COLLET, MATHIEU-BENOÎT, lawyer in the parlement of Paris, king’s counsellor, attorney general to the Conscil Supérieur of Quebec from 1712 to 1727; b. c. 1671 in France, son of Benoît Collet, lawyer in the parlement of Paris, and of Antoinette Thomé, of Lyons; d. 5 March 1727 at Quebec.
When Collet was appointed attorney general to the Conseil Supérieur on 14 June 1712, this post had been vacant for nearly six years: François Ruette d’Auteuil, who had been dismissed in June 1707, had been in France since the previous autumn; Jessé Leduc Des Fontaines was chosen to replace him but died in September 1710, a few days after arriving at Quebec and before he could be installed; Goussé, Collet’s immediate predecessor, never came to Canada. Collet reached Quebec in the autumn of 1712 aboard the ship Héros, presented his letters of appointment to the council on 14 October, and was installed in office three days later. Charles Macard, whom the council had designated in 1707 to carry on in the interval, had petitioned for the post without success.
During the 15 years that Collet held the office of attorney general, he devoted himself conscientiously and with meticulous care to assisting the council in its task of dispensing justice. His extreme concern to ensure that the rules of law be strictly respected in all matters, civil or criminal, occasionally provoked retaliations. Thus he was reproached for providing his services free, but the king supported him, “His Majesty’s intention being that justice in the Counseil Supérieur shall be administered free of charge.” At times Collet’s enthusiasm was judged excessive and incurred disapproval, although his sole preoccupation in acting thus was to guide the members of the council more effectively in their decisions. He had for example made it his practice, when a case presented some difficult question, to state the grounds on which he based his conclusions as well as the conclusions themselves. He even went so far as to refuse to withdraw during the deliberations, as he was supposed to do. Collet was given to understand, however, that councillors had rightly complained of such behaviour, which, though well intentioned, could only “hinder the judges in their decisions.”
As attorney general it was his duty to see that the king’s orders were carried out in the colony, and he always gave this matter the most careful attention. In 1714, for example, he denounced the pretensions of officers in command of the king’s ships and rebuked their contempt for the court to which they were answerable. He protested too against Martin de Lino’s remarks that certain articles of an ordinance could not be complied with, and demonstrated the contrary, concluding in slightly peremptory fashion: “This proves that the councillor has spoken about something which he does not understand.”
Collet did not however propose to limit his role to that of a mere watchdog of the law. From his first months in office, he undertook to point out to the authorities in France the difficulties, given the local conditions, of applying rigorously certain provisions of royal legislation. Consequently he was invited to send “reasoned reports on the basis of which His Majesty can reach a decision.” Collet preferred to present these reports in person and he, therefore, requested and obtained permission to go to France; this he did in the autumn of 1716.
The series of nine reports that he submitted to the council of Marine during 1717 bears abundant testimony to his professional competence, as well as to the interest he had taken in his official tasks. These reports contain several projects for reorganization or reform, and remain the most durable and significant accomplishment of his career, though they did not all meet with a favourable reception.
After Collet had pointed out that it would be an advantage if the businessmen of Quebec and Montreal could meet to discuss business matters, as was the custom in all the commercial towns of France, a decree to this effect was drafted and immediately adopted by the council of state on 11 May 1717; each group of businessmen was authorized to choose a spokesman to be its syndic. Collet defended commercial interests in two reports, which were not however followed up: one concerned the payment of bills of exchange; in the other, he acted on the settlers’ behalf, requesting permission for them to form a new company for trading in beaver pelts and proposing an agreement to this end. The forming of the Compagnie d’Occident, however, brought these last suggestions to nought.
To Collet also goes the credit for having been the first to propose that a law school be set up in Quebec. From the time of his arrival in Canada he had been in a position to see how detrimental to the administration of justice was the inadequate training of the judges; rare indeed were those, even among the members of the Conseil Supérieur, who could boast that they possessed some knowledge of the law. At first Collet had taken active steps to improve this undesirable situation by seeking to inform the councillors about the rules that should guide their decisions, but he had only drawn censure upon himself. From then on it seemed to him that the only sure way of correcting this deplorable state of affairs was legal training. In order that “those who aspire to offices in the judicature may be properly informed,” he offered to give lessons in French law. He asked only that he should be provided with “some books.” The council of Marine, which examined the proposal on 17 March 1717, declared in favour of it, but on condition that Collet would be willing to agree to run his school “free of charge,” adding that “if subsequently the utility of this school is recognized, some recompense may be given him for this work.” At a cost of 500 livres, the attorney general had the legal works necessary for his project purchased in Paris. For their part Rigaud de Vaudreuil and Bégon* declared themselves ready to support to the utmost Collet’s “good intentions.” Despite all these encouragments, the law school did not come into existence until 1733, when the project was taken up again, this time successfully, by Louis-Guillaume Verrier*, Collet’s successor.
Again it was Collet who initiated one of the most important legislative measures of the French régime concerning the organization of the notarial profession. A royal declaration of 2 Aug. 1717, applicable to all the colonies, requiring the preservation of notaries’ minutes, resulted from the long report in which Collet pointed out the necessity of obliging notaries to classify their acts in chronological order, and of setting up a system of inventory and safe-keeping for the registries of deceased notaries. Despite its urgent nature, however, this reform was not put into effect until ten years later.
Among all the questions with which Collet had to deal, it was to the administration of justice that he devoted the most attention. All his efforts in this field were aimed at providing readier access to the courts, while at the same time discouraging the inevitable plaintiffs who were too fond of litigation. The three reports on the subject that he submitted to the council of Marine in 1717 are the best proof of this intention. In them he suggested various measures designed to reduce delays as much as possible, and to suppress the costly and useless procedures which by unduly prolonging lawsuits discredited justice in the minds of the settlers. Furthermore he volunteered to draft an ordinance which would replace in the colonies the great ordinance of 1667 on civil procedure (commonly called the Code civil); certain provisions of the code, though valid in the mother country, had to be changed to be more in keeping with the needs of Canada, and several others had already been modified or abrogated by special regulations and edicts. Collet proposed to assemble into one code, which he suggested calling the Code civil pour la Nouvelle-France et autres colonies françaises, a large number of legislative texts, the majority of which were poorly understood because they had not been put into print; he considered that this would be a useful service to the many honest litigants, victims of their own ignorance, who had been left to the mercy of legal practitioners adept in the art of instigating “a proliferation of legal actions” that were vexatious and ruinous.
These proposals, however, did not meet with approval, and this is to be regretted. The desire to ensure legislative uniformity throughout the kingdom – the obvious reflection of a policy of centralization – inevitably interfered with all local particularisms; Collet’s projects on the contrary tended to accentuate them. On the other hand his suggestion for drawing up a code of procedure for the colonies seemed to have a stronger hold on the attention of the council of Marine. The council then inquired where Collet planned to do this work, how much time he would need for it, and what it would cost. Collet replied that it would be more convenient for him to work in France, that he would need 1,000 livres in addition to his salary, and that he confidently anticipated that his text would be ready before the ships sailed the following year. Whereupon the council rejected the attorney general’s proposal, intimating to him that “it [would] be better for him to return to Canada, where his presence [would] be more useful to the colony.”
The last of Collet’s reports dealt with the new parishes. In it he argued against the bishop’s claim that the decision to build new churches and to break up old parishes should rest solely with him, whereas the custom of the kingdom required that such action be taken only after an inquiry had been made as to its expediency or inexpediency, and after all the parties concerned had been heard. The bishop’s intention to act independently, again asserted by Saint-Vallier [La Croix] in a petition addressed to the king’s council on 3 Nov. 1717, had given rise to several differences which Collet hoped to be able to bring to an end. In 1720, as growing needs made a new division of parishes necessary, the king decided to, have an inquiry supra commodo et incommodo instituted, in order to effect a redistribution of parish districts. Collet was chosen to conduct this inquiry. From 4 Feb. to 3 June 1721 he covered both shores of the St Lawrence, accompanied by a clerk of court, Nicolas-Gaspard Boucault*. The attorney general’s reports resulted in a joint ruling by the governor, the intendant, and the bishop on 20 Sept. 1721, dividing the colony into 82 parish districts. This ruling was confirmed by the king on the following 3 March.
During his stay in France Collet seems to have been in financial straits. Because of his position as lawyer in the parlement, the king had granted to him, as to his two predecessors Leduc and Goussé, an annual gratuity of 1,000 livres in addition to his salary. Fearing that he would be affected by the recent decision to reduce all pensions, Collet appealed to the council of Marine. The latter was of the opinion that, as his services had given satisfaction, he should be permitted to retain his gratuity intact. Although the order for this payment was consequently given, Collet received nothing, and in the autumn of 1717 he gave up the idea of returning to Canada. In 1718 he reminded the council that his gratuity for two and a half years was still owing to him, and that he was “not in a position to leave Paris and proceed to his destination unless he was paid.” He repeated his request the following year, and finally sailed for Quebec, where he arrived in September 1719. He resumed his functions in the Conseil Supérieur on 2 October after three years spent in France. He immediately ordered the registration of some 15 edicts, declarations, letters patent, and decrees of the council of state issued during his absence.
On 7 Jan. 1713, at Quebec, Collet had married Élisabeth, daughter of Paul Denys de Saint-Simon. They had one son, Mathieu, who was born and baptized 3 Nov. 1713, but who died the following 8 October. Collet’s wife had died two weeks before, on 24 Sept. 1714. Collet did not remarry.
At the time of his death on 5 March 1727, he was living in the house of his sister-in-law Marie-Anne Denys de Saint-Simon, wife of the surgeon Michel Bertier, in a separate annex with its entrance on Rue des Pauvres facing the ramparts, in the Saint-Nicolas quarter of Quebec. He was buried with his wife and son in the crypt of the church of Notre-Dame in Quebec, 7 March 1727.
On the eve of his death, he had made his will, before the notary Louet senior, constituting his sister-in-law his residuary legatee. On learning of his death, Intendant Dupuy immediately had the seals affixed to the house, because of the presence there of the numerous public documents that Collet kept stored in his home and also the books which the state had bought to enable him to run a law school. Altogether these books, which he had kept on hand, constituted a meagre library of no more than 25 legal works, which are listed in detail in the inventory of the estate.
On 15 Sept. 1724, Collet had acquired at an agreed rent a piece of land on which he had had built the house where he lived. Shortly before his death, he had also purchased from Louis Rouer* d’Artigny some land on Chemin Saint-Jean. He sometimes assumed the title of Seigneur de La Fortière.
Nicolas Lanouiller*, one of those who aspired to succeed him in the post of attorney general, carried on the duties of this office until the installation of Louis-Guillaume Verrier on 17 Sept. 1728.
AJQ, Greffe de Jacques Barbel, 31 déc. 1712; Greffe de Jean-Claude Louet, 15 sept. 1724, 29 juillet 1725, 4 mai 1726; Registres d’état civil de Notre-Dame de Québec, 1713, 1714, 1727. AN., Col., B, 34, ff. 17v–18, 41v, 59–60; 35, f.86v; 36, f.408v; 37, f.190v; 38, ff.205v–206; 39, ff.120v–121, 134, 255v; 40, ff.113v–114; 41, f.84v; C11A, 34, ff.441–46, 496–98, 505; 37, ff.128–29, 161–67, 260–64, 270–76, 278–83, 291–308; 38, L38; 42, ff.181–85; 47, f.130; 49, f.169; F3, 10, ff.257–60v; 11, ff.24–26v. AQ, NF, Ins. Cons. sup., III, 52; NF, Registres du Cons. sup., 1717–1719. Édits ord., I, III. Gérard Filteau, La naissance d’une nation, tableau du Canada en 1755 (2v., Montréal, 1937), I. Jug. et délib., VI, 523–24, 1206–7. “Procès-verbaux du procureur général Collet” (Caron), 262–380. PAC Report, 1899, Supp. A. Roy, Inv. greffes not., X. P.-G. Roy, Inv. contrats de mariage, II, 67; Inv. ins. Cons. souv., 124, 185; Inv. jug. et délib., 1717–1760, I, VI, VII; Inv. testaments, I, 130. Charland, “Notre-Dame de Québec: le nécrologe de la crypte,” 180, 346. “Liste des officiers de justice de la Nouvelle-France (1722),” BRH, XXXVI (1930), 152. “Liste des personnes auxquelles le Conseil a accordé le passage pour le Canada sur la flûte l’Éléphant (1718),” BRH, XXXIV (1928), 759. Cahall, Sovereign Council of New France, 106, 159. Guy Frégault, La civilisation de la Nouvelle-France (1713–1744) (Montréal, 1944). Gosselin, L’Église du Canada, I. J.-E. Roy, Histoire du notariat, I, 281–97. P.-G. Roy, La ville de Québec, II, 237–38, 293–94. Vachon, Histoire du notariat, 26. Ignotus [Thomas Chapais], “Notes et souvenirs,” La Presse (Montréal), 6 déc. 1902. Édouard Fabre-Surveyer, “Louis-Guillaume Verrier (1690–1758),” RHAF, VI (1952), 159–74.