The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada

By Martin, Ged | British Journal of Canadian Studies, January 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada


Martin, Ged, British Journal of Canadian Studies


William Kilbourn, The Firebrand: William Lyon Mackenzie and the Rebellion in Upper Canada, introduction by Ronald Stagg (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2008), 326 pp. Paper. £13.99. ISBN 978-1-55002-800-3.

The Firebrand was first published in 1956, and is here reissued in Dundurn's Voyageur Classics series, 'Books That Explore Canada'. Although this biography of 1837 rebel William Lyon Mackenzie was enjoyable to read, I never felt easy with it. This was not, I hope, simply academic snobbery towards its lively style of atmospheric but un-footnoted reconstruction, but rather because William Kilbourn portrayed Mackenzie as a loveable rogue. My reading of Mackenzie's scurrilous newspapers was that he was an unpleasant rabble-rouser, and it was only the far more Himalayan grasping nastiness of the Upper Canada élite that gave him a heroic historical niche. Certainly, the rebellion that he attempted to lead in 1837 was irresponsibly conceived and incompetently led. Ronald Stagg's introduction to this new edition solves the mystery of Kilbourn's Mackenzie by focusing firmly upon Kilbourn himself. A 'flamboyant and popular teacher' (p. 10), then at McMaster University and later a pioneer of the humanities programme at York, Kilbourn identified closely with the Liberal Party of Canada. If less than a power-broker, he was more than a groupie, someone with a knack of being present when key events happened, for instance getting in on the ground floor of Trudeaumania. In the mid-1950s, the Anglo- Canadian liberal tradition, whether with a small or large 'L', had to take account of Mackenzie, both chronologically and causally, not least because the party's apparent status as Canada's natural government was the legacy of the Firebrand's distinctly non-fizzling grandson, William Lyon Mackenzie King. …

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