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John Neilson: A Pre-Confederation Entrepreneur and Leader

For the week of Monday January 31, 2011

On February 1, 1848, an influential Canadian entrepreneur and politician died. Born in Scotland, John Neilson immigrated to Lower Canada in 1791. A man of many talents, Neilson would also make his mark as a publisher and bookseller, philanthropist, and even farmer! Well educated and travelled, bilingual, connected with people of various origins, and optimistic about the country’s future, Neilson was dedicated to the development of the young colony.

John Neilson
© Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec P560,S2,D1,P951
Shortly after arriving in Lower Canada, Neilson inherited a publishing firm that had belonged to his uncle. In 1800, he purchased the business of his main competitor in the colony, establishing a near monopoly over the Quebec printing business. His largest publication was the weekly newspaper the Quebec Gazette, and he also owned the largest bookshop in the Canada’s until the 1820s. Keenly interested in the colony’s educational matters, he donated books and money to schools.

Not content to focus on one profession, Neilson became a shareholder in the Quebec Banking Society and offered easy credit and financing to people who needed it. Neilson also became involved in humanitarian concerns. He was a member of the Quebec Emigrants’ Society, and helped settle immigrants in Valcartier in 1816. Neilson was also an avid farmer and became President of the colony’s Agriculture Society. He even invented new seeder and plough designs! 

Louis-Joseph Papineau, Leader of the Parti Patriote
© Photograph attributed to T.C. Doane / Library and Archives Canada / C-066899

Neilson was first elected to the Provincial Assembly in 1818 as a member of the Parti Canadien (later Parti Patriote). Best described as a moderate reformer, he admired British institutions, but was also critical of the corruption and abuse of power displayed by the British administration of Lower Canada. Neilson developed a close friendship with Louis-Joseph Papineau, leader of the Parti Canadien. They travelled to London together in 1823 to present a list of the Assembly’s grievances to British Parliament. Neilson went again to London in 1828 where he condemned Lower Canada’s administration and urged the right of the Assembly to control all revenues.

Papineau publicly thanked Neilson for his efforts on behalf of French Canadians in 1830, but their friendship would not last. The Patriotes developed strong nationalist feelings as well as resentment towards British rule and the colony’s constitution; ideas that Neilson strongly disagreed with. Neilson was expelled from the Parti Patriote in 1834. After the Rebellions of 1837 and 1838, Neilson would resume his political career as a member of the Assembly of the United Canada’s from 1841 until his death.

John Neilson was designated a national historic person in 1976 for his service as a journalist, reformer, and Member of the Assembly of Lower Canada.

For more This Week in History stories about the Rebellions see The Battle of Saint-Eustache, A Responsible Government and Montgomery’s Tavern: A Palce to Rebel. To read more about Louis-Joseph Papineau, see Louis-Joseph Papineau: Quite a Character! in the This Week in History archives.

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