SIMPSON, JOHN, government official and politician; b. 1788 in England; d. 21 April 1873 in Kingston, Ont.
Having failed in England as a farmer and a merchant, John Simpson emigrated to Augusta, Upper Canada, in 1815 with his wife Zipporah Tickell and, very likely, his six step-sons. Following the arrival of Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] as governor-in-chief of Canada in 1819, Simpson joined his staff as a private secretary. In 1822 the governor appointed him inspector of merchandise, collector of customs, and overseer of his majesty’s locks at Coteau-du-Lac, a post on the St Lawrence where the British had built a canal and a small fort, and where customs duties on goods passing between Upper and Lower Canada were levied.
Remarkably, two years after his arrival at Coteau-du-Lac, Simpson had “gained an influence over French Canadians” and was elected to the assembly of Lower Canada for the County of York. During his term he opposed the election of Louis-Joseph Papineau as speaker and generally supported his benefactor, the governor, in his quarrels with the assembly. When he stood for re-election in 1827, he was strongly opposed and, fearing electoral violence, he withdrew from the contest. Simpson’s first venture into colonial politics ended in a storm of controversy when he claimed that the Roman Catholic clergy had fomented “unholy excitement” on behalf of his opponents, whom he labelled a “Revolutionary Faction.”
Simpson remained collector of customs at the increasingly busy port of Coteau-du-Lac throughout the 1830s and was indirectly associated with the growing reform movement of the period through the activities of his step-son, John Arthur Roebuck, the agent for the Lower Canadian assembly in the British House of Commons. However, when violence broke out in November 1837, Simpson organized a group of volunteers to occupy the undefended British fort at Coteau-du-Lac, preventing it from falling to the Patriotes, and earned the thanks of Sir John Colborne* for his “zeal and activity.” Later Simpson received rare praise from the opposite quarter. Jean-Joseph Girouard*, a Patriote leader for whose capture a £500 reward had been offered, surrendered to him on Christmas Day 1837, and later commended Simpson for “the generous and prudent treatment of the persecuted Canadians which he ensured in his area.”
This same generous attitude which Girouard praised led Simpson into prominence and problems in 1838. It was Simpson who suggested to Lord Durham [Lambton*]that a general amnesty be granted to all political prisoners captured during the troubles except the leaders. Once the governor had accepted this idea, it was Simpson who acted as his intermediary in obtaining a signed confession of guilt from eight of the principal Patriote prisoners, who were banished to Bermuda by Lord Durham. Towards these men Simpson later displayed a compassionate – almost paternalistic – regard. He accompanied them from Montreal to Quebec, dining with them on the way, and arranged with Lord Durham for them to be given freedom of the island once they reached Bermuda. Following the disallowance of Durham’s ordinance and the subsequent pardoning of the Bermuda exiles, Simpson sent the prisoners £100 to enable them to return from exile. The revelation of these past kindnesses by the Montreal Herald after the uprising of 1838 marked Simpson as “a notoriously bad character” in the eyes of the Tory establishment.
In 1841 John Simpson again entered politics. He resigned as collector of customs at Coteau-du-Lac, arranged for his son, William B., to succeed him at the post, and stood as the chosen candidate of Lord Sydenham [Thomson*] in Vaudreuil County (part of the earlier York County). After a violent contest in which “pitchforks, axes and clubs were made use of,” Simpson was elected to the Legislative Assembly. The controversial contest was highly criticized by the Reform party and in 1844 Simpson chose not to risk re-election. One year later he was appointed to the Rebellion Losses Commission, on which he served until it completed its work in 1851 [see Philip Henry Moore]. Even as a commissioner, he was the target of journalistic abuse; in 1851 the Conservative Montreal Gazette severely criticized his work on the hated commission. In later life Simpson lived in quiet retirement with his son, collector of customs at Brockville and then at Kingston, where he died in his 85th year.
John Simpson was a conspicuous member of the privileged minority which dominated Lower Canada during the first half of the 19th century, but his quixotic enthusiasm prevented him from becoming a typical member of it. Possibly the best analysis of Simpson’s chequered career was written by his step-son, John Arthur Roebuck: “He was a daring and sanguine man and indulged in schemes that would have terrified a more sober-minded one.”
ANQ, QBC, Procureur général, Événements de 1837–1838, no.4082. Canada, Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, National Historic Sites Service, Research Division, George Ingram, “A history of Coteau-du-Lac” (typewritten report, 1967). PAC, MG 24, A27 (Durham papers), 26, pp.631–34, 652–53; RG 1, E13, 14, p.174; RG 8, I, A1, 49, pp.62–69; A2, 1271, pp.54–55, 58–59.
Canada, Province of, Legislative Assembly, Journals, 1841–52. [Charles Grey], Crisis in the Canadas: 1838–1839; the Grey journals and letters, ed. W. G. Ormsby (Toronto, 1964), 176. Lower Canada, House of Assembly, Journals, 1824–37. “Les Patriotes aux Bermudes en 1838 – lettres d’exil,” Yvon Thériault, édit., RHAF, XVII (1963–64), 107–12. “Les patriotes de 1837–1838 d’après les documents J.-J. Girouard,” P.-A. Linteau, édit., RHAF, XXI (1967–68), 310. News (Kingston), 22–24 April 1873. Life and letters of John Arthur Roebuck . . . , ed. R. E. Leader (London and New York, 1897), 8–17. F.-J. Audet, “Les députés de la vallée de l’Ottawa: John Simpson (1788–1873),” CHA Report, 1936, 32–39.