Culture & Conversation

Getting Away With Murder

On May 21, 1832, three French-Canadian Montréalers were shot and killed in the street by members of the city’s British garrison.  This tragic event did much to define the perspectives that guide Québec politics to this day.  Indeed, a keynote of the banquet held in 1834 that originated the St. Jean Baptiste Society was a toast to the memory of these three men.  Yet the incident itself, the events leading to it and the social and political climate in which it occurred are not widely understood.  Nor, in the view of James Jackson, has any serious effort ever been made to examine or understand them.  Until now.

In his introduction, Jackson argues that prominent and influential English-language historians have ignored easily obtained documentary evidence, thereby supporting and sustaining an official version of events that has absolved Lower Canada’s commercial elites and their English colonial masters of responsibility (and thereby encouraging their English-speaking readers to do likewise).  Individuals and institutions have thus been allowed, through a combination of political self-interest and academic laziness, to get away with murder.

The story centers on a municipal by-election.  The opposing candidates were Daniel Tracey, a newspaper editor allied with the Patriote party, middle- and working-class French Canadians eager for self-government and Irish immigrants who shared their enthusiasm for independence from English rule, and Stanley Bagg, representing “the English party.”  Bagg was supported by the moneyed establishment in Lower Canada, London- and Montréal-based land speculators, the English-dominated machinery of the judiciary and law enforcement, and the British Army.

The conduct of the election was marked by violent emotion and by physical violence – as criminal ruffians were employed by at least one side to hinder opposition voting, and both sides engaged regularly in street brawling.  But could partisan hooliganism by itself be legally described as “rioting” and justify the use of lethal force to stop it?  This question is at the heart of Jackson’s study and through a thorough examination of legalities and the evidence of actual incidents and their timing, his answer is an emphatic negative.  Still, an extensive inquiry by the House of Assembly in the months following the shootings (testimony from which much of Jackson’s information is gleaned) never issued a formal report.  And so, popular understanding has, in some quarters, fallen back upon the rationalizations of those in authority at the time:  a violent riot occurred and the army was legitimately called in to stop it, with unfortunate but unavoidable results.

Dr. Jackson is a painstaking researcher and for this must be given the highest congratulation.  Unfortunately, he has responded to previously inadequate detail by providing too much, and his meticulous exposition can at times be overwhelming.  Nevertheless, occasionally arduous journeys can often be the most worthwhile, and this is one of those.  He has accomplished at least two valuable things:  he has shed light on a pivotal incident in the history of Québec and colonial Canada which has previously been much misunderstood, and he has introduced us to an historian whose diligence and passion should be applauded and encouraged so that with use, his narrative skills may become as vivid as the story he tells.

Neil MacRae is a poet and musician from the Maritimes who has made his home in Hinchinbrooke, Québec.


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