The “Republic of Canada, Est. 1837”: Distortion of History and of Responsible Government


The Institute for Liberal Studies sells t-shirts emblazened with the flag of the short-lived Republic of Canada and the text “Republic of Canada est. 1837”, accompanied by the following description:

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].

Republic of Canada “Since” 1837? That doesn’t make sense!

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.

The flag of the “Republic of Canada”

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.

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11 Responses to The “Republic of Canada, Est. 1837”: Distortion of History and of Responsible Government

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  7. Roy Eappen says:

    I am a staunch defender of The Canadian Crown as my friend Peter knows. Indeed the rebellions did lead to our liberties, but because of the wisdom of the HLIM Queen Victoria, Mother of Confederation, who along with her ministers instead of massive repression decided that responsible government was the solution. The Crown has guaranteed our freedoms since the beginning. In Canada freedom wears a Crown!

  8. Alex S says:

    Personally, I’ve always taken it as sort of a funny little thing, not to be taken too seriously. I think James is letting the monarchist/republican part of the rebellion weigh a lot more heavily than you ever had in mind, and that’s leading him to draw the wrong conclusions. He’s right that we should be careful not to oversimplify history, but I don’t think that anyone is exactly planning to move to Navy Island over a T-shirt, so it’s probably okay.

  9. Peter,

    I want to clarify that I wasn’t trying to criticize the Institute for Liberal Studies as a whole, merely the historical interpretation behind the selling of the t-shirts on the Republic of Canada.

    I wrote this a bit too late last night and perhaps didn’t state the argument as succinctly as I could have: essentially, the Institute for Liberal Studies is focusing its narrative on liberty toward the wrong aspect of the Rebellions of 1837 by declaring that the rebellions ended in failure. They failed in the sense that the Republic of Canada did not become established beyond Navy Island, yes; however, on a more profound level, the Rebellions of 1837 succeeded because they forced the Crown to devolve self-government and responsible government to the British North American colonies, particularly after Lord Durham’s report.

    So instead of focusing on the Republic of Canada and the “Liberty” of its flag, the Institute for Liberal Studies could focus on the liberty that the rebellions ultimately secured: responsible government *under the Crown* — unless, of course, this is a veiled argument in favour of republicanism. As I see it, the only way that one could characterize the rebellions as an abject failure is from the republican perspective. If you are republican, then we fundamentally disagree on Canada’s constitutional arrangements. I can’t understand the thrust behind your reply unless you are advocating republicanism; you characterized the use of the republican symbol as asthetic and not substantive, which I think is like saying “The Monarchist League of Canada is selling t-shirts depicting the Crown of Saint Edward, but only for asthetics and not out of constitutional monarchism.”

    James

  10. James –

    I’m sure you’ll agree that this: “[The Rebellions] acted as a catalyst for necessary political change and reforms so that the British North Americans could 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.”

    Would make for a lousy slogan on a t-shirt.

    It’s a t-shirt. The Republic of Canada was never recognized internationally. There really was no Republic of Canada. It lasted from December 13, 1837 to January 13, 1838 — ONE whole month. Which is why the t-shirt is *funny*. Like I told you on twitter, it’s a tongue-in-cheek reference to something that is supposed to make people chuckle a bit, and then look into the history. It also dispels the “Canadians are all of them nice and friendly and pleasant, and never fight for liberty” myth.

    Omission of Louis Joseph Papineau does not imply indifference (neither does, incidentally, the omission of Louis Riel and his rebellions). In fact, it doesn’t imply anything. I would prefer to use Lower Canada memorabilia (it was, after all, more successful), but the flag for the Patriotes was just a tricolour, and is not as cool, in my judgment, as the one that flew on Navy Island. It was an *aesthetic*, not a substantive, judgment on our part that led to the use of “Republic of Canada” and the “Liberty” flag.

    I should add “first.” We made the decision, based on our budget constraints. If we had a bigger budget, we would roll out Lower Canada stuff too.

    Our original intention was to put together a whole “Rebellion in Canada” series, focusing on all of the rebellions. If you ask me which rebellion, Upper or Lower, was more important (and ignoring Louis Riel for a moment), I would say the Lower Canada Rebellion was much more significant, and has many more interesting documents and should be of greater historical interest (for example, here’s the Declaration of Independence: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Independence_of_Lower_Canada, and the ninety-two resolutions are pretty awesome as well: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ninety-Two_Resolutions, as was the Societe des la Fils de Liberte: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fils_de_la_liberte, and especially their Address: http://english.republiquelibre.org/Address_of_the_Fils_de_la_libert%C3%A9. I am also particularly taken by Papineau’s speech to the Institut Canadien [which is also deeply interesting independently, especially because of the role that Wilfrid Laurier, my favourite Prime Minister played in that], which does not have an “official” English translation, which I still want the Institute, once we have the budget, to produce: http://english.republiquelibre.org/Papineau/papineau-speech-institut.html)

    William Lyon Mackenzie, as you might know, later went on to disavow his rebellious activity in Upper Canada, so the claim that we picked Upper Canada Rebellion stuff over Lower Canada Rebellion stuff for ideological reasons is just not true, and a little silly.

    I would prefer to have an unlimited budget, and an unlimited amount of time. But we don’t have either of those things. People should understand that, I think. There may also be better choices, and more ideal symbols, but hunting for *the best* shouldn’t become an enemy of getting something *good*.

    The t-shirts and pins are good. They may not be the best, but they are fun, aesthetically pleasing, and serve the purpose of making people say, “hey, I didn’t know that,” and maybe look into it a bit more.

    Thanks for coming to the LSS, and for your response to our t-shirt and pin.

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