The Fils de la Liberté

The Fils de la Liberté was formed in August 1837 and held its first assembly on 5 September when between 500 and 700 people attended. It based itself on the Sons of Liberty that had existed during the American Revolution but the more immediate inspiration was another organisation that already existed in Vankleek Hill, the centre of radical activity in the valley of the Outaouais. The core of the association was made up of young Patriotes but the links between it and other members of the Parti Patriote was maintained by two lawyers François-Marie-Thomas Chevalier de Lorimier and Georges Étienne Cartier. The assembly at Saint-Charles on 23 October approved the organisation of the Fils de la Liberté.[1]

The members of the association normally gathered at the Hotel Nelson in the rue Saint-Jacques. Other groups were formed outside Montreal but they only accounted for about 200 members. To disseminate information, the organisation made use of the ‘small ads’ sections of pro-Patriote newspapers.[2] These can be found in both La Minerve and the Vindicator generally under the name of the association or its slogan ‘Forward’. The group also had its own hymn, ‘Avant tout je suis Canadien’, written by George-Étienne Cartier. The organisation of the Fils de la Liberté disappeared a little after the street fighting of 6 November and the issue of arrest warrants for Papineau, O’Callaghan, Brown and Ouimet on 16 November. Gosford estimated that the Fils had 2,000 members at this time but this may be a deliberate over-estimate and it is difficult to be certain about its total membership because the numbers attending Fils activities varies considerably from source to source.

According to the deposition of G-H-É Therrien[3], the members of the association wanted to ‘redress their grievances….through moral force’.[4] In other words, they wanted to use legitimate means to put forward their point of view. The publication of the Adresse des Fils de la Liberté de Montréal aux jeunes gens des colonies de l’Amérique du Nord on 4 October 1837 marked the beginnings of conflict between the Fils and loyalists.[5] The Fils was organised into two sections: a civil wing was under the direction of Papineau and O’Callaghan with the lawyer André Ouimet[6] as president that met on Mondays; and, a military wing directed by Thomas Storrow Brown that met on Sundays to practice military operations. The organisation of this brotherhood was very effective with each of the six civil sections led by a group leader who, in the event of conflict, became colonels on the model of the militia. This calls into question the conclusions of some historians who saw the Fils as a small and ineffective organisation.

The different types of meeting were designed either to inform members or provide them with some military preparation. Resolutions were adopted in the same way as at other Patriote assemblies though it is unclear whether this applies to both types of meetings.[7] Neither is it clear whether participation by members at both types of meeting was voluntary or obligatory. What is evident is that the organisation did not regard itself as involved in a nationalist or religious battle but in a fight against the oppression of government, the battle between democracy and aristocracy. Evidence for this comes from the minutes of the meeting on 5 September reported in La Minerve.[8] It reported that the fourth rule was

La société se composera de la jeunesse en général et les seuls titres exigibles pour ceux qui désireront en faire partie, seront l’honnêteté et l’expression sincère de défendre leur pays contre l’arbitraire administration qui le régit, sans distinction de rang, d’origine ou de culte.

In the same article, La Minerve also mentioned that ‘the association was concerned exclusively with politics and all that was attached to it’. This somewhat contradicted the division between civil and military unless it was envisaged from the formation of the Fils that armed conflict was inevitable.

Since its formation in August, the Association des Fils de la Liberté had called an assembly on the first Monday of each month.[9] This occurred at the Place d’Armes where the Fils planted a tree of liberty.[10] It was, however, the meeting on 6 November 1837 that has been given the greatest attention. Since the meeting had been announced the previous Friday, rumours had circulated in Montreal that people should expect a second 21 May 1832.[11] Shortly after, the loyalists and their paramilitary section, the Doric Club said that it too would be holding a meeting and demonstration on 6 November. Jesse Lloyd, an emissary from Mackenzie in Upper Canada was in Montreal and Papineau did not want any conflict at this time and thought the projected march by the Fils de la Liberté ill-advised.[12]

Under these circumstances, magistrates decided to ban both processions to avoid any confrontation between the two groups. Two magistrates, Théophile Dufort and John Donegani managed to get an agreement between the Fils and the Doric Club. The constitutionalists promised to do nothing if the Fils did the same. The magistrates also pressured Papineau to intervene and prevent the procession and assembly leading his son Amédée to retort, ‘Non papa! En avant! En avant.’ However, the truce between the two groups had broken down by dawn on 6 November when Montreal was plastered with Patriote posters saying

Que les Loyaux habitants de Montréal se rendent à midi et demi sur la Place d’Armes, aujourd’hui 6 novembre 1837, pour étouffer la rébellion au berceau.[13]

The Doric Club retorted by also putting up posters throughout the town stating

…les Loyaux habitants de Montréal à se rendre à midi sur la Place d’armes pour tuer la rébellion dans l’œuf.[14]

Despite the clear threat from the Doric Club, the Fils went ahead with their meeting prompted in part by an article in La Minerve denouncing the measures taken by the magistrates in order to prevent the meetings as well as the ‘challenge’ launched by the members of Doric Club.[15] The Fils de la Liberté were ordered to go to their assembly two by two without drawing attention to themselves, without music and with as little fuss as possible and without any flags and, importantly, they were to obey the law. However, according to Amédée Papineau, they were all armed with guns or daggers under their coats. The meeting took place in the court of an inn belonging to Joseph Bonacina on the corner of the rue Notre-Dame and the rue Saint-Jacques.[16] Amédée Papineau said that there were about 1,500 people present though M. O’Sullivan put the figure at only 350.[17] The main speakers were André Ouimet, president of the Fils de la Liberté, Amury Girod, Thomas Storrow Brown and Edmund O’Callaghan, deputy of the Parti Patriote and editor of the Vindicator and E-E Rodier, also a deputy and one of the most radical members of the Parti Patriote who spoke in particularly inflammatory manner. Louis-Joseph Papineau was not present.

Around 3 pm, a group of between twenty and thirty young men threw stones and insults in the direction of the assembly. During this time, the Fils de la Liberté adopted twelve resolutions of which one called off the monthly assemblies for the winter until May the following year.[18] The meeting ended around 4 pm and most of the Fils de la Liberté began to go home down the rue Notre-Dame. The others moved towards those who were attacking them shouting its slogan ‘En avant, en avant’. In reality, they may not have been members of the Doric Club but simply the curious and fled once the Fils took a more offensive stance. A small group moved to the house of Dr William Robertson, one of the murderers of 1832 but fled when the Fils de la Liberté stopped to ransack his house. Others attacked a shop in the rue Notre-Dame where several people were hiding. A magistrate quickly went to inform the soldiers to leave their barracks in the Porte de Québec. The Fils succeeded in emptying the streets and quietly started to go home but several Patriotes had been assaulted. Thomas Storrow Brown was viciously attacked on the corner of the rue Saint-Jacques and Saint-François-Xavier but was helped home by one of his friends. Brown lost the sight in one eye and Ouimet was wounded in the knee. Early in the afternoon the Riot Act was read and the Royal Regiment, supported by the Artillery, ordered out to patrol the streets. Some Patriotes were informed that regular soldiers were about to arrive and judging that they were not enough to defend themselves, the remnants of the Fils de la Liberté began to return to their homes.

The Doric Club arrived but the initial disturbances had already ended. During a small skirmish with several of the Fils de la Liberté, De Lorimier was glanced by a pistol ball. The Dorics moved down the rue Dorchester and cornered some Fils at the house of Doctor Gauvin. They threw stones at the house of Joshua Bell, Brown’s deputy who responded by twice firing his rifle from a window but missed on both occasions. They then moved to Louis-Joseph Papineau’s house and began to shout insults and throw stones. Papineau stayed inside the house with his wife and children including Amédée, who had just returned from the riot. However, regular troops protected the house. Others attacked the offices of the Vindicator in the rue Sainte-Thérèse throwing the presses, print and paper into the street but did not touch the offices of the equally partisan La Minerve. There were soldiers in the vicinity but they did not intervene later defending their inaction by stating that they wanted to use the troops at Papineau’s house. Finally, the residence of Robert Nelson was attacked but after this the members of the Doric Club went home. Why the Doric Club largely attacked anglophones such as Brown, Bell, Nelson and O’Callaghan is unclear other than them being seen as traitors to the British cause.

Why have the events of 6 November been viewed by historians of such importance given that the street fighting appears not to have been as severe as events in 1832? The disturbances on 6 November fell into several phases. First, the Fils congregated for their meeting at Bonacina’s inn around 2 pm. Secondly, around 3pm, the meeting was attacked by a crowd of ordinary Montrealers. This appears to have been an uncoordinated action that may or may not have involved members of the Doric Club. Thirdly, once the Fils ended their meeting at around 4 pm, most went home but a small group took the offensive and cleared the streets of their attackers. Fourthly, regular troops arrived to restore order and it appears that the Fils melted away. Finally, the Doric Club arrived but, apart from a short skirmish with the remaining Fils, concentrated on attacking the houses of leading Patriotes especially Papineau’s.

First, it is clear that if this was a rebellion, an unlikely scenario but a position held by the Doric Club, then the Fils lost and lost badly. They had been pushed on to the defensive almost from the outset and although the Doric Club did not get involved until the disturbances were almost over, their actions were far more offensive and destructive in character. In fact, the meeting of the Fils appears to have attempted to defuse future confrontations by postponing further assemblies until the middle of the following year and the number of the Fils involved in direct action was only a small proportion of those who attended the meeting. The Patriotes now knew that loyalists would fight if necessary without regular military support and that they were not prepared to concede Montreal to the Patriotes. Secondly, the military found itself caught between the two groups and although it protected Papineau’s house effectively, its response in other areas was half-hearted and, in the case of the attack on the offices of the Vindicator non-interventionist. Finally, Gosford and the authorities recognised that the tensions between Fils de la Liberté and the Doric Club were serious but that the volunteers were able to contain the rebellion without the assistance of regular troops. The rumour, then the certainty, that the principal leaders would soon be arrested quickened the tempo of events. Colborne’s reaction was immediate. The 24th Regiment was ordered from Kingston to Montreal, two companies of the 83rd Foot moved to the city from Trois-Rivières and two companies of the 66th Regiment arrived at Chambly from Quebec. By 8 November Colborne was recruiting and arming volunteers and the following day set up his headquarters in Montreal. Patriote leaders retreated to their strongholds: St-Benoît and St-Eustache in the Deux-Montagnes or St-Denis and St-Charles in the Richelieu Valley. Events were quickly slipping from Papineau’s grasp and when urged to control Patriote activities in the countryside on 12 November he made it clear that he could not restrain it. Within a week, arrest warrants for the Patriote leaders were issued, an event that precipitated a more widespread rebellion in the Richelieu and the Deux-Montagnes.

Appendix: Address of the Fils de la Liberté of Montreal to the young people of the colonies of North America


When urgent events in the affairs of a country make it necessary for citizens to form associations, the respect that is due to the opinions of society requires that these citizens explicitly declare the motives which led them to coalise, and the principles that they intend to establish by the means of their organisation.

We consider that, based upon the privilege of each individual to act on his own behalf, by the very basis of society, the privilege to join all of one’s energy to that of one’s co-citizens, in all projects aiming for defence or mutual interest, and consequently the right of association, is a right as sacred and as unalienable as that of individual liberty itself. We sustain that governments are created for the common good and can only rightfully exist with the consent of the governed, and that whatever artificial change may occur in the affairs of society, a chosen government is nevertheless an inherent right of the people. Since it cannot be alienated, one should not need to ask before putting it in practise.

All governments being instituted for the good of the whole people, by no means for the honour or the profit of only one individual, any claim to rule according to a divine or absolute authority, claimed by or for any man or class of men, is blasphemous and absurd, just like it is monstrous to inculcate it and degrading to admit it. The authority of a motherland over a colony can only exist for as a long as the colonists who live in it find this relation to their advantage; because it has been established and populated by these colonists, this country belongs to them by right, and consequently can be separated from any foreign connection whenever the disadvantages, resulting from an executive power located abroad and which ceases to be in harmony with a local legislature, make such a step necessary to its inhabitants, in order to protect their lives and their freedom or to acquire prosperity. By taking the name of Fils de la liberté (Sons of Liberty), the association of the young people of Montreal by no means intends to make it a private cabal, a secret junta, but rather a democratic body full of strength, which will be composed of all the youths that the love of the fatherland renders sensitive to the interests of their country, whatever their belief, their origin or that of their ancestors.

The reasons, which in the current situation imperatively call upon all classes, but especially that of the young people, to active life and heroic devotion to the cause of their country, are many and imposing.

At the time of the cession of this province in 1763, in order to consolidate British power on the banks of the St. Lawrence, certain rights of land property, of religion and government had been guaranteed to the Canadiens, and had been confirmed later, in 1774, when the noble revolution of the American States rendered concessions to the new subjects of the Empire an urgent policy. The brilliant successes of the United States and the movement of the French revolution, having given England a reason to fear for its remaining possessions in America, it passed in 1791 the Constitutional Act, which divided the province into Upper and Lower Canada, and established a representative assembly for each one. In 1812, conciliation again became a necessary measure because of the United States’ declaration of war. These times of danger were for Canada periods of an apparent justice, while those intermediate as well as those which followed provide but a long story of injustices, atrocities and repeated usurpations. We thus saw British administrators displaying a cowardice and a perfidy completely unworthy of a powerful nation, never ceasing to delude the Canadien people with promises full of disappointment, and who, in times of urgent need and once the crisis had passed, would not redden when resorting to all kinds of expedients to differ or avoid to honour their most solemn engagements.

After seventy years of English domination, we are forced to see our country in a state of misery when compared to the flourishing republics that had the wisdom to shake the yoke of the monarchy. We see the emigrants of the same classes coming from the other side of the sea, poor wretches on our soil, turn happy the moment they join the great democratic family, and everyday we sadly experience the fact that it is only to the noxious actions of the colonial government that we must allot all our evils. An alleged protection paralysed all our energies. It preserved all that was good, and blocked all measures of reform and improvement.

While each of the townships distributed over the immense territory of our neighbours has the advantage of being wisely governed by a free democracy, which is formed by itself, and to act energetically, we, on the other hand, are abandoned to the mercy and control of a government in which the people have no voice, whose influence tends to corrupt public virtues at its source, discourages entrepreneurship, and destroys the generous impulse of all that can effectively lead to the advancement and prosperity of our country.

A legion of officers appointed without the approval of the people, to which they in the majority are opposed and to which they are never responsible, who hold their public charge at the will of an irresponsible Executive, is now in authority above us with wages that are enormously disproportionate as much with regards to our means as to their services, so that these employments seem created for family interests or personal elevation, rather than for the advantage of the people or to satisfy their needs.

The trial by jury that we had been taught to see as the palladium of our freedoms, has now become a vain illusion, an instrument of despotism, since the sheriffs, creatures of the Executive, on which each day they depend for their continuation in a charge to which enormous emoluments are attached, have the freedom to choose and summon such jury that they like, and consequently can become the arbiters of the people in the political lawsuits launched by its oppressors.

Funds of an immense value, given by a wise and far-sighted government or by individuals distinguished by their generosity, to the late order of the Jesuits and granted by them solely for the benefit of education, were diverted of such a creditable purpose, to be used as instruments of corruption by useless and almost always reprehensible officers, while the children of the province who were deprived of the funds intended for their instruction, grew up without being able to take advantage of this benefit, and saw themselves being reproached for their lack of education later on in life.

Our public lands, defended in two consecutive wars by the bravery of the inhabitants of the country, later turned valuable by the opening of communications accomplished at the cost of great and tiring labour, and by settlements stretching as far as the desert, were sold or given, ignoring our representation, to a company of speculators, living on the other side of the Atlantic, or were divided amongst parasite officials who, for reason of interest, leagued themselves up in a faction to support a corrupted government, enemy of the rights and opposed to the desires of the people, while our fathers, our parents, our colonist brothers are served only refusals, or are unable to afford these uncultivated lands to establish themselves.

Laws on land tenancy, absolutely inapplicable to the condition of the country, unjust in their operation, have been imposed on us by a foreign Parliament, which in order to favour private and sinister interests, confiscated the power over interior legislation, which solely belongs to the legislature of the province.

Trade regulations for this colony, adopted by a foreign Parliament are currently enforced against our consent. By that we find ourselves limited to a small subset of opportunities and deprived of the means to extend our trade to all the ports of the world when the markets of Great Britain are not as advantageous to the disposal of our products; from there the impotence and inertia of our commercial undertakings.

The representation of the country has become a notorious object of mockery. A corrupted executive has constantly worked to make our House of Assembly an instrument suited to inflict slavery upon its constituents; and seeing that it did not succeed in this vile project, it rendered its action impotent by frequent prorogations or dissolutions, or by refusing assent to bills essential to the people and that had been passed unanimously by the representatives.

A Legislative Council whose members are responsible for the appointment of an authority that is ignorant of the affairs of the colony, and located at a distance of 3,000 miles away, mainly made up of people who have no sympathy for the country, still currently exists as a sort of an impotent screen between the government and the governed, always ready to nullify all attempts at useful legislation. An Executive Council appointed in the same way, whose influence poisons the heart of each successive governor, still remains intact, protecting the accumulation of office positions and all the abuses which are attached to each public department. A governor as ignorant as his predecessors, and following the example of each one of his predecessors, turned into an official partisan, leads the governmental machine for the advantage of the small number, and is little concerned with the interests of the majority, or is even determined to be an obstacle to it.

Our grievances were accurately recorded and on several occasions submitted to the King and to the Parliament of Great Britain, in resolutions passed by our county meetings and our representatives assembled in Parliament, and in the humble petitions of all the nation. We made our remonstrances heard with all the power of arguments, and through the moral strength of the truth. No remedy was put forward, and in the end, when the tyranny of those who are invested with power in the province increased at an unbearable level because of the impunity which is assured to them, an ungrateful motherland took advantage of a time of general peace, to force us to close our eyes and approve our own degradation, by threatening us to seize our public revenue by force, challenging natural rights, and all the principles of law, of politics and justice.

The current state of deterioration of our country being the result of three-quarters of a century of a cordial devotion to our connection with England, and of our trust misled in British honour, it would be to show ourselves criminal and born for slavery to limit our resistance to simple representation. The perfidious projects of the British authorities broke all bonds of sympathy with a motherland that shows herself to be insensitive. A separation has started between our two parts and it will never be possible to cement this union again, and in fact, the separation will continue with an increasing strength, until one of these unexpected and unforeseen events, such as those we sometime see in our current times, provide us with a favourable occasion to take our place among the independent sovereignties of America. We have let two superb occasions slip by: let us be prepared for a third one. A destiny full of glory is reserved for the youth of these colonies. Our fathers spent a long career of anguish fighting against all the phases of despotism day after day. By leaving this world, they bequeathed us with a heritage, which they worked hard to increase at the cost of every sacrifice dictated by patriotism. In us is entrusted the duty to continue their sublime projects, and to free, in our days, our beloved fatherland from any human authority other than one with an intrepid democracy sitting in its midst.

With such an encouraging prospect before our eyes, with a responsibility as high as the one which rests upon us, it is our duty to put aside all the flightful fancy of the youth, and to dedicate ourselves entirely to the considerations of politics, and the needs and resources of our country; to augment its wealth by encouraging its manufacturers and its products; to preserve all its strength by stopping the consumption of all the articles imported from overseas; but above all, to accustom ourselves to sacrifice, by cutting off our personal expenses, by avoiding excess and superfluity, will it be possible to give c the means of supporting one another in the fight for life and freedom to which sooner or later we will be committed to, until the avent of the glorious day that will see us leave a long and obscure slavery to enjoy the brightness of light and freedom.

Consequently, we, the officers and members of the Fils de la liberté association in Montreal, in our own name, as in the name of those we represent, we solemnly commit ourselves before our maltreated homeland, and each one of us, to devote all our energy, and to hold us ready to act, according to whether the circumstances require it, in order to obtain for this province:

· A reformed system of government, based upon the principle of election;

· A responsible executive government;

· Control by the representative branch of the legislature of all public incomes of all sources;

· The recall of all the laws and charters passed by a foreign authority that could encroach on the rights of the people and its representatives and especially those which pertain to property and the tenure of lands belonging either to the public or to the individuals;

· An improved system for the sale of public land, so that those who desire to settle can do it for as little cost as possible;

· The abolition of holding multiple offices and the irresponsibility of public officers, and

· A strict equality before the law for all classes without distinction of origin, language or religion.

Trustful in the providence and strong of our rights we invite by the present all the young people of these provinces to create associations in their respective localities, for the purpose of obtaining a just government, cheap and responsible, and ensuring the safety, the defence and the extension of our common liberties.

André Ouimet, chairman

J.L. Baudry, Joseph Martel, vice chairmen

J.G. Beaudriau, treasurer

J.H.E Therrien, minute secretary

G. Boucherville, correspondent secretary

Frs. Tulloch, deputy correspondent secretary

J.S. Neysmith, Toussaint Demers, N. Lafrenière, Pierre Grenier, Louis Dumais, Joseph Letorre, L.P. Boisvin, R. Courselle, Casimir Arcourt, Amable Simard, J.B. Label, Jos. Gaudry, James Finey, Louis Lebeau, Thomas Barre, F. Tavernier, Joseph Dufaut, Joseph Leduc, Paul Martin, A.B. Papineau, J.B. Brien, P.G. Damour, André Lacroix, Henry Lacaille, Pierre Larceneur, N. Berthiaume, Narcisse Valois, H. Carron, H.A. Gauvin, L. C. Perreault, C. de Lorimier, Norbert Larochelle, André Giguère, Louis Barre, Simon Crevier, André Lapierre, R. Desrivières.

October 4 1837

[1] La Minerve, 26 October 1837.

[2] La Minerve, 14 September 1837

[3] Messier, p. 456.

[4] Tousignant, Pierre, La déposition de George-Henri-Edouard Thérien et les Fils de la liberté, Colloque de la Societé d’histoire de l’Amerique française, UQAM, March 1987.

[5] Ibid, Bernard, Jean-Paul, Assemblées publiques, résolutions et déclarations de 1837-1838, pp. 214-222 prints the address in French. For an English translation, see the appendix below, pp.

[6] Messier, p. 364.

[7] La Minerve, 9 November 1837.

[8] La Minerve, 7 September 1837.

[9] La Minerve, 7 September 1837. The previous assemblies had be on 5 September and 4 October.

[10] Fauteux, Aegidius, Les patriotes de 1837-1838, (Édition des Dix), 1950, p. 34.

[11] Riots occurred during the Montreal by-election in May 1832 when three Patriotes were killed after regular troops opened fire on a crowd. Ibid, Senior, Elinor Kyte, British Regulars in Montreal: An Imperial Garrison, 1832-1854, pp. 11-23, provides the best account of the riots and their aftermath.

[12] Groulx, Lionel, Histoire du Canada français, Vol. 2, (Fides), 1960, p. 163.

[13] Papineau, Amédée, Journal d’un Fils de la Liberté 1838-1855, (Septentrion), 1998, p. 73.

[14] A rough translation is: …the loyal inhabitants of Montreal will meet at midday at the Place d’Armes to strangle the rebellion at birth.

[15] La Minerve, 6 November 1837.

[16] For Patriotes the rue Saint-Jacques was the ‘rue du sang’, the location of what they saw as the Montreal massacre of 1832.

[17] Ibid, Papineau, Amédée, Journal d’un Fils de la Liberté 1838-1855, p. 73.

[18] L’Ami du Peuple, November 1837.

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