Monday, January 18, 2016

Duels In Canada

Duels in Canada – a short and very incomplete history.
A set of dueling pistols made in about 1823

There was a time in Canada when duels were not uncommon. Various military bodies were ordered to the land to establish “sovereignty” – in “New France” and later in “British North America” – and actual or imagined slights could lead to duels with sword or pistol. Members of fur brigades fought duels among themselves or with members of competing brigades using either knife or pistol, again for little reason or for control of a given fur-bearing area.
Sometimes there was something approaching a reason for these duels such as future power or money or continued freedom. On most occasions the “reason” was no more important than the outcome of a grade school soccer match.
Some several months ago I wrote and posted that the last recorded duel held in Canada took place in Ontario in 1833 thirty four years before there was a Canada or a province of Ontario. I have since learned that another instance – of some 300 in a time frame spanning 300 years - holds the distinction of being the last fatal, recorded duel.

The particulars of this second last duel are as follows.

The participants were Robert Lyon and John Wilson accompanied by their respective seconds, Henri Lelievre (probably Lel-ee-vray) and Simon Robertson respectively. The focus of the confrontation was a school teacher Elizabeth Hughes.
Robert Lyon was born in Inverurie, Scotland on December 30, 1812. Along with his family he moved to Canada in 1829.
John Wilson was born February 5, 1807 in Paisley, Renfrewshire, Scotland and came to “the colonies” with his family in Perth, Upper Canada about 1823. In 1833 he was studying law under James Boulton.
In early June of 1833 Lyon, also a law student, made disparaging remarks about Elizabeth Hughes. John Wilson heard these remarks and, since he had begun a relationship with the young school teacher, demanded that Lyon retract the remarks which at the instant he did.
Most of us are aware how the passage of a few minutes which then become hours can change the view one might have of events. Apparently this happened with Robert Lyon for, at the urging of a “friend” Henri Lelievre, he challenged Wilson. Due to an ordinance which had recently been passed in one county they arranged for the duel to take place across the Tay River in another jurisdiction.
It was June 13, 1833. The two combatants paced off the distance, turned and fired. Both missed.

Everyone is satisfied, right?

No, not for Lelievre. He insisted that satisfaction had not been achieved and demanded a reload; the pistols where recharged and re-primed.
When they where fired this time Lyon fell. He was rowed back across the river to Perth where he died a short time later.
 Wilson and his second, Simon Robertson where arrested by the Sheriff and tried in Brockville for murder … and acquitted.
 Robert Lyon, Dec. 30, 1812  June 13, 1833.
 John Wilson, Feb. 5, 1807  June 3, 1869.

The last duel took place five years later on May 2, 1838 in what was then Lower Canada in Verdun a suburb of Montreal. Again, the attentions toward a woman became the stated reason. Major Henry Warde of the First Regiment of Foot (the “Royals” of the British “regular” army) sent a letter to a female member of the household of lawyer and Canadian militia Colonel Robert Sweeney. We don’t know at this late date, with any assurance at least, who the expectant recipient of the letter was to be but upon interception Sweeney took extreme exception and challenged Warde.
When the black powder smoke cleared Major Warde was down. He was carried to a local tavern but soon died.
During the subsequent inquest and trial it was determined that Warde died due to “a gunshot wound administered by persons unknown”. The shooter was in the court and known to all but no one apparently had witnessed the duel despite the large crowd that had been in attendance. With the identity of the shooter unknown to the court, Sweeney went free.
In 1844 at the insistence of Queen Victoria British Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel managed changes to the Articles of War which removed any semblance of support for dueling and initiated penalties not only for dueling but for suborning or acting as second in a duel.

So this, I believe is the last official duel but not the last gun battle. There seems to be one every few months, usually in an urban area between gang members or with one of the police forces involved.
Most of the gun battles within the confines of Canada, at least those recorded in the late 1800s where between groups with several shooters on each side. Some of the confrontations were exaggerated with the telling and some became, "oh, nothing worth talking about."
One that was not exaggerated was the one in the Cypress Hills between wolfers and buffalo hunters opposing a group of Métis and Assiniboine. This battle helped to speed up the deployment of the North West Mounted Police in Western Canada. It also served as the climax for a great historical novel (and movie) by Guy Vanderhaeghe, “The Englishman’s Boy.”
By the way, any idea why the British police are referred to as “Bobbies” or “Peelers”?


  1. Very interesting bit of history! I heard bits of the story of the battle in Cypress hills years ago when I lived in Southeast Alberta but never the whole story. I'll have to acquire a copy of "The Englishman's Boy" and read about it.

  2. It is a good movie and a great novel. I knew the story of the "Cypress Hills Massacre" and as I watched the movie I said to myself, "Ahh, I know where this is going." Fiction, yes, but several historical mentions. There are probably more accurate versions available (it is after all, fiction) but I think it would be necessary to read and view all and make your own decision as to accuracy.