Le 18 mai, c’est la journée des Patriotes. I’m sure that I must have learned about these “Patriotes” back in Sec IV History, except that the only thing I remember of that class is a dog-eared sheet of dates we were told to memorize.
Then, last February, I happened upon this curious segment of stone wall in front of the SAQ building on the corner of de Lorimier and Notre Dame. When I took this picture 3 months ago, I honestly had no idea that it was a segment of the prison wall that once surrounded the Prison Au Pied du Courant, also sometimes called La prison des Patriotes. It wasn’t until a few days later, when I came perchance across this sketch of de Lorimier being put to death in a Montreal history book, that the Patriots’ struggle really hit home.
Obviously Quebec is not going to celebrate a long-gone British monarch every May, so instead we use this jour férié to commemorate what was ultimately a losing battle for Canadian independence: the Patriot Rebellion of 1837.
Perhaps another reason I remained incurious about the meaning this holiday for so long is that the Patriots have been adopted as a symbol of the present-day sovereigntist movment (which is understandable) and, furthermore sometimes used to justify anti-Anglo sentiment (which is not).
Although the Patriots fought the British ruling class, the struggle was for political and economic autonomy rather than a mere clash of language and culture. The rebellion was similar in spirit to the American Revolution. A parallel though smaller uprising took place the same year in Upper Canada (Ontario), led by Toronto’s first mayor, W.L. Mackenzie.
Naturally, French Canadians wanted to be represented in the government by Catholic francophones. But the Patriots also included some Anglos who supported the idea of representative local democracy at a time when the British governor had ultimate veto power over the elected Assembly and controlled the public treasury.
The conflict turned violent after the British government refused the 92 resolutions for parliamentary reform that were put forward by the majority-Patriot Assembly. After three bloody battles in 1837, the British declared martial law and imprisoned hundreds of Patriots in the Prison Au Pied du Courant.
Many of the rebellion’s leaders were hung from gallows over the prison gate, which still stands today. The sketch above shows the public execution of Daunais, de Lorimier, Hindelang, Narbonne, and Nicolas on February 15th, 1839.
Now whenever I glimpse the old prison, or even cross the street named after de Lorimier, the gravity of these events lingers in the place.
If only our high school history teacher had presented these stories within a local, tangible context I may have retained more than a near-Pavlovian sense of resonance about a handful of historic dates.