JETTÉ, Sir LOUIS-AMABLE, lawyer, politician, judge, professor, and lieutenant governor; b. 15 Jan. 1836 in L’Assomption, Lower Canada, son of Amable Jetté, a merchant, and Jeanne-Joséphine (Caroline) Gauffreau; m. 23 April 1862 in Montreal Berthilde Laflamme, sister of Toussaint-Antoine-Rodolphe Laflamme*, and they had seven children, including Jules*, a Jesuit missionary, and Berthe, who married Rodolphe Lemieux*; d. 5 May 1920 in Quebec City and was buried 8 May in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, Montreal.
After classical studies at the Collège de L’Assomption from 1842 to 1853, Louis-Amable Jetté attended the law school at the Collège Sainte-Marie, which was under the direction of François-Maximilien Bibaud*. He was called to the bar in February 1857 and practised in Montreal with Hector Fabre* and Siméon Le Sage*, and then with Frédéric-Ligori Béïque*.
In 1870 Jetté was involved as counsel in one of the most famous trials in Quebec’s legal history. With François-Xavier-Anselme Trudel* and Francis Cassidy*, he defended the priest and fabrique of Montreal’s Notre-Dame parish before the Superior Court in the Guibord case. The lawsuit stemmed from the refusal of the fabrique to bury Joseph Guibord* in the section of the cemetery reserved for religious burials because he had been a member of the Institut Canadien. In his plea Jetté contended that civil courts do not have the power to intervene in religious matters since the church enjoys absolute autonomy in the spiritual realm. Thus, he argued, the priest did not need to justify his refusal. Unconvinced, judge Charles-Elzéar Mondelet* ordered Guibord’s burial. The case was not over, however, until after a decision from the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.
Attracted to politics, Jetté, like quite a few young lawyers of his day, contributed to various Montreal newspapers. L’Union nationale allowed him to assert his nationalism, while L’Ordre genuinely reflected his deep-seated values. He was dissatisfied with existing political parties and eager to devote himself to the defence of French Canada. Late in 1871, along with some young Liberals including Béïque, he founded the Parti National, which Honoré Mercier* joined. In the 1872 federal election, despite his political inexperience, Jetté defeated Sir George-Étienne Cartier* in Montreal East by a sizeable majority after a lively campaign. He was re-elected in 1874 as a Liberal.
In March 1875 Jetté was taken to task by the Conservatives for his involvement in a questionable deal. Informed of the imminent widening of the Lachine Canal by the federal government, in April 1874 he and some prominent Liberal colleagues, including his brother-in-law Laflamme, had acquired some lots along this waterway for $102,000. The group had then instigated speculative activity in order to inflate the value of their properties, which were sold that autumn at quadruple the purchase price. Jetté maintained in the House of Commons that he and his associates knew nothing of the plans to widen the canal when they bought the land.
At the end of his term as an mp in 1878, Jetté declined the Justice portfolio and left politics to become a judge of the Superior Court for the district of Montreal. The same year he joined the faculty of law at the new branch of the Université Laval in Montreal, where he held the chair in civil law. He served as dean from 1890 to 1898. A member of the Council of Public Instruction from 1878 to 1898, Jetté supported the position of the provincial Roman Catholic episcopate on a number of controversial issues. He was seen as unsympathetic to the reforms that the Mercier government intended to put forward, and in 1888 an unsuccessful attempt was made to remove him and other lay members of the council; a letter he sent to the provincial secretary indicates the incident annoyed him greatly.
Jetté was named lieutenant governor of Quebec in 1898 and retained this office until 1908. He then sat again as a judge of the Superior Court and, the following year, as chief justice of the Court of King’s Bench, the highest post in the provincial judiciary. He retired in August 1911. On several occasions during his years as a judge and as lieutenant governor, the government called on him to deliberate complex or delicate issues. For example, he was asked to make proposals, with the help of Léon Lorrain and William Alexander Weir, for the reform of the much criticized administrative aspects of civil justice. The report they submitted to Premier Mercier in 1887 concluded that the 1867 Code of Civil Procedure had to be completely revised. The hoped-for reform was only accomplished ten years later. In September 1891 Lieutenant Governor Auguste-Réal Angers named Jetté to head the royal commission of inquiry into the Baie des Chaleurs Railway scandal. Allegedly, soon after the 1890 provincial election, members of the Mercier government and their close associates had diverted to partisan purposes public funds meant for this railway [see Ernest Pacaud*]. Jetté was assisted by two other judges, Louis-François-Georges Baby* and Charles Peers Davidson, both Conservatives. Dissenting from his colleagues, who submitted a report devastating for the government, he found that no minister was aware of the misappropriation. Jetté also sat on the judicial arbitration commission to determine the boundary between Alaska and Canada. This body consisted of three Americans, one Briton, and two Canadians. In 1903 it issued a decision unfavourable to Canada’s claims, and the Canadian members refused to sign it.
Despite his foray into politics, Jetté was first and foremost a jurist. Throughout his career he upheld the concept of a transcendent law founded on natural law. Asked to rule in Laramée v. Evans (1881) on the annulment of the marriage of two Catholics at which a Methodist minister had officiated, he noted that, for Catholics, marriage is a sacrament wholly under church authority. He argued that only a bishop could pronounce on such a request. In other matters, Jetté fervently defended classic liberalism. He declared himself strongly in favour of a worker’s right to reach agreement with his employer on the terms of work without the interference of a union. He supported the amendments made to the law of contract in the Civil Code of Lower Canada to guarantee the dependability of legal transactions and thus society’s progress. He was particularly unenthusiastic about the social reforms which at the turn of the century were beginning to involve the legal system in the field of liability for work accidents.
Like his teacher Bibaud, Jetté showed a pronounced attachment to Roman law and the old French law. The erudition of some of his judgements, which were marked by rigorous logic, may explain the time he took to produce them. His impressive library, which in 1898 included 585 titles and 1,839 volumes estimated to be worth $3,610.25, reflected his interest in civil law. On the shelves were classical authors, commentaries on the Code Napoléon, and a number of works by Quebec jurists, as well as the major collections of laws and orders in use in the province. There were works by English Canadian, British, and American authors, along with tomes on Roman law.
Jetté’s reputation as an expert in civil law was not based on his publications. Although in 1871 he had helped establish the short-lived Revue critique de législation et de jurisprudence du Canada (Montréal), he was not known as an author of monographs or articles. In the late 1890s he planned to publish his course notes on civil law in the form of a treatise, but for unknown reasons the project foundered. From 1922 to 1937 La Revue du droit (Québec) undertook to disseminate these notes, bringing them out in instalments.
Like many of the élite, Jetté actively promoted traditional values. He cherished respect for hierarchy, both in the community and in the family, and he wished to see the social structure preserved intact. Conscious, however, of the problems facing the working class as industrialization proceeded, Jetté took an interest in social issues. Thus in 1888 he helped found the Société Canadienne d’Économie Sociale de Montréal; inspired by the works of the Frenchman Frédéric Le Play, it addressed the relationship between capital and labour without, however, questioning the organization of society. He did not hesitate, when he was lieutenant governor, to sponsor the establishment of the Ligue Antialcoolique de Québec in 1907. Inspired by the hopes that the founding of cooperative societies raised, in 1905 he supported the efforts of Alphonse Desjardins to have caisses populaires granted incorporation by the Legislative Assembly.
Jetté received numerous distinctions in the course of his career. He was named a qc in 1878, a few months before he went on the bench. That year also the Université Laval conferred an honorary doctorate on him; Bishop’s College in Lennoxville would do the same in 1899 and the University of Toronto in 1908. He was made a commander of the Legion of Honour in 1898 and a kcmg in 1901. When Lieutenant Governor Charles-Alphonse-Pantaléon Pelletier was ill, from November 1910 to April 1911, Jetté served as administrator of the province.
Louis-Amable Jetté contributed to two reports: Rapport a l’honorable premier ministre de la province de Québec sur les observations relatives au Code de procédure civile . . . (Montréal, 1888) and Que., Royal commission, inquiry into the Baie des Chaleurs Railway matter, Reports . . . (Quebec, 1892). In addition to his lecture notes in La Rev. du droit (Québec), two of his speeches were published: “Discours de M. Jetté pour la défense,” in Plaidoiries des avocats in re Henriette Brown vs La fabrique de Montréal; refus de sépulture (Montréal, 1870), and “Discours prononcé par l’honorable juge Jetté au Cabinet de lecture paroissial le 1er octobre 1879,” La Thémis (Montréal), 1 (1879–80): 275–88.
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