Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
DORION, JEAN-BAPTISTE-ÉRIC, store clerk, journalist, pioneer settler, and politician; b. 17 Sept. 1826 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade), Lower Canada, son of Pierre-Antoine Dorion* and Geneviève Bureau; d. 1 Nov. 1866 at L’Avenir, Canada East.
Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion’s father was a fifth-generation descendant of Pierre Dorion, who in 1684 had left Salies-de-Béarn (dept of Basses-Pyrénées, France) to emigrate to Canada. On 21 Feb. 1814 Pierre-Antoine signed a marriage contract with Geneviève, daughter of Pierre Bureau, merchant of Trois-Rivières. Pierre-Antoine was also a merchant and acquired a tidy fortune mainly in the timber trade. But a débâcle on the Rivière Sainte-Anne ruined him, and made it impossible for him to give all his children more than an elementary education though he had sent his first four sons, Nérée, Antoine-Aimé*, Hercule, and Louis-Eugène to the Collège de Nicolet.
Jean-Baptiste-Éric was baptized with his twin brother François-Edmond on 23 Sept. 1826, by parish priest Joseph Moll; his godfather was Dr Jean-Baptiste-Curtius Trestler and his godmother was the wife of Joseph Dorion, who had been unsuccessful as a candidate in Hampshire County in the 1824 election. Thus, in a sense, politics had marked his entry into the world; they were to hold him until his last breath.
They were also a part of his family. On both the local and the national level, Pierre-Antoine Dorion steadfastly championed the principles of Louis-Joseph Papineau*. He was elected a school inspector in August 1829, and vigorously opposed parish priest Marc Chauvin, who wanted to establish a school run by the parish council; Pierre-Antoine wished to build a school to be run by public trustees, in accordance with the provisions of the 1829 school act. He was mha for Champlain county from 20 Oct. 1830 to 27 March 1838, and it was at his house that Papineau, in 1836, held meetings that brought together mhas and Patriote supporters. He presided at the annual banquet of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Saint-Ours, during which a toast was drunk to the king of England, enlivened by a comment that was impertinent to say the least: “Let him not forget that there is no form of government whose prerogative is immovable, no political power, whether created yesterday or a thousand years ago, which cannot be abrogated in ten years or tomorrow.”
Jean-Baptiste-Éric therefore grew up in an atmosphere of liberal fervour. He was a mischievous, noisy child, and the family bestowed on him the title of “enfant terrible.” His political opponents, in particular Joseph-Édouard Cauchon*, were only too glad to revive this nickname later, and it has stuck like a tunic of Nessus to his career and his memory. Since his father’s financial distress forced him to break off prematurely the schooling he had begun under the iron hand of the authoritarian Craig Morris, Jean-Baptiste-Éric went first to Quebec to study English, then in 1842 to Trois-Rivières, where he took a job as store clerk to support himself. The following year, this self-taught young man had recourse to two means of intellectual stimulus that would be beneficial to him in the future, a discussion group and a newspaper. He was an active member of the Société Littéraire de Trois-Rivières and as editor and printer published a small paper, Gros Jean l’Escogriffe. He even tried his hand at being an author, publishing Un souvenir pour 1844.
Following his elder brother Antoine-Aimé, since 1842 a lawyer practising in Montreal, he moved to Montreal himself in 1844, and on 17 December took part in the founding of the Institut Canadien. It was replacing two short-lived societies, the Société des Amis and the Lycée Canadien. Turning to account his early journalistic experience at Trois-Rivières, he launched at Montreal Le Sauvage, with the help of George Batchelor; only two numbers appeared, 24 June and 3 July 1847. It was followed by L’Avenir, whose first issue came out on Friday, 16 July. A bi-weekly at first, L’Avenir became a weekly on 23 October and appeared on Saturdays. When Batchelor left Montreal for the United States in November, Dorion remained sole managing director of the paper, which he owned with his brother Antoine-Aimé. The year 1847 consequently represented for Jean-Baptiste-Éric a period of intense activity. Although the inspiration behind L’Avenir, in September he had added to his time-consuming occupations the duties of secretary of the Société Mercantile d’Économie, which he and friends, who were also store clerks, had just founded. This organization had as its purpose to “encourage Canadian store clerks to save their salaries and make every effort to diffuse commercial knowledge among the class of young men concerned with trade.”
Dorion was elected second vice-president of the Institut Canadien at the beginning of November 1847. He therefore had at his disposal a double tribune, a newspaper and a discussion club, where he could develop his views on a question that deeply concerned him: a more practical education directed towards trade and industry. In 1849 he would demand for Montreal the opening of a commercial school. Trade was, in his eyes, “the regulator of material progress, the vanguard of civilization.” Second to trade and industry, Dorion attached great importance to the development of agriculture, especially in the Eastern Townships where intensive settlement was taking place. He already saw that this region could draw a large proportion of the young French agricultural population of Lower Canada, who were being attracted towards the United States. His brother Abbé Hercule, who had been a missionary and colonizer since 1843, was established at Wickham, near Drummondville, where two of his other brothers, Nérée and François-Edmond, were engaged in trade. It is not surprising, then, that Dorion should take the initiative in urging the Institut Canadien and the Société Mercantile d’ Économie to study the settlement problem, after Abbé Bernard O’Reilly, a young Irish priest serving in the Eastern Townships, had inserted in Le Canadien (Quebec) of 12 Oct. 1847 an article stressing the importance for the French Canadian community of settling its own sons on this territory, rather than letting them cross the American border. At Dorion’s instigation, the “Association pour le peuplement des Cantons de l’Est” was founded. Enthusiasm was maintained for a certain time. Bishop Ignace Bourget* and Louis-Joseph Papineau stood surety for the movement. But the collaboration of these two men in an undertaking could not last long. From the beginning one might have expected that water and fire could not be joined with impunity! By the end of 1848, political and ideological differences had shattered the association. Dorion could only point to one settlement resulting from the association, Roxton, which in 1851 numbered 1,222 inhabitants.
For some months quarrels increased in the French Canadian group. Their origin was attributed to Papineau, who demanded the “repeal of the Union [of the Canadas].” L’Avenir, under the influence of Louis-Antoine Dessaulles*, Papineau’s nephew, had finally come round to the great man’s way of thinking, while the bishop of Montreal, worried by the turn of events in Europe, where Pius IX had just been driven from Rome, firmly supported in his pastoral letter of 18 Jan. 1849 the government of Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and Robert Baldwin* against the “revolutionaries” of Papineau and L’Avenir. Bishop Bourget rightly feared the influence of L’Avenir. Dorion, who about 15 April 1848 had given up his work as a clerk in a business firm to concentrate on the newspaper, watched its circulation grow from month to month. From 700 copies in April 1848, it reached 1,200 with 1,050 subscribers by the end of November. Faced with this unquestionable success, both clerical and political opponents banded together in fierce defence. The “enfant terrible” bore the brunt of the attack. In one incident his efforts were vain: George-Étienne Cartier*, during the episode of “La Tuque bleue” [see Charles Daoust], refused to duel with him on the pretext that he did not want to fight a child. To Dorion’s extreme humiliation, Joseph Doutre* was chosen instead! But on 16 May 1840 Dorion took his revenge; on Rue Saint-Vincent, he assaulted Hector-Louis Langevin*, editor of Mélanges religieux, and received a fine of 25 “shillings.”
Cartier and Langevin represented L’Avenir’s main adversaries, the La Fontaine-Baldwin party and the clergy, Mélanges religieux being the unofficial organ of the diocese of Montreal. “It was just like the men who created the scheme of Union and of English responsible government,” stated the editorial of 11 Sept. 1849, “to collaborate with those who cursed their compatriots in 1837 and delivered them without a qualm to their bloody enemies.”
In addition, L’Avenir had been debating the question of tithes since 30 Sept. 1848, a campaign it pursued until it ceased publication in 1852. Dorion believed he had a “duty” to end “the greatest abuse of which the agricultural population of Lower Canada can complain”; they indeed bore the burden alone. For Dorion, the clergy were the enemy of all reform, because, paradoxically, they were too attached to their tithes. Did not priests teach contempt for the wealth of this earth? How then was one to explain their thinking only of acquiring riches? Tithes did not exist in France or in the United States. Why should not Canada free itself of this anachronistic custom and replace it by uniform payment for all ecclesiastics?
In defiance of the supporters of responsible government, L’Avenir preached annexation to the United States. Here again it met stubborn resistance on the part of the clergy, which was, as Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau* wrote, “the body most strongly opposed to annexation and the most sincerely loyal.” This antagonism increased still further when Dorion’s paper began its campaign for the abolition of seigneurial tenure. The clergy now saw itself violently taken to task by the democrats, because it owned seigneuries. The Séminaire de Québec was especially singled out. Dorion was inexhaustible in his sarcasms concerning “that leech,” “seigneurial tenure,” that “privileged caste” which “waxes fat on the sweat of the people,” and “in the dark, nibbles at the cake which has been dangled above the masses, at their expense and unknown to them.” He closely linked annexation and the abolition of seigneurial tenure. It was his hope that once the former was accomplished, “the people will be sovereign master,” since they will no longer be under the protection of the “King-Masters and Seigneurs.” These extremist arguments naturally aroused a storm of protest in conservative and clerical ranks. But even among the well-wishers in the group now called the Rouges, several shared the opinion of Papineau, who deplored “the exaggerated nature of L’Avenir’s views on reform.”
Soon Dorion and his friends would face a terrible ordeal. On 18 Feb. 1850, Louis-Joseph-Amédée Papineau wrote in his diary: “Last night when we were going to bed a fire broke out, and its glow lit the whole town. We judged that it was on Rue Saint-Paul, or the street beside the water, near Place Jacques-Cartier. Indeed we learn this morning that it was number 106 Rue Saint-Paul! The Institut Canadien and its volumes! L’Avenir and its printing shop and its press!” To this material disaster was added a much more painful blow for the managing director of L’Avenir: on 17 Dec. 1851 his brother in arms and closest collaborator in the editing of the newspaper, Gustave Papineau, Louis-Joseph Papineau’s son, in whom his father had recognized “much talent,” although “too fiery” a temperament, died in the flower of his youth after a six-month illness. In the same year Dorion experienced a serious political reverse. After the ministry of La Fontaine and Baldwin resigned and was replaced by that of Francis Hincks* and Augustin-Norbert Morin, he was a candidate in Champlain county in the November 1851 election. He defended the democrats’ programme which he had reformulated in plain language in L’Avenir on 4 January. The abolition of tithes and of seigneurial tenure, the repeal of the Union, and “finally and above all” the independence of Canada and its annexation to the United States were obviously the points closest to his heart. The electorate did not respond favourably to his efforts. He was obliged to withdraw, after the first day of voting, in favour of Thomas Marchildon.
To complete his misfortune, his paper was in difficulty. From one edition per week, L’Avenir went to one every ten days in October 1851 and to one every fortnight the month after. Already those who styled themselves “the true democrats in Canada” were busy laying the foundation for a new paper, Le Pays (Montreal), which would support a moderate liberalism. Louis-Joseph-Amédée Papineau noted receiving the prospectus on 2 Jan. 1852, and the first number appeared on 15 January. Six days later L’Avenir announced it would cease publication: it had then 927 subscribers. It reappeared sporadically from 17 June on, and finally ended on 24 Nov. 1852. A most important stage in Canadian liberalism came to a close with the disappearance of the paper Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion had sustained by dint of sacrifice: the “enfant terrible” of the peaceful parish of Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade had become, thanks to his newspaper, the “enfant terrible” of Canadian politics.
Before leaving Montreal he published a pamphlet, Institut-canadien en 1852; because of the destruction of the archives in the fire of February 1850 this pamphlet remains an irreplaceable source for the history of the institute from its beginnings until that fateful date. Dorion recalls some of his personal history when he expresses delight at seeing that “the Institut Canadien is now the rendez-vous of the intelligent and active youth of our city, which meets every Thursday evening to discuss publicly any questions that interest, instruct, and amuse at the same time. The library and newsroom become more important from day to day, and are an inexhaustible source from which young people can daily derive knowledge of history, the arts, sciences, and letters, as well as all subjects of practical utility” (they were stocked with 1,600 volumes and subscribed to 64 papers). The institute, which had 350 members in Montreal, extended its educational influence through branches in some ten urban centres in Canada. Dorion had identified himself so closely with the Institut Canadien that when he left Montreal for Durham, near Drummondville, some part of it went with him. In December 1856, scarcely three years after he had established himself as a pioneer settler, he founded the Mechanics’ Institute of Drummond county.
Dorion came to Durham when his missionary brother Hercule was leaving it to take over the parish of Sainte-Anne-d’Yamachiche. Abbé Dorion had had an active part in transferring the centre of worship for the region from Wickham to Durham, where a temporary chapel had been erected on a piece of land he had purchased on 13 Jan. 1848 from settler Charles-Auguste Boucher. This initiative had caused sharp recriminations at Wickham, particularly when it was noticed that Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion was making his home near this chapel. There were suspicions of connivance between the two brothers, of an attempt by the priest to prepare a better future for his younger brother.
The latter displayed at once, in this tiny setting, the indomitable energy of which he had so often given proof on the wider stage of Montreal. He soon obtained a post office for the village, to which he gave the name of the newspaper that had just died: L’Avenirville (L’Avenir). A store and a small sawmill brought new life to the little centre. But above all this relentless anti-cleric, this voracious foe of priests, was seen busily engaged in bringing quickly to fruition his brother Hercule’s plans for a brick church to replace the chapel. Called Saint-Pierre-de-Durham, it was completed in 1854. Later a presbytery was built through his efforts. These manifold activities had nevertheless left him time to marry. On 21 June 1853, at Saint-Joseph-de-Soulanges, he wed Marie Abby Victoria Hays, daughter of Eleazar and Josephte Trestler. Three boys and a girl were born of this union.
Dorion soon won the settlers’ friendship by a politeness that was in no way obsequious, a tactful manner, and a willingness to give practical day-to-day help. He was therefore banking on a genuine popularity when he took part in the election of 1854, which saw the democrats take 16 of Canada East’s 65 seats. Among them were 11 members of the Institut Canadien. Arthur Buies* was to call them in his Réminiscences “the brilliant group of 1854.” Dorion was one of those elected, beating his opponent by 1,061 votes in the united counties of Drummond and Arthabaska.
In the assembly, he rejoined his elder brother Antoine-Aimé, who had been returned by the city of Montreal. With the reputation as a tough fighter he had acquired at L’Avenir, this incorrigible man took good care to be true to himself. Hence he quickly became the favourite target for the partisans of the reform party. Gaspard Le Mage (the pseudonym of Joseph-Charles Taché* and Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau), inserted articles in Le Journal de Québec, Le Canadien, and La Minerve (Montreal), and these were then put together in a brochure, La Pléiade rouge, which, Le Pays had to admit, displayed “wit and attic elegance.” It painted a vitriolic portrait of Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion: “The skull of an old man on the face and body of a child, eyes starting from his head, an excessively wide mouth, thin, compressed lips through which emerges a strident, nasal and cracked voice.” The country had for a moment vainly thought it could breathe more easily when L’Avenir foundered. Dorion had decided to go and beget “in the Bois-Francs, deep in our age-old forests,” “a swarm of little men in his image,” “practising among themselves the democratic and social virtues, and cursing in their small hearts the sbirros and the tyrants.”
This sarcasm revealed the importance political opponents attributed to Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion, whose contributions during assembly debates made their mark every time. He was particularly concerned to have the uncultivated land that settlers were already occupying in the township of Durham made over to them by the squatters’ bill; he proposed unsuccessfully that the united counties of Drummond and Arthabaska be divided to give each of them the right to elect a representative; he attacked the plan for the confederation of the provinces of British America, on which discussions had begun, and he did so with all his strength. He remained obsessed until his last days with this threat that hung over his compatriots, being convinced that a confederation would gradually submerge the Francophone element in an Anglophone ensemble.
But above all he spoke passionately on the bill to abolish seigneurial tenure. Like his democrat friends, he did not find the act favourable enough to the censitaires. Under the pseudonym “Frère de Jean-Baptiste,” he wrote a pamphlet, Tenure seigneuriale, whose sub-title, Paie, pauvre peuple, paie!, clearly indicated its tone and content. The exploitation of the settlers, “betrayed, pillaged, sold” at the time of the redemption of seigneurial rights, foreshadowed, in his eyes, the exploitation that would be visited on French Canadians by the federal union which was being more and more discussed: “It’s going fine, Baptiste! The great Union of all the British provinces is upon us. Now that we are attached to Upper Canada, I would wager that the mission of the new governor is to tie us by our feet to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland! How enviable is this plan for us Lower Canadians! What influence we would have in parliament: one Canadian against seven Englishmen!”
During the 1857–58 elections, Dorion stood again in Drummond and Arthabaska, but was defeated by a Conservative, Christopher Dunkin*. He was no more successful in Maskinongé. Only nine representatives with Antoine-Aimé Dorion as leader formed the new group of French Canadian Liberals in the assembly. This modest success, which marked a distinct falling off since 1854, was attributed to a more widespread intervention of the clergy in the elections than had occurred in 1851 and 1854. In Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion’s case, one of the arguments propounded by the Liberals, nondenominational education, had certainly contributed to his defeat, for, from the time of his founding of the Mechanics’ Institute in Drummond county, he had not hesitated to debate there the question of the teaching of religion in school, and obviously, to suggest a liberal solution.
Returning to private life, he now gave more time to running his estate, which included land, a store, and a small sawmill. But his management always lacked clear purpose, so that although he had a good income he never became rich. The very spirit of intransigence in discussion, the uncompromising polemicist, he was signally weak in his dealings with his servants and those around him. His employees abused a situation in which supervision tended to be remote, for Dorion took refuge in his house as much as he could in order to read. “His life,” wrote one of his biographers, “was spent in reading, reading ceaselessly, persistently, so great was his eagerness to learn. His wife, who had a liking for amusement, found this life too literary, and complained about the boring tranquillity of an existence in which books, papers, and journals formed the major part.” But if anyone who met him was not put off by his icy seriousness – he was rarely seen to laugh – he was found to be obliging. The farmers of L’Avenir and the neighbourhood did not hesitate to consult him about their difficulties. He himself sometimes brought them together, for when he gave a supper party or organized an evening gathering, he invited the whole parish.
Dorion returned to public life in 1861, when he was re-elected for Drummond and Arthabaska. Although he did not know it, his days were numbered. He was not yet 40 years old, but a serious cardiac affliction threatened a premature end. No doubt he had a premonition of his own fate in the sudden death of his twin brother François-Edmond, on the morning of 8 June 1862. But he took no notice of it and gave of himself unsparingly, particularly during the election, when he travelled through one county after another in a small cart drawn at a spanking pace by two grey horses. “Here’s the enfant terrible,” people would exclaim when he arrived with a foaming team. Victory was assured for the Liberal supporters, as Dorion had no equal in confounding an adversary at meetings.
When he founded the first French language newspaper in the Saint-François valley, Le Défricheur (L’Avenir), published first in November 1862, he was proud to style himself a “farmer and representative of the people.” He was a Jean Rivard, whose story Antoine Gérin-Lajoie* had just told in fictional form: “our story,” confirmed Dorion in Le Défricheur of 11 December, “and that of all our neighbours, with little difference.” He strove to carry through the motto he had given to his paper: “Work ennobles.” His articles were rich in practical advice to farmers for improving their agricultural methods. He had often tested these opinions in the field. He also took an interest in forest and mining resources. But the farmer often gave place to the mla, and then there were long reflections on the evils of confederation, which he energetically fought in the assembly: “I am opposed to confederation,” he exclaimed, “because I perceive countless difficulties related to the joint powers granted to local and general government on several matters. These conflicts will always turn to the advantage of the general government and to the detriment of the sometimes very legitimate claims of the provinces.” One of Dorion’s last political acts was to sign the manifesto of the 20 mlas opposed to confederation and addressed to the colonial secretary, Lord Carnarvon.
Dorion was an avowed anti-cleric even in his everyday conversation, never missed an opportunity for a sarcastic remark about the clergy, and even brought an action, which he lost, against the Oblate father Joseph-Marie Royer, who had preached a parochial retreat at L’Avenir in January 1861. Yet Dorion went to services in his parish fairly regularly. It is true, however, that he kept his distance from the sacraments. Thus on 1 Nov. 1866, All Saints’ Day, he attended mass “in a devout frame of mind and with a book in his hand,” according to the unequivocal testimony of parish priest Abbé Pierre-Trefflé Gouin, in a letter written that day to the vicar general Louis-François Laflèche*. Abbé Gouin added that for the collection in the church on behalf of the victims of fire on 14 October at Saint-Sauveur and Saint-Roch in Quebec, Dorion had to borrow his offering: “In giving, this morning, he gave of his poverty.”
At about two o’clock that afternoon, Dorion was travelling to Richmond when he was stricken with a heart attack. He was rushed home, and soon passed away. On 5 November he was given an impressive funeral, his brother, the parish priest of Yamachiche, officiating. His other brother, Antoine-Aimé, leader of the Lower Canadian Liberals, was in the first row, lost in grief. Jean-Baptiste-Éric lies in the little cemetery at L’Avenir, under an epitaph which preserves his familiar name, “L’Enfant Terrible.”
The disappearance of such a controversial man produced a variety of commentary in the press. But his brothers in arms of the Institut Canadien, in whose founding he had participated and of which he had been one of the vice-presidents, then president from November 1850 to 1851, owed him a special tribute. It was rendered by the president, Louis-Antoine Dessaulles: “J. B. E. Dorion was one of the most clear-sighted minds that have graced our country. A tireless worker, his energy and perseverance literally knew no bounds. An elevated spirit, an upright and honest nature, an exceptional soul, he belonged to that phalanx of public figures, unfortunately too small in this province, whose motto at all times and places is: Everything for one’s country, nothing for oneself.”
Apart from the final remark, which shows the mark of the political partisan, one can agree with Dessaulles’ judgement. Even Dorion’s anticlericalism can be explained by the events in which he was involved and the combats he waged with his vizor raised. In the middle of the last century tolerance was generally the Christian virtue that was the most cheerfully mocked.
J.-B.-É. Dorion was the editor of Institut-canadien en 1852 (Montréal, 1852), and the author of Un souvenir pour 1844 . . . (Trois-Rivières, 1844), and Tenure seigneuriale; paie, pauvre peuple, paie! (Québec, 1855). The last work was published under the pseudonym “Frère de Jean-Baptiste.” ANQ-Q, AP, Coll. Papineau, Louis-Joseph-Amédée Papineau, Journal d’un Fils de la liberté, 1835–38 (typescript). ASTR, Papiers J.-Napoléon Bureau, correspondance 1860–69. L’Avenir, 1847–52. Le Défricheur (L’Avenir, Qué.), 1862–66. Institut canadien, Annuaire (Montréal), 1866. Bernard, Les Rouges. Maurice Carrier, “Le libéralisme de Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion” (thèse de doctorat d’université, université Laval, Québec, 1967). J.-R. Rioux, “L’Institut canadien; les débuts de l’Institut canadien et du journal l’Avenir (1844–1849)” (thèse de des, université Laval, 1967). J.-B. St-Amant, Un coin des Cantons de l’Est, histoire de l’envahissement pacifique mais irrésistible d’une race (Drummondville, Qué., 1932).
© 1976–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Philippe Sylvain, “DORION, JEAN-BAPTISTE-ÉRIC,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dorion_jean_baptiste_eric_9E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Philippe Sylvain|
|Title of Article:||DORION, JEAN-BAPTISTE-ÉRIC|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 9|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1976|
|Year of revision:||1976|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|