DESCHÊNES, GEORGES-HONORÉ (baptized Honoré), farmer, office holder, politician, and businessman; b. 25 Aug. 1841 in Cacouna, Lower Canada, of unknown parents, adopted son of Hilary Gagnon and Adeline Pelletier, of Cacouna; d. 11 Aug. 1892 in Saint-Épiphane, Que.
Georges-Honoré was listed in the 1851 census with no surname, and in 1861 with that of his adoptive father. Although he was mentioned a little later as surnamed Deschênes, it is impossible to verify whether this was the name of either of his natural parents. He attended elementary school at Cacouna for two or three years; later, with his taste for reading and interest in culture, he became a self-educated man. Between 1857 and 1861 he moved with his adoptive family up to the first concession of Viger Township, just behind the seigneury of Île-Verte, and settled among the pioneers of the future parish of Saint-Épiphane. On 26 Jan. 1864 he married Suzanne Michaud at Saint-Épiphane, and they were to have six children. Not long after his marriage he became the owner of the Gagnon farm.
It was at the parish level that Deschênes first involved himself in service to the community. From 1872 to 1875 and again from 1876 to 1882 he was secretary-treasurer of Saint-Épiphane, with an annual stipend of $60. At the same time he sat on the parish school board. In 1872 he was also named the Indian agent and assumed responsibility for managing the affairs of the Malecites in Viger Township and at Cacouna. He was made a “special superintendent for the parish” the following year. In 1877 he was one of the officials appointed to “carry out the canonical decree concerning the construction of a church, sacristy, and presbytery.” He also for a time held the office of director, and later vice-president, of the new agricultural society of Témiscouata County.
Deschênes spent most of his active years, however, in provincial politics, as the member for Témiscouata in the Legislative Assembly. He won his first election in July 1875, with 57 per cent of the popular vote, and joined the 21 other Liberal members who formed the opposition under the leadership of Henri-Gustave Joly*. According to historian Marcel Hamelin, “The provincial campaign of 1875 was one of the nastiest of the second half of the 19th century.” Témiscouata was no exception: on 5 September Deschênes was forced to admit openly that during the election he had spread slander and lies about Charles Bertrand, as he had already stated in a signed declaration he had given Bertrand. On 11 September Le Canadien published an urgent demand that the behaviour of the member for Témiscouata be publicly condemned. From then on, fearing he might be accused before the assembly, Deschênes began to look for support among the Liberals. Knowing he could not count on Joly, who considered that he had “abandoned the party he had allied himself with,” he looked elsewhere. During the debate on the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, and Occidental Railway in December, Deschênes showed his true colours: “I was not elected in my riding to come here and act as a ‘voting machine,’ even though some members have seen fit so to insinuate in the corridors of this house. I will vote with the [Conservative] government because I think its policy wise and thoroughly rational.” In response, his Liberal colleagues, including the influential George Irvine, tried to discredit him completely by bringing the entire affair of the election out before the house. The matter was referred to the standing committee on privileges and elections, which came to the conclusion that an offence had been committed but that reparation had been made. The Liberals disagreed and demanded his expulsion. After a lively debate, Deschênes, thanks to the support of the Conservatives, was only “severely reprimanded” by the speaker of the assembly and kept his seat. He was returned in 1878 as a Conservative, defeating another member of that party and slightly increasing his majority. In 1881 he won by acclamation, still as a Conservative.
However, things began to go badly for Deschênes after his re-election in October 1886. In December his opponent Louis-Philippe Pelletier*, an ambitious lawyer and future Conservative cabinet minister at both the federal and the provincial levels, filed a request to have the election in Témiscouata declared invalid. To everyone’s surprise, Deschênes submitted a letter of “resignation” to Pelletier, in which he admitted that he owed his election entirely “to the most blatant bribery.” Rumours circulated to the effect that he had resigned on the promise of being made a colonization agent, an office the government of Honoré Mercier was said to be holding for him. In August 1887, however, he declared publicly that he had stepped down because it would be too costly for him and his party to fight the case. From then on he tried to persuade the judge to decide in favour of his opponent. Things were not to be so simple. In May 1888 the judge of the Superior Court of Kamouraska found the arguments advanced to contest the seat unconvincing and dismissed the suit, thereby allowing Deschênes to continue sitting in the assembly. He was not a candidate at the election in 1890, but he ran in 1891, this time as a Liberal candidate in the federal election. He lost to the Conservative incumbent and this defeat put an end to his political career.
As an mla Deschênes took a special interest in the policy of colonizing public lands, in the opening of roads, and in the subsidies granted to railway companies. In fact, his first speeches in the assembly dealt with the financing of a proposed railway between Woodstock, N.B., and Fraserville (Rivière-du-Loup), Que. In 1888, along with Bertrand, he was a director of the Témiscouata Railway. He also actively promoted the establishment of a township in the Témiscouata region for repatriated French Canadians who had emigrated to the United States. In addition, he supported the proposal to move the seat of the judicial district of Kamouraska to Rivière-du-Loup.
Although notary Charles-Arthur Gauvreau stated in 1889 that “M. Deschênes was the most beloved and most popular of the members from Témiscouata,” and although, when he changed parties, his voters followed suit, Georges-Honoré Deschênes is remembered as a politician who was vulnerable to adversaries from the world of business and the liberal professions. It is impossible to say whether he put himself in embarrassing situations through political naïveté or because of personal financial difficulties. Perhaps it was the purchase of several modern agricultural machines to improve cultivation on the farm of 291 arpents he still owned that led him to mortgage the property to Charles Bertrand et Compagnie of L’Isle-Verte in 1879 for $826, and again in 1882 for $2,700. During the last years of his life he engaged in logging operations and ran two sawmills, one in Saint-Hubert parish and the other in Whitworth Township. His personal affairs, like his political projects, led him straight into bankruptcy. At the request of a Fraserville merchant to whom he owed $400, Deschênes filed a petition in bankruptcy and transferred his assets on 18 March 1892. His debts totalled $10,893, including $5,000 to Bertrand and his company. His assets amounted to only $11,200. After that, everything went to pieces. “Suffering from a liver ailment, worn out by his electoral defeat, and demoralized by his financial situation,” he died in August, a few days before his 51st birthday. It was Bertrand who had the last word: on 19 September he bought the Deschênes farm at auction for $1,625.
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