The recent “Fête des Patriotes” in Quebec, known as Victoria Day in the rest of Canada, was a reminder that history is an evolving story, one that is continually invoked – and rewritten – to meet the needs of today.
The Montreal neighbourhood I live and work in makes it hard to escape that fact. My office is on De Lorimier Avenue in the east end of the city and my home is only two blocks away, on Fullum Street. Three blocks to the south, facing the St. Lawrence River, is the former “Pied-du-courant” prison famous for the executions of a dozen leading insurrectionists of the Rebellion of 1837-38. Among them was François-Marie-Thomas Chevalier de Lorimier, a Montreal notary who marched to his death on the gallows built over the prison’s south wall on February 15, 1839, and for whom the avenue is named.
More than 17 decades later, the building now houses the head office of Quebec’s liquor commission. Each May, however, the site hosts a gathering of ultranationalists who mark the Fête des Patriotes with calls for Quebec’s independence and full-throated denunciations of Quebec’s enemies, usually English-speaking. At the event, which was this year organized by a group calling itself Jeunes Patriotes, Quebec’s blue-and-white fleur-de-lis flag shares space with the green-white-and-red tricolore of the Patriotes, which now sports an illustration of a stereotypical toque-wearing, pipe-smoking rebel at its centre.
It’s an interesting marriage of history and modern politics. The rebellion and its suppression by the colonial British authorities are cited as the flowering of a new francophone nation and nascent nation-state, and invoked as the basis of eternal hatred between those of French and English descent. That’s why, in 2002, the Parti Québécois government of then-Premier Bernard Landry chose Victoria Day for the establishment of this recent tradition – to efface the history of the British Queen who ruled at Canada’s birth in 1867 and, of course, to evoke the unfinished business of 1837-38.
It’s powerful political symbolism, but it’s also a modern sectarian spin on an event and a movement that was far more revolutionary than today’s Patriotes would have you believe. Any reading of the historical texts makes it clear that the 1837-38 rebellions in both Lower and Upper Canada was a movement for democracy and responsible home rule in opposition to a dictatorial foreign power – Britain. Today’s nationalists place all the emphasis on the fact that the British overlords were English-speaking. But that obscures a larger and more inspiring story.
In fact, many of those who took part in the rebellion were anglophones. There was even a John Fullum among their ranks. The leadership of the Parti patriote and the armed movement that developed in the 1830s, however, had an even larger proportion of non-francophones.
The abortive declaration of independence from Britain was delivered by Robert Nelson, a Montreal physician who proclaimed the freedom of Lower Canada from a camp in northern Vermont on February 28, 1838. His brother, Wolfred Nelson, was a leading organizer of the Assembly of the Six Counties, an early Patriote event attended by 5,000 which was held in defiance of a British order against public gatherings. (He also practiced the twin crafts of distilling and journalism, which may explain a lot). Charged with High Treason, he would help arm the revolution before being captured and exiled to Bermuda. Years later he would return to Quebec and be elected mayor of Montreal.
Figures such as Thomas Storrow Brown and Edmund O’Callaghan, who were social and economic reformers who campaigned for democratic rights and economic justice for the poor and working classes, were also leaders of the Patriote movement.
But these patriots are not remembered during the modern Fête des Patriotes – the very mention of their names would ruin the storyline. And yet, the storyline has been in black-and-white, and in French, since 1839, when the aforementioned François-Marie-Thomas Chevalier de Lorimier wrote a much-cited “political testament” while awaiting the hangman’s rope in the Pied-du-courant prison.
Chevalier de Lorimier did not write about the hatreds of French against English, or advocate an ethnic state based on the French-speaking majority. He didn’t ignore the fact that a simultaneous rebellion was staged against British rule over the province of Upper Canada to the west.
Consider the following sentence from his death-row writings (my translation): “The blood and the tears sacrificed on the altar of liberty are today watering the roots of the tree that will hoist the flag marked with the two stars of the Canadas.”
The phrase is more elegant in French, but its message, coming in the aftermath of the American Revolution, was clear. An independent alliance of French and English Canadians would be a strong foundation for freedom from colonial rule no matter the mother tongue of the people who fought for it.