Commemoration of hanged republican patriots in 1838

Address by Randall White, PhD, Political Science author, policy analyst and observer to the Executive Committee of Citizens for a Canadian Republic. - Old Court House, Toronto, May 20, 2002

Although this is in some ways a sad occasion, I am very happy to be here, to commemorate the hanging of the Canadian republican patriots Samuel Lount and Peter Matthews, some 164 years ago.

In this city and this country, I think, our memories of the Rebellion of 1837 are not as strong nowadays as they might be. I’d like to offer some special thanks to Charles Roach and his colleagues for arranging this event, and helping us to remember the struggles of the past, which laid the groundwork for so much that we enjoy today.

It would certainly be wrong to say that the 1837 Rebellion has been altogether forgotten. An apt image of its English-speaking leader, William Lyon Mackenzie, is on the walls of the Queen Street subway station, not too far from where we are now. In present-day Toronto there is even a drink for sale, under the brand name Upper Canada Rebellion.

In something of an accidental preparation for today’s event as well, this past Saturday evening I found myself going to see Michael Hollingsworth’s play, The Mackenzie — Papineau Rebellion. It is currently being performed at the Cameron House, not too far west of here on Queen Street.

A friend remarked after the play on how we were quite concerned nowadays to cut our local heroes down to something like their true size.

The 1837 Rebellion in the old Canadian provinces was not a world-class event, on the scale of the American or French Revolutions. Mackenzie and Papineau and Lount and Matthews and all the others who participated in it are not great icons in the international history of modern democracy. They were just ordinary people, who had come to this country in search of a free and independent life, for themselves and their many children. ("Matthews left a widow and 15 children, and Lount left a family of eight.")

At the same time, the heroes of our local struggle for freedom are all the more impressive because they were and aspired to be no more than ordinary citizens of a new democracy in Canada. A few days ago, looking through William Kilbourn’s history of the 1837 Rebellion, The Firebrand, I particularly stumbled across two incidents from the last days of Samuel Lount which seemed to bring this point home to me.

Though no giant in any respect, Lount was a generous and public-spirited man, who had many friends with cause to remember his ordinary good works. They included some aboriginal people of Canada from the wider Toronto region, who came to visit him in jail, just before his execution for the crime of treason against the British Crown. These "Indians came down to" the city of Toronto, a source of the day tells us, "to see if they could not save him, but of course it was no use, poor fellows."

Lount nonetheless urged all his friends during his last days to keep their spirits high. Though it had failed for the moment, the rebellion had been a just cause with destiny behind it. In the end, as Lount said, "Canada would yet be free."

No more than a decade after the deaths of Lount and Matthews, this prophecy would in fact begin to become true, with the first triumph of "responsible government" in the popularly elected legislature of the old United Province of Canada. And I think it’s fair enough to say that without Lount and Matthews and all their rebellious companions we who live in Canada today would not enjoy the undoubted freedom we do have.

Thinking about the sad deaths of Lount and Matthews might also remind us that in Canada today we are still not quite as free as we ought to be. Real democratic societies are always under construction. There are still a few more steps to be taken on the journey that Lount and Matthews began. As we struggle ourselves in the years ahead, we can be happy that, because of them, we will not have to show as much courage as they did then. Or at least here’s hoping too that none of us will have to be publicly hanged, to fulfill the remaining republican destiny which the unfinished Rebellion of 1837 still lays at our door.



Copyright © 2002 Citizens for a Canadian Republic