Louis-Joseph Papineau: ‘Patriote’ or Traitor?


Here in Québec we often hear about Louis-Joseph Papineau and his glorious ‘Patriotes’, and how they fought against British rule. He’s portrayed as a hero in his quest for greater democracy, protector of the French-Canadian people and language, and early fighter for the cause of a separate French-Canadian Republic.

But let’s look at Papineau more closely. First of all, when push came to shove, and it came time to take up arms against his ‘oppressor’, Papineau backed out, and would not lead his men into battle. An Anglophone doctor by the name of Wolfred Nelson ended up being the leader of the Patriotes troops in battle.

Secondly, concerning his status as a fighter for democracy and equality. Papineau was a ‘Seigneur’, or quasi-feudal overlord in western Québec. Far from the ideal of a liberal-democratic freedom-fighter. He was renowned for being merciless with his tenant farmers and insisted in exacting full measure from them regarding the labour and crops that were owed to him by the terms of Seigniorial tenure. Not exactly a shining example of Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité.

Lastly, let’s look at Papineau’s record for looking after the interests of the French language. After his rebellions were quashed in 1837-38, he ended up supporting the signature of a document called the Annexation Manifesto of 1849. This came about because the merchants of Montréal had recently lost their preferential tariff protection on certain key export products, and were therefore looking at forming a union with the United States to get better trade arrangements.

Papineau thought this was great, because he didn’t like the British form of Constitutional Monarchy and preferred a Republic instead. So just imagine if a separatist leader like Papineau had succeeded in convincing Québecers to join the United States? I bet you that the French language would have disappeared in just a few generations!!!

This sounds strangely familiar to what separatists argue today. They say that Québec would negotiate directly with the US and would get better terms. First of all, Québec’s debt is so big, that the only reason that our credit rating is still pretty good, is that the federal government is guaranteeing our debt. If we go, then we’d have to borrow money in New York at much higher interest rates, and we’d soon get gobbled up by the Americans.

The Annexation Manifesto, by the way, ended up not going anywhere because we ended up signing a Free Trade, or Reciprocity agreement in 1854 with the Americans, thereby guaranteeing our access to the US market! However, the Americans promptly abrogated the accord in 1866, thereby paving the way in part for Confederation, which was based on east-west trade. So as Québecers, we never know how certain our relationship with the US is going to be or not. One thing is for sure, we need each other as Québecers and all the rest of us all across this great country. That’s why our motto is ‘A Mari Usque ad Mare’, or, in English, ‘From sea to sea’. Or as my dearly-departed mother would always say: ‘Carry on Canada!!! (And have a great Victoria Day, by the way!!!)

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