HEARN, JOHN, businessman and politician; baptized 4 Jan. 1827 in the Cathedral parish, Waterford (Republic of Ireland), son of Thomas Hearn and Catherine Power; d. 17 May 1894 at Quebec.
Born into a well-established Irish Catholic family, John Hearn benefited from an early education at Meagher’s Academy in Ireland. In his early teens, he came to Quebec, where he furthered his education by private tutor. Initially a clerk in the employ of Hugh Murray, a ship chandler and a city councillor from 1849, Hearn subsequently established his own business in Lower Town as a ship chandler and grocer. On 20 Nov. 1849 he married Mary Doran, daughter of John Doran, another grocer and prominent citizen; they had four children, of whom only one boy would reach adulthood. By the early 1860s a reporter for the credit agency R. G. Dun and Company affirmed that Hearn was doing a fair business, and by the end of the decade he had expanded into real estate.
Hearn was becoming known in the Irish community by 1848 when, at the age of 21, he accepted the presidency of the Emmet Rifle Club. Eloquent and “a smart man,” according to the Dun reporter, he had earned the reputation by the 1860s of being “an active successful leader.” In the following decade he became president of the St Patrick’s Literary Institute of Quebec (1870) and of the Quebec branch of the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Canada (1875) [see Michael Murphy*] and he was a public supporter in 1871 of the Irish League, a group constituted to promote Irish interests in the city. A trustee of the St Bridget’s Asylum Association of Quebec, he was also on the committee of management of St Patrick’s Church.
Hearn’s popularity in the Irish community had earned him election in 1856 as city councillor for the Irish-dominated Champlain ward, where he himself lived and had his business; his father-in-law had held the seat from 1844 to 1849. Hearn worked on many committees of the city council, but in particular on the waterworks committee, which in 1863 elected him chairman, a position he would hold for a decade. Through this body he provided much-needed winter employment for hundreds of his countrymen. During his 38 years as a member of the corporation of Quebec for Champlain ward, first as councillor and then as alderman, he defended the interests of the Irish. Beyond this ethnic identification, however, Hearn became closely associated with the corporation itself, a body whose financial administration was contested by some residents of the city. In 1869 a citizens’ association was formed to agitate for its abolition.
In 1867 Hearn parlayed his immense popularity in Champlain ward into a seat in the first provincial legislature: standing as a Conservative, he was elected by acclamation in Quebec West. He repeated the exploit in 1871. In 1875 he had an opponent but, regarding him with “lofty contempt” and not bothering to campaign, Hearn won with a majority much less impressive than expected. In the assembly he was a staunch defender of the corporation’s administration of Quebec and was the intermediary through which the city council attempted to undermine the citizens’ association by introducing a series of limited reforms. These reforms, mainly to the city’s revenue base, involved amending provincial legislation. Invariably – at least until 1872, when Luther Hamilton Holton* of Montreal protested – Hearn enjoyed considerable success by having the corporation’s bills introduced at the very end of the sessions when little study or discussion was possible, a tactic also used by the city council of Montreal. At the same time he defended the corporation’s interests when they were potentially affected by other legislation, particularly if a bill threatened a part of the city’s tax base or involved it in increased expenditures.
In the assembly Hearn also strongly represented the interests of the Irish. He supported government legislation designed to encourage immigration from Ireland and to discourage emigration to the United States. But it was the Irish in the city of Quebec that he particularly defended. In 1870 he argued vociferously that its 20,000 English-speaking Catholics had been insulted by the composition of the Council of Public Instruction, which included two Irish Catholics from Montreal but none from Quebec. The same year, and again in 1875, he opposed government legislation to establish a rental qualification for voters. “Not one man in a hundred living in his division” could vote under the proposed legislation, he protested, and he warned that the disenfranchisement would certainly “create discontent among the lower orders.” He was also the spokesman in the assembly for local Irish organizations such as the St Bridget’s Asylum Association of Quebec and the St Patrick’s Literary Institute of Quebec. He particularly spoke for the Irish Catholic laity. In 1875 he opposed a private bill to transfer management of the temporalities of St Patrick’s congregation from the committee of management to the Redemptorists, who had the spiritual charge of the parish. Five years earlier he had opposed a government plan to increase the cost of liquor licences by 60 per cent, arguing that illegal liquor outlets would proliferate; to compensate the city for the loss of revenues he suggested taxing religious buildings.
As a member of Quebec’s financial aristocracy, Hearn did not neglect the interests of his own class, which in most cases he shrewdly combined with those of the Irish labourers. Thus he favoured tariff protection for industry, voted in 1875 for government subsidization of railway construction (particularly the North Shore Railway and the Montreal, Ottawa, and Western Railway, which would connect directly to the Canadian west), and supported a motion to open the St Lawrence River to winter navigation between Quebec and the Maritimes, all on the grounds that these measures would promote the interests of Quebec’s business and labouring classes. Similarly, when in 1875 the government proposed to spend $100,000 on the construction of government buildings at Quebec, he endorsed the measure and opposed those who would have had the buildings constructed in Montreal or built in a “nice plain” style in order to reduce costs. Hearn argued that “buildings that would attract and adorn, and bring the admirers of art and architecture visiting America to [the provincial capital] were what were expected.” Several months later, at the beginning of the winter of 1875, no construction had yet begun, and Hearn exploded against the ministry. “Almost everything likely to prove beneficial to Quebec was retarded,” he vociferated, and the government was losing the opportunity “to relieve the misery that presently exists among the labouring class of this city.” He subsequently harassed the Conservative ministers over the matter.
Hearn, in fact, although little given to speak on affairs of provincial scope, was one of about a dozen Conservative mlas who often placed the ministry of Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau* in danger by their opposition to its economic policies. In addition, in 1875 he voted against the Conservative ministry of Charles-Eugène Boucher* de Boucherville over the Tanneries scandal [see Louis Archambeault*]. It was perhaps to rid itself of a rather erratic supporter, therefore, that Boucherville’s government named him in October 1877 to the Legislative Council for the division of Stadacona, in succession to John Sharples*. There he continued to represent the groups he had defended in the assembly. However, his class interests won out over his allegiance to the Irish community in 1879 when he opposed as “revolutionary” a bill to exempt one-half of workers’ salaries from possible seizure. He continued to display independence of the party line, and in 1891 even styled himself an “Independent Liberal.”
Hearn’s business interests expanded in the 1880s and 1890s to include railways. He was a promoter from the beginning, in 1883, of the St Lawrence and Témiscouata Railway Company, and one of its directors from 1884. The line was planned to run from Fraserville (Rivière-du-Loup) to Sainte-Rose-du-Dégelis (Dégelis), but its directors were unable to obtain a government grant, and the company disappeared the following year. In 1893 he joined the board of directors of the Great Northern Railway Company during a reorganization that was designed to facilitate its union with several other Canadian lines and the Northern Pacific Railroad in the United States in order to form a transcontinental rival to the Canadian Pacific Railway; this project also failed.
Meanwhile, Hearn had apparently tired of the Legislative Council. In 1891 he contested the federal seat of Quebec West and lost by some 50 votes to incumbent Conservative Thomas McGreevy. After McGreevy was expelled from the House of Commons, Hearn entered the resulting by-election and in February 1892 defeated an opponent of Irish origins for the seat. During the campaign he had contracted tuberculosis, however, and he died of it in May 1894. He had abandoned commerce a number of years before but was considered to be one of the largest landowners in the city. His fortune, variously estimated from $200,000 to more than $300,000, was difficult to calculate because it was largely held in land. His son, John Gabriel, followed in his footsteps, serving as a city councillor (and president of the finance committee from 1896 to 1898) and as an assemblyman (although Liberal) from 1900 to 1904.
For the city of Quebec in the latter half of the 19th century John Hearn represented competence and economy in public affairs. He had continued as alderman of Champlain ward until his death, chairing the ferry committee for most of the 1880s and the finance committee in the early 1890s. In 1892 the Quebec Morning Chronicle called him the “guardian of the Corporation finances,” and two years later, in its obituary of him, L’Événement affirmed that “he was the heart of city council for many years [and] enjoyed incredible influence on it.” For the Irish Catholics of Quebec, he was one of their own, a politician who understood their needs and aspirations and who fought for them beyond party lines if necessary in the politically formative years of their new country.
ANQ-Q, CE1–1, 20 nov. 1849; CE1–98, 17 mai 1894. AVQ, Aqueduc, comité de l’aqueduc, procès-verbaux; Conseil, conseil de ville, procès-verbaux; conseils et comités, conseillers; échevins; présidence, aqueduc. Baker Library, R. G. Dun & Co. credit ledger, Canada, 8: 161. NA, RG 31, C1, 1861, 1871, Quebec. Débats de l’Assemblée législative (M. Hamelin), 1867–77. L’Événement, 17–18 mai 1894. Quebec Morning Chronicle, 7 Dec. 1858; 26 Aug. 1867; 16–17 March 1869; 12 June 1871; 8 July 1875; 5 Nov. 1877; 22, 25 Feb. 1892; 18 May 1894. CPC, 1869, 1871–74, 1876–79, 1885, 1887, 1891. J. Desjardins, Guide parl. RPQ. Turcotte, Le Conseil législatif. M. Hamelin, Premières années du parlementarisme québécois. “Les disparus,” BRH, 40 (1934): 48.
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Cite This Article
Robert J. Grace, “HEARN, JOHN,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/hearn_john_12E.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:||Robert J. Grace|
|Title of Article:||HEARN, JOHN|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 12|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1990|
|Year of revision:||1990|
|Access Date:||June 9, 2023|