LAFONTAINE DE BELCOUR (Bellecour, Bellecourt), JACQUES DE (he signed Delafontaine), member of the Conseil Supérieur, attorney general and commissary for the south shore of the St Lawrence River (Quebec district); b. 22 Sept. 1704 and baptized on 24 September in the parish of Notre-Dame, Versailles, France, son of Jean-Baptiste de Lafontaine, ordinary of the king’s music at Versailles, and Bernardine Jouin; m. at Quebec, on 24 Oct. 1728, Charlotte Bissot by whom he had 12 children, and secondly Geneviève Lambert on 7 Aug. 1751 by whom he had three children; d. at Quebec 18 June 1765.
Jacques de Lafontaine arrived in Canada in 1726 as Charles de Beauharnois’s secretary and protégé, and from then on schemed to make a fortune. Apart from a dowry of 4,000 livres and whatever charms Charlotte Bissot may have possessed, he was attracted to marry her in 1728 by a ten-year partnership with her father, François-Joseph Bissot*, to exploit the seal fisheries and Indian trade at his seigneury of Mingan on the Labrador coast (now part of Quebec). The venture failed, and Lafontaine withdrew in 1732 after Bissot agreed to pay him 2,000 livres compensation for his losses.
Thinking he could do better on his own, Lafontaine leased Mingan from Bissot in 1733, but withdrew the following year to exploit the more valuable concession recently granted him by Beauharnois and Gilles Hocquart*, the intendant: a nine-year monopoly of the seal fishery and Indian trade between the rivers Itamamion (Étamamiou) and Nontagamion (Nétagamiou) on the north shore of the St Lawrence River. Immediately he plunged into a dispute with the owners of the islands opposite the post of Mingan which were crucial for seal fishing. In the fall and spring the migrating seals passed through the narrow channels between the islands and the mainland; there hunters stretched nets to trap them. The inheritance from Lafontaine’s father-in-law (who died in 1737) was limited to the mainland concession of Mingan, the islands being part of a seigneury conceded to Jacques de Lalande de Gayon and Louis Jolliet* jointly in 1679, extending a great length along the Labrador coast from Mingan to Spanish Cove (Baie des Esquimaux, Que.). The families of Bissot, Lalande, and Jolliet were, however, related by marriage so that the inheritors of the Mingan islands were the cousins and uncle of Lafontaine’s wife.
The vagueness of the original concessions explains some of the litigation among the numerous inheritors, but greed probably counted for much; as early as 1734 the owners of the islands complained that Lafontaine was encroaching on their rights and trying to engross all the profits. They also accused him of illegal trade. Selling brandy to the Indians, trading with the English, and shipping beaver pelts directly to France instead of to the receiving offices of the Compagnie des Indes at Quebec were all illegal but commonly engaged in by the owners of Labrador concessions. Lafontaine was probably no exception. In 1733 Hocquart ordered him to enforce the laws that forbade selling liquor to the Indians and in 1736 wrote Maurepas, minister of Marine, that although Lafontaine was then behaving himself he had formerly displayed “some irregularity in his conduct.”
Joseph de Fleury de La Gorgendière, spokesman for the Jolliet inheritors, claimed the islands opposite Lafontaine’s post of Nontagamion as belonging to the Mingan islands. Lafontaine denied the claim as implying too vast an original grant. In 1737 he asked that his concession include these islands, and subsequently that it be prolonged, first for life, then in perpetuity. In spite of Beauharnois’s support, Maurepas rejected a perpetual concession. The governor and intendant recommended a lifetime grant but without the offshore islands in view of the claim of the Jolliet inheritors. They recommended also that the owners of these islands concede their use to mainland concession-holders at some prescribed compensation. In 1743, after years of bickering, three per cent of the total product of the seal fisheries was agreed on as proper rent.
Lafontaine’s quarrel with his wife’s cousins changed abruptly in 1739 when her uncle, Jacques de Lalande, owner of one half the Mingan islands, donated the use of his share to Lafontaine. The latter now did an about-face on the question of how far the Mingan islands extended, suddenly discovered that his wife had had a claim to the islands since her father’s death and joined the Jolliet inheritors in exacting compensation from other holders of mainland concessions, notably Claire-Françoise Boucher de Boucherville, widow of Jean-Baptiste Pommereau. No sooner did they win this case than La Gorgendière and Lafontaine resumed their family quarrel, which Lafontaine won by virtue of Lalande’s donation.
Ambitious, intelligent, and capable, Lafontaine not surprisingly sought royal office as a means of social and material advancement. In 1732, when his commercial fortunes were low, he proposed to the minister that to prevent errors in notarial acts a central repository be established for their registration, requesting that he be given the job of registrar. The minister had been working on the problem for some years, in utmost secrecy to avoid a panic of litigation had the public suspected their property or investments to be in jeopardy. As secretary to Beauharnois, Lafontaine had access to the governor’s correspondence and thus tried to take advantage of his inside information. It is not known whether Lafontaine influenced subsequent reforms of notarial procedures.
In 1734, the year that the four junior councillors of the Conseil Supérieur were granted a salary of 300 livres, Lafontaine asked to be given one of the vacant positions. With a recommendation from Beauharnois and Hocquart, he was appointed in 1735. An application to become also a principal writer was refused by Hocquart. In November 1740 he was appointed interim lieutenant general for civil and criminal affairs in the royal jurisdiction at Montreal upon the death of Pierre Raimbault* and served until the new judge, Jacques-Joseph Guiton de Monrepos, took office in September 1741. His request for a gratuity from the king, with Beauharnois’s persistent support, was refused by Maurepas on the grounds that Lafontaine’s salary and emoluments while at Montreal were more than adequate to cover all his expenses.
Lafontaine and François Daine, head clerk of the Conseil Supérieur, were contenders for two posts: in 1743 to succeed Pierre André de Leigne as lieutenant general for civil and criminal affairs of the provost court of Quebec, and in 1751 the lucrative office of director of the Domaine du Roi. Both times Daine won the appointment, the loser pouring invective upon him on the second occasion. Although Beauharnois and Hocquart had suggested both men in 1743, privately Hocquart supported Daine and Beauharnois Lafontaine. Once again Lafontaine found limits to the governor’s influence.
On still other occasions Lafontaine sought to exploit quarrels between governor and intendant. In 1737, on Hocquart’s recommendation, the Tadoussac post was farmed out to François-Étienne Cugnet. In 1740 Lafontaine offered to pay a much higher rent, whereupon Beauharnois implied to Maurepas that the profitability of the lease had been misrepresented by Cugnet. Hocquart made a masterful defence of Cugnet, perhaps his most effective argument being his comment on Lafontaine’s offer: “this farm could not fall into worse hands and . . . at the expiration of the lease accorded to him the basis of the trade would be in total ruin.”
Lafontaine applied himself only slightly to his duties as councillor, devoting most of his time to his commercial enterprises. From the 1740s he appeared in court more often as plaintiff or defendant than as judge. He lost more cases than he won.
Despite increasing seal-oil production at his concession of Nontagamion, renewed in 1745, and a substantial inheritance from his sister in-law in 1747, Lafontaine was sinking into debt. Yet he bought land on the côte Saint-Jean worth 4,600 livres and took on a whale-fishing concession at Apetépy on the Labrador coast and a sawmill on the Rivière Chaudière, financing them, however, by borrowing money and forming partnerships, notably with Gilles William Strouds. In 1754 Lafontaine went bankrupt and his creditors, headed by Jean Taché, took over his Labrador operations.
Lafontaine acquired three seigneuries, apparently for their prestige or speculative value rather than for income: in 1733 a new concession on the Richelieu River, the seigneury of Belcour, reunited to the king’s domain in 1741 when nothing had been done to improve it; an arrière-fief on the seigneury of Plaines, reunited in 1749; and third, the seigneury Lafontaine de Belcour, granted in 1736. The third one was, however, claimed by Jacques-Hugues Péan de Livaudière, who accused Lafontaine of duping the governor and intendant when he knew the land belonged to Péan’s wife. Lafontaine was probably gambling that the minister, in his present unsympathetic mood toward seigneurs who did nothing to settle their land, would favour him if he gave evidence of putting the land into production. In the summer of 1740 he made several roturial concessions to habitants, but his title was revoked, though with 948 livres compensation for improvements made since 1736.
The higher French officials who commented on Lafontaine agreed upon his exceptional ability and intelligence, but all, except Beauharnois whose defence of his secretary was unfailing, agreed with Hocquart that he was untrustworthy. Two reports, dating from the end of the régime and likely part of the official investigation into the affaire du Canada, record damning opinions of Lafontaine.
Perhaps because he guessed he had no future in France, Lafontaine remained in Canada after the conquest. General James Murray*, as part of his policy of gaining the confidence of Canadians, appointed him in the fall of 1760 commissary and attorney general for the south shore (Quebec district). Murray soon reached the same opinion of Lafontaine as Hocquart. The storm broke in October 1763, when Lafontaine wrote the Earl of Halifax that Murray had despoiled him of his property, prevented him from exploiting his post of Mingan in 1761, vindictively deprived two of his daughters of their royal pension, and abused him verbally when he submitted his humble remonstrances. The Lords of Trade ordered a full public investigation so as to assure Canadians of the equity of British justice. In fact, Lafontaine’s case was largely an audacious fabrication.
The property in question was the Labrador post of Gros Mecatina (Île du Gros Mécatina, Que.), which Lafontaine interpreted as the island itself, and therefore part of the Mingan islands, which could not be conceded to someone else. But at no time during the French régime had he or any of his co-inheritors established proprietorship of the post of Gros Mecatina. They had only been guaranteed the three per cent compensation for use of the offshore islands, and Murray offered witnesses to prove this was paid. As for the post of Mingan, Murray maintained, with the support of witnesses and documents, that the owners had not the resources to exploit their post in 1761 and that they were perfectly content with the lease to Joseph Isbister*. Lafontaine’s daughters had never had a royal pension. The assistance they were receiving came out of Murray’s own pocket, because they were left destitute by Lafontaine himself who had deceptively mortgaged their estates to pay off his own debts. Subsequently, part of his estate was sold and the remainder sequestered to satisfy his creditors, who were never fully repaid. It was in an assembly of Lafontaine and his creditors, after Lafontaine had publicly denied the equity of British justice, that Murray upbraided him for his financial sharp practice and his maltreatment of his daughters, pronouncing him a “wicked man, whose conduct is monstrous and shocking to humanity.”
There were other reasons why Murray distrusted Lafontaine, including evidence of disloyalty and misuse of his position as attorney general. Lafontaine may have struck out at Murray in 1763 because of his inability to resist fishing in troubled waters, and the mounting dissatisfaction of English merchants with Murray’s policies may have led him to gamble on Murray’s recall. The Lafontaine affair was included among the merchants’ grievances in their petition to the king in 1765. Murray, of course, was exonerated of all accusations against him.
Lafontaine died at Quebec on 18 June 1765. Despite his intelligence, his considerable influence with Governor Beauharnois, and his advantageous first marriage, Jacques de Lafontaine squandered a fortune, mismanaged what should have been a profitable enterprise, and earned the distrust of most people with whom he had dealings.
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