Papineau – un canadien errant

Papineau. Green Line. Opened 1966.

And, I’m back! And with the pressing concern of the moment being keeping the T-1000 that is Mitt Romney out of the White House, I have been starting research on another Proteus, this time from Montebello, the politically fecund seigneurie on the banks of the Ottawa River.

It was from Montebello that Henri Bourassa, the founder of Le Devoir, hailed. It may be that he inherited was from his grandfather, Louis-Joseph Papineau, his perplexing mix of radicalism and his love of the Québec habitant, bravely resisting the allure of the corrupting metropolis. Reading Fernand Ouellet’s article on Papineau one gets a sense of a man who wore many shades of liberal radicalism but who was finally more concerned with the flavour of his aristocracy. French landed or English mercantile?

Ouellet gives an account of a man who entered politics in 1809 praising the British monarchy and constitution for bringing about a middle class without the bloodshed of the French Revolution, who defended British interests against the US invasion of the Canadas in the War of 1812, only to become an accidental leader of the Patriotes against the British Crown in the the Rebellions of 1837. Between these positions he saw a future for Québec, then Lower Canada, with the United States and advocate something suspiciously like NAFTA.

Yet, throughout all this, Papineau’s abiding concern seems to be the preservation of the seigneurial system and its land-based wealth, first from American republicanism, then from the wealth generated by the trade and industry of new arrivals in Montreal from Britain, then finally from his fellow rebels, whose impulses were more both democratic and more capitalist.

After the failure of the Rebellions, Papineau was exiled in Paris. Writing in 1839 against the report of Lord Durham into the causes of the Rebellions, Papineau recalls a conversation with Lord Bathurst, British Secretary for War and the Colonies.

I replied to Lord Bathurst that my utopia differed from his, and that it seemed to me both more desirable and more feasible, that the American confederation would be in the future one and indivisible, that it seemed rather march towards aggregation and growth rather than to degradation and impotence; that in the day of our independence, the right of common citizenship and free trade between Québec and New Orleans, between Florida and the Hudson Bay, Canada would be assured an indefinite but long period of peaceful conquest over nature, progress in the moral, political, and industrial sciences, with individuality for each sovereign state under the protection of a congress, which could not be tyrannical, having neither subjects nor colonies, and possessing only powers in matters of peace or war with foreign countries and foreign trade. I added that such benefits were too great and too obvious for Canada to let it embrace offensive and defensive alliances with England against America, and that this 25-year period [of patient resignation] fixed by him would be certainly shortened by the biases of the metropolis, the imperiousness of its choices and the prevarications of its agents.

Lord Bathurst promised reforms; none has been made. The time is up.

The time may well have been up, but much had changed, not least Papineau’s mind.

For all this republican rhetoric, and the almost prescient imagining of a loose confederation sovereign states in a North American free trade area, the situation when the words were said seems implausible; twenty-five years earlier, Papineau was defending, by force and word, British interests against the “American confederation”. Further, his commitment to free trade, in the age of Robert Peel’s reforms, seems as doubtful as the ability of Quebec habitants to produce as much wealth as, for example, Carnegie’s steel foundries.

For all that Papineau was right: the intervening years had been filled with British prevarications – the twin evils Napoleon and American republicanism seemed more pressing than colonial rule. But Papineau’s time is out of joint. It was neglect of the social and economic changes in the colonies that had led to the Rebellions. He was writing after them and his disgust is directed against the reforms they precipitated.

Exiled in France, Papineau saw in Durham’s recommendations a concerted effort to absorb French-speaking Lower Canada into English-speaking Upper Canada. Fearing the continuation of the neglect which had led to the Rebellions in the first place, Papineau wrote that Britain no longer possessed the Canadas with “the legitimate view of commerce and colonisation but as a military post from which it prepared the destruction of the American confederation, to stir up trouble, division and ruin.”

It was precisely to avoid the earlier neglect Durham’s report aimed – I will not speak of British perfidy which has been well noted. It suggested many of the reforms that Papineau had campaigned for as leader of the Parti canadien, not least responsible government and a transfer of power from the appointed executive to the elected legislative assembly. Other leaders of the Rebellion saw this and returned from the United States under the same amnesty that Papineau would take advantage of. They embraced the reforms which would eventually lead, not to a confederation of the North America, but the Confederation of Canada. Papineau resisted them vehemently.

So here are my questions about Papineau. For all that Durham left Britain with the wrong idea – the Rebellion was not caused by industrialization and the problems of British North America were not the same as those of Britain – the disagreement between Papineau and other former rebels decided the future of Quebec, not just politically but socially, culturally and economically. How did they disagree? Was this disagreement once more a question of aristocratic flavour? French landed or French industrial? And how important was Papineau’s resistance? Does he, in fact, articulate the enduring fantasy of a rural Quebec populated with habitant tenant farmers as the idyll concealing seigneurial conservatism?

To answer these questions, I need to look at Papineau’s correspondence. Until then, let me know what other questions I should be asking about Papineau and which station should I start my next round of preliminary research on.

Consulted for this post

Louis-Joseph Papineau, L’histoire de L’Insurrection du Canada, en refutation du rapport de Lord Durham (Paris, 1839).

Fernand Ouellet, ‘Louis-Joseph Papineau’, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, (University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2000)

Graeme Wynn, ‘On the Margins of Empire’, The Illustrated History of Canada (Toronto: Key Porter Books, 2007): 181-276.

11 thoughts on “Papineau – un canadien errant

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s