European enlightenments and Canadian rebellions

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  • History o/European Ideas, Vol I I. pp 377-380. 1989 Printed in Great Britam

    0191-6599/89 $3 00 + 0.00 D 1990 Pergamon Press plc


    S. B. RYERSON*

    As colonial by-product in a sense, of the triple upheaval that marked our historic 17-1&h century turning point, French-Anglo-American Canada is understandably traversed by ambiguity. That upheaval was a mutation at once of mind and of social order in Western Europe and its dependencies. Its background embraced Renaissance and Reformation, world discovery, trade and colonies, birth of natural science and of modern polity. What ensued was a mix of Enlightenment and industrialism, revolution and war.

    Comparative history of that crucial era focuses now, appropriately, on the Great French Revolution. French Canadas relationship to it had been rather special: having been forcibly sequestered from its metropolis in 1763, it was barely beginning (by 1791) to experience re-cycling to the conquerors parliamentary tradition of 1640 and 1688. The cultural-political jolt was to take some getting used to. Three brief comments may give some indication of the tenuous linkage of our present Canadian specifity, still, with elements of the historic turning-point.


    From the Netherlands Sea Beggars defying Spains Duke of Alva, to the lighters at Valley Forge and the combatants at Valmy, the common strand of national assertion links the democratic revolutions. After Missolonghi and Bolivar, it recurs in the Lower and Upper Canadian confrontations with Downing Street. The 1837-38 risings, speedily crushed by force of arms, expressed a shared impulse of democratic anti-colonialism. In the words of Louis-Joseph Papineau, Les bonnes doctrines des temps modernes, je les trouve condensees, expliquees et livrees a lamour des peuples . . . dans quelques lignes de la Declaration dIndependance de 1776 et de la Declaration des Droits de lhomme et du citoyen de 1789.

    The Canadois of early New France, later Canadiens, the Canadiens- Francais, most latterly Quebtcois: successive self-percepts of members of a nation-community in an evolving context. From French-imperial dominance to British, to Anglo-Canadian to Anglo-American. Otherness, altCrizC, experienced as inequality. Whence an impulsion to change the framework, restructure Canada.

    On the eve of the battle of the Heights of Abraham, Montcalms lieutenant-

    *UniversitC du Quebec g Montreal, 3519 Lorne Avenue, 46 H2X 2A4 Canada.


  • 378 S. B. Ryerson

    general Bougainville read from a volume brought from home, of Diderots EncJ4opPdie. The paradox makes sense. Absolutist-clerical New France had two-way contacts with the philosophes, slight but significant. Their seeds were to multiply in the Patriote and Rouge movements of the following century, with descendants even in the 20th. The belated contemporary secularisation of schools and social services (the Revolution tranquille of the 1960s and after) is a remote descendant.


    With the rights of nationhood, come rights of the citizen. The English, French and American revolutions combined in their several ways democracy and national affirmation: versus ruling feudal and clerical structures of privilege and power at home, and enemies beyond the borders. In the case of the Canadas. ethnicities and polity posed (and still pose) internal dilemmas. That of French/English duality, for one: British, then Anglo-U.S. imperial dominance, first military then financial-industrial ascendancy, had dictated for the francophone minority a condition of subalternity. Documented by Lord Durham (1839) and a Royal Commission on bilingualism and biculturalism (1965-9), the continuing inequality was recently challenged with the demand for Quebtcois sovereignty and a Canada restructured on a dual footing of egal a egal (1976-85). The after-effects of this challenge to the Confederation of 1867 are still being negotiated (the character of francophone Quebec as a distinct society is at issue as a condition of reentry of Quebec into the revised Constitution of 1982).

    Native peoples rights are another issue of democracy and ethnicity. A historic raw nerve, its source was amply documented by Abbe Raynals Histoire philosophique et politique des Ptablissements et du commerce des EuropCens dans Ies deux Indes (1770). Murderous oppression, racism and commercial rapacity, backed by technological superiority, well-nigh wiped out the first dwellers in the Americas. Present-day demands for self-government and access to benefits of technology carry a new resonance: they challenge the multinational corporate implantations in vast natural areas and their accompanying military-strategic installations.

    If the French/English asymmetrical dichotomy and the issue of Native rights posed in diverse ways the question of national self-determination, what of the majority, English Canada itself? In the period of British North America, prior to the 1867 federal union, confrontation with the Colonial Office led the provincial assemblees to invoke the rights of parliament, ministerial responsibility to the elected representatives, and British traditions of civil liberty. With Confedera- tion, and Dominion status, policy orientation (Canada First, the national policy) in the setting of the North Atlantic Triangle, was the area of contention wherein a Canadian nation-state-identity took form. In English, mainly.

    Responsible government had been the battle cry of 19th century democratisation; with industrialisation and concentration of wealth emerged rudiments of a social passion, a critique of socio-economic structures and irresponsible corporate power. In contrast with Enlightenment fixation on

  • European Enlightenments and Canadian Rebellions 379

    linfame of ecclesiastic ascendancy, some currents of 20th century social criticism have had their source in religious and ethical rejection of the established order: a variant of liberation theology, voiced in declarations of the Canadian bishops on unemployment, environment and nuclear arms policy.


    Light was born of darkness wrote Raynal, in a passage of his History that has been attributed to Diderot. An English monk cultivated chemistry; and preparing the invention of gunpowder, which was to subject America to Europe, he opened the way to the true sciences by way of experimental physics. Thus philosophy issued from the cloister, leaving ignorance behind . . . . Think not that Philosophers alone discovered and imagined everything. It is the course of events that gives a certain slant to the thoughts and deeds of men.. . . Galileo had asserted that since the earth turned about the sun, there must exist antipodes; and Drake proved it by a voyage around the earth.

    The encyclopedic temptation, as old as curiosity itself, became practicable only during the 17-1&h century great turning-point; its larger setting, the planetary mutation of mind and societal upheaval that are with us yet.

    A tiny footnote from the complex and often obscure interaction between the Enlightenment and the Canadas has come to light in the reading list and personal library catalogue of the leaders of the two Rebellions. An Appendix to the Life of William Lyon Mackenzie lists in ten closely printed pages Some of the books read between 1806 and 18 19 by the Scats-born leader of the rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada. Among the 956 titles are those of works by thinkers of the Scottish enlightenment, Hume, Robertson, Ferguson, A. Smith, and of the French: Raynal, Voltaire, DAlembert and Diderot. The spirit of both finds expression in Margaret Fairleys Selected Writings of Mackenzie, not least in the Essay on education. A kindred palimpsest: volumes in my possession, of dHolbachs SystPme de la Nature (1770) and Systtme social (1774) bear on the title-page an earlier owners name: L.-J. Papineau. His personal library, dispersed at an auction in Montreal (1922), as listed in the catalogue of 1 300 items, included a full cross-section of the Lumikres, including some thirty volumes of the Encyclopkdie.

    The Enlightenments work remains unfinished. Mastery of the mechanical arts engendered vast forces of production and, as well, of destruction. We have got to the Moon, are reaching for Mars-but have poisoned our planet Earth. The scientific and technological revolution of the past two centuries is aground on the reef of societal contradiction. Communitarian as well as private-corporate aspirations and Establishments are paralysed, at odds, each to each, an evil empire. In differing ways, there are indeed evils; but decision as to continuance of life or its final extinction may not wait upon that disputation: at least, not in its present terms of reference. Light risks succumbing to darkness. Ce nest pas dans Marx, mais la planete peut sauter.

    S.B. Ryerson Universitk du Qukbec ir Montr6al

  • 380 S. B. Ryerson


    Charles Lindsey, Ltfe of William Lyon Mackenzie (Toronto, 1862), Appendix A. pp. 303-313.

    Marcel Trudel Linjiuence de Voltawe au Canada, 2 ~01s. (Montrkal, 1946). T. Raynal, Histoire philosophique et politique des Estabiissements et du Commerce des

    Europtens dans les deux Indes (1770).