treason."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to protestors as "extremist fringe elements," among other insults, and declined to meet them or find out more about their demands. His refusal was followed by unprecedented legal measures culminating in the first-ever invocation of the 1988 Emergencies Act — withdrawn hastily after only three days — and extraordinary and ugly police deployment to disperse the protest.

Some parallels between the party atmosphere transpiring at the Freedom Convoy protest, with its hot tubs and bouncy castles on Wellington Street, and the early days of the 1837 rebellion, are uncanny: Jérôme Longpré, a new Patriote recruit wrote to a friend about the gathering of Patriote rebels in St. Eustache in early December of 1837: "We'll have fun; it's like a wedding, there’s drinking, eating, violin playing, and dancing. We're free, you can do what you want."[86] Within a few days after Jérôme wrote this letter, dozens of rebels were killed in an audacious last stand inside St. Eustache’s main church, which bears traces of cannon fire to this day. The town, and nearby Saint-Benoît, were put to the torch by government troops, leaving a bitter legacy that endures.

If those who forget their history are doomed to repeat it, the authorities today ought to be pondering the errors of their forebears in the 1830s, and also the belated wisdom of the British authorities in recognizing the legitimacy of much of the protest and undertaking overdue reforms in response.

 

Egor Evsikov, CD, MA, JD has a graduate degree in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada, an undergraduate degree in History from Wilfrid Laurier University, and a Law degree from the University of Ottawa. He served for over fourteen years in the Canadian Armed Forces as an Infantryman, Intelligence Operator, and Analyst. Egor has a lifelong passion for Canadian and Russian history and is often invited as guest lecturer by the University of Ottawa and St. Cyril and Methodius Education Organization in Ottawa. He is currently a Student-at-Law. 

       

Notes

[1] Peter Turchin, “Dynamics of political instability in the United States, 1780–2010,” Journal of Peace Research 49, 577–591 (2012).

[2] Report of Commission Appointed by the Sanitary Board of Thirty Councils to Visit Canada, Philadelphia, 1832 quoted in Joseph Schull, Rebellion: The Rising in French Canada 1837 (Toronto: Macmillan, 1971).

[3] CBC, The Cholera Epidemic of 1832 

[4] Ibid, 30.

[5] Margaret Atwood, Days of the Rebels 1815/1840, (Toronto: Canada’s Illustrated Heritage, 1977), 4.

[6] CBC, Rising Population and Immigration 

[7] Schull, 30. 

[8] CBC, Rising Population and Immigration 

[9] Schull, 32.  

[10] Geoffrey Bilson, “The First Epidemic of Asian Cholera in Lower Canada,” Medical History, 1977, 21: 432.

[11] “Infections occurred at a minimum of 63 military facilities” in the U.S. following the Games also: Tom Squitieri, “Did the Military World Games Spread COVID-19?” Prospect, Jun. 30, 2020; Diane Francis, “Canadian Forces have right to know if they got COVID at the 2019 Military World Games in Wuhan,” Financial Post, Jun. 25, 2021. The editor of this  journal also heard from a military source in the spring of 2020 that CAF personnel were already sick on the flight home from the games.

[12] Ryan Patrick Jones, “PM warns against discrimination at Lunar New Year event as fears of coronavirus spread,” CBC News,   February 1, 2020. 

[13] Robin Levinson-King, “Toronto lockdown - one of the world's longest?BBC News, May 24, 2022  

[14] Jonathan Lavoie, “Le non-respect du couvre-feu aura coûté plus de 30 M$ aux récalcitrants,” Radio Canada, May 28, 2021  

[15] Patricia Treble, “What's inside the disturbing report on Ontario's long-term-care homes,” Maclean’s, May 26, 2020 

[16] Tyler Fleming, “Truckers heading to Ottawa to protest vaccine mandate,” CTV News, Jan. 24, 2022. 

[17] William Lyon Mackenzie quoted in William Kilbourn, The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008), 55.

[18] Conrad Black, Rise to Greatness: The History of Canada Vol. I (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2014), 194-195.

[19] Allan Greer, The Patriots and the People, 51, 30.

[20] Ibid., 33-34; cf. Françoise Le Jeune, “Representations of the first colonial ”civil war” in Victoria’s reign: the Canadian rebellions in the English press (1837-38),” Cahiers Victoriens et Edouardiens, 2007.

[21] Ahmed Nabit et al. “Inequality kills: The unparalleled action needed to combat unprecedented inequality in the wake of COVID-19,” Oxfam International, Jan. 17, 2022.

[22] Alex Hemingway, “One year later: Canadian billionaire wealth up by $78 billion,” Policy Note, Apr. 14, 2021, ; Natasha Bulowski, “Rich keep getting richer while everyday Canadians suffer,” National Observer, Jan. 18, 2022.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Irvin Studin, Canada Must Think for Itself, The Institute for 21st Century Questions 2022, 49.

[25] Ibid, 51.

[26] Noah Zivitz, “31% of Canadians don't earn enough to pay their bills: Survey,” BNN Bloomberg, April 18, 2022  

[27] Rosa Saba, “Priced out: Young professionals making $60,000 — even $120,000 — say they can no longer afford Toronto and will likely have to leave,” Toronto Star, December 3, 2021 

[28] Ibid, 67.

[29] Theophilos Argitis, “Canadian Trucker Protests Reveal Fault Lines by Age, Work Status,” Bloomberg News, March 7, 2022, 

[30] Greer, 187.

[31] Ibid, 165.

[32] Ibid., 26.

[33] Ibid., 25.

[34] Ibid., 158.

[35] Ibid., 164.

[36] Montreal Gazette, September 11, 1832, quoted in Donald Creighton, The Empire of the St. Lawrence (Toronto: Macmillan, 1956), 276.

[37] Margaret Atwood, Days of the Rebels, 97.

[38] Michel Mann, A Particular Duty, 46

[39] Conrad Black, Rise to Greatness, 216.

[40] Greer, 296.

[41] Gilles Pison, "The number and proportion of immigrants in the population: International comparisons,” Population & Societies 563  February 2019 

[42] Anna Mehler Paperny, “Ridings with most immigrants voted Liberal by a landslide,” Global News, October 22, 2015 

[43] Kait Bolongaro and Shelly Hagan, “Trudeau's Plan to Ramp Up Immigration Falls Flat With Canadians,” Bloomberg, November 6, 2020 .

[44] Justin Ling, “Was it really about vaccine mandates — or something darker? The inside story of the convoy protests”, Toronto Star,  March 19, 2022 

[45] Ibid.

[46] Greer, 295

[47] Richard Brown, “Paramilitary Loyalism,” History Zone, January 6, 2011, 

[48] Schull, 60.

[49] Richard Brown, “The Fils de la Liberté,” History Zone, Mar. 8, 2011 

[50] Allan Greer, The Patriots and the People, 296.

[51] Scott Neigh, “Ottawa residents against the convoy, and for solidarity and social justice,” The Media Co-Op, Apr. 19, 2022, 

[52] PSAC – NCR, “Community pushes back against occupation with solidarity,” Feb. 15, 2022 

[53] Joanne Laucius, “How the 'Battle of Billings Bridge' attracted hundreds of volunteers, trapped convoy for hours,” Ottawa Citizen, 15 February 2022,  

[54] CBC News, “RCMP, CSIS will pursue groups after Ottawa protests, criminologist says,” 20 February 2022,  

[55] Peter Hum, “Vanier church's support for 'Freedom Convoy' protesters riles neighbourhood residents,” Ottawa Citizen, February 27,  2022, 

[56] Cosmin Dzsurdzsa, “UPDATE: A map of the 68 churches that have been vandalized or burned since the residential schools announcement,” True North, Aug. 23, 2021.

[57] Amy Judd, "GoFundMe for Canada's trucker convoy removed for violating 'terms of service'", Global News, February 4, 2022 

[58] David Sacks, “Trudeau creates a caste of economic untouchables in Canada,” National Post, February 22, 2022 

[59] Greer, 332

[60] Michael Mann, A Particular Duty: The Canadian Rebellions 1837 – 1839 (The Chantry, UK: Michael Mann, 1986), 27.

[61] Ibid, 95-97.

[62] Ibid, 107-108. The Royal Montreal Cavalry and Glengarry Highlanders had few if any francophone members, due to concerns about the loyalty of French Canadians in 1837-1838. The Cavalry was raised primarily from the sons of the Anglophone Montreal elite while Glengarry Highlanders were raised from recent Highland immigrants living west of Montreal, many of whom spoke only Gaelic.

[63] Greer, 333.

[64] Ibid, 333.

[65] Greenwood, F. Murray, and Barry Wright, eds. Canadian State Trials: Rebellion and Invasion in the Canadas, 1837-1839. Vol. 2. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), 165-168.

[66] Indeed, the City appears determined now to ban traffic permanently from Wellington Street in front of Parliament — the only street through which the truckers actually blocked the passage of traffic in the first place. (Cars have been kept out by police barricades ever since! — ed.)

[67] CBC News, “City of Ottawa considering legal action to recoup protest costs,” Feb. 1, 2022. 

[68]  Tonda MacCharles, “Justin Trudeau invokes Emergencies Act to stop convoy protests,” Toronto Star, Feb. 14, 2022.

[69] Address to the “Brother Patriots of Canada” by John Ward Bridge, a self-proclaimed “brigadier-general” of the American Hunters quoted in Donald E. Graves, Guns Across the River: The Battle of the Windmill, 1838 (Prescott: The Friends of Wndmill Point, 2001), 67.   

[70] Maxime Dagenais, “The American Response to the Canadian Rebellions of 1837–38,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, April 18, 2016 

[71] Maxime Dagenais, “Revolutions Across Borders: Jacksonian America and the Canadian Rebellion,” Age of Revolutions, July 22, 2019, 

[72] Michael Mann, A Particular Duty, 78-79.

[73] Ibid, 62-63.

[74] Ibid, 65-66.

[75] Ibid, 134-135.

[76] Maude-Emmanuelle Lambert, “Battle of the Windmill,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, February 7, 2006  

[77] Stavrianos, L. S., ‘The rumour of Russian intrigue in the rebellion of 1837’, CHR, Vol. 18, (1937), 367.

[78] Richard Brown, “Russia and the rebellions,” History Zone, May 2, 2011, 

[79] Amanda Coletta and Annabelle Timsit, “ ‘Significant element’ from U.S. involved in self-described ‘Freedom Convoy’ in Canada, official says,” The Washington Post, February 2, 2022  https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2022/02/02/freedom-convoy-alberta-blockade-vaccine-mandate-protests/

[80] Saba Azis, “‘Incredibly scary’: How Canada’s trucker convoy protest is galvanizing the American right,” Global News, February 8, 2022 

[81] Alexander Panetta, “Ottawa protest inspires talk of copycat convoys in U.S. and beyond Social Sharing,” CBC News, February 8, 2022 

[82] James McCarten, "Trump backers seize on GoFundMe controversy as truckers linger in U.S. headlines," The Canadian Press, February 7, 2022 

[83] Ibid.

[84] David Shipley, “Convoy protesters manipulated by foreign agents, says cybersecurity expert,” CBC News, Feb. 19, 2022; Markham Hilsop, “Trucker occupations: Is Canada at war? Answer more complicated than you think: Interviews Christian Leuprecht,” Energi Media, YouTube; Andrew Nikiforuk, “A Convoy Revved by Foreign Actors Spreading Lies,” The Tyee, Feb. 21 2022; Marcus Kolga, “Russian propagandists are exploiting protests to destabilize our democracy,” Toronto Star, Feb. 22, 2022; Tom Blackwell, “Russian troll farms aiming disinformation war at Canadian anti-vaxxers: Global Affairs expert,” National Post, Apr. 19, 2022.

[85]  Caley Gibson, “RCMP arrest 13 people, seize weapons and ammunition near Coutts border blockade,” Global News, Feb. 14, 2022.

[86] Allan Greer, The Patriots and the People, 319.


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