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DUCLOS DE CELLES, ALFRED (baptized Jean-Baptiste-Alfred), journalist, librarian, and historian; b. 8 Aug. 1843 in the parish of Saint-Laurent, Lower Canada, son of Augustin-Candide Duclos De Celles, a notary, and Marie-Sarah-Anne Holmes; m. 25 Oct. 1876 in Saint-Ours, Que., Eugénie Panet-Dorion, daughter of Eugène-Philippe Dorion*, a lawyer, translator, and man of letters, and Marie Panet; they had one son; d. 5 Oct. 1925 in Ottawa.

After attending the primary school in his native village, Alfred Duclos De Celles enrolled belatedly in 1859 in the Petit Séminaire de Québec, where one of his uncles, Abbé John Holmes*, had taught. While doing his classical studies there, he took care of the library and wrote for the seminary’s newspaper, L’Abeille. He was awarded prizes for excellence in history, geography, French, and English (which he had learned as a child), and graduated in 1867.

On 18 Feb. 1867 De Celles was taken on staff at Le Journal de Québec, standing in for Joseph-Édouard Cauchon* for a few months before becoming his assistant, which he remained until 1872. At the same time, from 1867 to 1871 he studied law at the Université Laval in Quebec City and he would be called to the bar on 12 July 1873. Having acquired this liberal education, De Celles pursued his career as a political journalist in Montreal, where he joined Arthur Dansereau* at La Minerve, a Conservative party daily, of which he became editor in 1872. In 1874 he was president of the Club Cartier, which he founded along with other young Montreal Conservatives [see Sir Pierre-Évariste Leblanc*] who shared his belief that political commitment was a social and patriotic duty. De Celles had no desire, however, to pursue a career in politics. He was secretary-treasurer and administrator for the party in the Montreal region during the 1878 election, but this active involvement was an exception. It was primarily through his writing, skilled and partisan as it was, that he would serve the Conservatives.

In 1880 De Celles got his reward when he succeeded Antoine Gérin-Lajoie* as assistant librarian of the Library of Parliament in Ottawa. But his love of journalism persisted, and, with a couple of partners, he bought L’Opinion publique; he ran this Montreal weekly from Ottawa and wrote regularly for it on a wide variety of subjects from September 1881 to December 1883. Whether in his office in the library or in his letters, De Celles remained passionately interested in party politics; in his role as a go-between, he would ask favours, convey messages, or give advice to his friend Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau*, the premier of Quebec from 31 Oct. 1879 to 29 July 1882. On 3 March 1881 he wrote to Chapleau: “I’ve seen Dr Dionne [Narcisse-Eutrope Dionne*] of Le Courrier du Canada. He’s hardly a fan of yours, I presume; he is one of those Quebeckers full of prejudices about Montreal. He wants to be appointed visiting physician of the Marine Hospital. With that [appointment,] you could make him jump at your command.”

In January 1884 Alpheus Todd*, the parliamentary librarian, died. Some 40 Conservative mps urged Sir John A. Macdonald* to appoint a French Canadian – namely, De Celles – to the office. Anglophone mps, on the other hand, wanted one of their own to have it. A typically Canadian solution was found: the job was split with each position at the same level. Political manoeuvring aside, this decision can be explained by the dual role played by the Library of Parliament at that time, in the absence of a national library. Thus on 6 Aug. 1885 De Celles became the first general librarian, with powers matching those of the new parliamentary librarian, Martin Joseph Griffin, who was appointed on the same day. At that time De Celles’s annual salary was $2,400; 12 years later, it would be $3,200. The reports written by De Celles and Griffin recount their efforts to complete the collection of Canadian works, as well as the purchases made to satisfy the more immediate needs of legislators. Parliamentary sessions set the pace for their work, periods of intense activity and frequent meetings with mps and ministers alternating with the development of collections and consultation with the educated reading public in the city who used the library. Although an important cultural institution, the Library of Parliament does not appear to have received the support it deserved. De Celles had to use his powers of persuasion to ensure that library staff were paid salaries comparable to those of the other civil servants. The librarians grumbled about the bad behaviour of mps who disregarded library rules, and they repeatedly complained about lack of space and money. Nevertheless, in the 1890s they were proud to be introducing modern methods of library science, such as the card catalogue.

Wilfrid Laurier* became prime minister of Canada in June 1896. De Celles, whose Conservative zeal had diminished over the years, got on extremely well with him and even published his speeches (in Montreal in 1909 and 1920). In July 1897 De Celles represented Canada as a delegate at the International Library Conference in London. In addition to his other work, he served on the Board of Civil Service Examiners for more than 25 years from 1882 until 1908. He retired from public service in 1920.

Alfred De Celles was involved in many cultural organizations. From the early 1880s he was a member of the Institut Canadien-Français in Ottawa. In 1884 he and others, including Benjamin Sulte and Joseph-Étienne-Eugène Marmette, founded the Cercle des Dix, a body in which literature, history, science, and geography were discussed. In 1885 he became a member of the Royal Society of Canada, doubtless through patronage since at that time he did not meet the criterion for membership of having written at least one book. He would, however, become one of the most active and prestigious members of the society, serving as president of the French section in 1892–93 and 1916–17. From 1901 to 1904 De Celles was also vice-president of the central committee of the Aberdeen Association, whose mission was to provide books for colonists who had recently settled in the Canadian west. He was a member of the Alliance Française in Ottawa and was its president in 1904, 1908, and 1910.

Every summer, in the tranquillity of Les Goinions, his home at Pointe-au-Pic, Que., De Celles devoted himself to his own research. His major work as a historian, Les États-Unis: origine, institutions, développement, came out in Ottawa in 1896. Published at his own expense, it received the prize of the Académie des Sciences Morales et Politiques in Paris the following year. He sent a copy to Chapleau on 13 April 1896 suggesting, “I don’t ask you to read it, but to have your government buy some copies from me. If you could put a word in with certain ministers. . . .” In later years, having become well known, he had no difficulty publishing and distributing his books throughout French and English Canada. Thus it was he who was invited to write the biographies of Louis-Joseph Papineau* and Sir George-Étienne Cartier*, essays included in a single volume published in Toronto in 1904 for the series Makers of Canada [see George Nathaniel Morang*]. Ten years later he wrote the introduction to the two volumes about the province of Quebec in the series entitled Canada and its provinces; De Celles also contributed to the same volume, an article on colonization, an overview of Quebec’s history since confederation, and an account of the province’s municipal system. The “Patriotes” of ‘37: a chronicle of the Lower Canadian rebellion, which he brought out at Toronto in 1916, was also part of a prestigious series, the Chronicles of Canada [see Robert Pollock Glasgow].

In his books De Celles took a comprehensive view, without a great deal of emphasis on scholarship or exhaustiveness. He did not hesitate to add personal comments, and it is these commentaries, from an author who had followed the ups and downs of Canadian political life from close quarters and over a long period, that constitute the chief interest of his works. He reserved his praise for Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* (whose biography he had written and published in Montreal in 1907), who had achieved responsible government, and for Cartier, who had done his best to protect French Canadian interests after confederation. De Celles wrote the kind of history favoured by Conservatives like himself, men who were moderate in their opinions, Catholic without being ultramontane, nationalist but advocates of mutual accommodation (in the spirit of the Bonne Entente movement [see John Milton Godfrey*]), with a belief in material progress through liberal-style economic progress. In his last book, Laurier et son temps, which came out at Montreal in 1920, he praised the Liberal leader for these same conciliatory and pragmatic virtues.

Alfred Duclos De Celles never stopped writing. Throughout his life, and even in retirement, he contributed literary and historical essays to a number of journals, including the Revue canadienne in Montreal, Le Canada français in Quebec City, the Bulletin des recherches historiques of Lévis, and the Transactions of the Royal Society of Canada, in addition to articles for La Presse. His son, who was also named Alfred, followed in his footsteps and became a journalist and writer. Alfred Sr received an honorary doctorate of letters from the Université Laval in 1891 and, in 1896, the title of officier de l’Instruction publique of France. In 1901 the University of Ottawa awarded him an honorary dcl, in 1903 the French government made him a chevalier of the Legion of Honour, and in 1907 he became a cmg. Among his contemporaries, he was admired for his “lively and sparkling wit,” the wide culture of “a true gentleman,” and his courtesy, friendliness, civic sense, and sincerity.

Fernande Roy

[The most complete bibliography of the writings of Alfred Duclos De Celles appears in A.-M. Dorion, “Bio-bibliographie d’Alfred Duclos DeCelles” (mémoire, école de bibliothéconomie, univ. de Montréal, 1942). Several archives hold documents pertaining to De Celles. The most important of these fonds is P111 at ANQ-O; it contains letters from Sir Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, original typescripts, and newspaper clippings. The Centre for Research on French Canadian Culture (Ottawa) has some letters and news clippings in the Alfred-Duclos-De Celles fonds (P103), important correspondence between De Celles and Chapleau in the Joseph-Adolphe-Chapleau fonds (P313), and a number of letters in the Jacques-Gouin fonds (P26). At the LAC, several collections are useful: the Alfred Duclos De Celles collection (MG 30, D271) for news clippings, the Sir Wilfrid Laurier fonds (MG 26, G) for 32 letters from De Celles, the Sir John A. Macdonald fonds (MG 26, A) for 12 letters about the candidacy of De Celles for parliamentary librarian, and the Trefflé Berthiaume fonds (MG 29, C117).

The reports of the joint librarians of parliament on the state of the library, which appear in Can., Parl., Sessional papers between 1885 and 1911 but were not subsequently printed, contain information about the professional activities of De Celles. The best biographical accounts are Thomas Chapais, “Monsieur Alfred De Celles,” Le Canada français (Québec), 2e sér., 13 (1925–26): 153–58; [Auguste Gosselin], “Alfred D. DeCelles,” Le Propagateur (Montréal), 6 (1909–10), no.4: 1, 24. f.r.]

ANQ-M, CE601-S44, 8 août 1843; CE603-S6, 25 oct. 1876.

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Cite This Article

Fernande Roy, “DUCLOS DE CELLES, ALFRED,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/duclos_de_celles_alfred_15E.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:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/duclos_de_celles_alfred_15E.html
Author of Article:   Fernande Roy
Title of Article:   DUCLOS DE CELLES, ALFRED
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2005
Year of revision:   2005
Access Date:   September 30, 2023