Somehow, in that atmosphere of chalk dust, while everybody was drawing circles on the desks with their compasses, they got William Lyon Mackenzie by us. We knew he did something, but we didn’t know what; and whatever he did was a lot less important than geometry, even though nothing was less important than geometry.
Canadian history is livelier these days. Mackenzie was a crazy man with a crooked red wig — or was he really a revolutionary hero? It all depends on whom you read. A revolution — in Canada? How did we miss that? Who was this man, and why are our historians fighting about him?
This much we know: Mackenzie emigrated to Upper Canada from his native Dundee in 1820: four years later he had set up his own newspaper, the Colonial Advocate, and was already making his presence felt in the colony with his attacks on the Family Compact, the colony’s powerful Tory political and financial elite. His demands for honest and efficient government attracted widespread support among farmers and workingmen in the cities; they also provoked the Compact into destroying his press in 1826.
For the next decade, Mackenzie played a game of ballot-box thrust and parry with the Compact. Five times elected to the House of Assembly by the voters of York County, he was five times expelled by the Tories for printing and uttering libel. He avenged himself for the final expulsion by becoming the first mayor of the newly incorporated city of Toronto in 1834. But his experience in colonial parliaments convinced Mackenzie that they were powerless, so long as final authority rested in the hands of a British governor and his appointed executive. He began appealing directly to the people through a new paper, The Constitution, and by the early summer of 1837, Mackenzie was making plans for a rebellion in Upper Canada.
The climax of the rebellion was to be a march on Toronto from Montgomery’s Tavern, just north of the city, on Thursday. December 7. But Mackenzie’s plans were scuttled when another rebel leader, worried by reports that the colonial authorities might move first, ordered the attack on Monday, December 4 — before most of the rebel forces, including their leader, had gathered at the tavern. The march turned into a series of indecisive skirmishes that lasted through the week. Mackenzie tried and failed to rally his disheartened and disorganized forces; after a final battle on December 7, the rebel leaders decided to abandon further resistance. Mackenzie, with the
help of sympathizers, escaped to Buffalo.
Mackenzie attempted to carry on his struggle for Canadian independence from Navy Island in the Niagara River, where he set up a republic with himself as chairman of the provisional government; he was eventually jailed for a short time in Rochester. New York, for inciting American citizens to attack a foreign country. A royal pardon granted in 1849 allowed him to return to Canada the next year; reelected to the Assembly as an independent in 1851, he opposed Reformers and Tories alike for the remainder of his political career. He died, still a rebel, in 1861.
“Our generally peaceful, somewhat alcoholic and quite sexless history needs some Mackenzies to keep it alive” (F. H. Armstrong, writing in the Journal Of Canadian Studies, August 1971). That has been the traditional verdict on Mackenzie. Most Canadian historians, occupied as they have been with our constitutional development, treat 1837 as a colorful diversion from more serious matters. And they have passed down his contemporaries’ assessment of Mackenzie himself as an eccentric. Governor Sir Francis Bond Head’s first impression of him echoes through our history texts: “He sat with his feet not reaching the ground . . . while with the eccentricity, the volubility, indeed the appearance of a madman, the tiny creature raved in all directions about grievances.”
But traditions in Canadian history are being challenged. For a start, it’s coming out of the classroom. And the way some of our writers, poets — even a few historians — see it, such incidents as the 1837 rebellion deserve to be taken more seriously. In a marvelously sly piece of doggerel, poet Dennis Lee invokes the ghost of the man who “spoke for Canada” — William Lyon Mackenzie as our first great nationalist. Playwright Rick Salutin, in the article beginning on the previous page, charges that, by telling the story of 1837 as comic opera, historians have robbed Canadians of a vital sense of their own capacity to resist injustice — Mackenzie as our first true revolutionary. Amateur and professional, a new crop of historians is still coming up with other versions of the man and the revolt.
What’s important is the purpose they share: to find in Canada’s past the roots of problems we face today, and evidence of strengths we may use to shape our future. That, after all, is what historians are supposed to do. In their way, it’s what the best of our historians have always done. But for those of us who missed it the first time, the great Mackenzie debate is an invigorating new look at our past and our potential. ■
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