ROYAL, JOSEPH, journalist, lawyer, politician, businessman, and office holder; b. 7 May 1837 in Repentigny, Lower Canada, son of Édouard Royal and Marceline Therrien; m. 14 July 1857 Agnès Bruyère in Montreal, and they had at least eight children; d. 23 Aug. 1902 in Montreal.
Joseph Royal was the son of poor, illiterate parents, who, nevertheless, managed to send him to the parish school. His cleverness attracted the attention of Venant Pilon, a canon at the cathedral of Saint-Jacques in Montreal. Pilon paid Royal’s way to the Petit Séminaire de Montréal, where he studied with the Sulpicians from 1850 to 1854. He then attended the recently opened Jesuit-run Collège Sainte-Marie. As a student he was active in various religious and literary associations sponsored by the Jesuits and the Sulpicians, so that in and out of classes he was immersed in an ultramontane atmosphere, absorbing the fundamental conviction that public life as well as private must always be guided by the teachings of the church.
In 1857 he began to study law, articling with the firm of George-Étienne Cartier*, among whose clients were the Sulpicians and the Grand Trunk Railway. Cartier was also leader of the Bleus, or French Canadian Conservatives, to whom Royal would rally in politics and journalism. Indeed, that same year he began writing for La Minerve, Cartier’s organ and Montreal’s leading French-language newspaper.
Journalism would quickly become Royal’s greatest interest. In 1858, with the help of Cyrille Boucher* and other schoolmates, he founded L’Ordre, which aimed at applying Catholic principles to the discussion of public affairs. Devoted “to the church, to our faith, to the homeland, to our nationality,” L’Ordre would be guided by the church in every subject on which it published: politics, economics, news, and even advertisements. Unfortunately, L’Ordre ran into financial difficulties and on 15 Nov. 1860 Royal had to sell it. He apparently abandoned journalism for a time and took a job as a translator for the Legislative Assembly, but in January 1862 he was back in journalism as editor of L’Echo du Cabinet de lecture paroissial, another Montreal religious paper. Two years later he became a founder and the administrative secretary of a new literary monthly, the Revue canadienne. Meanwhile, he was admitted to the bar and began a legal practice.
Royal’s journalism was conservative and intensely Catholic. In a noted study of the political career of Sir Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, he condemned the rebels of 1837–38, criticized the radical Rouges for their lack of deference to Catholic values, and praised La Fontaine for his conservative political choices. He strongly supported the Lower Canadian colonization movement, which, being led by the clergy, exemplified an ideal type of social action. French Canadians, he wrote, were an “essentially hierarchical and Catholic people . . . [who] expect initiatives to come from above, accustomed as they are to find in their leaders more knowledge, wisdom, and enlightenment than anywhere else.”
In 1867 Royal helped found another Montreal paper, Le Nouveau Monde, which, like L’Ordre, aimed to influence public opinion “in a Catholic direction,” under the guidance of Montreal’s ultramontane bishop, Ignace Bourget*. This paper soon became immersed in a campaign to recruit and equip French Canadian volunteers for the Papal Zouaves. Royal became co-secretary of a committee to organize volunteers into units that would travel to Rome in the company of suitable chaplains.
He was still editing Le Nouveau Monde in the fall of 1869 when the Métis of the Red River settlement (Man.), under the leadership of Louis Riel*, began their armed resistance against Canada’s take-over of the northwest. Perhaps because the bishop of St Boniface, Alexandre-Antonin Taché*, was an ultramontane and a friend of Bourget, Le Nouveau Monde received and published more correspondence from people close to Riel’s movement than any other Canadian paper – and was soon criticized for it.
In the summer of 1870, when Taché visited Montreal looking for French Canadian professional men to help lead Red River’s Catholic community, Royal agreed to accompany him back to Winnipeg and undertake a fact-finding tour of the new province of Manitoba. He sent reports to his newspaper about the climate, resources, and opportunities for settlement. His visit also drew him closer to Riel and the Métis. “The more I see and examine the situation,” he wrote, “the more convinced I become of the justice of [their] cause.”
Royal left Manitoba after a four-week stay, but he had already decided to move there permanently. It seemed to him, he wrote to Taché, “that the Good Lord is calling me there.” He intended to found a newspaper and to be a candidate in the provincial elections that fall – all in the service of religion. “I want to be your man, My Lord, as I’ve always tried to be the bishop of Montreal’s man until now.”
He went west alone. Not until 1872 could he afford to move his family from Montreal, and even then he found the expenses “enormous.” His journalistic ambitions had only increased his debts. He had had to buy a press in Montreal and had borrowed heavily to pay for it. But he launched his paper, Le Métis, in St Boniface in May 1871, along with a printing-shop and bookstore. It was the first French-language newspaper in the west. The press enabled him to secure some income by translating and printing provincial statutes. At about the same time, he began a law practice in partnership with Joseph Dubuc*, another recently arrived Montreal lawyer.
Royal threw himself into every sphere of public life. He was the first president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Manitoba, founded in 1871. He helped establish Winnipeg’s first insurance company. When Fenians under William Bernard O’Donoghue* threatened the province in the fall of 1871, Royal served as an intermediary between the lieutenant governor, Adams George Archibald*, and the Métis, helping to persuade Riel and his people to rally behind the government, and even led a mounted company on a patrol of the border region. With all that, he still found the time to play the organ and sing in the church choir!
Manitoba offered Royal every opportunity for advancement. It was establishing its basic institutions and needed qualified men desperately, especially if they spoke French. In the first provincial elections Royal was elected by acclamation for St François Xavier West, and when the assembly met in March 1871 he was unanimously chosen speaker. A year later he became provincial secretary. Having resigned with the rest of the ministry in July 1874 [see Henry Joseph Clarke*], he was reappointed to the executive that December as both provincial secretary and minister of public works. In May 1876 he became attorney general, but he continued to act as minister of public works and resumed that portfolio officially in 1878.
During those years he represented Manitoba in negotiations with Ottawa on financial relations, provincial boundaries, and other matters. He prepared legislation creating the provincial systems of education, municipal government, property registration, and elections, as well as a bill to establish the University of Manitoba. Together with Chief Justice Edmund Burke Wood*, he prepared a consolidation of provincial statutes. Outside the government he served as Manitoba’s first superintendent of Catholic schools in 1871 and 1872, as a founding director of the Société de Colonisation de Manitoba (promoting French Canadian settlement in the west), and as the first vice-chancellor of the University of Manitoba from 1877 to 1887. By 1879 he had become Manitoba’s most prominent and influential French-speaking layman.
During the 1870s the province’s francophone population lost ground rapidly, as thousands of new settlers swelled the ranks of the English-speaking inhabitants. Preserving the influence of the French Catholic community had, therefore, to be a primary concern for Royal. His strategy was based on what he took to be that of La Fontaine: to build a unified French Catholic bloc in the legislature and to establish the principle of double majority.
Francophone unity was threatened first of all by differences between Métis and French Canadians. Royal had to overcome a certain resentment on the part of the Métis, who had a sense of their distinct identity and felt that French Canadians did not always adequately defend their interests. He made a serious effort to promote Métis causes, securing legal recognition of traditional privileges, and pressing repeatedly for the full confirmation of Métis landholdings promised by the Manitoba Act of 1870. He and Dubuc defended those accused of crimes in connection with the Fenian raid of 1871 and the Red River uprising of 1869–70, including Ambroise-Dydime Lépine*, who was tried in 1874 for the murder of Thomas Scott*. And, of course, Royal argued repeatedly for a complete and general amnesty for Riel and other participants in the uprising.
This association with leaders of the resistance was a cause of some suspicion and hostility among those Métis who had opposed it. Not that Royal’s support for Riel was really wholehearted. Although he was bound in public to call for an amnesty, and even to support his return to public life, he feared him as a troublemaker. By 1874 he had provoked the anger of his ultramontane friends in Quebec by suggesting that Riel should withdraw from political activity until an amnesty could be granted.
Nevertheless, Royal managed to forge a fairly united French Catholic bloc in the provincial legislature. As its leader, he entered the cabinet of Premier John Norquay* in 1878. Although an English mixedblood, Norquay depended for his legislative majority on the French party, represented in his cabinet by Métis Pierre Delorme* as well as by Royal. This situation presented a difficulty for Royal, who had long ago decided that the only effective protection for French-speaking Manitobans was the principle that the government must have the support of a majority within each of the two linguistic groups, English and French. He demanded from the outset that Norquay obtain a majority among the English-speaking members, but he allowed the situation to drag on until May 1879. At that time a revolt erupted within the French caucus among Métis members such as Charles Nolin, jealous of Delorme and discontented with French Canadian leadership. Royal attempted to restore unity by rallying support for his principle of double majority, and he persuaded the caucus to give Norquay an ultimatum: he must at once secure the necessary English support or the French group would withdraw theirs. Overnight, however, Norquay formed a new alliance with representatives of the recent, mainly Ontario-born settlers, to whom he promised a new redistribution of seats, the abolition of the official use of French, and the secularization of the school system. Confronting Royal with a fait accompli, he demanded and received the French leader’s resignation. Delorme also resigned, leaving Norquay’s government without French representation.
The crisis ended Royal’s provincial career. When Dubuc became a judge later that year, Royal replaced him as member of parliament for Provencher. He would retain the seat by acclamation in 1882 and would successfully defend it in 1887. Royal sold Le Métis in 1881, giving up an important medium for reaching his public in order to spend more time at Ottawa. Yet his local prestige remained great. From April to December 1880 he had served as the first mayor of St Boniface, but his duties in Ottawa had obliged him to relinquish the post. In 1881 the French government appointed him consular agent for Winnipeg, and in 1883 the Crédit Foncier Franco-Canadien made him director of its Manitoba branch.
At Ottawa, Royal sat as a Conservative, remaining loyal even during the North-West rebellion of 1885. He had been appointed to the Council of the North-West Territories in 1873 and was well aware of the conditions that had brought on the rebellion. He reminded Taché of Ottawa’s responsibility for creating those conditions, but he followed the archbishop’s advice to keep quiet about it. Better not to put the Conservative government at risk, and especially not to condone rebellion or encourage those in Quebec who sympathized with it. Party loyalty, his ultramontane respect for authority, and fear of an anti-French backlash among English-speaking Manitobans led him to condemn severely the movement in favour of Riel that swept Quebec that fall.
In 1888 he was rewarded for his loyalty by being named lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories. It was, however, a difficult job to perform. The territories had just been given an elected assembly and now wanted complete responsible government. Yet Ottawa was not prepared to surrender its control, and Royal, who assumed office on 4 July, found himself caught in the middle, seeking uncomfortably to favour the reforming aspirations of westerners without betraying his responsibilities to the dominion.
One reform he accepted with reluctance was the ending of the official use of French in the assembly. In a region where recent settlement had reduced the French-speaking population to a mere six per cent, the official use of French was increasingly seen as an unreasonable interference by Ottawa in local affairs and was the subject of repeated complaints in the territorial assembly. Royal felt unable to resist that pressure. He read his opening address of 1889 to the assembly in English only and wrote to Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald* that most translation of government documents into French was a waste of taxpayers’ money. A bill introduced in the House of Commons the following year by D’Alton McCarthy* was amended to allow the territorial assembly to decide its language of debate and record. Ultramontane though he was, Royal also acquiesced in ordinances that seriously weakened the Catholic separate school system of the territories. No doubt his belief in responsible government was a major reason for the acquiescence. So too was a certain timidity that ran through his public life. “Zeal in politics is a most dangerous factor,” he once wrote to Conservative senator John Christian Schultz* – and it was particularly dangerous for French Canadians, who, as a minority, must avoid provoking the English majority.
Royal’s term ended in 1893. He was worn out after more than two decades of exceptionally active public life, but he could not afford to retire. He hoped for an appointment to the Senate to ensure his living and provide an honourable culmination to his public career. To his dismay, Taché, whose man he had never ceased to consider himself, recommended someone else for the available seat. There was nothing left but a bitter and humiliating return to Montreal. La Minerve found room for him, and his last position was as editor-in-chief of the newspaper with which he had begun his journalistic career. There was at least one consoling honour, election to the Royal Society of Canada in 1892. Unfortunately, La Minerve collapsed before the end of the decade, and Royal retired to write a history of Canada from the union of 1841 to confederation.
His last years were not affluent. He lived in rented apartments, moving frequently, and ended up in a boarding-house. Nevertheless, his death in 1902 after a long illness, was front-page news, and his funeral drew a large crowd from French Canada’s political, religious, and cultural élite.
In some ways Royal’s career was disappointing. He failed to reach the office of senator, to attain real wealth, to protect the status of French Catholics in the west, or to secure ultramontane values against the tide of liberalism. Yet, although he could not resist the force of demographic change or the prevailing tendencies of the late 19th century, he was always at the centre of the fight. The author of essential legislation and originator of fundamental institutions, he was a true founder of western Canada, and, more than any other layman, of French Manitoba in particular.
[Joseph Royal left no collection of personal papers; however, significant amounts of his correspondence can be found among other collections in various Canadian repositories.
The AASB holds at least 176 letters to or from Royal in the Fonds Taché and Fonds Langevin. At the PAM, the papers of four lieutenant governors – Archibald (MG 12, A), Alexander Morris (MG 12, B1 and B2), Joseph-Édouard Cauchon (MG 12, C), and Schultz (MG 12, E) – include important correspondence with Royal, mostly dealing with his responsibilities as cabinet minister and (in the case of Schultz) as lieutenant governor. The Louis Riel papers in the same archives (MG 3, D1) contain 58 letters from or about Royal, discussing politics, the amnesty question, and Métis-French Canadian relations. Material on Royal can also be found in the Joseph Dubuc papers (MG 14, B26). The most important sources at the NA are the John A. Macdonald papers (MG 26, A), covering Royal’s term as lieutenant governor, and the La Rocque family papers (MG 29, C89), which contain letters from Royal to Alfred La Rocque concerning, among other things, the Zouaves and Royal’s religious ideals. The Langevin family papers in the ANQ-Q (P-134) include a file of 31 letters from Royal to Sir Hector-Louis Langevin, as well as scattered correspondence in other files.
Royal’s published writing appeared mostly in the press, particularly in the newspapers he edited: La Minerve, L’Ordre, L’Écho du Cabinet de lecture paroissial, and Le Nouveau Monde, all of Montreal, and Le Métis, of St Boniface. Longer, signed works (including his study of La Fontaine) appeared in the Rev. canadienne. Other publications by Royal include: La vallée de la Mantawa: récit de voyage (Montréal, 1869); Biographie de l’hon. D. B. Viger (Montréal, [1874?]); “Le capitaine Maillé,” RSC Trans., 1st ser., 11 (1893),
No serious biography of Royal exists. There are, however, reminiscences by some of his associates and entries in various reference works. Of these, the following are useful: Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1; Georges Dugas, “L’hon. M. Joseph Royal,” Rev. canadienne, 42 (1902): 289–93; A.-G. Morice, Dictionnaire historique des Canadiens et des Métis français de l’Ouest (Québec et Montréal, 1908); L.-A. Prudhomme, “L’honorable Joseph Royal; sa vie; ses œuvres,” RSC Trans., 2nd ser., 10 (1904), sect.i: 3–24; Joseph Tassé, Le 38me fauteuil ou souvenirs parlementaires (Montréal, 1891); and Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Recreation, Hist. Resources Branch, Joseph Royal ([Winnipeg, 1985]).
Because Royal participated in activities in different parts of the dominion, information about him is scattered among a wide range of works in which, however, he is rarely the central figure. For information on specific subjects see: René Hardy, Les Zouaves; une stratégie du clergé québécois au XIXe siècle (Montréal, 1980); Marcel Lajeunesse, Les Sulpiciens et la vie culturelle à Montréal au XIXe siècle (Montréal, 1982); M. R. Lupul, The Roman Catholic Church and the North-West school question: a study in church-state relations in western Canada, 1875–1905 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1974); Robert Painchaud, “Les rapports entre les Métis et les Canadiens français au Manitoba, 1870–1884,” The other natives, the Métis, ed. A. S. Lussier and D. B. Sealey (3v., Winnipeg, 1978–80), 2: 53–74; Bernard Pénisson, Henri d’Hellencourt: un journaliste français au Manitoba (1898–1905) (Saint-Boniface, 1986); G. F. G. Stanley, Louis Riel (Toronto, 1963); and Thomas, Struggle for responsible government in N.W.T. (1978). a.i.s.]
AC, Montréal, État civil, Catholiques, Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (Montréal), 27 août 1902. ANQ-M, CE1-51, 14 juill. 1857; CE5-16, 7 mai 1837. La Patrie, 25 avril 1902. La Presse, 25 août 1902. Directory, Montreal, 1869–70, 1894–1901.
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Cite This Article
A. I. Silver, “ROYAL, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 31, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/royal_joseph_13E.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:
|Author of Article:||A. I. Silver|
|Title of Article:||ROYAL, JOSEPH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 13|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1994|
|Year of revision:||1994|
|Access Date:||March 31, 2023|