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MARCEAU, ERNEST, civil engineer, office holder, educational administrator, professor, and author; b. 26 Dec. 1852 in Danville, Lower Canada, son of Joseph Marceau and Marie-Onésime Morier; m. 21 July 1879, in Montreal, Elvina Tassé, daughter of François-Zéphirin Tassé, a physician, mla, and warden of the St Vincent de Paul Penitentiary, and Rose de Lima Painchaud; they had no children; d. 24 May 1919 in Sault-au-Récollet (Montreal North).

A few years after Ernest Marceau was born, his parents took up residence in Napierville, south of Montreal. He attended the local elementary school and, since his father was a well-to-do merchant in the region, Ernest was able to pursue his education without difficulty. From 1866 to 1874 he did his classical studies at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal.

In the opening years of the 1870s railway construction and industrialization led to the creation of the first faculties of applied science in Canada. The two earliest schools of engineering in Montreal came into being. In September 1874 Marceau enrolled in the scientific and industrial course at the Académie du Plateau [see Urgel-Eugène Archambeault*]. Two years later the Quebec government recognized that the instruction given there was of university calibre, and it officially became the École Polytechnique de Montréal.

In 1877 Marceau and four other young men constituted the first graduating class of the École Polytechnique. At that time the engineering profession did not have the status now accorded it. There was no statutory protection for the title of engineer or for the exercise of the profession. An engineer was regarded as a specialized worker or at best a skilled technician. This lack of recognition was especially prevalent in French Canada, since the big private corporations and railways were largely controlled by British and American interests. Under these circumstances the École Polytechnique and its first graduates would suffer because of the absence of French Canadians at the management level in the major industries. Many would practise their profession in the civil service, especially the federal one, while others would simply go into private practice as consulting engineers. To all intents and purposes, the doors of industry would be closed to them.

After completing his studies, Marceau had the good fortune to find employment with the Department of Public Works and later the Department of Railways and Canals, which was formed in 1879. He was involved in the construction or upgrading of canals in eastern Canada, mainly the Carillon and Grenville canals on the Ottawa River. He rose relatively quickly to become assistant to the superintending engineer of the Ottawa River canals by May 1881, and in 1893 superintending engineer of all the canals in the province of Quebec, succeeding Étienne-Henri Parent. He would hold the latter post to the end of his life.

In 1894 Marceau had his first experience as spokesman for the engineers, who by now were moving up in society as a group. He sat on the new board of the École Polytechnique that year as one of the two representatives for graduate engineers. A member of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, which had been founded in 1887 [see Thomas Coltrin Keefer], he began to be more actively involved in 1897 with his election to the council of this important representative body. He sat on its board of examiners and also worked with the committee on university engineering courses, making trips to the United States to gather information on developments in this field. In 1901 he was elected vice-president of the society, which awarded him the Gzowski Medal [see Sir Casimir Stanislaus Gzowski*] for an article about work on the Carillon Canal, published the previous year in the society’s proceedings. He was elected its president in 1905, becoming the first French Canadian to hold this prestigious office.

In 1904, on the death of Urgel-Eugène Archambeault, the principal and founder of the École Polytechnique, Marceau acceded to the principalship. His arrival marked an important turning-point for the school. In 1905 it moved into a large building on Rue Saint-Denis, where it became better known to Montrealers. New faculty appointments were made and in 1907 Marceau travelled to Europe to recruit a few professors. In 1910 the Association des Anciens Élèves de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal was founded, and Marceau became its president in 1915. In the second decade of the century, engineers in Quebec were acquiring a new identity and a new importance, mainly through the efforts of this organization. It was instrumental in formulating a bill passed in 1918 which amended an 1898 statute. From then on, not only the title of civil engineer would be regulated, but also the exercise of the profession. It was a crucial period in the development of this new group in Quebec. Engineers were gaining social respectability and were achieving recognition for their expertise.

As one of the first French Canadians to have been trained at university in engineering, Ernest Marceau took an interest in the education of engineers and from 1905 until his death he taught industrial economy in the faculty of arts at the Université Laval in Montreal. He was not only an expert engineer, but also a cultured one and, when the spirit moved him, a poet. During the 1880s he was a regular contributor to the Revue canadienne, in which he published, amongst other pieces, poems and little songs, as well as an article on the early peoples of North America. He also wrote for the Revue littéraire et politique of Bordeaux, France, and the magazine Le Travailleur of Worcester, Mass. Marceau was indeed the typical cultured graduate of the classical college. Well read in the humanities, he was deeply attached to the French language and he praised its beauty in an article that appeared in the Revue canadienne in 1915 under the title “La langue que nous parlons.” It is not surprising, then, that this superintendent of canals in Quebec should have devoted some of his leisure to writing an “Histoire de nos canaux et de notre navigation fluviale,” which unfortunately he did not have time to finish. As the decade drew to a close, Marceau was a sick man. He died on 24 May 1919 at his home in Sault-au-Récollet.

Robert Gagnon

Ernest Marceau’s publications include “The Carillon canal, dam and slide,” Canadian Soc. of Civil Engineers, Trans. (Montreal), 14 (1900): 102–16; “Les origines des canaux du Canada” and “La langue que nous parlons” in the Rev. canadienne (Montréal), 55 (juill.-déc. 1908): 429–56, and 68 (janv.–juin 1915): 97–109, respectively; and “La formation de l’ingénieur,” Rev. trimestrielle canadienne (Montréal), 1 (1915–16): 289–98.

ANQ-M, CE1-33, 21 juill. 1879. Arch. de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, Reg. de l’École polytechnique, 1873–1903. NA, RG 43. La Presse, 24 mai 1919. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912). Robert Gagnon et A. J. Ross, Histoire de l’École polytechnique, 1873–1990; la montée des ingénieurs francophones (Montréal, 1991). [J.-L.-]O. Maurault, “L’École polytechnique de Montréal,” Rev. trimestrielle canadienne, 9 (1923): 341–72. J. R. Millard, The master spirit of the age: Canadian engineers and the politics of professionalism, 1887–1922 (Toronto, 1988). Édouard Montpetit, “Ernest Marceau,” Rev. trimestrielle canadienne, 5 (1919): 119–24.

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Cite This Article

Robert Gagnon, “MARCEAU, ERNEST,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 24, 2017, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/marceau_ernest_14E.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:

Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/marceau_ernest_14E.html
Author of Article: Robert Gagnon
Title of Article: MARCEAU, ERNEST
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1998
Year of revision: 1998
Access Date: March 24, 2017