Thursday, July 14, 2011

An Army Gathers On Yonge Street

This isn't Yonge Street. It's Quebec. Louis-Joseph Papineau speaks to L'Assemblée des six-comtés, 1837

This is the fourth in a series of posts about William Lyon Mackenzie and the birth of Canadian democracy. Part one here and part two here and part three here.

1837. Crazy huge giantassedly important year in the history of Canada. Just massive. And it had been a long time coming. In the few decades since our city had been founded, Toronto and the rest of Upper Canada had been ruled by a series of dictatorial Lieutenant Governors and a few families of rich, conservative, mostly incompetent, frequently corrupt government officials: the Family Compact. They were appointed by the British to run the colony without much say from ordinary Canadians, and even when the conservatives in England lost power to the liberal Whigs, things didn't really change. Canadians who wanted real democracy, with power over our own affairs, were getting really flipping frustrated. And in 1837, those frustrations boiled over.

The momentum built all year long. The whole continent was in the grips of a depression. Crops were failing.  People were even angrier than usual. And William Lyon Mackenzie, who had completely given up on negotiating with our British overlords, did everything he could to fan the flames. He wasn't exactly subtle about it. "Canadians," he wrote, "Do you love freedom? ... Do you hate oppression? ... Then buckle on your armour, and put down the villains who oppress and enslave your country... Up then brave Canadians. Ready your rifles and make short work of it."

Hundreds of protesters showed up at Mackenzie's rallies. When they were attacked by supporters of the Family Compact, they armed themselves. Farmers polished up old muskets. Blacksmiths forged new pikes. They held military drills. Before long, Mackenzie had declared independence from Britain and drafted a new constitution. He'd done everything short of firing the first shots.

And that's about the time when the Lieutenant Governor, Sir Francis Bond Head, decided to send away all of his troops. Every single last soldier marched out of Upper Canada. He'd left Toronto without any organized defenses at all.

You see, we weren't the only ones fighting over Canadian democracy. In Lower Canada — Quebec — very very very very very similar things had been happening. They had their own version of the Family Compact: the Château Clique. They had own version of the Reformers: les Patriotes. And they had their own fiery leaders: dudes like Louis-Joseph Papineau and Wolfred Nelson. That spring, the Whig government in England had rejected every single last one of their demands. People were pissed. Francophones and anglophones. Reform rallies in Lower Canada got bigger. And angrier. British products were boycotted. There was talk of revolution. That summer, the government banned all public meetings. That fall, les Patriotes responded with the biggest rally they had ever held. (That's what's going on in the painting I posted above.) Six thousand people were there as Nelson roared, "The time has come to melt our spoons into bullets!" Within weeks, Papineau and Nelson were leading a makeshift army of volunteers through rural Quebec, poised to strike at the British-backed government in Montreal.

The Governor General in charge of Lower Canada freaked the fuck out. He just up and quit. So in the face of revolution everything was left to John Colborne — the very same guy who had been fired as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada for being too conservative and then was accidentally replaced with the also-super-conservative Bond Head. He asked Bond Head for help. And Bond Head responded by sending him all the troops he had.

Now, nobody seems be entirely sure why he did it. Bond Head claimed (especially after the fact) that he wanted to trick Mackenzie into attacking. Then they could arrest him and hang him and have done with it. But most people seem to think that he was just a complete idiot. Even with reports of rebel activity pouring in, he simply didn't believe that enough people were pissed enough to support Mackenzie's revolution. He didn't make any plans for Mackenzie's arrest. Or for the defense of the city. He did spend lots of time ignoring the people who were worried. There was a whole crapload of weaponry stored at old old old City Hall (at King and Jarvis, where St. Lawrence Hall is now). And Bond Head didn't have anyone guarding it. If it fell into rebel hands, the government would be screwed.

With the Lieutenant Governor being useless, all rational thinking was left to Colonel James FitzGibbon. He was a hero from the the War of 1812 — the guy Laura Secord ran to warn when the Americans were going to attack — and had actually saved Mackenzie's life once from an angry mob of Family Compact folk. He was convinced Mackenzie's threats were real and he started making preparations behind Bond Head's back. He ran training drills with a bunch of militia volunteers. He wrote up a list of every loyal Tory he could think of and went from door to door warning them all to keep their guns loaded and ready. He worked out a warning system: at the first sign of an attack, they'd ring the bells of St. James Cathedral and Upper Canada College. And he assigned a group of his men to protect City Hall every night.

James FitzGibbon
Maybe most importantly, when Bond Head's Executive Council held a meeting to discuss (and dismiss) the possibility of an attack, FitzGibbon burst into the room with more troubling updates from north of the city: of rebels staging military drills and of blacksmiths working day and night to forge enough weapons for an army. (The scene is hilariously described in an old book about the rebellion, especially amusing if you imagine that they're speaking with the silly voices from the historical episode of It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: "'You do not mean to say,' queried Judge Jones, turning towards him with a scarcely repressed sneer in his voice and tone, 'that these people are going to rebel?' 'Most distinctly I do,' responded Colonel Fitz Gibbon; upon which the Judge turned towards the Lieutenant-Governor, and in a contemptuous tone exclaimed, 'Pugh, pugh!') Despite the fact that most of Toronto's leaders thought FitzGibbon was batshit insane, by the end of the meeting he'd finally convinced Bond Head to take at least a little bit of action. Dispatches were sent to some of the other towns in Upper Canada asking for volunteers.

It was a good idea. Les Patriotes had won their first battle against Colborne's troops and Mackenzie was rushing to follow in their footsteps. He told his rebels to meet at John Montgomery's tavern, on Yonge Street just north of Eglinton, which was still a few kilometers north of the city in those days. That weekend, they began to arrive. There were hundreds of them. Farmers and blacksmiths and clerks and craftsmen. Mackenzie had even chosen a commander for his army: Anthony Von Egmond, a Dutchman who had fought both for and against Napoleon during the wars in Europe. He was supposed to arrive on Thursday. December 7, 1837. That was going to be the day of the Canadian Revolution. They would march down Yonge Street, head over to City Hall, seize the weapons, capture Bond Head and declare a new Canadian republic.

Well. That was the plan anyway. But the plan would go to shit long before Thursday.

Continue reading with Part Five, Revolution! ish!, here.


You can read Mackeznie's "Rebellion Proclamation" here. You can read other stuff about the road to rebellion here. And here. Learn more about FitzGibbon here. And read a book that gives a detailed description of the rebellion, including a first-hand account and the scene when FitzGibbon burst into the Executive Council meeting here.

This post is related to dream
10 The Battle of Montgomery's Tavern
William Lyon Mackenzie, 1837

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