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May-13-2012 22:10printcomments

Canada: Rebels With No End of Causes

The Americans assumed that the French Canadians would help them if they invaded Canada, but it didn't work out that way...

War of 1812
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(SASKATCHEWAN) - By the end of the 18th Century, the French and the English had done so many wars that they had run out of names. So for a change, the War of 1812 wasn't given one. That didn't matter because it only lasted two years and it ended in a draw. Toronto was burned to the ground and, in a return engagement, Detroit was seized by the Canadians. They later decided to give it back because most people preferred Sarnia.

Our guys also burned the White House some time in 1812, but the President wasn't in it at the time. The incumbent president at the time was James Madison, whose wife Dolley was the toast of Washington, so they were probably at a house party at the time. But this is Canadian history, so it doesn't matter.

The Americans assumed that the French Canadians would help them if they invaded Canada, thinking that they disliked the British just as much as the Americans did, perhaps even more. But it didn't work out that way – the truth was, the French Canadians didn't like the Americans either, in fact they couldn't stand anybody who spoke English, even with a southern drawl.

One of the intangible advantages the Americans had, as usual, was that they were more cool than the British. For example, at the Battle of Queenston Heights, the American general was named Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. You see what we mean? The British general's name was something like Angus MacDougall, or something. Seriously. Who would you favor if you were impartial, like if you were an Indian or a Newfoundlander?

About that time, the Hudson's Bay Company founded the Red River Settlement of Winnipeg, which means “dirty water” in Cree. That may have been the excuse for creating Manitoba's brewing industry, but that comes much later.

Two decades later, just when most Canadians thought there wouldn't be any more wars, two rebellions were held in 1837, one in Toronto and, of course, a similar one of equal time and status in Montreal.

It's important to note that the 1837 uprising was led by a diminutive Highlander named William Lyon MacKenzie, who usually wore an outrageous red wig. He and his rebels faced a formidable opponent in the person of Sir Peregrine Maitland, a corpulent aristocrat who pretty well ran all of what was then Canada, stretching from at least Yonge Street to the farmlands a hundred miles west of Mimico.

The whole colony or country was owned by a few families who bore little resemblance to modern-day Conservatives, other than that they were inbred, narrowly imperialistic and read nothing but the Globe and Mail and the Bible, not to mention being intolerant of what at that time passed for a Liberal party. On second thought, perhaps they did bear some resemblance to modern-day Conservatives.

They also ran the Church – of which only the Anglican variety was allowed to operate – and they owned most of the land, the banks, the law courts and what taverns there were in Toronto.

The farmers were routinely outraged, just as farmers are today over issues such as freight rates or ethanol prices. But they were joined by equally annoyed Quebecois who didn’t like living under a foreign king unless it was the King of France.

Upper and Lower Canada were ripe for revolution, and if a vote had been taken, and especially if the vote had included Indians and Quebec women, there would have been a landslide in favor of war, which was unusual for Canada. Unfortunately, the vote at the time was restricted to rich English speaking white men, similar to those who had forged the American Constitution.

William Lyon McKenzie led the Rebellion of 1837, in an attempt to overthrow the Family Compact, a group of upper-class loyalists, imperialists and colonialists, similar to those in North Toronto today.

Philip Annett, the great-great-great grandfather of the present writers, who was a farmer and blacksmith from rural Ontario, picked up the family flintlock and joined McKenzie in this great endeavor, being an inspired nationalist. Actually, Philip's wife was a bit of a battle axe, and he got out of the house as much as he could. When he left in 1837, his wife was angrier than ever, because he took the only flintlock they owned, leaving her defenceless against marauding Indians and Mormon missionaries. Perhaps intentionally.

Anyway, the rebels lost.

About the same time in Montreal, Louis-Joseph Papineau, who was a lawyer, offered to lead the rebellion pro bono. He did a little better than McKenzie, defeating the British at the Battle of St. Denis. But in two successive battles over the following three weeks, the British disbursed the rebels and re-established the sovereignty of the Crown and North Toronto.

One of the more noteworthy facts about William Lyon MacKenzie was that he was crazy. As a result everyone, farmers and townspeople alike, considered him normal compared with the rest of Toronto at the time.

Little Mac, as he is sometimes referred to by historians, to distinguish him from Big Mac, (the much later First Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald) began to store up – instead of treasures in Heaven - gunpowder and muskets in his basement.

At the same time, slightly below in Lower Canada, Louis-Joseph Papineau, the Montreal lawyer, sent a lengthy brief to MacKenzie, deposing that, whereas he was prepared, notwithstanding or precluding the necessary legal formalities, and in no way limiting the generality of the foregoing, to act, promulgate and proceed, subject to it being – and deemed to be being – the case that the time had come for hostilities. In other words, if it pleased the court, he would move to strike.

Having no legal background and being five feet in height, Little Mac had both a lack of legal verbiage with which to respond and also an inferiority complex. Besides, he hated waiting for people, especially legally-trained French Canadians.

So Little Mac gathered a small army at an enclave or pub, known as Montgomery’s Tavern, north of York. As it turned out, Sir Peregrine happened to own Montgomery's Tavern along with every other bar in Toronto, so he was aware of Little Mac's plans. Sir Peregrine had already learned of Papineau’s plot through Montreal connections, and had dispatched all of his troops to Quebec.

The local armory stood open and unguarded, as was Sir Peregrine himself. Little Mac immediately incited his troops to action, with the objectives of seizing the Governor, occupying Fort Henry, flying in the face of the Family Compact as well as the English monarchy, and declaring a Republic.

That was just his immediate tactical objective. He had more ambitious plans, such as the reading of the entire works of Thomas Paine and completing his model railway.

Consider the drama of what followed: William Lyon MacKenzie marched with 100 men south from Montgomery’s Tavern toward Sir Peregrine’s mansion on Queen Street on a cold, wintry morning. Mostly rough-hewn rural folks with old flintlocks and the occasional pitchfork. In fact, the pitchfork was the weapon of choice. Few of them could have stated it, but they carried with them the spirit that would become the foundation of a great independent nation. They were not accompanied by a fife and drum, as was standard with American revolutionaries, but one of the farmers from Lambton County had brought along a glockenspiel.

With Little Mac, they were led by a former Dutch army officer named Egmond, who had fought with Napolean, and had been severely reprimanded for it. They had marched half way down Yonge Street when, somewhere near the Bloor Street Viaduct, they were suddenly confronted by a dozen or so figures approaching through the early morning mist. This scant handful of soldiers had taken up arms to defend Sir Peregrine, the Crown and the established order. Now, confronting the rebels, they let go a volley of musket shot at the opposing farmers, and immediately turned tail and ran away.

MacKenzie’s men returned their fire, but then tragedy struck, snatching defeat, or at least stalemate, from the jaws of victory. Colonel Van Egmond, in the best fusilier tradition, had ordered the front rank to kneel, providing the second rank with a simultaneous field of fire. Unfortunately, the Colonel had not had the time to instruct his men in infantry tactics. Seeing the front rank drop, those in the second rank concluded that those in front had all been killed by the Tory fusillade. Immediately, most of Little Mac’s army turned and ran back in the direction of Unionville.

And that was pretty well the end of the Rebellion of 1837, according to most historians. It was a pretty poor showing as revolutions go, especially for a country that had been waging continuous war for 300 years.

In the aftermath (sometimes called algebra) of the Rebellion of 1837, Sir Peregrine’s government exacted a terrible revenge on the revolting Canadians by deporting 100 of them, sentencing them to life in Australia. That was judged to be a fate worse than capital punishment.

Two of the rebel leaders were actually hanged, although MacKenzie himself managed to flee to the United States, which he viewed as marginally preferable to the gallows. Historians are divided on that question. In any event, William Lyon MacKenzie's place in Canadian history is not only assured and unique but, as it turned out, he proved by his decision to move to the States that he was not so crazy after all.

Our ancestor Philip Annett somehow managed to escape and return to the farm, deciding that there are some things in the affairs of men worse than putting up with one's wife, however ballistic.

Canada was launched down a road over which historians are divided, some viewing it as “law, order and good government under the Crown,” while others consider it a road of servile dependency. Still others say that the two descriptions amount to the same thing.

Just one year after the Act of Union, an ancestor of the current writers, John Dunning Lord Ashburton, executed a treaty with the Americans which settled the boundary between New Brunswick and Maine. Some historians believe he even consulted the Mi'kmaq and the Maliseet people about the boundary and received the reply: “We don't need a boundary. There is no such word in our language. Just keep the Yanks out.”

Lord Ashburton was the grandfather of Philip Annett, the ancestor of the current writers, and hero of the Big Bloor Street Bug-out. It's believed that Philip was disinherited by his famous grandfather, but not just for his rebel activity. Lord Ashburton had little use for any of the authors' family, and for good reason.

Philip's father William, namesake of one of the current writers, but of much fewer intellectual attributes, was Ashburton's coachman. He managed to coach Ashburton's daughter in more ways than one. Under the pretense of giving her a driving lesson, William drove the coach to a secluded spot in Etobicoke and succeeded in getting her in the family way.

Philip, the result of that tryst, marked the beginning of our family's decline from nobility to its present status as penniless scribblers.

With the rebellion put down, for a time the Family Compact reigned supreme, even against a group known as the Fenians from Boston, thanks to the constabulary, ably assisted by a group of students from the University of Toronto, most likely from the sociology department. There were also present not a few unemployed steelworkers from Hamilton.

The rest is history.


Bill Annett grew up a writing brat; his father, Ross Annett, at a time when Scott Fitzgerald and P.G. Wodehouse were regular contributors, wrote the longest series of short stories in the Saturday Evening Post's history, with the sole exception of the unsinkable Tugboat Annie.

When he was 18, Bill's first short story was included in the anthology “Canadian Short Stories.” Alarmed, his father enrolled Bill in law school in Manitoba to ensure his going straight. For a time, it worked, although Bill did an arabesque into an English major, followed, logically, by corporation finance, investment banking and business administration at NYU and the Wharton School. He added G.I. education in the Army's CID at Fort Dix, New Jersey during the Korean altercation.

He also contributed to The American Banker and Venture in New York, INC. in Boston, the International Mining Journal in London, Hong Kong Business, Financial Times and Financial Post in Toronto.

Bill has written six books, including a page-turner on mutual funds, a send-up on the securities industry, three corporate histories and a novel, the latter no doubt inspired by his current occupation in Daytona Beach as a law-abiding beach comber. You can write to Bill Annett at this address:

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