Paul Comeau: Witness to change II

Les Patriotes

Second of a four-part series of the real and imagined life of Paul Comeau (1826-1905)

It had been about 60 years of British rule after the conquest of Québec, and there began to be rumblings of political discontent. In both Upper and Lower Canada, electoral corruption, the ideals of republicanism vs. colonial rule and securing French rights led to open rebellion. For a 10-year old boy, the pivotal events that unfolded in the Richelieu region instigated by the Patriotes and Fils de la Liberté could only have been interpreted as heroic and exciting.

During the election of 1834, Louis Marcoux, an advocate for the rights of French Canadians, is assassinated in Sorel. The coroner’s jury declared 14 individuals guilty, all but one was tried, and he was acquitted by a Montreal jury. This development further radicalized Marcoux’s friend, Dr. Wolfred Nelson, one of the leaders of the Lower Canada rebellion of 1837-1838.

There is no indication of the political leanings of Paul Comeau or Marie Mathieu’s parents. Being illiterate, they likely formed their opinions by talking about the issues with their pastor, family and neighbours, and not from the newspapers and pamphlets of the day. It’s certain that there was wide-spread concern that the reformists would resort to violence, so Paul’s parents, Joseph and Marguerite, likely cautioned their youngest boys, Paul, Alexis and Jean-Baptiste from hanging around where they had no business.

Monument aux Patriotes de Saint-Ours

In May 1837 (a month before a young Victoria ascends to the throne of Britain) a rally in St-Ours, with Dr. Nelson as the principal speaker, was attended by 1,200 people. In the fall, more rallies took place in Montreal and nearby St-Charles-sur-Richelieu followed by arrests for treason and sedition. Three Chapdelaine men are among the Patriotes arrested – very likely relations of Paul’s mother Marguerite. Paul’s brother Pierre, who was in the militia, was likely involved on the government side of the issue. Troops are dispatched to the area on Nov 22, while the Patriotes look for the means to arm their followers.

In St-Denis poorly-armed rebels with reinforcements from St-Roch, Contrecoeur and St-Ours manage to force government troops to retreat to Sorel. Still, 12 rebels and 30 soldiers died. Jean Baptiste Dupré of St-Ours was one of them. Colonel Gore, intent on retaliation, returns with a plan to burn the village of St-Ours to the ground. Curé Belanger’s entreaties to Gore succeeded in sparing the village but the homes of the insurgents are pillaged.

Sentiment begins to turn against armed rebellion and 399 St-Ours residents sign a petition sent to the Governor disavowing the actions of the few insurgents. Joseph Comeau’s name is not on the petition. Many of the instigators flee to the United States and try to keep the flame of revolution alive from afar. By January 1838, the rebellion is over.

Still, the divisive nature of the recent rebellion may have been a factor in how locals shamefully responded to a steamship disaster on June 10, 1839. Passing Sorel in the night on its way to Montreal, John Labatt’s steamer, John Bull, caught fire near Lanoraie and several panicked passengers jumped into the river to escape the flames. A number of local residents came out with boats, not out of compassion but to extort money from passengers in return for rescue. 14 souls were lost in that tragedy.

Next: Home & country

© Janet Comeau, May 2018

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