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GAGNON, FERDINAND, journalist and newspaper owner; b. 8 June 1849 at Saint-Hyacinthe, Canada East, son of Jean-Baptiste Gagnon and Élizabeth Marchessault; d. 15 April 1886 at Worcester, Mass.

Little is known about Ferdinand Gagnon’s childhood. In 1859 he entered the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe, where he completed his final year (Rhetoric) in 1865. He is reported to have distinguished himself there “by his outstanding talent and industry.” One of his childhood friends, Dr Omer Larue, noted that his interest in journalism became apparent during this period. His single-sheet publications “circulated from row to row, to the great delight of the pupils and the great displeasure of the masters.” In June 1865 he went to work in Saint-Hyacinthe in the law office of Arthur-Prisque Letendre and Honoré Mercier*, where he remained until 7 Jan. 1868. Paying a visit then to his parents, who had been living in Concord, N.H., for some months, he decided to take up residence in the United States himself.

Gagnon, not yet 19, was one of some 200,000 French Canadians who left Quebec between 1860 and 1870. At the time of his arrival, those in the New England states were just beginning to coalesce. Their small settlements of several hundred families were disorganized and scattered across the foreign and sometimes hostile land. Educated young men facing the possibility of unemployment in Quebec found good prospects in New England for using their talents and realizing their ambitions. Gagnon stayed only a few months in Concord, where he secured employment in the legal firm of Marshall and Chase and studied American law. He settled at Manchester, N.H., in October 1868 and taught French there until March 1869. From the time of his arrival in the United States, Gagnon had taken an interest in the problems of his fellow émigrés. The French Canadians in Concord appointed him their delegate to the fourth French Canadian convention in the United States, held at Springfield, Mass., on 7–8 Oct. 1868. His role in drafting a constitution for the Union Canadienne de Secours Mutuel, a federation of charitable organizations in the United States, caught the attention of observers, especially journalist Médéric Lanctot*, who was there to represent the Montreal press. Young Gagnon was captivated by Lanctot’s personality and the ideas he advanced in favour of the independence of Canada from Britain and its annexation to the United States, especially since, having been raised in a staunchly nationalist milieu, Gagnon despised the British. In a speech in 1866 he had declared that “wherever England has pushed her way in she has always left bloody and humiliating traces of her passage,” and he had not failed to mention the events of 1837–38.

After the convention the two men remained in contact. On 25 Feb. 1869 in Manchester Gagnon founded a weekly, La Voix du peuple, with the financial assistance of Dr Adolphe-Louis Tremblay, an influential member of one of the clubs in sympathy with Lanctot’s ideas. The four-page paper, whose motto was “Wait and hope,” ceased publication on 15 Sept. 1869, when Dr Tremblay left New England. La Voix du peuple disappeared at about the same time as LIdée nouvelle, the first paper launched by Lanctot to spread the idea of Canadian independence; it was published first at Burlington, Vt, and then at Worcester.

On 16 Oct. 1869 Gagnon married Malvina Lalime, who was born at Saint-Hyacinthe, and that year he did not attend the fifth annual convention of French Canadians in the United States, again held in mid-October. Hence he played no part in the efforts of Lanctot and his friends to infiltrate the convention and get it to favour Canadian independence. Nevertheless he continued to advocate Lanctot’s ideas, long after the latter had returned to Montreal disillusioned. The newlyweds settled in Worcester, where nearly 2,000 French Canadian émigrés lived. There Gagnon founded LÉtendard national, the first issue of which appeared on 3 Nov. 1869; on 7 November of the following year LOpinion publique of Montreal purchased the paper and it became the Montreal journal’s American edition. Gagnon continued to write for LÉtendard, which was published until 1874, and on 18 March 1873 he also founded Le Foyer canadien with Frédéric Houde. During the summer of 1874 Gagnon sold his interests in Le Foyer to his partner and on 16 October founded Le Travailleur, which was to be his major achievement. With a team of excellent contributors, including Benjamin Sulte* and Aram J. Pothier, Gagnon set out to uphold causes dear to him: religion, family, language, and brotherhood. As journalism was not one of the more lucrative professions, he went into partnership with one of his brothers-in-law, Alfred-G. Lalime, a manufacturer of flags, banners, and badges for national and charitable organizations.

It was during this period that Gagnon, despite his youth, began to establish himself as a leader in the French Canadian community in New England. He owed his success to his great talent and unremitting efforts, of course, but also to the friendship and enlightened counsel of the founder of the parish of Notre-Dame-des-Canadiens in Worcester, Abbé Jean-Baptiste Primeau. Like many young, educated French Canadians who came to test their skills in the United States but still cherished the notion of returning to their country, Gagnon remained profoundly attached to French Canada. “Any upright man must love his country, and, if he is far away from it, must feel a desire to live there,” he claimed. “If we no longer have this desire . . . we are worthless creatures, we are racial degenerates.” Thus patriotism required all French Canadians, even émigrés, to combat emigration to the United States. In 1871 he asserted it was no longer necessity that made people emigrate, but rather caprice. After all, prosperity had returned to the homeland. It was good to fight emigration, he said at Worcester in September 1871, but even better to encourage émigrés to return to Quebec; otherwise French Canadians would soon be no more than “the pale shadow of a people.” However, to the substantial number of émigrés who had permanently severed their ties with Quebec Gagnon commended the advantages of naturalization, unless they wanted to remain second-class citizens. At the same time he urged them never to repudiate their national identity, whose two essential elements were the Catholic faith and the French language.

Some were surprised that anyone could advocate naturalization and encourage repatriation in the same breath. But Gagnon dreamed of a “national union [of the French Canadians in Canada and the United States] which must take place sooner or later.” Like the delegates to the tenth annual convention of French Canadians in the United States, held in New York in 1874, he wanted émigrés to be seen as “the spearhead” of the French Canadian nation, not as its “fugitives or deserters.” He therefore welcomed enthusiastically an invitation to the émigrés to take part in the celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal in 1874.

Those arranging the celebrations entrusted the responsibility for organizing Franco-American participation to a committee that included Abbé Primeau, Lalime, Houde, and Gagnon. They received a response beyond all expectations; 18,000 émigrés invaded Montreal. Their presence prompted Charles Thibault, a lawyer in the Eastern Townships, to exclaim: “There is such a multitude of our own people beyond the 45th parallel that one can hardly tell where the motherland now is. It is as if French Canada had extended its frontiers.” Gagnon, Houde, and Honoré Beaugrand* praised their fellow émigrés, asked that repatriation agents be dispatched to the United States, and tried in vain to get the delegates to take an official stand on the issue of amnesty for Louis Riel. The Franco-Americans, to whom “abandoning” Riel meant denying the solidarity of all French Canadians, found their Montreal brothers very timorous.

The presence in Montreal of thousands of visitors flaunting their prosperity and taking a malicious delight in ostentation had a magical effect on the people of Quebec. In 1875 there was a mass desertion, “a small-scale evacuation of the province of Quebec,” as Alexandre Belisle noted in his Histoire de la presse franco-américaine. The appointment of Ferdinand Gagnon as a repatriation agent in March 1875 was one of the steps the Quebec government took to put a halt to the exodus. It was a good choice. Gagnon had the support of influential members of the clergy, and had a good propaganda instrument at his disposal in Le Travailleur. He set to work enthusiastically to recruit new settlers from amongst the expatriates. He distributed pamphlets describing the Eastern Townships, obtained tickets at reduced rates for those applying to return to Canada, gave lectures in various places, replied to hundreds of requests for information, and corresponded with Pierre Garneau*, the commissioner of agriculture and public works, as well as with Siméon Le Sage*, the deputy commissioner, and Jérôme-Adolphe Chicoyne, the settlement agent at Sherbrooke. The French Canadians who wished to use Gagnon’s services to return to Quebec received certificates of recommendation from him which they had to present to Chicoyne on arrival at Sherbrooke. It was Chicoyne’s task to direct them to La Patrie in the Eastern Townships, where there was still undeveloped land. They were offered 100-acre lots at low prices, payable over a period of several years.

Despite Gagnon’s efforts, the repatriation attempt was a failure. For every émigré who returned, five or ten persons crossed the border in the opposite direction. The invitation extended by Quebec had almost no appeal for a person who had already succumbed to the attraction of the United States and left everything. In addition, Gagnon granted certificates only to those who had some capital to meet initial expenses. Moreover, repatriation aroused growing opposition among the Franco-American élite, for according to them it impeded the movement towards naturalization. Some opponents openly made fun of Gagnon’s “disinterestedness.” Out of sheer weariness he relinquished his post in 1879.

Yet he did not propose to give up the struggle. There was so much to be done to ensure the future of the French fact in the United States. What he observed there worried him. The progress of assimilation among French Canadian émigrés was disturbing. In 1882 Gagnon announced that it was time to fight. He did admit that being in the midst of a Protestant, English-speaking population represented a heavy handicap, but much could be expected from a race of heroes. For the émigrés to forget their origin would be tantamount to forfeiting their honour. To all and sundry he stressed that allegiance to a particular government changed only the political status of a person, not his origin. In 1882, the very year in which he took out naturalization papers, Gagnon declared: “History for history, traditions for traditions, I prefer those of my native soil . . . I am happy to be a loyal citizen of this country, but I am equally proud and gratified to be a French Canadian.” There was a “spiritual homeland,” which was transmitted from generation to generation, shaped by respect for historical memories and traditions, religious faith, and the language of one’s forefathers. Gagnon argued that to ensure the survival of this “country” the élite, and in particular the clergy, must use every possible means to recreate in the United States the image of the French Canadian homeland with its churches, schools, societies, and newspapers, its national holiday (Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day), and its teaching of Canadian history. Gagnon did not merely hand out advice, he was present at every fight. As evidence one need only mention the part he played in relation to the Wright report.

Colonel Carroll Davidson Wright, chief of the Massachusetts Bureau of Statistics of Labor, drawing on the invidious observations of certain investigators, alleged in his annual report for 1881 that the Franco-Americans constituted an obstacle to the adoption of a 10-hour work day. Expressing prejudices already widely held, the report used the term “Chinese of the Eastern States” to designate French Canadians, adding that they were “a horde of invaders of industry, not a flow of stable migrants,” whose only ambition was to return to their homeland when they had accumulated enough money. The Franco-American leaders were indignant; they called meetings and circulated petitions. Gagnon led the fight in Worcester. He published articles in Le Travailleur, and headed a group of prominent people from Worcester who with other compatriots met Colonel Wright in Boston on 25 Oct. 1881. There he delivered a speech in which he stressed the remarkable contribution made to the history of the United States by the French Canadian element, solemnly declared his loyalty, and demanded that the report be recognized as a malicious libel.

Gagnon had made his presence felt as a leader. He enjoyed great prestige, although some of his compatriots would reproach him for his behaviour at the time of Riel’s execution and the incidents related to Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes in Fall River, Mass. The Franco-American community was infuriated by the sentencing and hanging of Riel in 1885 and by the hostility of Irish American bishops to French-speaking clergy which was revealed by Bishop Thomas Francis Hendricken’s refusal to appoint one of them to the parish of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes. These events were seen as signs of the danger to which a Protestant and Anglo-Saxon environment exposed the expatriate French Canadians. Although Gagnon shared the feelings of his compatriots, particularly in regard to clergy of their own tongue and origin, he was afraid the militants would go to extremes. He censured the “hotheads” who “allow themselves to be carried too far by their sympathies for the Métis,” and once the decision concerning Fall River had been pronounced by the Sacred Congregation of Propaganda, he castigated those who persisted in seeing all the Irish bishops in New England as unrelenting enemies of the Franco-Americans. In certain circles Gagnon was violently condemned and even some of his friends found it hard to accept this “lapse of patriotism.”

Death came suddenly to this man of imposing physique, who in 1885 weighed nearly 340 pounds. He was struck down by Bright’s disease on 15 April 1886, when he was only 36 years old. He left his wife and seven children to mourn him.

Yves Roby

Ferdinand Gagnon’s most important writings are to be found in Ferdinand Gagnon: biographie, éloge funèbre, pages choisies, M.-E. Martineau, édit. (2e éd., Manchester, N.H., 1940). The first edition, which was published in Worcester, Mass., under the title of Ferdinand Gagnon, sa vie et ses œuvres, soon after his death in 1886, included a short biography by Benjamin Sulte.

LÉtendard national (Worcester), 1869–74. Le Foyer canadien (Worcester), mars 1873–septembre 1874. Le Travailleur (Worcester), 1874–86. La Voix du peuple (Manchester), 25 févr.–15 sept. 1869. Belisle, Hist. de la presse franco-américaine. P.-P. Charette, 1834–84; noces dor de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste; compte-rendu officiel des fêtes de 1884 à Montréal (Montréal, 1884). Rosaire Dion-Lévesque [L.-A. Lévesque], Silhouettes franco-américaines (Manchester, 1957). Félix Gatineau, Historique des conventions générales des Canadiens-français aux États-Unis, 1865–1901 (Woonsocket, R.I., 1927). Robert Rumilly, Histoire des Franco-Américains (Montréal, 1958). Donald Chaput, “Some repatriement dilemmas,” CHR, 49 (1968): 400–12.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Yves Roby, “GAGNON, FERDINAND,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 25, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gagnon_ferdinand_11E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/gagnon_ferdinand_11E.html
Author of Article:   Yves Roby
Title of Article:   GAGNON, FERDINAND
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   June 25, 2024