27 April 2010

Here's to Robert Gourlay!

Three or so years ago, I happened upon a newly installed bust of Robert Gourlay in Toronto's St. James Park. It was a pleasant surprise; we have so few of these sorts of things in Canada. Gourlay, being very much a forgotten figure, I suppose it was felt that something of an introduction was warranted. The pedestal reads: "Banished from Upper Canada in 1819 on false charges of sedition brought by the Family Compact. His writings had an impact on events leading to the 1837 rebellion." True enough, though Gourlay would be the first to add that he condemned that rebellion; indeed, he fought against it by sending Lieutenant-Governor Francis Bond Head intelligence on rebel activity south of the border.

It's simply not possible to reduce such a complex and confusing life to a couple of sentences – and I'm sure not going to try it here. The best account of Gourlay's life, written by S.F. Wise for The Dictionary of Canadian Biography, is recommended reading, if only for the description of the "darling system" (which proponents of electoral reform are encouraged to study).

When James McIntyre met this frustrated man, Gourlay was an octogenerian. Newly married to a 28-year-old bride, he was attempting one last time to gain some small amount of influence in a run for parliament. McIntyre reports his sad defeat.

In The Four Jameses, William Arthur Deacon treats the poet rather unfairly, writing that Gourlay "returned to Canada in 1856; and contested the Oxford seat in 1860, not in 1858 as McIntyre asserts." In fact, McIntyre is correct, though he does misspell Gourlay's surname – an obvious error that appears to have escaped the critic's notice.

Poems of James McIntyre (Ingersoll, ON: Chronicle, 1889)


  1. I'm going to read that CDB link, if only to find out more about the Lord Brougham whipping incident.

    I'm very much enjoying these posts by the way!

  2. Wise tells us that Gourlay merely "tapped Henry Brougham with a riding crop", yet as a result was sentenced to Coldbath Fields Prison. Seems so unfair, given that in Kingston Gourlay was "horsewhipped" without penalty by Christopher Hagerman.

    The difference between English and Canadian justice, I suppose.

    Glad to hear that you're enjoying the posts.