The Riot that Never Was: The Military Shooting of Three Montrealers in 1832 and the Official Cover-up

The Riot that Never Was: The Military Shooting of Three Montrealers in 1832 and the Official Cover-up

by James Jackson

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A fascinating, methodical investigation into a little-known tragedy shows that truth can prevail even 180 years after the fact.In this “whodunit,” James Jackson is a one-man investigative commission. He meticulously demonstrates how British soldiers shot three innocent bystanders in Old Montreal following a by-election victory of Irish-born Daniel Tracey


A fascinating, methodical investigation into a little-known tragedy shows that truth can prevail even 180 years after the fact.In this “whodunit,” James Jackson is a one-man investigative commission. He meticulously demonstrates how British soldiers shot three innocent bystanders in Old Montreal following a by-election victory of Irish-born Daniel Tracey over Loyalist Stanley Bagg in 1832. He also shows how the political, military, and legal authorities of the time exonerated those responsible for the killings by falsely accusing the supporters of Daniel Tracey, a Patriote Party candidate, of rioting. Jackson shows that the “riot” simply never happened, but also that history has unfortunately retained the official story of events that help explain the Patriote revolt of 1837-1838. Although the names of those shot that day, Francois Languedoc, Pierre Billet, and Casimir Chauvin, have been forgotten, their story deserves to be known. Jackson combines the rigour and moral indignation of Émile Zola with the writing talent and historical perspective of Pierre Berton.

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The Riot that Never Was

The Military Shooting of Three Montrealers in 1832 and the Official Cover-Up

By James Jackson

Baraka Books

Copyright © 2015 Baraka Books
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-926824-16-1


The Legislative Council or the "Oppressive Incubus"?

Montreal was the success story of the early nineteenth century in Lower Canada. By the 1830s it had become the economic and cultural metropolis of British North America. The incorporation of the city was finally achieved when its first charter came into effect in 1833, transforming the running of municipal affairs. Its commercial importance also improved when it was made a port of entry in 1831 no longer subject to the supervision of the port of Quebec City. Extensive work on the city's harbour facilities had already begun in 1830 to keep pace with the ever increasing trade with the mother country. The influx of immigrants from the United Kingdom since 1815 had increased the city's growth and reinforced its ethnic divisions. The 1831 census showed that in a province of just over 500,000 inhabitants, Montreal's population stood at 27,000, a considerable increase in just twenty years. The city was also about to become for the first time in its history a predominantly English-speaking city. The margin was narrow but the trend was set for the foreseeable future. The majority of the population lived in the city's six suburbs. The inner city was divided into two wards, home to some 6,000 people, but it was the West Ward where most of the commercial and political life of the city was concentrated.

The limits of the West Ward were to the north, Craig St, to the west, McGill St, Commissioners Square (otherwise known as the Hay Market) and Ste-Radegonde St, to the south, the St Lawrence river and the Petite Rivière, and to the east, St Joseph St (St-Sulpice St) and the Place d'Armes. St Paul St was the longest and widest street in the area and was where the majority of the city's commercial enterprises were situated. Immediately to the north were two elegant residential streets, Notre-Dame and St James. Notre-Dame was the longer of the two, running for just over three quarters of a mile from McGill St as far as Dalhousie Square and the Quebec suburbs on the eastern edge of the city. Great St James St which ran for 433 yards from the Hay Market as far as the Place d'Armes contained the homes of such people as the Molsons, Dr William Robertson, Montreal's senior magistrate and Captain Robert S. Piper of the Royal Engineers, the man responsible for the erection of new wharves in Montreal's harbour. At one end of the street, close to the Place d'Armes, stood the impressive Bank of Montreal building erected in 1818 and next to it the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel built three years later. The opposite end of the street was dominated by the new American Presbyterian Church built to the design of James O'Donnell in 1826 while the Irish-American architect was still working on the new parish church of Notre-Dame in the Place d'Armes.

Early in 1832 the street was chosen to be one of the first in Montreal to have its road surface rebuilt using the very latest method of laying crushed stone on a firm base of large stones invented by John MacAdam. Residents looked forward to seeing their street transformed from a muddy quagmire into a hard- surfaced and well-drained carriage-way but for the time being they were forced to live with the inconvenience of mounds of stones waiting to be broken into smaller fragments. Across the Place d'Armes, a much narrower street known as Little St James St, continued in an easterly direction.

The Place d'Armes had undergone a major change in appearance in 1830 when the old parish church that had once faced Notre-Dame St in the direction of McGill St was finally demolished. The old church had stood on the site since 1683 but the rise in the population of the city had eventually led the Sulpicians to construct a much larger edifice set back from the Place d'Armes, with St Joseph St on one side and its own seminary and gardens on the other. The new parish church of Notre-Dame had opened its doors in 1829. Anxious to preserve control of the ground on which the old church had stood, the church authorities left part of the church's outer wall standing thus creating an enclosure area between the southern part of the square and the entrance to the new church. Untouched was the old free-standing square-sided bell tower partly blocking the entrance to Notre-Dame St.

The West Ward was also the area where Montreal's five newspapers were published. Four of them were published in English. The political leanings of three of the newspapers, the Montreal Gazette, the Montreal Herald and the Canadian Courant, reflected the importance in the city of the English merchant class and its support for the Constitutional or English Party. The other two papers, La Minerve and the Vindicator, offered unconditional support to Louis-Joseph Papineau and his Patriote party in the Assembly.

The 1831 petition

As the year 1831 drew to a close there was for the first time in several years some hope that the political impasse that had long soured relations between the governor and the Assembly was on the point of being resolved. Twelve months earlier no such optimism had been possible. The persistent failure of the British government to implement the recommendations of the 1828 parliamentary committee on Canada intended to address the many grievances of the Assembly had been a constant source of frustration within the province. On the initiative of John Neilson, one of the three delegates sent to London in 1828 to represent the Assembly, a major debate on the state of the province had been held in March 1831. As in 1828 it had been an opportunity for many Assembly members once more to attack the constitutional status of the Legislative Council as established under the 1791 Constitutional Act. Few had had a good word for it. Thomas Lee had argued that the defective state of the Council was the fault of the Imperial Government and that the Constitutional Act had been an evil instead of a benefit for the province. Louis Bourdages, the doyen of the Assembly, had been even more dismissive : "the entire abolition of the Legislative Council was what was required," he stated. "We not only can easily do without it, but shall be far better off." [29]

As usual, the major attack on the Council had come from Papineau. The Legislative Council had been a pet hate of the Patriotes for years, dating back to the time when their party was still known as the parti canadien. Relations had deteriorated even further in 1822 when an attempt had been made to bring about the union of Upper and Lower Canada. In 1824 François Blanchet, co-founder with Bourdages and others of Le Canadien, published a pamphlet entitled Appel au Parlement impérial et aux habitans des colonies angloises, dans Amérique du Nord, sur les prétentions exorbitantes du gouvernementexécutif et du Conseil législatif de la province du Bas-Canada. The grievances aired by Blanchet became part of Patriote oratory. In 1827 Papineau had made constant reference to them in his successful campaign to win the Montreal West seat and they had formed the basis for the Assembly's own list of grievances as set down in 1828. When Papineau rose to speak in March 1831, his audience knew exactly what to expect. It was a preposterous idea, he told the Assembly, to imagine that an aristocracy could be created either in Upper or in Lower Canada ; and it was even more absurd to compare the Legislative Council to the House of Lords in England. The links between the Council and the Executive could never be independent as long as it was appointed by the Executive. "It is easy for the administration to purchase a servile majority of so small a body as compose the Council which they have themselves appointed — but they cannot do so with eighty-four members chosen by the people." The result, he concluded, was that there was no real government in the province, only despotism.

The petition dispatched to London following the debate had produced, by the standards of the time, a fairly rapid answer. On November 15 the governor opened a new session of the Provincial Parliament and announced that Lord Goderich, Secretary of State for the Colonies, had addressed the complaints of the House in a dispatch dated July 7. The Assembly received a copy of the document a few days later and a debate was held on the subject on November 25. The general consensus among the Patriotes was that Lord Goderich had been sympathetic to their grievances except on two issues of major importance : Crown lands and the status of the Legislative Council. On the latter, Goderich had merely promised a separate communication at some later date. Papineau attempted to be conciliatory in his public reaction to the response from Westminster, but for the likes of Bourdages, the province's legitimate grievance against the Legislative Council had once more been ignored.

Defamation and breach of privilege

In the final two weeks of 1831 several Montreal newspapers began reporting the difficulties being experienced by William Lyon Mackenzie in Upper Canada's parliament as a result of his strident editorials in the Colonial Advocate. On December 12 the Tory majority in the Upper Canadian Assembly had taken offence at Mackenzie's description of it as a "sycophantic office" and had voted to expel him for what it termed as a breach of privilege and a libel on the House. If this news caused the editors of La Minerve and the Vindicator any alarm, the first editorials of the New Year gave no indication that they were prepared to tone down their language when it came to criticizing the Legislative Council.

The first issue of La Minerve in 1832 appeared on January 2. Since its foundation in 1826 the paper had served as the principal organ of the Patriote Party and now had some 1300 subscribers. Its owner, Ludger Duvernay, was a publisher of considerable experience and a man who had experienced the wrath of a previous governor when in 1828 he and Jocelyn Waller, the Irish editor of the Canadian Spectator, were briefly imprisoned on a charge of libel. In its first editorial of 1832, commenting on the major political events of the previous year in Europe and South America, La Minerve complained that the 1830 Revolution in France had not produced the expected wider extension of rights and freedoms. Instead, despotic government was still the order of the day in Europe and the Americas. Its only reference to Lower Canada came in a few critical remarks concerning Colonial Secretary Lord Goderich's July dispatch.

The following day, the Vindicator's editor, Daniel Tracey, produced his review of the international scene. Tracey, from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary, had studied medicine in Dublin and practised there before immigrating to Lower Canada in 1825 at the age of thirty. He had rapidly involved himself in the politics of the province and had played a significant role in formulating the 1828 petition to the British government. In September 1828 he had become one of the founding members of the Society of the Friends of Ireland, an organisation that aimed at raising funds for Daniel O'Connell's Catholic Association of Ireland. As a means of publicizing the work of the society, Tracey, president of the Montreal branch, founded the Irish Vindicator in October 1828. O'Connell's success in 1829 had led to a fall in subscriptions and only the timely intervention in the May of that year by a group of influential Patriotes that included the Perrault family, Denis-Benjamin Viger, Ludger Duvernay and Édouard-Raymond Fabre, saved the paper from closing. The small but significant change to the paper's title indicated its more deliberate pro-Patriote orientation.

Tracey's main concern in his first editorial of the year was the state of affairs in England and the reports of serious rioting in Bristol. Clearly, Tracey wrote, the rioting was "the consequence of the dissatisfaction resulting from the rejection of the Reform Bill." A second item followed but its smaller typeface suggested that it was of less importance. It announced a forthcoming debate in the Assembly scheduled for January 10 on a motion of Louis Bourdages calling for the reform of the Legislative and Executive Councils. Tracey welcomed the news since he had learned that the Legislative Council had rejected two more bills sent up from the Assembly. Echoing the sentiments and language that Papineau and others had used the previous March, Tracey added the comment: "It is quite an absurdity to think that about eight or ten men with scarcely common talent, and no better interest in the country than others, can act with all the caprice that this body does." Only the total annihilation of the Council would improve the situation in the province, wrote Tracey, and he ended by expressing his full support for Bourdages's motion: "We hope the House will exert its accustomed energy on this occasion and will not hesitate to enter into such as will obtain relief from the oppressive incubus."

The following week, on the eve of the debate on the Bourdages motion, La Minerve published an anonymous correspondent's letter that was extremely critical of the Legislative Council. The author was Charles Mondelet, a lawyer and former journalist from Trois-Rivières who would soon turn on his erstwhile friends. For ten years he had been an active critic of successive administrations in the province and had sided with the Assembly in its opposition to the Legislative Council. In 1828 he had narrowly avoided prosecution for having published an attack on Governor Dalhousie's policies in the Quebec Gazette and this had brought his political activism to a temporary halt. The election of his brother and fellow lawyer, Dominique, to a seat in the Assembly in October 1831 once more whetted his appetite for political journalism. The formal opening of a new session of the provincial parliament in November 1831 spurred him into taking up his pen once more. La Minerve published four letters from him, all equally critical of the British administration in Lower Canada and all written under the pseudonym of "Pensez-y Bien."

In the final letter, Mondelet denounced the Legislative Council as an undemocratic institution. Accepting as Papineau did that the legislature needed a second chamber, he insisted that it had first to be completely reorganised so as to become in the long term an elected chamber. In the more immediate term, Mondelet proposed the same solution that Tracey had six days earlier and did so with similarly forceful language : "The existing Legislative Council being perhaps the greatest nuisance we have, we should take the means in our power to get rid of it and demand its abolition in a manner to obtain that object."

It is easy to comprehend the frustration of Patriote members of the Assembly at the constant failure of its many bills to pass the hurdle of the Legislative Council. Council appointments were in the gift of the governor and councillors were appointed for life. The majority of the twenty-seven members accepted that their principal allegiance was to the Crown and to its official representative in the province, an attitude that was reflected in their voting record. As Papineau was fond of repeating, though with some slight exaggeration, in a province where French Canadians made up ninety per cent of the population, only eight members of the twenty-seven strong Legislative Council had French Canadian names. This imbalance, however, was only part of the problem for the Assembly. The major grievance related to the small number of councillors who actually turned up for sittings. The Assembly had won an important concession from the British government in having the three judges of the King's Bench, Kerr, Bowen and Taschereau, excluded from sitting as council members, but had failed to prevent Chief Justice Sewell from continuing to sit as speaker of the upper chamber. Given the strong pro-British sentiments of the dozen or so council members who regularly turned up to vote, the Assembly knew it was impossible to pass legislation that ran counter to the wishes of the governor.


Excerpted from The Riot that Never Was by James Jackson. Copyright © 2015 Baraka Books. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

James Jackson holds a D.Phil. from Oxford University and taught eighteenth century literature, the history of ideas, and Quebec literature at Trinity College Dublin from 1978 to 2008. Twice president of the Association of Canadian Studies in Ireland, he now lives in Montreal.

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