The Patriots of Lower Canada

An Important Event in the History of Secularism in North America

2022-04-04

The 1838 Declaration of Independence of Lower Canada is a major milestone in the history of secularism.

Sommaire en français La Déclaration d’indépendance du Bas-Canada de 1838 est un jalon majeur dans l’histoire de la laïcité.


During the period between the British conquest of New France in 1763 (Treaty of Paris) and the formation (“Confederation”) of the Dominion of Canada composed of four provinces, the conquered territory went through several administrative changes:

  • 1763-1791: The former New France became a British colony named Province of Quebec.
  • 1791-1841: The Province of Quebec was divided into Upper Canada and Lower Canada, corresponding roughly to the southern parts of modern Ontario and Quebec respectively.
  • 1841-1867: Upper and Lower Canada were merged into a single colony called Province of Canada

In 1837-1838 an anti-colonial rebellion occurred in Lower Canada (now Quebec) which also inspired a similar but smaller rebellion in Upper Canada (now Ontario). The rebellion in Lower Canada was republican and secular in its aims. A major document of that rebellion is the 1838 Declaration of Independence of Lower Canada or Déclaration d’indépendance du Bas-Canada. It was authored by Robert Nelson, an Anglophone born in Lower Canada. It declares:

“That any union between Church and State is hereby declared to be dissolved, and every person shall have the right to exercise freely such religion or belief as his conscience dictates.”

(« Que toute union entre l’Église et l’État est par la présente déclarée être dissoute, et toute personne aura le droit d’exercer librement telle religion ou croyance qui lui sera dictée par sa conscience. »)

The Declaration also granted equal rights to native peoples.

Of course the Declaration never came into effect, because the rebels were no match for British imperial power and the rebellion was crushed. Several rebels were hanged at the Pied-du-Courant prison in Montreal. Many were exiled. The famous song Un Canadien errant by Antoine Gérin-Lajoie was inspired by the sight of a ship sending 141 condemned men into exil in Australia:

“A wandering Canadien, banished from his homeland, wept as he roamed foreign lands…”

(« Un Canadien errant, banni de ses foyers, parcourait en pleurant des pays étrangers.… »)

The 1841 merger of Upper and Lower Canada into a single colony was done on the recommendation of Lord Durham who was mandated by the British authorities to investigate the causes of rebellion. He also recommended accelerating British immigration. The goal was to anglicize French-speaking Lower Canadians by marginalizing them in a sea of English-speakers. (Today, such a strategy would probably be called cultural genocide.)

The Lower Canada rebels were called “Patriotes” and they are celebrated by a statutory holiday “Journée nationale des Patriotes” in late May. (It’s the queen’s birthday in Canada outside Quebec.) This year 2022 it is on May 23rd. As secularists, we remember their fight for freedom, democracy and secularism.

I have also written about the Patriots in a previous blog “Screw the Monarchy! Vivent les patriotes !


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