The Republics of Canada! A Tale of Alternative Canadian Government Systems

The cliché is that Canada is always a country in the making. Not too long ago, this was literally true as the borders between the rebellious United States and British North America were often questioned and challenged. There was never any guarantee of British supremacy over the colonies with a major competitor like the US in the game.

Throughout Canadian history, people have struggled to transform government. There are the famous revolts like the Upper Canada Rebellion, Lower Canada Rebellion and the Red River Rebellion.

But there were also some lesser known attempts at nation-building like…

New Ireland (1779-1783, 1818)

New Ireland was a British colony in the modern-day state of Maine that existed intermittently during the American Revolutionary War (for four years) and the War of 1812 (for about eight months).

The Revolutionary War sent those loyal to the Crown into exile. Many escaped inland to Upper Canada, but the real strategic asset at the time was connection back to the home country of the United Kingdom. This meant the Atlantic seaboard was a key base of operations. The UK could not hope to match American manpower so it relied on the Royal Navy to fight this quixotic war against overwhelming rebellion.

Maine’s large Penobscot Bay, filled with small islands and inlets, would provide a British staging point to launch attacks on Boston, New York and the rebel capital of Philadelphia. On the defensive, fleeing Loyalists could more easily get to the Penobscot Bay by foot than Upper Canada or Nova Scotia. The bay would be hard to attack but easy to defend, especially with the construction of Fort George on the eastern side of the bay.

Inaccurate map of the Penobscot Expedition Battle in 1779 (Fort is on the wrong side of the Bay)
Inaccurate map of the Penobscot Expedition Battle in 1779 (Fort is on the wrong side of the Bay)

This obvious defensive advantage for the British didn’t discourage the enthusiastic revolutionary Americans from sending the Penobscot Expedition to lay siege on the new fort from both the sea and the land.

Lieutenant John Moore inflicted heavy casualties on American rebels who had landed in Penobscot Bay. He would later fall in battle resisting Napoleon's invasion of Spain.
British Lieutenant John Moore inflicted heavy casualties on American rebels who had landed in Penobscot Bay. He would later die in battle fighting Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.

The Americans brought superior numbers, but the defenders held out until the Royal Navy arrived and entrapped the American ships in the bay. Captain George Collier engaged the Americans, forcing them to flee up the Penobscot River until they ran out of water. The Americans lost a battle at Bangor and scuttled their remaining vessels. They returned to Massachusetts on foot with their tails between their legs, thoroughly humbled by the fort’s defenders and the Royal Navy.

 

 

 

Royal Naval ensnares American rebels in Penobscot Bay, New Ireland (1779)
Royal Naval ensnares American rebels in Penobscot Bay, New Ireland (1779)

It’s hard to overstate the colossal failure of the expedition, which cost the Americans millions of dollars, 19 ships and hundreds of guns. Fort George never fell throughout the entire Revolutionary War and provided the most stunning naval defeat the US would experience until the Second World War.

Captain George Collier trapped, destroyed and forced the Americans the scuttle their entire fleet.
Captain George Collier trapped, destroyed and forced the Americans the scuttle their entire fleet.

The brave defenders of the bay saved New Ireland only for it to be given up by compromising politicians at the end of the war. Loyalists thus found themselves in enemy territory and were forced to pack-up and move across the new boundary line at the Saint Croix River. Many settled in the newly founded Loyalist stronghold of Saint Andrews, right on the boundary line and at the mouth of the river, as if they were simply waiting out the storm and would one day return to New Ireland.

The British soldiers who had valiantly defended Fort George disbanded into newly founded Loyalist town and many became Canadian homesteaders. A year after New Ireland was abandoned to the Yankees, the UK divided the border land for the incoming Loyalists from Nova Scotia and called it New Brunswick.

However, the Treaty of Paris (1783) did a poor job of defining the border between Maine, Lower Canada and western Nova Scotia (soon to become New Brunswick) and other places along the Canada-US border (there are a host of strange border anomalies that exist because of this ambiguity). The legal vacuum led to the foundation of two republics in the no man’s land.

But before we get to those territories, let’s finish off with New Ireland. Britain still dreamed of expanding British North America and reclaiming New England. The War of 1812 offered that opportunity. The first move to establish New Ireland was the seizure of Fort Sullivan on Moose Island, which was renamed Fort Sherbrooke after Nova Scotia’s Lieutenant Governor John Sherbrooke. The Brits held this fort even after the war had ended, and did not relinquish the island until 1818 after the Americans withdrew claims to larger, neighbouring islands.

Sir John Sherbrooke: inspiration for the unconquerable Canadian Fort Sherbrooke. Founder of Dalhousie University in Halifax with the tariffs collected by the fort.
Sir John Sherbrooke: inspiration for the unconquerable Canadian Fort Sherbrooke. Founder of Dalhousie University in Halifax with the tariffs collected by the fort.

The governor sent a terrestrial and naval invasion force that seized once again Castine (the site of Fort George) and the surrounding towns and maintained them for the remainder of the war (about 8 months). And then in a bitter irony, the Treaty of Ghent once again forced the defenders out of the fort and back along the now better defined border. They did, however, take thousands of pounds worth of duties back to Nova Scotia and founded Dalhousie University so the invasion was not completely in vain.

And now on to the two short-lived republics forged in the no man’s land.

The Republic of Madawaska / La République du Madawaska (1827 – 1842)

As the great powers of the day bickered over ownership of the vast swath of frigid pine forests, a republic was quietly carving out a space in an area of Northern Maine (Aroostook County), Lower Canada (Québec) and New Brunswick (Madawaska County). The republic derived its namesake from the Madawaska River that flowed through the republic, connecting Lake Tesmiscouata to the St John River that now marks the border between New Brunswick and Maine. The entymology of madawaska comes from the Mi’kmaq words madawas for porcupine and kak for land: Land of the Porcupines. A fitting description for a break-away republic that sought to be left alone.

Flag of the Republic of Madawaska
Flag of the Republic of Madawaska

This republican utopia sounds romantic what with the great animal mascots and all, but the reality was nothing more than a squabble over the legal ambiguity of sparsely populated and deeply forested borderland.

Once again, Americans were causing trouble for us Canadians. An American by the name of John Baker settled in the area in 1817. First he asked for the land to be annexed to Maine in 1825 and when that didn’t work he just decided to fly a homemade US-style flag made by his wife Sophie Rice over what is now Baker Brook, a river to the west of the Madawaska that also feeds into the Saint John River. The flag had the typical stars above an eagle in the over-the-top imperialist American style. A re-imagined flag, now that Baker Brook is Canadian territory, features the defensive, solitary porcupine and fleur-de-lys instead. But the government buildings in New Brunswick still fly the original flag.

Flag of the Republic of Madawaska
Flag of the Republic of Madawaska

Anyway, the Brits were having none of this Americanizing on the border. The flag was taken down by officials and Baker was fined and imprisoned for a couple of months. Of course, this reignited the usual British-American animosity. An attempted reconciliation by the Dutch King proved fruitless. It took a phony war (more on this in a bit) to transfer the territory to Lower Canada and subsequently New Brunswick, where it remains to this day. Meanwhile, another republic was about to form further west…

The Republic of Indian Stream (1832–1835)

The Republic of Indian Stream was another strange occurrence from the ill-defined border. This dispute also took place along the New England-Québec border, but in New Hampshire instead of Maine. Once again, the Treaty of Paris was vague and defined the border as the “the northwesternmost head of the Connecticut River.” The problem was that these sparsely populated territories had not been properly charted at this point so everyone had a different opinion about the location of said head.

Indian Stream was also named for a body of water, but this republic actually had a fair bit of legitimacy through a proper constitution, an elected government and a population of about 300 citizens. Prior to the Revolutionary War, the land had been sold to European settlers by the area’s aboriginals so land grants furthered sovereign legitimacy through property rights.

Because both sides claimed the territory, both sides expected taxes. Citizens of the Republic were not keen on paying taxes twice, so they decided to form their own government while the bickering parties sorted the issue out. But the double taxation issue was perhaps the least concerning. In Dickensian fashion, both sides also had debt collectors and debtors’ prisons. Thus was the case of a citizen of the republic who failed to pay a minor debt on some equipment. The citizens retaliated by shooting at the magistrate’s house where the prisoner was being held temporarily (an interesting tactic to free their fellow citizen who was now ducking lead balls inside the building).

The British were aghast at the possibility that such a petty provincial squabble could reignite war with the US. The otherwise forgettable backwoods of the New Hampshire-Lower Canada border, which had been lingering in legal limbo for over 50 years, suddenly became a pressing diplomatic issue.

This time the republic was annexed by the US and its citizens foolishly voted to join New Hampshire to avoid British debtors’ prison (ok fine, good enough reason). In 1836, as per usual, the British government thought nothing of giving away our land to protect the interests of the Empire. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842) finally sealed the deal on the border question and so Northern Maine awkwardly juts upwards where there should be a smooth line connecting Central Canada with the Maritimes via the Province of New Ireland.

The Webster–Ashburton Treaty (August 9, 1842) - took you long enough!
The Webster–Ashburton Treaty (August 9, 1842) – took you long enough!

It’s not good to dwell on what could have been, but adding an 11th province would not only be a great addition to Canada, but it might have reduced the psychological barrier caused by the border barrier that separates the East Coast.

Maybe we should have fought for New Ireland. Maybe we should have made common cause with the US against Britain. Maybe we should have formed a Republic of Canada!

The Republic of Canada (December 5, 1837 – 1838)

As 1837 drew to a close, Mackenzie and 200 rebels fled south from York after the botched uprising of the Upper Canada Rebellion. With a new currency and promises of land to partisans following the coming victory, the Republic established a supply route to the States via a steamer boat.

William Lyon Mackenzie: not a fan of the monarchy, and his scowl backs it up.
William Lyon Mackenzie: not a fan of the monarchy, and his scowl backs it up.

Yes – Canada once had its very own republic! In breaking with the parliamentary, monarchist and imperial tradition, the rebel William Lyon Mackenzie established a republic on Navy Island on the Niagara River.

Rebel flag of the republicans!
Rebel flag of the Canadian republicans

Within weeks, the Royal Navy and accompanying Canadian militiamen reacted by burning the steamer and killing an America on-board. However, news spread that many more US citizens were burned alive on the steam so the US authorities burned a British steamer in retaliation. A few weeks later, Mackenzie and his rebels were forced to retreat once again, this time across the border where they were promptly arrested and imprisoned for a year and a half for violating British-US neutrality (so much for republican solidarity). Not all of the rebels were captured. Some escaped to the Thousand Islands chain… causing anxiety for their monarchist opponents.

The flaming Caroline steamboat about to plummet off Niagara Falls. What a sight that would have been!
The flaming Caroline steamboat about to plummet off Niagara Falls. What a sight that would have been!

The movement for a Canadian Republic was not simply a Canadian revolutionary activity. Sympathisers and aggressors in the US have always wanted to annex Canada. During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson said the conquest of Canada would be as easy as marching, but he was proven wrong again like many of his flamboyant statements. The War of 1812 didn’t go any better for US imperialists.

An organization, based in Cleveland, of supposed hunting lodges along the Canada-US border sought to break the colonies away from the British Empire. Almost a year after the failed Canadian Republic on Navy Island, the organization elected Abram Smith as the first president of the Republic of Canada and reasserted the existence of a republican Bank of Canada based on the economy of Upper Canada. Of course, not having any jurisdiction or political control over Upper Canada proved an impediment to realizing this plan and the republic quickly floundered.

Scuttling the Caroline (1837)
Scuttling the Caroline (1837)

Would the Republic of Canada have saved New Ireland from annexation? Would the Republic of Indian Stream have joined Canada? Or would a weakened Canada, without naval support from Britain, simply have been annexed by the US? We will never know.

The borders have helped define Canada, often in opposition to American values. We spent much of our history opposing America’s Manifest Destiny and sorting out our border issue (e.g. the Alaska Border Dispute). Fear of Civil War-era battled-hardened US troops streaming over the border led to Confederation among provinces with different cultures and political interests.

Will we one day merge with the US or other countries? Some people await the utopia of a united borderless world. Others fear domination by the One World Order. For the time being, it would seem Canada is getting along just fine, as we always do.

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