The Patriot War Along the New York-Canada Border by Shaun McLaughlin – book review

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Patriot War

 

Shaun has made the story personal. He focuses his tale on the Upper Canadian story, although the rebellions in lower Canada also had their aftermath, resulting in the plaintive song "Un Canadien errant", written about the exile experience of its participants. Shaun tells the age and profession of each important participant. highlighting the fact that this mini-war involved a broad spectrum of colonial sociey:  lawyers, newspaper publishers, farmers, bakers and men, principally men, of all ages, from late teens to late 50's. Many, if not most, had been loyal to the British Crown, some even the immediate descendants of United Empire Loyalists who abandoned their lives in the American republic to resettle in Upper Canada under the British Crown. Cheap land was, of course, an additional attraction.

What could motivate such men to abandon their professions and risk their lives to rebel against the Family Compact, the unelected group of highly placed cronies that ruled the colony? As we learn, it was the corrupt, and selfish nepotism of the Family Compact who ruled in their own interests and taxed colonists outrageously to support them. Their shameful treatment of those who only expressed opinions favourable to reform pushed men to extremes. Not only they but their families were jailed, fined,  impoverished and exiled by the corrupt leaders of this colony.

Sir Francis Bond Head, the governor of Upper Canada when the rebellion broke out, was not only incompetent but cowardly (escaping Upper Canada dressed as a servant of a friend). He was replaced by Sir George Arthur whose most previous appointment had been to head of the penal colony of Van Diemen's land, later renamed Tasmania. The brutality and inhumanity of that place are well known now, but it was an easy place then to get rid of troublesome people who were not to be executed.

What is most surprising to those of us not steeped in this history is the enthusiasm of the citizens of New York state for the liberation of Canada from this corrupt rule. They turned out by the thousands to support the rebels and set up a series of Hunters' lodges with the goal of prying Canada from British rule. American visitors to Upper Canada noted that British colonists did not enjoy the liberties of Americans, and fresh from the successful war to make Texas American, many wanted to repeat the victory by freeing the Canadians and bringing them into the American fold. This was a serious challenge in the days when Kingston was the capital of the colony, but a combination of mishaps, the American Neutrality Act which punished those who attacked foreign lands not a threat to the U.S., and seriously flawed leadership of the rebels, kept Canada in British hands.

The rebels who had the audacity to remain or come back to Canada in 1838 were either executed or sent to Van Diemen's land, and to his credit, Shaun follows them through their imprisonment and tells us the later outcome of the lives of his characters. None could have known or would have recognized (but probably would have approved) the Canada that we have today. What they wanted was simply a say in the way they were governed, something that we take for granted.

Shaun relies heavily on personal memoirs. It seems that every major participant kept a diary or wrote about the struggle afterwards. This demonstrates the vital importance of what a history professor Naomi Griffith of Carleton University calls "Belles Lettres", the personal accounts that may be read years later and which illuminate an era.