NANTEL, Wilfrid-Bruno, lawyer, administrator, and politician; b. 8 Nov. 1855 at Saint-Jérôme, Lower Canada, son of Guillaume Nantel, a tanner, and Adélaïde Desjardins; m. there 26 May 1885 Georgiana Gauthier, and they had four children; d. there 23 May 1940.
Wilfrid-Bruno Nantel followed in the footsteps of his brother Guillaume-Alphonse* at the Petit Séminaire de Sainte-Thérèse, where he pursued classical studies between 1869 and 1877 under the guidance of Antonin*, the eldest of the family and the superior of the seminary from 1870. He subsequently enrolled in law at the Université Laval in Montreal and graduated with great distinction in 1879. That year he was admitted to the bar of the province of Quebec. At the beginning of the 1880s, he practised law in Montreal, where he became one of the partners of Louis-Olivier Taillon*, future premier of the province of Quebec. Around 1885 he joined the law firm of his brother Guillaume-Alphonse in Saint-Jérôme.
The Nantel family inherited the Conservative stronghold of Terrebonne, the legacy of Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau*, one of the leaders of the Conservative Party in the province of Quebec at the end of the 19th century. For several decades the Conservatives fought off the Prévost Liberals [see Jean Prévost*], who tried unrelentingly to capture the riding from them. Wilfrid-Bruno took charge of family matters and the law practice. He also assumed the management of the Saint-Jérôme newspapers Le Nord from 1882 to 1885 and La Nation from 1901 to 1909.
Nantel rapidly became a prominent figure in Saint-Jérôme. He was well established in the most important city in the Laurentian region, where in 1898 he had a house built, whose value was estimated at $5,000. An imposing presence in local affairs, he drafted the municipal charter of Saint-Jérôme in 1893 and held a position on the school board from 1895 to 1900; he was a town councillor from 1895 to 1901, a member of three of the four committees dedicated to building a monument to the memory of the curé François-Xavier-Antoine Labelle* (1897, 1908, and 1923), and a joint founder of the Saint-Jérôme Chambre de Commerce (1898). He also steered the course of his native city from 1903 to 1909. A figurehead of the Conservative Party in the Laurentian region, Nantel proved to be a peerless political organizer who never missed an opportunity to take part in elections, both federal and provincial, in the riding of Terrebonne. At the same time he was engaged in interminable feuds with the Prévosts, both in the courts and in the municipal arena.
The defeat of Guillaume-Alphonse Nantel at the hands of Jean Prévost in the provincial election of 1900 thrust Wilfrid-Bruno to the forefront of the political stage within the family. The Conservative candidate in Terrebonne in the federal election of 1904, he was defeated by the Liberal Samuel Desjardins. He ran in the same constituency in 1908 and won the seat by a narrow margin. In 1909–10 some Conservatives in Quebec, including Nantel, provoked a split in the party of Robert Laird Borden, a defender of policies that in their eyes were too favourable to the interests of the British empire. Led by Frederick Debartzch Monk*, the Quebec head of the federal Conservatives, and emphatically united in their position regarding the creation of a Canadian navy by Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s* government, they allied themselves with the nationalists under Henri Bourassa* and Armand La Vergne, and founded the Parti Autonomiste, or Conservative-Nationaliste alliance.
There was nothing surprising about a Nantel family member joining Bourassa. The Nantels had always displayed the kind of nationalism prevalent in Quebec at the time, one strongly tinged with Roman Catholicism and concerned with defending the French language as well as preserving certain rights and customs. At least since 1899 both Wilfrid-Bruno and Guillaume-Alphonse Nantel were, like Bourassa, openly opposed to any form of adherence to British military imperialism that could drag Canada into overseas wars.
Wilfrid-Bruno Nantel’s nationalist sympathies were based on self-interest, as he admitted on 28 Nov. 1911 in a letter to Borden: “I was never a Nationalist.… I have helped Bourassa in Bellechasse, and in the founding of his paper. I saw then no other way to destroy Laurierism in Quebec; and for that purpose Nationalism was a good device.” When Nantel joined Bourassa and the Autonomistes and went so far as to ally himself with a sworn enemy of his family, Jean Prévost, he doubtless did so with strategic calculation. The Conservative Party was on its last legs in Quebec and Laurier seemed invincible, but the nationalist train was on the move, driven by Bourassa, whose popularity was on the rise. Why not board the train if that option offered the promise of victory for the Conservatives? Nantel saw in the choice a golden opportunity to put an end to the reign of Laurier and the federal Liberals in the province of Quebec, and he proved to be right. The Conservative-Nationaliste coalition won enough seats (17) to inflict serious damage on Laurier and his followers in the election of 21 Sept. 1911, whose focus in the province was on the issues of the navy and reciprocity with the United States, matters that contributed to the collapse of the Liberals in Ottawa. Re-elected, Nantel accepted the office of minister of mines as well as that of minister of inland revenue, positions he held in Borden’s Conservative cabinet until 1912 and 1914 respectively. During his term he backed the policies of his leader on the Keewatin school question [see George Robson Coldwell*] and the naval issue, which brought accusations of betrayal from his former nationalist allies. It was enough for Nantel, however, that Laurier had suffered defeat and that he himself had realized his personal ambitions. Back in the fold, ill at ease in an anglophone environment, and without any real influence in the government, the new minister performed his job without making waves. In the autumn of 1914 he became vice-president of the Board of Railway Commissioners for Canada, a post he maintained until 1924.
Retired from public life, except for a few anecdotal disputes over parochial matters, Nantel spent his remaining 15 years in the peace and quiet of his opulent home in Saint-Jérôme, from where he managed his assets. When he died in 1940, the political rivalry that had set the Prévost family against the Nantels was already history. Upon his death a reverential article appeared in the 24 May 1940 edition of L’Avenir du Nord, the newspaper published in Saint-Jérôme by the Prévosts, in which is the following passage: “The division between political parties kept us apart. L’Avenir du Nord often had to combat against him and engage in vigorous polemics with him. We always did so [while] respecting his [personal qualities] and his family, judging [him] only [in] his role as a public figure. The battles we fought against each other on political terrain never shook our mutual esteem, which was but a continuation of that held by our fathers.”
Wilfrid-Bruno Nantel did not possess the breadth of vision of his brothers Antonin and Guillaume-Alphonse, both thinkers and writers; the businessman of the family, he was a pragmatist. He devoted great effort to the partisan battles in the riding of Terrebonne and, on occasion, the rest of the province, without ever neglecting his personal ambitions. His greatest contribution to the community was doubtless his role in developing his native city.
Arch. de la Ville de Saint-Jérôme, Québec, Acquisition 01 (procès-verbaux de la municipalité de Saint-Jérôme, 1856–2001). BANQ-CAM, CE606-S13, 8 nov. 1855, 26 mai 1885. LAC, R6113-2-3, vol.6, pp.656–58. É.‑J.[‑A.] Auclair, “La famille Nantel,” BRH, 40 (1934): 162–67; Saint-Jérôme de Terrebonne (Saint-Jérôme, 1934). Réal Bélanger, L’impossible défi: Albert Sévigny et les conservateurs fédéraux (1902–1918) (Québec, 1983); Paul-Émile Lamarche: le pays avant le parti (1904–1918) (Sainte-Foy [Québec], 1984). R. C. Brown, Robert Laird Borden: a biography (2v., Toronto, 1975–80). Canadian directory of parl. (Johnson). Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Canadian who’s who, 1910, 1936/37. Germaine Cornez, Saint-Jérôme (2v., Saint-Jérôme, 1973–77). CPG, 1916. Paul Labelle, Les maires de Saint-Jérôme et les conseillers municipaux (Saint-Jérôme, ). Serge Laurin, Rouge, bleu: la saga des Prévost et des Nantel: chronique d’un siècle d’histoire politique dans la région des Laurentides (Sainte-Foy, 1999). Rumilly, Hist. de la prov. de Québec, vols.13–14, 16–17, 19.