1849: The Rebellion Losses Bill & Other Quebec Curios

Part of “Division and Resistance”, 1827-1863

"The Burning of the Parliament Building in Montreal", c. 1849, oil on wood. Photo courtesy of the McCord Museum (accession number: M11588).

The effects of the 1837-8 Rebellions when the Canada East and Canada West were still Upper and Lower Canada respectively ran deep, and in some regards, it seemed that some of the remaining underlying prejudices would remain unsolved. Even though the British government approved of the responsible government model as proposed by Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, Robert Baldwin, and their supporters, it still needed to be tested in the colony. Its first test, however, came in the rather intense form of one law called the Rebellion Losses Bill.

In order to compensate the French-Canadians for the damages they had incurred during the Rebellions. In reality, the party who caused this damage was impossible to determine: it could have been fellow French-Canadians or British. A section of the Tories, the party traditionally associated with people of British descent, saw this Bill as rewarding a people who were treasonous not a decade before. However, the Reform Party, that of La Fontaine and his initially Papineau, and sympathetic Tories saw this as a potential turning point and a reconciliation between French and English Canada. Initially proposed by La Fontaine’s majority government, the Bill also managed to gain a majority of votes in favour of it in the House of Assembly. The first two tenants of responsible government were set up: there was a legitimate government that held a majority of seats in the assembly and the act attempting to be passed into law was also legitimate because it gained a majority of votes in the assembly. Would the third tenant, that of the Governor General’s almost mandatory assent, also fall into place?

Lord Elgin, the Governor General who had allowed responsible government in the first place, was personally against the Bill. The Tories who were unfavourable to the piece of legislation urged Lord Elgin to not accept. However, in a bold move true to the principles of the new system of government he had helped establish, Lord Elgin accepted the Bill. The Rebellion Losses Bill was now law. This, however, does not mark the end of the story.

The date Lord Elgin gave assent to the Bill is important, April 25, 1849. The very same afternoon, an angry mob attacked Lord Elgin’s carriage, pelting it with rocks and rotten eggs. The mob became more violent as the evening fell: not only did they attack the residences of La Fontaine, they also burnt down the Parliament Building in Montreal. Despite this violence, Britain upheld the decision to grant responsible government in the colony, but they decided that the burning of the Parliament Buildings was the last straw for having the capital of the Province of Canada in Montreal. The burning of the Parliament Buildings in response to the Rebellion Losses Bill is one of the reasons why contemporary Canada’s capital is now in Ottawa.