DEMERS, LOUIS-JOSEPH (baptized Louis-Joseph-Elzéar), newspaper owner, printer, and politician; b. 3 May 1857 at Quebec, eldest son of Louis Demers and Éléonore Pâquet; m. there 11 May 1880 Laetitia Lortie, and they had six children, two of whom died in infancy; d. there 12 Jan. 1905.
Louis-Joseph Demers was the son of a Quebec innkeeper and shopkeeper who came from Saint-Nicolas, the home of the Demers family since the days of New France. He began his commercial studies at the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière in 1867 and finished them at the Collège de Lévis in 1873. Around 1874 he went to work as a bookkeeper at the Conservative newspaper Le Canadien. In June 1875 Joseph-Israël Tarte became its owner and the following month he entered into a partnership with Louis-Georges Desjardins. Desjardins became sole owner of the paper in 1877 and in 1880 he sold out to Demers and his brother Alphonse-Eugène, who had both been accountants with the paper for at least five years and who in March founded L. J. Demers et Frère. Tarte and Desjardins stayed on, however, as the publishers, responsible for the paper’s political orientation.
The Demers brothers did their best to turn Le Canadien into a popular publication. They decreased the size of its format and lowered the subscription rate. To give their firm a higher profile, they moved the newspaper’s offices from the dark and narrow Rue Sainte-Famille to the bustling and fashionable Rue de la Fabrique, where they had bought a huge building with an imposing, Greek-inspired façade designed in 1851 by Charles Baillairgé.
When Hector Fabre was appointed agent general in Paris for the province of Quebec in 1882, it seemed possible that he would give up his newspaper L’Événement. Demers and Tarte showed an interest in purchasing it, but Fabre was not willing to part with it. Early in 1883, however, Louis-Adélard Senécal*, who was assuming the paper’s debts, decided to sell it to Demers, much to the displeasure of Fabre, who had not even been consulted.
Demers was very proud of his new acquisition: he had just bought his biggest competitor. He made Le Canadien the only French-language morning paper published in the city of Quebec and a “penny rag.” L’Evénement, which now came out in the evening, was advertised as a “popular newspaper.” Tarte assumed responsibility for the political orientation of both publications.
In addition to producing these two dailies, Demers was awarded contracts to print many works including the Quebec Official Gazette from September 1881, and the huge directory of addresses for the cities of Quebec and Lévis from 1882 to 1901. Over the years his presses also turned out numerous weeklies and periodicals, among them Le Cultivateur, Le Journal des campagnes, L’Enseignement primaire, Les Nouvelles Soirées canadiennes, and Le Courrier du livre. Demers gradually replaced Augustin Côté and Léger Brousseau* as the leading printer of books and pamphlets at Quebec during the last two decades of the 19th century. Many literary figures in the capital had him print their works for them at their own expense: Narcisse-Eutrope Dionne*, Narcisse-Henri-Édouard Faucher* de Saint-Maurice, Sir James MacPherson Le Moine*, Adolphe-Basile Routhier*, Jules-Paul Tardivel, Thomas Chapais*, Ernest Myrand, Abbé Louis-Adolphe Pâquet*, Abbé Auguste-Honoré Gosselin*, and Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain. Casgrain gave Demers many large orders, including his two-volume Montcalm et Lévis. Their correspondence shows each of them was looking out for his own interests. The enterprising Casgrain sometimes involved Demers in long and risky adventures, such as printing the last 11 volumes of the collected manuscripts of François de Lévis*.
Being a newspaper publisher, Demers was influential and much in demand. In 1886 at the age of 29 he became an alderman, a position he retained for four years. From 1888 to 1890 he chaired the roads committee, and it was under his direction that the widening of Grande Allée and Rue Saint-Jean was undertaken, albeit with some trouble and discontent. He was a founder and for many years the president of the Associated Press of the Province of Quebec, which was incorporated in 1883. In 1896 he became vice-president of the Soçiété de Prêts et de Placements de Québec, of which he had been a director since 1884.
Demers became the sole owner of L. J. Demers et Frère when his brother Alphonse-Eugène left it in January 1888 and died in April. On 26 Sept. 1889 he sold Le Canadien to Tarte and began concentrating on publishing L’Événement. But during the night of 14–15 Feb. 1891, fire ravaged the offices and printing-shops of his newspaper, damaging the massive Marinoni rotary press. Demers refused to admit defeat and got his business back into operation. He was able to provide space in the building for Le Courrier du Canada, which was owned by Thomas Chapais, and in November 1896 began printing it. The two papers, one intended for a popular readership and the other for an intellectual élite, provided mutual services and news and neither interfered with the other’s interests.
Demers’s enterprise prospered until 1897. But the victory of the Liberal party federally in 1896 and provincially in 1897 could only be an ill omen for newspapers with Conservative connections. In July 1897 Demers lost the contract to print the Quebec Official Gazette and the French version of the statutes. It went to the Compagnie d’Imprimerie de Québec, which owned the Liberal newspaper Le Soleil. In March, before the change of government, Demers had been assured by Louis-Philippe Pelletier*, who was attorney general in Edmund James Flynn*’s Conservative cabinet, that he would be the provincial government’s official printer for the next eight years. He had then gone to great expense to obtain the necessary material and equipment, and he reminded the new Liberal ministry of this fact, but to no avail. At the urging of Pelletier, who took up his cause, he embarked in 1898 on a series of long, arduous, and unsuccessful lawsuits before the Superior Court, the Court of Queen’s Bench, and even the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London.
While Le Soleil, flushed with victory, enjoyed growing support from the public and from advertisers, the situation of L’Événement deteriorated. On 23 Dec. 1901 Demers announced in its pages that he had been obliged to assign his property at the behest of the Canada Paper Company in Montreal, to which he owed $24,000. His debts totalled more than $66,000. The newspaper continued to be published under the supervision of various creditors. Demers exerted every effort to find new backing and money. In April 1902 he was on the point of reaching an agreement with the Canada Paper Company by which he would have regained control, when he discovered, much to his indignation, that Pelletier was scheming to prevent him from doing so. Demers had perhaps been too easy on the Liberals during the provincial election of 1900, and Pelletier, who aspired to the leadership of the Conservative party, was trying to set up a company to buy L’Événement.
On 27 May 1902 there was a dramatic turn of events: when L’Événement’s assets and building were being sold by the sheriff, Demers was betrayed by his younger brother Silvio-A., who, without giving him any notice, bought the property in Pelletier’s name. The Compagnie de L’Événement, made up of some Conservative ultramontanes – Pelletier, Chapais, Thomas Chase-Casgrain*, and others – took possession of the paper in November.
There was nothing Demers could do; all the moves had been made. Even the acrimonious debates on the subject during the 1903 session of the Legislative Assembly changed nothing. Pelletier feigned indifference and refused to budge. A broken man, dispossessed and ruined, Demers never got over the loss of his newspaper. He died within a couple of years, on 12 Jan. 1905 at the age of 47, “after a long and painful illness.” The obituary in his former newspaper was careful to make no reference to Pelletier’s actions, providing an equivocal explanation: “As a result of the political events of 1896 and 1897, Monsieur Demers suffered considerable losses that eventually led to the sale of L’Événement.”
Louis-Joseph Demers had succeeded in becoming one of the foremost printers in Quebec. What political patronage had given him with one hand, however, it suddenly took away with the other, bringing about his ruin. It was indeed a sad fate, but one that undoubtedly befell many 19th-century newspapermen, whose businesses depended for their existence on the risks and whims of the world of politics.
Most of the pamphlets and books printed in the workshops of L. J. Demers et Frère are inventoried in Bibliographie du Québec, 1821–1967 (17 tomes en 34v. parus, Québec, 1980– ), in Jean Hamelin et al., Brochures québécoises, 1764–1972 (Québec, 1981), and in the CIHM Reg.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 5 mai 1857, 14 janv. 1905; CE1-97, 11 mai 1880; P–16/456; T11-1/29, nos.2470 (1880), 3897 (1888). Arch. du Collège de Lévis, Qué., Fichier des anciens. Arch. du Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière (La Pocatière, Qué.), Fichier des élèves. ASQ, Fonds H.-R. Casgrain, sér.O, nos.460: 196; 461: 56; 463: 5, 45, 79, 87, 106; 464: 87, 89, 184; 465: 66, 76, 80–81, 84–85, 87, 97, 132, 151, 212, 214; 467: 10; Journal du séminaire, 4: 39; S, carton 13, no.26.
Le Canadien, 1880–89. Le Courrier du Canada, 1896–1901. L’Événement, 1883–1902; 12, 14 janv. 1905; 12 mai 1917; 1er juill. 1927. A. B. Cherrier, History of the Quebec directory since its first issue in 1844 up to the present day (Quebec, 1879). G.-H. Dagneau, “L’histoire de l’Événement,” Cap-aux-Diamants (Québec), 1 (1985–86), no.2: 35–38. Jean De Bonville, La presse québécoise de 1884 à 1914; genèse d’un média de masse (Québec, 1988), 122. J. Hamelin et al., La presse québécoise, 1: 16; 2: 98. J.-P. Hudon, “L’abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain, l’homme et l’œuvre” (thèse de