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Rebellion of 1837-39 in Canada (upper Canada) (Canada)

Last modified: 2022-02-19 by rob raeside
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The Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada

In response to my statement about the existence of a predominantly "Loyalist" (i.e., to the British Crown) political culture in Upper Canada (i.e., Ontario) in the 19th and early 20th centuries, Luc Baronian asked (quite legitimately):

I'm not an expert in English-Canadian history, but how do you explain then the uprisings in Upper Canada and their use of rather republican symbols, like the blue flag with two white stars in the upper half representing Lower and Upper Canada (posted last year). I don't think you can say that they were a minority because these rebellions lead to the creation of the present federation. Of course in the end, loyalty to the crown remained. Like I said, I'm no expert, just curious... maybe the loyalist sentiment wasn't as strong as we think ?

As I said: given the apparent paradox involved, a perfectly legitimate question.

While the 1837/38 rebellion in Lower Canada (Quebec) was a significant event, I will never forget my always level-headed, even-minded, very staid, history professor summing up the rebellion in Upper Canada as "little more than a drunken brawl, in downtown Toronto, easily squashed by a group of amateur policemen". Although a little simplistic, this description does capture the essence of the event south-west of the Ottawa River. In fact, the "Canadian Encyclopedia", (2nd edition., 1988), describes the Upper Canadian rebellion as simply an "uprising.. having limited support and was largely an historical accident". (p. 1833). Nevertheless, there are some historians of the political-left, who have tried to portray the events (both in Upper and Lower Canada) as much more than they actually were, trying to imbue the disturbances with more import than the overwhelming majority of historians have concluded they actually deserve -- by claiming, inter alia, for example, that the rebels represented the "authentic voice of the working class of 19th century Canada". For the most part, however, these authors have now been marginalised (rightfully, in my opinion) as representing ideologically-motivated research.

In terms of Upper Canadian 19th century political culture, one has to be careful to distinguish between "Reformers" and "Radicals". In Upper Canada, at least, it was the Radicals and not the Reformers who were behind the violence in 1837, and they never amounted to more than about a thousand people within a population of about a half-million. Consequently, they were not only a minority, but a very tiny minority of the Upper Canadian people. On the other hand, there is no doubt in my mind that many Loyalists and their descendants were among the "Reformers"; but whereas the "Radicals", (led by Louis-Joseph Papineau, in Quebec (comment); and William Lyon MacKenzie in Ontario), were fighting for an American-style republic, (and envisaged their rebellion as the opening phase of a second North American Revolutionary War against Britain), the moderate "Reformers" had no such intentions. In fact, the Reformers were largely admirers of Britain (their homeland), in general, and the British Parliamentary system of government, in particular. This was especially the case after the passage in Westminster of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, which went a long way to "democratize" the British Parliament. Consequently, if anyone were able to go back in time and ask a typical Upper Canadian Reformer of 1837 how he could reconcile his Loyalist roots with Reformist inclinations, I think he would be flabbergasted: he would no doubt reply that not only did his loyalist roots dovetail perfectly with his reformist views, but, in fact, the former compelled him to espouse the latter, for all he was asking for in his reforms were "the traditional rights of Englishmen, Magna Carta, and all that sort of stuff"; he was neither agitating against the Crown, Britain, nor British sovereignty over North America: on the contrary, he was agitating against the corrupt, oligarchic system of colonial administration which the now out-dated constitution of 1791 allowed to evolve in Upper Canada. Indeed, he might very well further assert that by agitating for change within the system, he was in fact proving himself much more loyal to Britain and the Crown than the so-called Upper Canadian "Tories" (or Conservatives), since by helping to usher-in what later became know as "responsible government", (i.e., fully democratic government within the Westminster, Constitutional-Monarchy model), he was ensuring his colony's continued existence within the British Empire.

Consequently, I see absolutely no contradiction at all in the fact that a colony with a "Loyalist" political culture (i.e.., Upper Canada/Ontario) experienced the "historical accident" (to re-quote the Encyclopedia) of a "rebellion" (which, in concurrence with my prof of days gone-by, I tend to think of more as a drunken brawl, in the muddy streets of North York). Although there can be no doubt that the Rebellions of 1837 scared the Home government into seriously looking into the political/constitutional situation in British North America, writ large, it was really the events in Lower Canada/Quebec which prompted them to act; and even these, (i.e.., both the rebellion in Quebec, and the subsequent alleviating measures), I would suggest, were more ethnically based -- i.e., French versus English -- than politically- or ideologically-based. (comment) For what was the most immediate result of the Rebellion?: the writing of the Durham Report; and what is the most-quoted line from that report?: the hackneyed (and incorrect) description of Canada as "two nations warring within the bosom of a single state", (Durham was NOT referring to "Canada" as a whole, but just to Lower Canada/Quebec, where the erstwhile French majority saw that it was being swamped by British, Loyalist-imbued immigrants). All this is said to further the proposition that the so-called rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada/Ontario was, in reality, a bit of a non-event, especially when compared to the contemporaneous one in Lower Canada. It is unfortunate that the two of them are linked historically, since this is misleading. When responsible (i.e., Parliamentary-democratic) government did arrive in British North America, it was not through the efforts of the radicals, as much as it was through those of the moderate Reformers who operated within the confines of the existing constitutional set-up: Joseph Howe, in Nova Scotia; Louis LaFontaine in Quebec; and Robert Baldwin in Ontario.

With regard to their use of "rather republican symbols", as Luc put it, given the fact that the "Radicals" were very, (even overtly) pro-American, (some even espousing eventual annexation by the United States), this is exactly what I would have expected.

I wasn't privy to the discussion last year regarding the "Rebellion" and its flag(s), so I don't know if I'm repeating things here, but it's been my experience that it is a little-known fact that the first time the maple leaf was displayed on a flag as a symbol of Canada was during the rebellion in Lower Canada. The remnants of this flag were on display the last time I was in Ottawa, (1992), at the Museum of Civilisation in Hull.
Glen Robert-Grant Hodgins, 20 April 1998

Actually, historians still argue as to Papineau's wish for independence. The Patriote faction led by Robert Nelson in Lower Canada/Quebec was clearly for it, though, but Papineau was more moderate.
Luc-Vartan Baronian, 20 April 1998

Here I disagree because even within those whom you call the radicals, like de Lorimier, the discourse was axed on freedom and independence for both Canadas and equality for French-Canadians, British, Irish and Indians. The fact that they were mostly French-Canadians is a corollary of the fact that it is this layer of the society that felt oppressed. In fact, some of the most radical leaders were of Irish origin : Robert and Wolfred Nelson, O'Callaghan...
Luc-Vartan Baronian, 20 April 1998

Republic of Canada flag

[Upper Canada Reformist flag] image by DC, 8 February 2022

This is a digital reconstruction of the flag of the 'Republic of Canada' (1838).

The rebellion flag on display in Fort Malden, Amherstburg, is a vertical blue-white-red tricolour, with two white stars and a white crescent moon arranged vertically in the blue stripe. The surviving flag is fragmentary, but is accompanied by a reconstruction, and according to the text alongside, which describes it as the flag of the short-lived 'Republic of Canada', the crescent moon represented the 'hunter's moon', symbol of the many semi-clandestine 'hunters clubs' in the area.
Stephen Pewsey, 15 August 2000

A Webshots" [originally reported by Elias Granqvist] posting of the angled photo includes a caption that describes the flag as "pattterned after the flag of the United States ....". The flag is a blue-white-red vertical tricolor, exactly the flag of France, with two stars and a crescent moon stacked up in white in the blue vertical stripe at the hoist. The caption goes on to talk about the stars (this is the only place it comes close to the US flag) standing for Upper and Lower Canada and the crescent standing for a "secret Hunters Lodge"
Bill Dunning, 1 August 2007

According to

Members of the Hunters Lodges were pledged to seek a republican form of government for Canadians. ...In September 1838 a convention of the Lodges of Ohio and Michigan was held in Cleveland Ohio, where the 'Republican Government of Upper Canada' was formed....A. D. Smith, a former resident of Upper Canada who was the Chief Justice of the Peace of Cleveland was elected as the 'President of the Republic of Canada"...Smith claimed that the Hunters had twenty-five thousand men ready to bear arms to "liberate" Canada. Two Grand Lodges of Hunters were formed Cleveland, Ohio - Grand Lodge headquarters of in the West. Rochester, New York - Grand Lodge headquarters in the East.

And "Hunters had their own banking, newspaper, secret cipher, and flag.

The flag was an eagle - which represented the United States, swooping down and clutching a lion - which represented Great Britain, and two stars on the flag were symbolic of two new Canadian republics comprising the former Upper and Lower Canada's. Their motto was 'liberty or death'.

On the same page is an illustration of a similar, but not identical flag. It has the eagle and two stars, but instead of clutching a lion, the eagle holds a ribbon which says "Liberated by" and below that is another ribbon which says "Onondaga Hunters".
Ned Smith, 1 August 2007

TROUBLES IN CANADA screams the headline. Apparently Papineau and his cohorts were getting pretty restless and there were some demonstrations with dozens of flags displayed. Some of these must have looked fantastic. The ones with the American Eagle and the Canadian Eagle side by side are pretty interesting. From the Vermont Phoenix 7 July 1837.
Dave Martucci, 11 April 2012

Erroneous Popular Representations

[Upper Canada Reformist flag] image by Luc Baronian

[Reformist Party of Upper Canada (1830's)] image by Luc Baronian

Kevin Harrington, president of ACV/CFA, informed me at NAVA 32 that it is a wide-spread mistake that the Upper Canada Reformist flag is all blue, coming from the fact that the flag kept in a museum is ripped and some people wrongly assumed that the lower half of the flag was all blue. He even contacted the museum where the flag is exposed to confirm this.

The lower half is actually white with the word LIBERTY in red. The combination of the three colors - red, white and blue - is taken from the flags of USA and France because the Reformists' cause was inspired by the American and French revolutions. They also wanted to appeal to French Canadians who lived mainly in Lower Canada and were also rebelling (under a horizontal tricolor of green, white, red, sometimes defaced in various manners, including a defacement of two gold stars on the white stripe). The upper half is blue with two white stars, representing the "republics" of Upper and Lower Canada (they were actually colonies, since the rebellions were crushed).
Luc Baronian, 12 October 1998