Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
January 2005

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


Period of Military Rule in Canada



[This article was published in 1948. For the full citation, see the end of the document.]

Military Rule, Period of. This is the term usually applied to the period of military government which intervened between the capture of Quebec in 1759 and the definitive cession of the French dominions in North America by the Peace of Paris in 1763. This stage was merely an interlude; but it has been depicted in such false colours by some French-Canadian historians, such as Garneau that it is worth while examining in detail. It is usual to say that after the conquest of Canada Amherst divided the country into three districts, Quebec, Three Rivers, and Montreal, and placed each of these districts under a military governor subject to himself as commander-in-chief. Such a statement, however, is not strictly accurate. What happened was that in 1759 Monckton, who had succeeded to the command of the British forces at Quebec, was ordered south for his health, and, before leaving, appointed Murray, the next senior brigadier, military governor of Quebec , with Burton as lieutenant-governor, until the king's pleasure should be known. Murray had already been acting as governor of Quebec for nearly a year, when, after the capitulation of Montreal, Amherst, the British commander-in-chief in North America, issued a placard setting up two new districts, Three Rivers and Montreal , and appointing as governors in them respectively Burton and Gage. The net result of this action was to divide Canada, for the purposes of military government, into three districts corresponding to the judicial districts under French rule. But the difference in date and source of the appointments of Murray, on the one hand, and Burton and Gage, on the other, was reflected in the type of military rule set up in their several districts. Murray, who had already made his arrangements for the government of the district of Quebec, was not bound by the terms of Amherst's instructions to Burton and Gage; and consequently the military government of Quebec differed radically from that of Three Rivers and Montreal .


During the siege of Quebec by the French in 1759-60, Murray repeatedly legislated by proclamation; and in the autumn of 1759 he made his first provision for the administration of justice by appointing one of his officers to be a judge in civil and criminal cases in Quebec and its environs. In October, 1760, however, he issued a proclamation outlining new arrangements. Henceforth all minor civil actions were to be dealt with by the "commandant of the troops in each locality", subject to appeal to the governor. All important cases, both civil and criminal, as well as appeals, were to be brought to the governor, who was to hold court once a week. These cases might be dealt with by the governor summarily, or they might be referred by him to a "Military Council", or "Council of War", composed of a major and six captains, which was to sit twice a week. The administration of justice in Quebec was, therefore, thrown entirely into the hands of the British army officers, with the exception that the subordinate officials of the "Military Council" were French Canadians.


To these arrangements the system set up by Amherst in Three Rivers and Montreal presented a strong contrast. In his placard of September 22, 1760, he announced the formation in each parish or district of courts of first instance composed of French-Canadian captains of militia, who were to hear all complaints, and, if possible, execute justice. Cases with which these courts were not able to deal were to be sent on to the officer commanding the troops in the locality; and the most important of these cases, and all appeals, were to come before the governor. The spirit underlying these arrangements is well indicated by Amherst's instructions to Burton and Gage that they were to govern "according to the Military Laws, if you shall find it necessary; but I should chuse, that the Inhabitants, whenever any Differences arise between them, were suffered to settle them among themselves agreeable to their own Laws and Customs." These arrangements revealed in actual working some defects; and in October, 1761, Gage found it necessary to reorganize the administration of justice in his district. By an ordinance dated October 13, 1761 , he divided the district of Montreal into six subdivisions, and set up in each a "chamber of justice", composed of from five to seven militia officers, presided over by a captain. This chamber was to sit every fortnight; and it had the power of trying both civil and criminal offenders, and of inflicting corporal punishment, prison, or fine. All appeals, and all serious offences, such as theft or murder, were to go for trial before British courts-martial, one of which was to be constituted monthly for each two subdivisions. Every award was subject to the approval of the governor, who might lessen or commute, though he might not increase, the punishment.


In May, 1762, Haldimand, who in that month succeeded Burton as governor of Three Rivers, and who had been previously under Gage at Montreal , followed Gage's example in reorganizing the administration of justice in his district. He partitioned the district into four subdivisions; and in each of these he set up a "chamber of audience" composed of militia officers, and presided over by a captain of militia. These courts, as in Montreal, dealt with civil and minor criminal offences; and appeals, and serious criminal offences, went, as in Montreal, before British courts-martial. All awards were subject to the approval of the governor.


The historian Garneau has described this system of justice as "the most insupportable of all tyranny"; and he has asserted that the French-Canadians preferred to settle their disputes almost wholly among themselves, or before the priest as arbitrator. "The Canadians," he wrote, "spurned the booted and spurred legists placed among them." On this latter point the evidence does not support Garneau. Haldimand, writing to Amherst on June 22, 1762 , complained of the litigiousness of the inhabitants in his district, and the annoyance caused to the officers of the militia by bad lawyers. Even in' the district of Quebec, where one might have expected that Garneau's statement might have held good, there is little evidence that dissatisfaction existed. "Mr. Murray," testified the principal French inhabitants, in their address to the king on January 7, 1765, "has up to the present time, at the head of a Military Council, administered to us all the justice that we could have expected from the most enlightened jurists." With regard to the charge of "tyranny", one need only compare British military rule in Canada in the eighteenth century with, let us say, German military rule in Belgium during the twentieth century to realize that there are at least varying degrees of tyranny. Under military rule, as the Duke of Wellington said, the will of the commander-in-chief is law. But the will of the commander-in-chief has seldom been exercised more leniently than when the militia officers of the conquered people were given judicial powers, or even when the subordinate officials of the higher courts were chosen from among the native lawyers. There is always danger of reading into the past the disputes of later times. In due course, French Canadians did come to regard British- rule in Canada as tyrannous; but between 1759 and 1764, and indeed for many years afterwards, the relations between the British and the French in Canada were extraordinarily harmonious. The spirit in which British military rule was exercised in Canada after the .conquest is well exemplified by the fact that in 1761, in Quebec, the officers of the garrison, together with some of the merchants, subscribed £600, and the soldiers contributed one day's provisions a month, for the relief of destitute French Canadians.


Bibliography. The chief authority for the period of military rule is Règne militaire au Canada (Mémoire de la Société historique de Montreal, no. 5, Montreal, 1872). Much valuable material may be found in G. Doutre and E. Lareau, Le Droit Civil Canadien (Montreal, 1872). Miss J. N, McIlwraith, Sir Frederick Haldimand (The Makers of Canada, Toronto, 1910), which is based on the Haldimand papers, throws some light on the district of Three Rivers. The most important documents are to be found in A. Shortt and A. G. Doughty, Documents relating to the constitutional history of Canada, 1759-1791 (Canadian Archives, Ottawa, 1907).

Source: W. S. WALLACE, ed., "Period of Military Rule", in The Encyclopedia of Canada, Vol. IV, Toronto, University Associates of Canada, 1948, 400p., pp. 288-290.



© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College