Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
July 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


George Brown, the Gavazzi Riots and the

Formation of the Clear Grits Party


[This text was written by J. M. S. Careless in 1959; for the precise citation, see the end of the text.]

[.] And then, the sudden intrusion of a complete stranger into Canadian affairs touched off an explosion - notably to affect George Brown.


The stranger was the imposing, fervid and theatrical Father Alessandro Gavazzi. He was an Italian patriot and ex-military chaplain of '48, who had broken with Rome when it set its face against Italy s Liberals in that revolution: a renegade monk or an evangelical crusader, depending on where one's own face was set. (1) Now he was engaged on a North American mission of preaching the evils of Popery; and when he swept northward into Canada, late in May, he came as a burning brand of passionate conviction, who aroused vehement response from Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. In Toronto his lectures at St. Lawrence Hall were a public sensation, as he poured scorn on the "blindness" of the popish system, and dramatically thundered, "No peace with Rome !" (2) But then, with this sort of record behind him, he boldly, or foolishly, moved on to the heart of thoroughly Catholic French Canada, to the capital city of Quebec, which was already deeply stirred by the excited religious disputations that were going on almost daily in its legislative halls.


It was on the electric evening of June 6 that Gavazzi addressed an audience in Quebec's Free Presbyterian Church on St. Ursule Street. Not long after 9:30, as the tall, black-frocked figure was blasting away at Cardinal Wiseman's activities in England, someone yelled - "That's a lie!" - and, as if at a signal, a shower of stones crashed through the windows. A mob burst headlong into the chapel and poured down the aisle, intent on dragging Gavazzi down from the pulpit. He defended himself manfully, both with fists and a stool, but was finally tumbled fifteen feet into a struggling mass of friends and foes below; from there his supporters managed to rescue him before he incurred serious injury. Others of the audience were less fortunate, for the whole church was now a chaos of battering fists, sticks, howls, and the shrieks of women. Nor was violence checked till troops arrived about ten o'clock to scatter the mob. (3) Disturbances had not ended, however. A strongly Irish crowd of several hundred re-formed, and marched off fiercely to the Parliament Buildings to seek the politician whom more than anyone else they identified with anti-Catholicism. They massed about the doors. "Brown, Brown," they roared, "We'll treat you like Gavazzi!" (4) But he was not there. He had not yet come in for a late night session. Frustrated, the throng at last dispersed. It was an anti-climax; but the Gavazzi troubles had still to reach their peak.


The next day in parliament Drummond, the Attorney-General East, deplored the outbreak, explaining somewhat lamely that although he had asked for adequate police protection around the chapel the magistrate in charge had been too ill to act. (5) Brown tried to speak, but was ruled out of order. Drummond, however, did advise the proprietor of the Russell Hotel, where Gavazzi was staying, to post armed men at the windows with instructions to shoot if necessary. That day, in fact, Russell's was in a state of siege; and when the inflammatory Italian left for Montreal . by boat in the evening, guards lined the streets leading to the docks. (6) On June 9 he spoke at Zion Church in Montreal. It was there that the disastrous climax came. (7)


Another ugly riot broke out, a spatter of shots was exchanged between Protestant and Catholic participants, and troops, this time ready to hand, were hastily ordered in. Someone gave a detachment orders to fire - who, it was never settled - and a volley struck into the dispersing Protestant congregation. Nine were killed, one died later, over a dozen were wounded. (8) Those responsible for the tragedy of military confusion were never effectively prosecuted. But far from shocking Montreal into order, for days afterwards anti-Protestant bands continued to attack evangelical churches and molest their ministers. This without restraint from either civic or provincial authorities, as the most turbulent Roman Catholic elements worked off their spleen and the more moderate, apparently, let them do so. (9)


Of course, in Upper Canada , the disorders produced almost as strong a reaction. There was a wave of furious indignation, wild talk about St. Bartholomew's Eve and Protestant martyrdom. For better or worse, it served to enhance the stature of George Brown. The very fact that he had been chief villain, next to Gavazzi, in Catholic Quebec made him a hero in the Protestant West. His refusal to be overawed by the disturbances at the capital, where he ploughed straight on in attacking the power of priestcraft embodied in religious corporations, brought him vigorous approval from angry Upper Canadians. He was the one man in parliament, they warmly agreed, who stood unbowed by Lower Canadian Catholic violence, who upheld the principle of religious freedom before a spineless ministry that even condoned the suppression of liberty by lawlessness. Harassed Lower Canadian Protestants, too, were ready to endorse the judgement. (10) Parliament finally adjourned a few days later, still in the bitter, strained aftermath of the Gavazzi riots. They had left Brown a far more influential figure than he had been when the session began.


But there was more reason than that. The anger over Gavazzi would fade; Brown's eminence would not. The long session of 1852-3 in itself had made the difference. When it opened, he was a highly prominent political journalist, but an unknown parliamentary quantity. At its close, he was one of the leading men in the Assembly. He was still very much an independent member: if there was a Brownite faction in parliament, it consisted so far of himself and Fergusson, with William Lyon Mackenzie as co-belligerent rather than ally on most church-state questions. Yet, despite his lack of big battalions in parliament, Brown's commanding presence and his fighting prowess, and the growing awareness of the popular support which he and the Globe were gaining by championing the rights of Upper Canada, forced every member of the House to weigh him heavily.


He had the potentialities of leadership. Another election, a shift in party alignments, might bring him parliamentary supporters enough. And there was increasing talk that the present structure of parties no longer fitted the real divisions in politics: the Globe, indeed, had been saying as much at least since December of 1851, when it had urged the French Canadians and Tories to combine on grounds of their common state-church principles. (11) Now the existing Liberal party looked finally to be foundering on the rocks of sectarian and sectional disagreement. Ahead there seemed to be the opportunity for a new Reform organization, shorn of state-church influences and standing squarely on the doctrine of representation by population. Party reconstruction - without doubt, that was now the dominant interest of the very independent member for Kent .


(1) Dent, Last Forty Years, vol. 2, p. 274.


(2) Globe, June 4, 1853.


(3) Ibid ., June 9, 1853.


(4) Ibid, June 14, 1853.


(5) Ibid, June 9, 1853.


(6) Ibid, June 9, 16, 1853.


(7) Dent, Op. Cit., p. 277.


(8) Globe, June 14, 1853.


(9) Brown Papers, William Workman to Brown, July 26, 1853.


(10) Globe, July 5, 1853.


(11) Ibid ., December 23, 1853.

Return to the Gavazzi Index Page / Retour à la page d'index sur Gavazzi


Source : J. M. S. CARELESS, Brown of the Globe. Vol. I: The Voice of Upper Canada, 1818-1859, Toronto, Macmillan, 1959, 354p., pp. 173-175, notes at p. 341. The title was added by Claude Bélanger.







© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College