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Papineau and French-Canadian Nationalsim

By Omri Harrison

    The Quebec of the early 19th century was a very exciting period of nationalist struggle for the province, which made up most of Lower Canada. One of the most prominent people to express the needs of rights in the English dominated colony was Louis Joseph Papineau. Louis Papineau expressed the need for representation of the Canadien in the House of Assembly and often persuaded people through powerful and eloquent speeches. As an advocate for the interests of the Canadien of Lower Canada, Louis Joseph Papineau was able to secure the presence of the Canadien, both culturally and politically, in the colony. (

    Louis Joseph Papineau was born October 7, 1786. His political career began when he became a member of the assembly for Kent (Chambly) in 1808. In 1814, he was elected in the county of East Montreal as a replacement for his father. He became a champion of the nationalist movement with his forceful interventions and popularity as speaker of the House from 1815 to 1823 and from 1825 to 1832. (National Library of Canada)

    By 1820 the English had controlled Quebec and Lower Canada for then fifty years. The British realized that the tensions between Lower and Upper Canada could reach a violent zenith. The British commissioned a report; Lord Durham would author this report. In it, Lord Durham suggested that to subdue the Canadien the British had to assimilate them by unifying Lower and Upper Canada into a single territory. When the unification occurred and the regions of Lower and Upper Canada became one territory, few Canadien were pleased. The single Legislative Assembly governing this new territory was one of the factors that angered many Canadien. Canadien did not feel that they were being properly represented; rather they felt that the Assembly favoured the colony’s large landowners over the majority middle class Canadien. Papineau, a member of the Assembly and Speaker of the House, put forth a proposal, which asked for the establishment of an elected Legislative Council he hoped this council would appeal to the interests of the French-Canadien. The British rejected his proposal; subsequently he helped organize a protest group called Sons of Liberty. (World Book)

    In the early 1820’s Papineau was the leader of the Parti Canadien that held a majority presence in the Legislative-Assembly. The Parti Canadien later changed its name in hopes of appealing to more voters. In the book, A History of Quebec Nationalism, author Gilles Gougeon conducts an interview with Jean-Paul Bernard where he explains the significance of this name change. The term Canadien did have its exclusive aspects. At first glance, at least, it seemed you couldn’t be a member of the party unless you were Canadien. At that time, the other inhabitants of Lower Canada were called "colonials" or "British Americans", but they didn’t call themselves Canadians. The expression French Canadian did not exist yet: there were the Canadiens, and then there were the British. In a sense, the primary allegiance of the British was not to this territory. The new name of the party was the Parti Patriote it drew from the idea of a Canadien territory and a Canadien nation. The nationalist movement did not just arise from an abstract political inequality, but from the economic disparities that existed between Upper and Lower Canada. French Canadians knew they could make money, what they needed was the political influence to implement initiatives to do so. (Gougeon)

    The Durham report that suggested the unification into a single territory met strong objection from the French Canadiens of Lower Canada. Fearing their assimilation into an unfamiliar culture rendering them unrecognizable to both themselves and British Canadians, an objective of the Durham report that hoped to pacify them through this means. In a letter from Louis Joseph Papineau to R. Wilmot, a British Member of Parliament in Montreal, Papineau outlines his peoples’ vehement objections to the unification, dated 16th December 1822:

…assertions that the opposition manifested in this Province on the part of the population… is the effect of prejudices alone, alluding to their [French Canadian] supposed attachment to France and to French principles; calling them foreigners; (foreigners in their native land!) The Bill in question, say these friends of the Union, being so well calculated to Anglify the country, which is to be ultimately peopled by a British race.


    The preposterous calumny against the Canadians of French origin, as to their supposed attachm    ent to France, requires no other answer than what is derived from their uniform conduct during the wars, and the loyalty evinced by them on every occasion. They are not foreigners in this land of their birth; they claim rights as British subjects, in common with every other subject of His Majesty in these Colonies. These are their births rights…

    By what they call Anglifying the country is meant the depriving the great majority of the people in this Province of all that is dear to men; their laws, usages, institutions and religion. An insignificant minority wish for change, and are desirous of ruling against every principle of justice by destroying what they call the Canadian influence, that is to say, the influence of the majority. (Challenge & Survival pp. 168-169)

    Papineau became more motivated in his nationalist movement. In 1836 warrants for the radical Papineau were issued for his arrest and other main leaders of the Patriot movement. A proclamation was later made offering four thousand dollars to anyone who brought Papineau to justice. Consequently Louis Joseph Papineau sought refuge in Albany, New York, where he stayed for two years. Mounting tension between Lower Canada and the British eventually boiled over and armed uprisings occurred. A particular period in the rebellion called the "Summer of Agitation" refers to the disagreement between the opposing sides. It began with an "Anti-Coercion" meeting at St-Ours in the county of Richelieu, the British government was side stepping the Assembly and paying officials with import funds before the conflict as a result of the Russell resolutions and indirectly in response to Papineau’s 92 resolutions. If the British were to fight these "anarchists" of the 19th century they were forced to cut off these British controlled import funds. (Horizon Canada)

    Still in exile, Papineau wrote to his friend and collaborator, John Neilson, expressing views on the injustice and discrimination facing French Canadians in Lower Canada:

The injustice done to my country revolts me, and so perturbs my mind that I am not always in a condition to take counsel of an enlightened patriotism, but rather inclined to give away to anger and hatred of our oppressors.

It is odious to see every office and position closed against our people when the laws do not exclude them; to see them contributing nineteenths of the revenue and receiving but one-tenth, and to feel that the possession of influence in this country is a passport to persecution. (Challenge & Survival p. 169)

    The revolt was successful, that is Lower Canada and Upper Canada were able to culturally unify Lower Canada, which later became Quebec, making it possible to attain political and economical equality. With help of those such as Lafontaine Quebec and Canada became synonymous. Later these two once bitter enemies of Lower and Upper Canada helped fashion a country. In the post Confederation period Britain has given full control of the former colony to Canada in the 1931 Act of Westminster where the independent Canada could conduct business with other nations without British intervention. (Bothwell)

    Louis Joseph Papineau moved to Paris in 1939 and four years later was granted an amnesty allowing him to return to Canada. The question, was Papineau a great man, demands a comparison between him and his contemporaries. (Ouellet) His was a great man for his time and has not lacked modern admirers. Louis Joseph Papineau personifies the personality of Quebec to chart its own course whether it be within Canada or not. His public persona was brilliant and eloquent, often concealing his deep-seated weaknesses, his influence on French Canadians was unique for he awakened them to the ideas of nationalism and liberty. Regarding his thoughts following the rebellion Papineau said:

I defy the government to contradict me when I assert that none of us had ever organized, desired, or even anticipated armed resistance… not that an insurrection would not have been legitimate, but we had resolved not to resort to it as yet. (Challenge & Survival p. 172)

    However, Quebec’s existence within Canada and its interaction with other provinces have not always been cohesive. During the early 1960’s the Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) committed terrorist acts to highlight its displeasure with the economic disparities among different ethnicities in Quebec and between Quebec and other provinces. The ideas expressed in its manifesto were supported by a large number of Quebec citizens following an interview with FLQ after they kidnapped and British diplomat. When a survey was conducted it was found that in the early 1960’s male French Canadian employees earned less than other ethnic groups in Quebec even though male French Canadians were and continue to be the majority. Perhaps not surprisingly male British Canadian employees living in Quebec earned more than any other ethnic group. (Levin and Sylvester)

    It can be argued that if Quebec decides to separate, then, as in the days of Papineau, it must determine its own destiny. Quebec is an asset to Canada, they represent an extremely diverse community who contribute to Canadian society culturally and economically they are a valuable and integral part of our country.


Bothwell, Robert. Canada and Quebec "One Country Two Histories". Vancouver: UBC

Press, 1995.

"Canadian Heritage Gallery."

Gougeon, Gilles. A History of Quebec Nationalism. Toronto: James Lormier &

Company, 1994.

Herstein, H. H., L.J. Hughes, and R. C. Kirbyson. Challenge & Survival. Scarborough:

Prentice-Hall, 1970.

Levin, Malcolm and Christine Sylvester. Crisis in Quebec. Toronto: The Ontario Institute

For Studeis in Education [O.I.S.E.], 1973.

"Louis Joseph Papineau".

Ouellet, Fernand. Louis Joseph Papineau: A Divided Soul. Ottawa: Canadian Historical

Association, 1961.

"Rebellions of 1837." World Book. 2000 ed.

Thompson, John. "The Shoot-out" Horizon Canada. 1985

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