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DORION, Sir ANTOINE-AIMÉ, lawyer, newspaper owner, politician, and judge; b. 17 Jan. 1818 in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade), Lower Canada, son of Pierre-Antoine Dorion* and Geneviève Bureau; m. 12 Aug. 1848 Iphigénie Trestler in Montreal, and they had a son and three daughters, one of whom, Eulalie, married Christophe-Alphonse Geoffrion; d. 31 May 1891 in Montreal.

Antoine-Aimé Dorion was born into a family and a milieu with ideas that were advanced for the period. The second of ten children, he grew up in a climate of discussion and patriotic fervour. His maternal grandfather, Pierre Bureau*, was a disciple of Louis-Joseph Papineau* and held the seat for Saint-Maurice in the Lower Canadian House of Assembly from 1819 to 1836. His father as well was one of Papineau’s standard-bearers in the assembly, where he represented the constituency of Champlain from 1830 to 1838. The elder Dorion was also a general merchant in Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade, and was undoubtedly a prominent figure there. He was often consulted on educational matters and was determined to have his children pursue their studies so they would be assured of a profession and status. Thus Pierre-Nérée, Antoine-Aimé, Hercule, and Louis-Eugène had his financial support and did classical studies at the Séminaire de Nicolet. A disastrous financial transaction ruined him, however, and prevented his sons Jean-Baptiste-Eric* and Vincislas-Paul-Wilfrid* from attending that institution.

Antoine-Aimé entered the Séminaire de Nicolet in September 1830 and graduated in 1837. His marks were uneven, but his analytical ability and logical mind, his genius for synthesis, and the ease with which he learned English were already evident. He decided to study law. In 1838 Côme-Séraphin Cherrier*, the eminent Montreal lawyer, accepted him as an articling student. His father’s financial set-back, however, forced Dorion to seek aid. Cherrier sent him to see Édouard-Raymond Fabre*, who hired him as junior clerk. From his time with Fabre, Dorion retained an affinity with the intellectual élite who used to meet at his employer’s renowned bookstore. He was called to the bar on 6 Jan. 1842, and Cherrier took him in as a partner, an early indication that his abilities as a lawyer were clearly recognized.

The years from 1842 to 1849 were a period of maturing for Dorion. Though he was often called upon to plead, the gown and courtroom did not satisfy his desire for action and for culture. He spent the bulk of his time in reading and in studying works on law and philosophy. On 24 Nov. 1844 he helped found the Société des Amis, a group that met to study and discuss philosophical and literary subjects, of which he was elected vice-president. Through his friends Dorion met Iphigénie Trestler, daughter of Dr Jean-Baptiste Trestler, whom he married in 1848. Tradition has it that she was sickly and did not take an active part in her husband’s public life.

Dorion was quite likely a champion of responsible government, the liberal cause in the period 1840–48. As Sir Wilfrid Laurier* later said, “It was in achieving this goal that liberals of all shades . . . united all their energies.” Liberals, but not radicals. Thus when Papineau returned from exile he condemned reformers like Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* and denounced the 1841 Act of Union and its effects. This scorn encouraged several radicals to found their own newspaper in 1847. Published in Montreal by Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion, it was called LAvenir.

Among the group contributing to the paper was a whole fringe of young intellectuals – liberals, democrats, “republicanists,” nationalists, secularists, and anticlericals – including Joseph Doutre*, Toussaint-Antoine-Rodolphe Laflamme, Charles Laberge*, Louis-Antoine Dessaulles, and Louis Labrèche-Viger*. It was foreign to Antoine-Aimé Dorion’s nature and outlook, however, to join forces with so much radicalism, since he had always rejected it as an approach. He was a lawyer who had immense respect for the rules of the parliamentary game. Although close to his friends at LAvenir, he did not contribute to the paper, according to a statement by his own brother Jean-Baptiste-Eric quoted in Le Défricheur, a newspaper published in the village of L’Avenir, on 18 Aug. 1863. On the other hand he took part with Joseph Papin*, Joseph Doutre, Charles Daoust*, and others in founding the Club National Démocratique in 1849. For the first time he declared the nature of his political principles and the foundation upon which they rested. We are, he said, “democrats in conscience and French Canadian in origin,” and he called for reforms: “Without universal suffrage, what will be the legitimate and rational validation of the government’s rights . . . ? We [demand] the powerful right of sovereignty . . . , education of the masses, trade, and universal suffrage.” Dorion’s claims revealed a liberal philosophy, and in his mind liberalism was linked with an emerging prosperity for all.

Having moved onto the public stage, Dorion remained active in opposition movements. In November 1849 he participated formally in founding the Montreal Annexation Association. This organization had been created at the request of numerous signatories to the Montreal Annexation Manifesto made public the previous month, and it crowned LAvenir’s support for annexation. Dorion was one of its two secretaries. To found it Protestant English-speaking capitalists, who were to be of major importance in Dorion’s unfolding career, joined with French-speaking opposition forces, a mixture of Catholic, secular, and anticlerical elements.

As early as 1851 Dorion was recognized as a Rouge, and he was certainly an active one. Although he was a practising Catholic, he had attended the banquet marking the victory of Louis-Antoine Dessaulles, a well-known anticlerical, in a libel suit brought against Ludger Duvernay* in December 1849. He began to emerge from the ranks of the group and assume the leadership that had been left vacant by Papineau. The year 1851 marked for Dorion the end of coexistence between radicals and moderates in the Rouge party. In January 1852 he helped found the party’s official newspaper, Le Pays. LAvenir, which continued to come out sporadically until 24 Nov. 1852, had been radical in tone; Le Pays tended to moderation. Established to defend the viewpoint of the true Canadian democrats, as the moderate Rouges saw themselves, it most likely was owned by Dorion.

From then on the Institut Canadien of Montreal was the only place at which moderate and radical Rouges met. Dorion participated in its affairs as a matter of course. To stand aloof would have been political suicide. He was on a committee that in 1853 drew up resolutions to commemorate the Patriotes, but his correspondence does not actually mention the troubled period of 1837–38. He also spoke in 1858 at the laying of the cornerstone for the monument to the Patriote victims of the rebellion. He could hardly do otherwise as leader of the Rouge party, the heir to the radicalism of the Patriotes. But the anticlericalism flaunted by the Institut Canadien and its radical utterances ill suited Dorion’s Catholicism and the subtlety of his thinking. In 1869, after its year-book for 1868 was put on the Index [see Gonzalve Doutre*], he resigned.

In 1853 the debate on abolition of seigneurial tenure had given rise to many mass meetings and the staff of Le Pays, which favoured abolition, made the rounds of all of them. Dorion took no part. Perhaps it was shrewd calculation. The law firm of which he was a member, along with his brother Vincislas-Paul-Wilfrid and Côme-Séraphin Cherrier, had agreed to represent the seigneurs’ interests before the seigneurial court created by Attorney General Lewis Thomas Drummond*. So Dorion remained silent and merely attended several social gatherings to which he was invited by wealthy English-speaking friends such as Luther Hamilton Holton*, Alexander Tilloch Galt, and John Rose*.

The registration of Dorion as a candidate in the municipal elections of 1854 in Montreal was preceded by a great deal of publicity. His candidature was announced in Le Pays on 21 January. Dorion ran in Saint-Jacques ward along with Édouard-Raymond Fabre against Wolfred Nelson*’s group. The election campaign became so vicious that Dorion withdrew and his name was not on the list of candidates backed by Le Pays on 14 February. Fabre and his team were swept aside by Nelson and his men. It would be Dorion’s first and only venture into municipal politics.

In June 1854 the government of the Province of Canada fell. The administration of Francis Hincks* and Augustin-Norbert Morin* was defeated in the assembly and general elections were called for mid July. Dorion ran in Montreal, where he was elected along with Holton and John Young*. He owed this personal victory primarily to the massive support of English-speaking Montrealers. During the campaign he had not been sparing of fine words and promises. He had talked about progress, development of resources, conciliation, and liberty. It was as an avowed but clearly moderate liberal that this young leader had presented himself to the electorate. His central political theme was “seeking progress.” In the end, he came out in favour of an elected legislative council and elected public service, commercial reciprocity with the United States, education for the masses, development of the port of Montreal, and the choice of Montreal as the seat of government. His political performance roused no animosity. “When his opponents say something good about him, they add with a sigh, ‘It’s a pity he is a Rouge’”, Le Pays of 11 Nov. 1865 observed.

As had been anticipated since 1852, on entering the Legislative Assembly Dorion assumed the mantle of Papineau. His temperate and discreet personality made him lean towards sharing the task of running the party, which he saw as an alliance around liberal and democratic principles. His leadership went unchallenged from 1854 to 1867; there is no serious evidence for the contention of historians Thomas Chapais* and Louis-Philippe Turcotte* that it was disputed, whether by Louis-Victor Sicotte* in 1861 or Médéric Lanctot* in 1865. Dorion received “messages,” but from outside his party. Evidently the vague desires within its ranks to challenge his leadership arose at the time when he did not have a seat in the assembly, from 10 June 1861 to 20 June 1862.

For a liberal with whiggish tendencies, private property was inalienable and sacrosanct. When speaking on the bill to abolish seigneurial tenure Dorion dealt gently with the large landowners, and in particular the clergy. And since private property was the cornerstone of liberal ideology in the latter half of the 19th century, there was no doubt about his liberalism. The whig side of his liberalism showed in his fight against corruption and the decline of political morality. It led him to take part from 13 Oct. 1854 in the work of the committee named to inquire into the charges of corruption brought against the preceding government. “Dorion the Just” wanted to clean up the government and the parliament; he wanted to see democratic elections held. In 1857 he supported a motion by William Lyon Mackenzie* to bring in the secret ballot. Having embarked on this course, he came out in favour of manhood suffrage and fixed dates for parliamentary sessions.

On 13 Sept. 1854 Dorion, who was a skilful tactician but a poor strategist, allied himself with Upper Canadian reformer George Brown*; he thereby alienated the clergy for good, as well as offended the old nationalist and conservative element persisting in the years before confederation. Too preoccupied with the short-term perspective – overturning the government of Augustin-Norbert Morin and Sir Allan Napier MacNab* – he miscalculated the consequences; he would pay dearly for his error.

Dorion would henceforth consider more closely the stands he took. In March 1855, at the time a militia bill was under discussion, he suggested spending the proposed sums on education rather than on forces that for all practical purposes would be of use only to Great Britain. In 1856, unlike Brown, he voted for Joseph Papin’s motion requesting “a general and uniform system of primary education, free and maintained entirely at the expense of the state.” That year he proposed a federation of the two Canadas, which he found preferable to representation by population or to straight repeal of the union. This idea of a small federation was taken up again in 1857–59 and 1864–65. As a man of liberal principles, Dorion refused George-Étienne Cartier*’s offer in the fall of 1857 of a place in the government, even though, according to the Globe, all Toronto was certain he would accept.

The 1857 elections confirmed that Dorion was the most popular candidate in Montreal; he got 2,547 votes, whereas Cartier trailed badly in last place and went to seek election in Verchères. Dorion’s Rouges had, however, suffered a stunning defeat at the hands of Cartier’s Bleus. Since Brown’s supporters had won a clear majority in Upper Canada, Dorion sought a new alliance with Brown. Ground for agreement was reached: representation by population protected, according to Le Pays of 14 Aug. 1858, “by a written constitution coming directly from the people, or by a Canadian bill of rights guaranteed by imperial statutes, or by the adoption of a federal union with provincial rights guaranteed.” The resignation in July 1858 of the ministry of John A. Macdonald and Cartier led the governor general, Sir Edmund Walker Head*, to call upon Brown to form a new government. Brown then brought in Dorion, and the new cabinet took up its duties on 2 Aug. 1858. That very day, before it could announce its program, a want-of-confidence motion was presented. The ensuing vote brought down the liberal coalition by 71 to 31. On 5 August the Brown–Dorion government no longer existed and on 6 August the Cartier–Macdonald ministry returned.

The election campaign that followed late in the year gave rise to various political deals. Galt, who had been a member of the liberal opposition, had agreed to join the Cartier-Macdonald government, and he suggested having a French-speaking candidate run against Dorion to split the French Canadian vote. This tactic posed no problem for Dorion. He campaigned in the company of Thomas D’Arcy McGee*, and had his candidature announced by William Molson*. The English-speaking vote was assured. Dorion was indeed still connected with Montreal’s anglophone business circles. His association dated back to the Annexation Manifesto of 1849. His close friends included Holton (who was also the personal friend of Brown), Young, Galt, and Jacob De Witt*. Because he had so many ties with English-speaking businessmen, it is not surprising that all his contemporaries remarked on his increasingly obvious difficulty in speaking French well from 1854 on, and loss of all facility in the language after 1871.

Despite Dorion’s re-election in 1858, he would be blamed by journalists Louis Labrèche-Viger and Hector Fabre* for compromising too much on the questions of French Canadian “nationhood” and representation by population. Political clashes with Brown’s Reformers marked the close of 1858–59, a bad year politically. And although an ad hoc committee of the party in parliament, to which Dorion belonged, proposed the federation of the two Canadas as a solution to the constitutional problems, Brown’s followers kept their distance from the Lower Canadian liberals. The strategy of a small federation, dear to Dorion’s heart, slowly but surely died in 1859–60. In the 1861 session no more was said of the liberal plan for a federation of the two Canadas. The years 1859, 1860, and 1861 were the most frustrating in Dorion’s political career. They were filled with discussions of plans related to the Grand Trunk, and Dorion took almost no part in this important debate.

In the 1861 elections, despite an alliance with John Sandfield Macdonald*, leader of the Upper Canadian liberals, Dorion lost to Cartier in Montreal by a slim margin of 25 votes. The defeat was galling. Dorion refused the riding of Waterloo North that Brown offered him. The correspondence between Dorion and Brown came to an end, with no trace of any exchange of letters after 1861. From July 1861 to May 1862 Dorion busied himself with his law office and the Montreal bar, of which he had been bâtonnier since 1 May 1861. (He would hold the office again from 1873 to 1875.) In 1862, after a few days of negotiating among John Sandfield Macdonald, Sicotte, and Dorion, Le Pays announced on 27 May that Dorion was entering the Macdonald–Sicotte cabinet as provincial secretary and registrar. In deference to Dorion the member for Hochelaga, Joseph-Pascal Falkner, offered him his seat, resigning it on 6 June. Despite Cartier’s attempts to get someone to run against him, Dorion was elected by acclamation on 20 June.

The question of an intercolonial railway, however, confronted him with the problem of taking a position on the thorny debate over railways. In principle Dorion and his party had always considered that the cost was excessive in relation to the province’s credit, and that carrying out the long-term plans would prove ruinous for the province and bring no direct benefit to the people. All the same, Dorion had been a member of the organizing committee set up to arrange the celebration of the opening of the Grand Trunk railway line between Montreal and Toronto in 1856. On 30 April 1857 he had even voted in favour of financial aid for the company, although his party voted against it–the only time Dorion broke party ranks. But during the session of the assembly that was prorogued on 18 May 1861, he had used the fact that the cabinet had overstepped parliamentary prerogatives and on its executive power had authorized expenditures of more than $1,000,000 in aid of Grand Trunk land purchases to discredit the Cartier–Macdonald government. Then in 1862, during Dorion’s tenure as provincial secretary in the Macdonald–Sicotte ministry, the Grand Trunk project was transformed into the intercolonial railway project. Sir Edward William Watkin, who represented the interests of Baring Brothers of London, met with the cabinet on 10 Sept. 1862; Dorion gave up his ministerial duties on 22 October although, according to Le Pays, Sicotte had had his written resignation for five weeks. Dorion read his letter announcing his departure from the government in the house on 17 Feb. 1863. In substance, he said that the whole scheme was too costly, ruinous, and unprofitable for the province.

Resignation gave Dorion the room for political manœuvring that led him to accept John Sandfield Macdonald’s invitation to form a new government with him in May 1863. Dorion declared that his views on the building of the intercolonial had not changed. He also asserted that “the intercolonial railway is a military project rather than a commercial one suited to developing the country’s resources.” A balanced budget and economy in public administration, both liberal policies, were inconsistent with this scheme. On the other hand he proposed a “canalized waterway between Milwaukee [Wis.] and Montreal.” Always he looked to a north-south axis of trade development rather than an east-west one.

Dorion was in the cabinet from May 1863 to March 1864. Moderate but lacklustre, with no record of achievement, the government was, as Holton said in his letter of 24 Jan. 1864 to Brown, a transitional one. To be a member of it, Dorion had agreed to stand for election in June 1863. He was a candidate in Montreal East, running against Cartier, and in Hochelaga against a man named Girard. While soundly beaten by Cartier, he defeated Girard.

Events were to bring about the resignation of the Macdonald–Dorion cabinet following a debate on representation by population, a measure that Brown’s followers had been demanding vociferously since 1857. The coalition was defeated on 20 and 21 March 1864, and a purely Conservative government formed by Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché* and John A. Macdonald succeeded it. The first act of the new administration was to set up a committee at Brown’s request to study the constitutional issues. Brown was thus granted by his opponents what his allies had refused him. The move would lead to the formation of the “Great Coalition,” a major political realignment around a plan for confederation of the British provinces in North America. In June 1864, after Dorion had made a motion of no confidence concerning the sums authorized by cabinet to finance the Grand Trunk, the Taché–Macdonald government was defeated by two votes.

Brown and John A. Macdonald then joined together, and the “Great Coalition” became a reality on 22 June. The political platform uniting all the parties in the province of Canada, except for Dorion’s Rouges, was specific: confederation. Dorion was opposed to this project, and he tried to make the opposition as coherent as possible. On 11 Nov. 1864 he published a manifesto in La Minerve against the wider confederation. The famous debates in the house on 16 February and 6 March 1865 took up once more the same arguments: costs, absence of formal consultation with the people, the concealing of issues, the weight given to the Maritime provinces, and so on. As a parliamentarian versed in the rules of the game, Dorion in a resigned frame of mind led a stubborn but unspirited campaign. The words were there, but not the inspiration. He took part in opposition meetings in the Lower Canadian counties, he composed an address to Colonial Secretary Lord Carnarvon, and he regularly wrote articles in Le Pays in the period 1865–67, all to no avail. Confederation got its promoters elected in the province. From then on Dorion was no longer leader of the Rouges; only liberals were left.

Dorion’s leadership went unchallenged after the 1867 elections, in which he was returned to the House of Commons for Hochelaga, his former riding, by a majority of 23. He was at the helm of the Liberal barque both federally and provincially, but he was weary and in the period 1867–74 was preparing for his retirement from politics. He spent the final years of his political career restructuring the “new” federal Liberal party to eliminate all trace of radicalism and anticlericalism. He was just 50, and he succeeded in the work of organization and in obtaining recognition as the first leader that the French Canadian Liberal party had had. Dorion wanted to get it established in Montreal and the surrounding region. After sitting for Hochelaga from 16 Sept. 1867 to 8 July 1872, he was elected member for Napierville without being formally nominated, and he represented this riding from 4 Sept. 1872 to 1 June 1874. When the Liberals came to power in 1873, at the express request of Alexander Mackenzie he accepted the office of minister of justice, though with no real conviction save a sense of the parliamentarian’s duty. He held the post from 7 Nov. 1873 to 31 May 1874. During this period he refused to sit on the royal commission inquiring into the Pacific railway in 1873. He could see in Wilfrid Laurier the future leader and, considering the need for him to gain experience, had sent him to the Eastern Townships, as a replacement at Le Défricheur for his brother Jean-Baptiste-Éric who had died in 1866. When, therefore, he was offered an appointment to the Court of Queen’s Bench for the province of Quebec as chief justice in 1874, Dorion, ever a man of the law and jurist, accepted immediately. His contemporaries all concurred with this appointment. From 1874 till 1891 he worked zealously and with rigour, displaying sound judgement.

For the federal Liberals, Dorion’s departure was a deeply felt loss. In a letter from Arthabaskaville (Arthabaska) dated 7 July 1874 Laurier waxed eloquent on the subject. Alexander Mackenzie took the necessary steps to get him a knighthood, which he received on 4 Oct. 1877. After that Dorion, who lived on Rue Sherbrooke in Montreal with his son-in-law Christophe-Alphonse Geoffrion, devoted all his talent to the service of the law. He worked particularly to speed up hearings of pending cases.

On 31 May 1891, at the age of 73, Sir Antoine-Aimé Dorion passed away quietly at his home, carried off by a stroke. His death occurred only days before that of his old foe, John A. Macdonald. Dorion was given a state funeral. That he was impoverished at the time of his death may seem surprising. His taste for the beautiful, the aesthetic, the refined, was well known, but he left nothing of great value. The leader of the Rouge party had always had his pew in the parish church of Notre-Dame, where he regularly attended mass, yet his religious convictions never kept him from calling for separation of church and state. In this respect Dorion was representative of 19th-century English liberalism, a political philosophy integral to the jurist who sought to lead the people forward on the road to progress, education, democracy, private property, and wealth. A Rouge? No! A liberal? Certainly!

Jean-Claude Soulard

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General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jean-Claude Soulard, “DORION, Sir ANTOINE-AIMÉ,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 22, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dorion_antoine_aime_12E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dorion_antoine_aime_12E.html
Author of Article:   Jean-Claude Soulard
Title of Article:   DORION, Sir ANTOINE-AIMÉ
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1990
Year of revision:   1990
Access Date:   May 22, 2024