Papineau, cowardly and misogynist?

Once a month, The duty launches history buffs the challenge of deciphering a current theme from a comparison with an event or a historical figure.

Traitor, coward, ambitious! Throughout his active life, these epithets overwhelmed Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the Patriote party and president (“orator”) of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, as Quebec was then called.

The “dirty newspapers” and many other contemporary writings gave him the appearance of a “petrified monster of all vices,” and he himself feared that in the event of his people being “crushed” by what would become the rebellions. of 1837 and 1838, the propaganda of the victors did not prevail.

A century and a half after his death on September 23, 1871, it is high time to restore the truth about this statesman and the fight of which he was the figurehead. Awareness of the values ​​of this fight – democracy, justice and fairness – would help us citizens to be wary of electoral promises and to stay focused on the essentials.

Member of Parliament in 1808, at the age of 21, then elected orator in 1815, Papineau devoted most of his energy, his talents and his knowledge to fulfilling the dream of emancipation of the people to which he belonged.

This dream was admirable in dignity and candor: to fight against injustice and discrimination, against favoritism and corruption. It is the anchoring, reduced to its simplest expression, of the exhausting fight waged by the majority of the Canadian inhabitants – thus is called the people of French culture by birth or adoption.

The Legislative Assembly, obtained through a fierce struggle in 1791, is the only haven for Democrats, protected in their work as deputies by parliamentary immunity. Outside this chamber, the risk is high of suffering revenge from the oligarchy, the British merchant elite having seized the reins of the colonial executive government. From the Conquest of 1760, many Democrats were victims of persecution, including imprisonment and confiscation of their property. The perpetual pretext: the state of emergency, the risk of rebellion.


In 1827, during the reign of Governor Dalhousie, the oligarchy was ready to do anything to maintain its grip on the executive power, the source of its wealth. It revives the climate of social violence which has already served it so well: prorogations and dissolutions of Parliament, political prosecutions, demand for loyalty from state personnel and regime favorites, assimilation projects such as legislative union with other provinces or, on the contrary, the dismemberment of Lower Canada.

The oligarchy entrusts to the most fanatical of its members, the ultra-Torys, the task of making reign military terror and contempt for justice. The ultimate goal: a real coup d’état against the Legislative Assembly, proudly installed on the cliff of Cap Diamant, and the Constitution of 1791.

Who are the seditious if not the members of the colonial executive who rebel against parliamentary democracy? To disguise reality, they build a propaganda monument. The security of the British and loyal population is threatened by a system of terror orchestrated by the Patriots; the Canadian people, manipulated by unscrupulous demagogues, are revolting arms in hand.

The art of backbiting is a crucial and refined ingredient in the propaganda effort, and Louis-Joseph Papineau is its first victim. During the 1830s, most of the backbiting concerned his revolutionary activity aimed at tipping Lower Canada into anarchy. He is the chief demagogue, the one who expertly sows turmoil among a people so ignorant that they are easy to fool. He is a despot hiding behind a so-called popular will, only to grab power, all alone, for his own personal gain. In short, he is the worst enemy of his compatriots that he only seeks to exploit.

The ultra-Torys and the colonial executive camouflage the harsh reality: they are the ones who stir up trouble, only to beg to be allowed to fly to the aid of a colonial executive “besieged” by popular tyranny. Under the pretext of its inability to enforce the law, the executive authority accumulates false evidence of high treason to justify the sending of armed squads and the use of an arsenal of brutalities: a terrifying military and judicial repression disguised as Rebellions.

According to his relatives, Papineau is at the top of the list of men to be immolated; the ultra-torys demand his head and make threats on every street corner. One thing is certain, he is explicitly targeted by the press in the pay of the oligarchy. Correspondences from the Quebec Gazette and some Montreal Gazette claim that he has the “rotten heart,” that of a traitor who will die “miserably at the hands of the executioner.”

the Montreal Herald is looking forward to the spectacle on the scaffold. In truth, the well-being of the country requires the “taking, shooting and quartering” of eight to ten patriotic deputies. Then, their colleagues in the Assembly will be “as flexible, as loyal, as submissive as possible”.

The ride of Saint-Denis

On November 13, 1837, Papineau finally left Montreal to take refuge in Saint-Denis-sur-Richelieu, where his mother was anchored. Like other Democratic deputies, he places himself under the protection of his fellow citizens. Nine days later, two military expeditions converge on the village to take it in a stranglehold, which provokes a fierce, unexpected armed resistance, thanks to the determination of the militiamen and that, in the first place, of their commander Wolfred Nelson.

The latter demands the departure of his friend Papineau. However, the latter wanted to fight, on the strength of his experience as an officer in a militia regiment in Montreal since he came of age and, during the War of 1812, in an elite regiment.

Nelson however has irrefutable arguments: considered as the chief negotiator with the authorities of the colony, Papineau must not compromise this role by participating in the battle; in addition, its presence risks increasing the violence of the army. The documentation leaves no room for doubt, especially if we add Papineau’s own account of this pivotal moment, discovered in his archives.

A few weeks after the battle of Saint-Denis, the odious lie of fear and cowardice of a Papineau scampering at the approach of combat began his long career. The patriots of Lower Canada were rehabilitated, and their demands were considered just and noble, but Papineau’s memory remains sullied. This shows how vital this imputation was in trying to destroy the immense prestige he retained on his return from exile in 1845.

Papineau was almost 60 years old at the time, but his fellow citizens absolutely insisted on electing him as a member of the Parliament of United Canada. Because the oligarchy won its fight: to replace the Constitution of 1791 by a regime – the Legislative Union of Quebec with Ontario – which puts the democrats of French culture in the minority.

Member of Parliament between 1848 and 1854, Papineau relentlessly attacked this forcefully imposed Union and the corruption it gave rise to. His worst enemies are no longer the ultra-Torys, but the “reformists” of Quebec. Led by Louis-H. LaFontaine, Augustin-N. Morin, George-É. Cartier and the high Catholic clergy, they love United Canada, because they profit from it, and they durably revive the cruel accusation of cowardice, carried in the public square by none other than Wolfred Nelson himself.

Anticlérical ?

Another slander dating from this time, that of anticlericalism and impiety, would have had such a long life if Quebec had not become secularized at full speed since. Papineau believed in a Creator God, but he viscerally refused quarrels and wars of religion, dogmas and rituals. He advocated religious non-discrimination and the Assembly passed progressive laws in this direction, especially since the high clergy, Catholic as Anglican, constantly meddled in politics, preaching obedience and passivity; this despotism contributed to the terrible suffering of the Rebellions. After Papineau’s death, the high Catholic clergy of Quebec therefore relished their revenge.

At the same time, some historians have taken care to increase the quantity of alleged statesman vices. He was also Lord of the Petite-Nation. Why refrain from echoing the cries of the British conquerors, describing feudal law as archaic and backward… in the image of the Canadian people? As long as it is, why not claim that Papineau was too great a lord, far from the people he loved to dominate?

In fact, fond of political science and a scholar to the tips of his nails, Papineau remained close to the little people who venerated him. Without the seigneurial system, Canadians would not have been able to find low cost land, as corruption and discrimination prevailed in this area. Papineau was an enlightened and conciliating lord, wishing to offer a land of asylum to Canadians and poor immigrants; they sometimes abused it by neglecting to pay the seigneurial rents.

Finally, today it is fashionable among certain groups to despise nationalism, however enlightened and inclusive it may be. Thus, another story is circulating: Papineau wanted to suppress the right to vote for women. However, it is only the electoral violence to which the ladies were subjected that he deplored, and it is the reformist Louis-H. LaFontaine who, during the 1840s, sponsored the decisive law. Find the mistake…

To submit a text or to make comments and suggestions, write to Dave Noël at [email protected].

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