The Great Lakes - Neutral Territory

The Role of the Canadian Militia

Sergeant, Montreal Rifle Corps, 1820 to 1830

Caption: Sergeant, Montreal Rifle Corps, 1820 to 1830

Military theorists all reached the same conclusion: it was essential to have a large number of willing and properly trained militiamen. It so happens that at the time many of the men who were eligible for the militia in British North America were of French descent, and most of them lived in Lower Canada. At the beginning of the 1820s the colony had approximately 80,000 men capable of bearing arms, whereas there were only 17,000 in Upper Canada and 30,000 in the Maritime colonies. It was felt that one quarter of the militiamen could be armed.

In 1820, when Lord Dalhousie arrived in Quebec as governor-in-chief, the training of the militia was one of his priorities. Although he was a talented administrator in the autocratic style, he did not have the patience to recognize the political factions. He supported the oligarchies of the upper bourgeoisie, whether the Family Compact in Upper Canada or the Clique du Château in Lower Canada, and opposed progressive politicians like Louis Joseph Papineau and William Lyon Mackenzie, who were demanding reforms, including the abolition of privileges.

Dalhousie believed that to be effective the Upper and Lower Canada militia should correspond in every respect with his idyllic vision of the volunteer militia in England: brave yeomen - i.e., prosperous farmers - led by their squires, beneficent noblemen, both wearing bright uniforms and going off to war as if they were going on a hunting expedition!

Because of its familiarity with English institutions, Upper Canada adapted better to the programme than did Lower Canada. In the 1820s several companies of volunteers were established in various parts of the province and in May 1829 each regiment was even ordered to have two companies of volunteer riflemen. The first task of all of these men was to obtain uniforms at their own expense in order to receive weapons from the government. No uniform, no weapon. That was the rule.

At first sight, these active volunteers appeared to strengthen the militia, but this was merely an illusion. Because they were generally from the well-to-do classes, they represented only a small proportion of men able to bear arms. The mass of militiamen was completely neglected except for the annual review.