LAFONTAINE, URBAIN, typographer, trade union leader, newspaper owner, and municipal official; b. 1845 in Trois-Rivières, Lower Canada; m. Julie Bélanger; d. 19 Jan. 1913 in Montreal and was buried 22 January in the Saint-Antoine parish cemetery at Longueuil.
Urbain Lafontaine stands as the dominant figure among the pioneers of the Quebec trade union movement in the late 19th century. After training as a typographer in Trois-Rivières, he left while still young for New York, where he worked for a time. On his return to Canada he joined the militia and helped repel the Fenian invaders in 1866.
Having settled in Montreal, Lafontaine soon became interested in trade union activities. In 1870 he assisted in founding the Union Typographique Jacques-Cartier [see Joseph-Alphonse Rodier*], of which he would be vice-president in 1888 and president in 1896 and 1897. In 1883 he also helped found the first French-speaking assembly of the Knights of Labor in Montreal [see Olivier-David Benoît*], Ville-Marie Assembly 3484, which he headed for two terms. During the 1890s, as the master workman he was president of District Assembly 18, which had oversight of the French-speaking assemblies in Montreal.
In 1886 assemblies and trade unions had joined forces to form the Central Trades and Labor Council of Montreal, an organization charged with channelling labour’s demands to the authorities. Lafontaine took part in setting it up; he became its secretary and then, in 1889, its president. His leadership abilities were recognized by the delegates to the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, a body responsible for conveying union requests to the federal and provincial governments. They elected him vice-president in 1889 and president in 1890 and 1891. Thus Lafontaine was the first francophone to hold the highest union office in Canada. From then until 1900 he was quite often a delegate to the annual conventions of the congress.
From the resolutions Lafontaine presented and those on which he commented his thinking can be outlined. Reflecting the concerns of trade unionists of the time, he attached particular importance to getting the eight-hour day and the appointment of factory inspectors outside the cities of Montreal and Quebec. He also wanted the government to prohibit the garnishment of wages for debt. He supported the opening of employment offices and a six o’clock closing time for stores on weekdays. Although he was a proponent of free schooling, he opposed making attendance compulsory, probably considering it too radical a measure, given the opposition of the clergy. As for politics, he was critical of both traditional parties and favoured the creation of a workers’ party.
A competent writer and good administrator, Lafontaine was the first union leader in Quebec to seek a wider audience for the unions by using the media. He had founded the Montreal weekly Le Trait d’union, the official organ of the Knights of Labor, by 1887, but it ceased publication the following year. From 1892 to 1895 he wrote for the daily Le Monde, producing the first labour column to appear in any Montreal newspaper. In 1895 he established his own weekly, Les Nouvelles, which came out on Sundays until 1898. Eager to attract a mass readership, he took the innovative steps of printing the sports news on page one and giving labour news a prominent place.
Not long afterward, in 1900, Urbain Lafontaine became the first manager of the Montreal municipal employment office. From then on, he refrained from active involvement in the trade union movement.
AC, Longueuil, État civil, Catholiques, Saint-Antoine (Longueuil), 22 janv. 1913. Montreal Daily Herald, 1 Sept. 1894. Montreal Daily Star, 31 Aug. 1889. La Patrie, 20 janv. 1913. La Presse, 20, 22 janv. 1913. J. Hamelin et al., La presse québécoise, vol.3. Trades and Labor Congress of Canada, Proc. of the annual session (Toronto), 5 (1889)–6 (1890); 10 (1894); 16 (1900).