The short-lived Republic of Canada is a little-known chapter in Canadian history. From 1837 to 1838 William Lyon Mackenzie and a small group of supporters occupied Navy Island in the Niagara River. The rebels were agitating for a government that was both responsible and representative. Although their struggle was not successful, eventually these ideals came to be represented in the government of Upper Canada and, later, the country of Canada we now know. Liberty was such an important value to this little group that they put the word on the flag, making this short, but important, episode of Canadian history something worth remembering [emphasis added].
Allow me to state the most pedantic arguments first: how can a republic that only lasted for at most a few months lend itself to the statement “Republic of Canada established 1837″? That wording implies that the Republic of Canada still exists, the equivalent of “since 1837”, indicating a continuous existence from that time in the past to the present. Perhaps “Republic of Canada in 1837″ would work, but even that statement entirely obscures the true historical significance of the Rebellions of 1837. I therefore object strongly to the historical interpretations contained in this statement, and not merely the republicanism. Apparently, the two stars represent Upper Canada and Lower Canada, though the Institute for Liberal Studies decided to omit all the history associated with Louis Joseph Papineau, perhaps because his rebellion also incorporated a liberal anti-clericalism that didn’t apply to Protestant Upper Canada. The Institute for Liberal Studies chose, not surprisingly, to fixate on the “Liberty” contained in the flag of the failed republic and has thus overlooked and completely misinterpreted the true significance of the Rebellions of 1837 in both Upper Canada and Lower Canada. If the rebels in Upper Canada indeed sought “representative and responsible government”, then they did in fact succeed, because the Rebellions of 1837 precipitated the Durham Report and the establishment of responsible government in all the British North American colonies by 1848. I am thankful that these rebellions caused the British to speed up devolution of self-government to the colonies, but ultimately, Canada achieved responsible and representative government under the Crown.
Finlay and Sprague in The Structure of Canadian History wrote about another faction of reformers in the 1830s, led by Egerton Ryerson and Robert Baldwin, who shared Mackenzie’s desire to enact democratic reforms but opposed his republicanism. Robert Baldwin went on to lead some governments with Lafontaine in the new United Province of Canada, while Mackenzie fled to the American republic. As it turns out, the Baldwin reformers who sought change within the constitutional monarchy enjoyed more popular support among the Upper Canadians. So for whose “liberty” were the republicans fighting? They represented a small minority of Upper Canadians. Finlay and Sprague say that
fewer than 500 persons joined Mackenzie in his march down Yonge Street on 5 December. […] Indeed, the biggest problem for the government was feeding and lodging the many thousands [of colonial militia men] who rushed to Toronto to take part on the side of the Crown.
I wouldn’t expect the Institute for Liberal Studies to go into great detail on the other Upper Canadian politics, but I would have preferred that it put the Rebellions of 1837 into their correct historical context: they acted as a catalyst for necessary political change and reforms so that allowed British North Americans to enjoy the same rights as their cousins in the United Kingdom. So we should therefore consider them useful in that sense, and successful in having precipitated a series of events that ultimately led to the securing of our constitutional rights as Canadians. But writing “Liberty” on the flag and advocating for the violent overthrow of the Crown through armed rebellion in favour of a republic do not automatically secure liberty.