When Canada was a Republic

By general standards, Canada is still a very young country, not having its own Charter or Rights and Freedoms and Canadian Constitution until 1982 with the Constitution Act. But how many people know that Canada had a Republican Government for a year, under President William Lyon McKenzie.

The capital of the Republic was located on a small Island precariously situated just above Canada’s Niagara Falls.

The Republic of Canada even had its own flag, rather stark and boring, but a national flag non-the-less. A blue background with two large white stars on the top-side, signifying Upper and Lower Canada, and the word Liberty spelled out in red capital letters on the bottom half on a white background.

Following two failed attempts to overthrow the fledgling Canadian government, McKenzie retreated to Navy Island and set up a government capital with about 1,000 Canadian “rebels” and a number of supporting Americans, and tried to challenge the Family Compact.

The Family Compact was the first attempt at governing the huge area known a Canada. It quickly became a system of the rich and powerful, whereby one without the proper bloodline or social status could never hold an office of power. Most government offices were appointed and not voted for by the people.

That did not sit well with McKenzie and many others who, after several attempts to bring issues before the Compact government of British oligarchs, he saw no other way except an armed rebellion could change things.

Many settlers who came to Brant County following the American Revolution, were equally concerned about the high-handedness of the Family Compact and were more than willing to throw in with a new form of government that most closely resembled their own, and that is what McKenzie’s rebellion offered.

Mackenzie’s second rebellion was in conjunction with the American, Van Rensselaer, who occupied Navy Island, above Niagara Falls, and fortified it with about 1,000 men from Canada and the States.

British Colonel McNabb heard about the plan and with a force twice as big as MacKenzie’s rebels, stopped the transfer of men and equipment to the island, capturing the ship, the Caroline, which was being used for that purpose by MacKenzie and Van Rensselaer, set it on fire and let it over the falls. Rebels told the press at the time, the British sent the fiery Caroline over the falls with wounded and dead rebels still on board.

Several of the rebels were residents of Scotland, Ontario, and the regions around Brant County and Norfolk. Following the failure of the rebellion, McNabb showed his diplomatic savvy by dismissing many of those caught, on their own undertaking to keep quiet and stay out of trouble. He could just as easily tried them for treason.

Following a third attempt, a reign of terror prevailed in Toronto, according to Toronto Newspapers. Five hundred insurgents were crowding the prisons. Two leaders, Lount and Mathews, died on the scaffold at Toronto, “meeting their fate calmly.”

After a few more feeble attempts to over-through the powerful British-backed Family Compact, two things became obvious. The first was that MacKenzie could not win his rebellion, and secondly that the Family Compact had to be abolished.

Things settled down in the coming years until William Lyon Mackenzie finally succeeded in changing the way Canada does its politics with each other. But it is worthy of mention that MacKenzie’s disdain for the independence of the Six Nations and other Indigenous people remained throughout his life and career. It was only strengthened by his vicious handling of the North West Rebellion of Louis Riel.

Time seems to have obscured the meaning of the word and the act of a “Rebel”. Was MacKenzie a Rebel or a Patriot? Was Riel a Patriot or a Rebel? Next Canada Day, when most Canadians celebrate Canada Day and the life of her first Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie, don’t forget he was certainly one of Canada’s most famous leaders and racists.

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