At Place d’Armes, An Election and A Massacre

Place d'Armes. Orange Line. Opened 1966.
Place d’Armes. Orange Line. Opened 1966.

Canada has just now to witness the most foul and barbarous murder of several of her citizens and MONTREAL is about to become no less famous than Manchester, in the annals of Military despotism, outrage and assassination.

The Vindicator, 22 May 1832

One of the things that I enjoy most about this project (and the reason why this post has taken so long) is discovering the connections which exist not just between the stations but between the lives and events they mark. These connections give a sense of how the rivalries and friendships which shaped the Montreal, Quebec and Canada. The 1832 Montreal West by-election in Place d’Armes is a case in point.

The election’s main issue was the reform of the colonial administration with more power for the elected Legislative Assembly being demanded by the largely French-speaking Patriotes. This was resisted by the British colonialists, who benefited from the system, and London which, faced with the unholy trinity of Washington, Robespierre, and Napoleon viewed democracy with skepticism. Throughout the Empire, popular protest was frequently and violently put down as had been seen in Manchester in 1811 and in Bristol in 1831.

With a population between 27,000 and 30,000, Montreal was the largest city in the British colony of Lower Canada (modern Quebec) and all of British North America. Much of this growth came from Irish migrants who crossed the Atlantic and met the labour needs of a growing English-speaking industrial class with the construction of projects like the Lachine Canal. Their arrival meant that English-speakers were for the first time outnumbering French-speakers in the city. Poorly paid and housed by their Scottish and English employers and with no love of British colonial rule, the election became a contest for the Irish vote and exposed divisions of ideology, class, language and ethnicity in a colony ready for reform.

The election, which took place over a number of weeks, ended on 21 May with the Patriotes’ Irish candidate, the editor of the Vinidicator, Daniel Tracey, the victor by three votes and, coincidentally, the deaths of three men at the guns of the British militia. Of the dead men, François Languedoc, Pierre Billet, and Casimir Chauvin, all of whom were apparently going about their ordinary business, only Chauvin, who had left his home ten minutes before being shot through the head, had a connection with the two candidates, being an apprentice printer at the Vindicator.

In his editorial the next day, the newly elected Tracey clearly laid the blame at the door of the authorities. Others were less certain, and over the next couple of years, numerous inquiries followed, with much of the focus being on the appropriate and correct use of the Riot Act, the same legislation that had been used in Manchester’s Peterloo Massacre in 1811 and in Bristol in 1831. These inquiries are a story in their own right, with the last by the Legislative Assembly itself widened to include correct procedure in the earlier inquiries. By then though Lower Canada was well on its way to rebellion; any pretence of a quest for truth was abandoned and the deaths took their place in the 92 Resolutions, delivered to the Governor General by Louis-Joseph Papineau‘s Patriotes.

On both sides, the leaders of these events were a close knit group of men, all of whom knew each other personally as well as in their political and professional relationships. Often they were related. Papineau, for example, was the cousin of Jacques Viger, who in April that year, had been appointed the first mayor the newly incorporated City of Montreal, and of Denis-Benjamin Viger, who was negotiating with the Colonial Office in London over reform when the shootings took place and took up the deaths with Lord Goderich.

Political positions were far from full time and the same names pop up in different places. William Robertson, one of the founding physicians of the Montreal General Hospital and among the first professors at McGill College, was the city’s chief magistrate. In this capacity, Robertson who read the Riot Act at Place d’Armes and ordered the miltia into the place of election.

The politically difficult job of coroner was given to Jean-Marie Mondelet, who like many of French-speakers had willingly defended the colony in the wars of 1812 with the USA, but now sought reform of colonial rule with Tracey and the Patriotes. Despite issuing the order for the arrest of the militia’s commanding officer, his investigations satisfied no-one. Still people had to get on and although clearly of different political persuasions, Mondelet and Robertson worked together on the Board of Health, formed almost immediately after the election to meet the cholera epidemic.

As for Tracey, the election’s victor, he had arrived in Montreal from Ireland in 1825 and established himself in the influential circle gathered around the Papineau and Viger families. He also established a newspaper, the Irish Vindicator. Following the success of Daniel O’Connell with Catholic Emancipation in Ireland, subscriptions to the paper fell off and it was rescued by among others Denis-Benjamin Viger and Ludger Duvernay of La Minerve. Early in 1832, both newspaper editors were imprisoned for printing vehement calls for reform. Upon their release, Tracey became the Patriotes candidate in the election. This same vehemence is seen in his editorial written on day after the shootings. His anger and the deaths were a step to the Rebellion of 1837 and in the subsequent reforms leading to a unified Province of Canada. Tracey however saw neither; along with thousands of others that summer, he died in the cholera epidemic.

Consulted in this post

James Jackson. The Riot That Never Was: The military shooting of three Montrealers in 1832 and the official cover up. Montreal: Baraka Books, 2009.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online

The Vindicator, 22 May 1832. The text of Tracey’s editorial is available from the BAnQ’s digital collections here. Turn to page 2.

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