SIROIS, JOSEPH (baptized Louis-Philippe-Marie-Joseph), notary and professor; b. 2 Oct. 1881 in Quebec City, son of Louis-Philippe Sirois, a notary, and Atala Blais; m. there 1 June 1910 Blanche Lavery and they had one daughter and two sons; d. there 17 Jan. 1941 and was buried on 21 January in Notre-Dame de Belmont cemetery in Sainte-Foy (Quebec City).
Joseph Sirois spent his childhood in Quebec City, where his father was a prominent notary. He did his classical studies at the Séminaire de Québec from 1892 to 1900 and was awarded a couple of prizes on graduation. He then enrolled in the Université Laval in the same city, and obtained his law degree, with high distinction, in 1903. His outstanding scholarly record earned him several awards, including the gold Governor General’s Academic Medal. On leaving university, he was licensed as a notary. Like his father before him, he undertook to write a doctoral dissertation, which he submitted to the Université Laval in 1907. It was published under the title De la forme des testaments in Montreal that year. The choice of subject was in keeping with his professional concerns. Lacking in originality, the thesis resembled a treatise. As was the custom at the time, Sirois provided a long historical account of wills. The comparative approach led him to take an interest in French and English law in particular. Furthermore, while he attached great importance to the provisions of the Civil Code and to legal doctrine, he did not neglect case law. Sirois showed an early interest in intellectual pursuits, as one of his classmates would testify, describing him as obsessed with reading. He would retain this love of reading and books all his life. The family circle no doubt fostered this inclination towards study, since his elder sister, Marie Sirois*, also went to university and became the first woman to graduate from the Université Laval in Quebec City and the first French-speaking woman in her province to earn a university degree.
The lld enabled Sirois to obtain a professorship in the faculty of law at his alma mater in 1910. Over the years he would give courses on administrative, constitutional, municipal, and parish law, and on notarial practice. It was rather unusual for a notary to teach public law. His father had been assigned almost the same subjects to teach. From 1929, when judge Ferdinand Roy was dean, Joseph served as secretary of the faculty. In 1939 he began giving a course on constitutional and administrative law entrusted to him by the administration of the new École des Sciences Sociales, Politiques et Économiques, which had been founded in 1938. He also started teaching one on constitutional law at the behest of the faculty of canon law. His close ties with the university and his professional ability explain why he was invited to sit on the university council in 1935 and to take on many responsibilities within the Syndicat Financier of the Université Laval from 1921. He would perform these numerous duties for the rest of his life.
Immediately after graduating, Joseph had gone into practice as a notary with his father, Louis-Philippe, in an office at the corner of Rue Couillard and Rue Christie in what would become Vieux-Québec. By doing so he took his place in a dynastic progression since his father had succeeded his uncle, Alexandre-Benjamin Duplessis, dit Sirois, whose professional activities dated back to 1828. Subsequently Joseph had as partners Laurent Lesage from 1929, and his own son Lavery after he was licensed as a notary in 1937. They were both still members of the firm at the time of Joseph’s death. His contemporaries, who described him as a scholar, an honest man, and a peerless practitioner, emphasized his skill in drafting legal instruments. Georges-Michel Giroux would write: “The documents of notary Sirois demonstrate not only the soundness of his doctrine, but also the care he had taken in examining each case in depth, and his talent for sorting out all the details. It is with reason that, among us, he was given the honorific ‘the prince of notaries.’” When Sirois died, his office files contained 11,809 notarial acts, an indication of his extensive activity as a notary. Besides numerous individuals, among them members of the elite (such as Sir Louis-Amable Jetté*, Sir François Langelier*, and Jules-Ernest Livernois*), Sirois had as clients religious congregations (Ursulines, Brothers of the Christian Schools, Sœurs de la Charité de Québec, and others), educational institutions (Séminaire de Québec, Université Laval, Quebec Technical School), hospitals (for instance, Hôpital Général in Quebec, Hôtel-Dieu de Lévis, and Hôpital de l’Enfant-Jésus), several financial institutions (among them, Quebec Bank, Banque d’Hochelaga, and Crédit Foncier Franco-Canadien), and various companies (such as Holt, Renfrew and Company; Dominion Corset Company; Canada Steamship Lines). His close ties with the world of finance account for his appointment as a director of some financial institutions, including, for example, the Banque Provinciale du Canada.
In the course of his career, Sirois participated very actively in the Quebec Provincial Board of Notaries, as his membership in its various decision-making bodies shows. In addition to being appointed to the commission on legislation in 1913, he was invited, probably because of his years as a professor, to join the examinations board in 1921. Both terms of office were for a three-year period. His high reputation led to his becoming president of the board from 1927 to 1930. Expressing his view that classical studies should be a prerequisite for would-be notaries, he defended an elitist vision of the notarial profession. Such studies, in his view, make it possible to raise the prestige of the liberal professions. The ongoing participation of Sirois in the training of future notaries and his sustained contribution to the board explain why he was recognized, as his father had been, for having made an important contribution to improving the quality of notarial practice in Quebec.
When notary Joseph-Edmond Roy* died in 1913, Sirois succeeded him as editor of La Revue du notariat. As well as coordinating the publication and doing editorial work, Sirois wrote several articles for this monthly periodical published in Lévis. His expertise led him to reply to colleagues who frequently brought him problems they had come up against in their daily practice. Sirois thus developed the column “Questions et Réponses,” which was very popular and certainly enhanced his renown among his colleagues, several of whom were his former students. Despite of his many responsibilities, he carried on as the journal’s editor until the end of his days. Although he taught public law, Sirois never wrote on constitutional law or administrative law. His output was limited to civil law, and, indeed, was closely linked to notarial practice.
With the coming of the 20th century, Sirois, like many jurists, found the ideas of French sociologist and economist Frédéric Le Play persuasive. In 1905 he was one of the founders of the Société d’Économie Sociale et Politique de Québec and was made its secretary. His experience in this kind of organization may have moved him to encourage young notaries not to limit themselves to a “selfish and solitary” practice of their profession, as he would note in a work published in Montreal in 1933, Les carrières, pour guider le choix des jeunes gens après leurs études classiques. He advised them instead to take an interest in social movements and get involved in political life. His personal interest in public affairs did not lead him into active politics, however, although he was recognized as a Liberal.
In the course of the 1920s pressure was brought to bear, notably by the Fédération Nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste, whose president was Marie Gérin-Lajoie [Lacoste], to have changes made to the civil rights of women in the province of Quebec. After some hesitation, the administration of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau* set up a commission in 1929 to study the question. Judge Charles-Édouard Dorion was chosen as its chairman, while the role of recorder fell to judge Ferdinand Roy. The government also named two commissioners, Sirois and Victor Morin, a notary from Montreal. These appointments were justified by the need for the commission to study a topic familiar to notaries, namely, matrimonial regimes, and, more precisely, community of property. It produced a report that was followed by modest amendments to the Civil Code of Lower Canada. In short, the commissioners rejected any change that they thought might undermine the traditional family order. But they agreed to grant wives the power to administer the product of their own personal labour by including in the Civil Code the category of reserved property for a married woman. The provincial government called on Sirois again in 1935 to be a member of the Board of Commissioners for the Redemption of Seigniorial Rents.
In August 1937 the Canadian government set up one of the most important commissions in the history of Canada: the royal commission on dominion-provincial relations. Canada had undergone decisive changes since confederation. The country’s population, which had been largely rural in 1867, was now mainly urban. Its economy, long dominated by agriculture, had become industrialized. This transformation entailed increased social needs and a changed role for governments. The economic crisis that had stricken the western world from 1929 put added pressure on the country to adapt to new social and economic realities. The commission had as its mandate, in part, to make “a re-examination of the economic and financial basis of Confederation and of the distribution of legislative powers in the light of the economic and social developments of the last seventy years.” By its proposals, the commission was to ensure the financial stability of the provincial governments and make it possible for comparable services and programs to be provided for all Canadians. The federal government started from the premise that there was a severe disequilibrium between the responsibilities assigned to the provinces by the constitution and the revenue allotted to them. Newton Wesley Rowell, chief justice of Ontario, became the commission chairman.
The government wanted the commission to be representative of the whole country. Thus the chairman was assisted by commissioners from each of its regions: Robert Alexander MacKay*, professor of political science at Dalhousie University, for the Maritimes; Thibaudeau Rinfret* for the province of Quebec; John Wesley Dafoe, a highly regarded editor from Winnipeg, for the prairies; Henry Forbes Angus*, professor of political economy at the University of British Columbia, for British Columbia. Rinfret, a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, served for only a short time on the commission before he resigned for health reasons. The Canadian government then appointed Sirois to take his place. This was no random choice. Sirois was a respected constitutional expert and professional whose career had progressed at a distance from active political life. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he was not immediately seen as slavishly following a line dictated by the world of politics. The fact remains that this choice was justified, primarily, by the determination to ensure that the commission’s conclusions would be accepted by the people of the province of Quebec. In a letter to Commissioner Dafoe dated 23 Nov. 1937, Rowell, relying on the testimony of two persons who knew Sirois, hinted at such an intention: “a report signed by Dr. Sirois would carry more real weight among the people of Quebec than one signed by even so distinguished a judge as Mr. Justice Rinfret.” The initiative for this appointment probably came from the influential federal justice minister Ernest Lapointe. Sirois was personally unknown to the other members of the commission at the time of his appointment, but he made a good impression on them. Rowell, who had serious health problems, resigned in November 1938 and Sirois replaced him as chairman. The commission would be known henceforth by the names of its two successive chairmen, Rowell-Sirois.
The commission’s work encompassed a vast field. Its research program was developed to address three areas of concern. To ensure that the commission was well informed, experts were assigned to write a series of studies dealing with the Canadian economic system, constitutional questions, and the public accounts of the dominion and provincial governments. Some studies were prepared for the commissioners alone; others were distributed widely. In addition, the commission travelled around the country from November 1937 to December 1938 to meet provincial politicians and hold public sessions at which civil servants and representatives of various organizations were heard. Eighty-five days of hearings were held in the provincial capitals and in Ottawa, with 397 witnesses making presentations. The transcript of their statements covered 10,702 pages. In addition, 427 documents were submitted to the commission. The federal initiative was not received unanimously with enthusiasm. Fearing the federal government’s invasion of the areas under provincial jurisdiction, the provinces of Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta refused to participate actively in the work. Sirois reported to the federal political authorities several times on the commission’s progress. The production of its report was delayed by the sheer scale of the task. Sirois justified the tardiness in a letter to Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King on 12 July 1939: “In a project of this magnitude and this complexity, many unpredictable and uncontrollable factors have developed, so that it became impossible to adhere to the first date [set], and which make it difficult at this point to set a rigid and specific time limit.”
Despite the pitfalls, the commission finally submitted its imposing report to the government in May 1940. It was published in three volumes. The first set out the evolution and current state of Canada’s federal system in terms of finances and the economy. The second, which constituted the main body of the report, included the commission’s recommendations to the government. The third contained various statistical data useful for understanding the report. Among the principal recommendations were the establishment of a system of unemployment insurance, the assumption of provincial debts by the federal government, and the payment of annual grants to provinces in need of such assistance. In short, the commission took a stand directly opposed to that of the courts, which had disallowed social welfare legislation - notably, the act introducing a program of unemployment insurance - passed under the government of Prime Minister Richard Bedford Bennett. The Supreme Court of Canada and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London had in fact declared unconstitutional a law adopted by parliament in 1935 that set up a commission on employment and social insurance and put into place a national employment service, unemployment insurance, assistance for the unemployed, and other forms of social insurance and security. The decision of these courts rested on the grounds that unemployment insurance was a provincial responsibility. The increase in financial responsibilities entailed by this reorganization led to a recommendation to centralize the federal fiscal system. Indeed, the royal commission proposed that the federal government be given the authority to impose taxes on individuals and corporations, as well as succession duties.
The particular contribution of each commissioner to the writing of the report is hard to establish. Far from having acted in the background, the three commissioners, particularly Dafoe, exercised a decisive influence on the work. Economist Douglas Alexander Skelton, the commission’s secretary, who also coordinated the research, contributed greatly to shaping the report. The work of Sirois as chairman was undoubtedly demanding, since his office files show that from 1938 his notarial activity fell off sharply. There is no question that Sirois saw himself as the defender of his province’s values and rights. His intervention can be detected here and there in the report. For instance, a warning is issued to the drafter of any potential federal law on unemployment insurance against encroaching “on the rights defined in the Civil Code of Quebec.” Another example is the recommendation that the government of Canada pay part of the interest on the debts of Quebec municipalities, assuming responsibilities which, in other parts of the country, fell to the provinces. Furthermore, despite the delay experienced in the work, Sirois insisted that the report be published simultaneously in English and French. In his opinion, such a move would facilitate its reception. As he wrote on 28 June 1939 to Adjutor Savard, the French-language secretary of the commission, “To act otherwise would mean exposing the report, in the province of Quebec, to criticisms that would make its usefulness rather illusory.” The sensitivity of Sirois to Quebec’s concerns did not, however, prevent him from standing by his colleagues.
The report was far from unanimously welcomed. While some greeted it favourably, others were sceptical of, if not hostile to, a centralizing of powers in the federal government. During the period spanned by the beginning of the commission’s work and the submission of its report, the political situation in the country had changed considerably. With the onset of World War II, the federal government had been granted increased powers for the duration of hostilities. The centralization of power in its hands had become a reality. In this situation, following the submission of the report, the Canadian government managed in 1940 to win acceptance of an amendment to the Canadian constitution that gave parliament responsibility for unemployment insurance. In September of that year the federal administration named Sirois chairman of the new Unemployment Insurance Commission. This appointment was well received, even in circles usually opposed to such initiatives on the part of the Canadian government. His premature death foreclosed his assumption of this new responsibility.
A constitutional conference held in Ottawa in January 1941 failed to reach a consensus on the report. The opposing faction included Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta. The other provinces were quite favourable, especially since the reorganization worked to their advantage. Quebec, with Premier Adélard Godbout* at its head, was conciliatory. The Quebec nationalists would later criticize Godbout for this attitude toward the report’s conclusions. Despite the criticisms levelled at the report, Sirois emerged unscathed from the exercise. The Montreal daily Le Devoir even portrayed him on 20 Jan. 1941, a few days after his death, as a victim of the process: “His name was a guarantee of honesty. Politicians wanted to use him and have him take the responsibility for their manoeuvres.”
The royal commission’s work would serve as the foundation for the federal government’s development of social programs inspired by Keynesian theories - including a universal system of old-age pensions in 1951 - and the introduction of a system of equalization payments in 1957, which would enable Ottawa to allocate funds to certain provinces in order to reduce regional inequalities. In the wake of the Rowell-Sirois commission, the Quebec provincial government, then led by Maurice Le Noblet Duplessis*, would pass a law in 1953 setting up a royal commission of inquiry under judge Thomas Tremblay to carry out its own study of the constitutional problems and especially the economic aspects of Canadian federalism. This commission, which submitted a voluminous report in 1956, took the opposite view to the centralizing trend championed by the federal commission and developed a Quebec nationalist perspective on Canadian federalism.
When he graduated from university, Joseph Sirois was assured of a flourishing career in his father’s firm. Not only had he, like his father, chosen the notarial profession, he had also become a professor of law. In the province he was considered the epitome of the perfect notary. His integrity and competence gave him a respectability that extended beyond the narrow circle of the juridical community. His renown increased when he agreed to take part in the royal commission on dominion-provincial relations. His personality and his honesty explain the affection shown to him. The eulogies at the time of his death were in keeping with the high esteem he had enjoyed throughout his career.
Joseph Sirois wrote, among other works, the following: “Société d’économie sociale et politique de Québec,” La Libre Parole (Québec), 13 oct. 1906: 3; “Monsieur Joseph Edmond Roy,” La Rev. du notariat (Lévis, Qué.), 15 (1912-13): 289-90; and “Études classiques et admission à l’étude du notariat,” La Rev. du notariat (Québec), 33 (1930-31): 145-47.
Bibliothèque et Arch. Nationales du Québec, Centre d’arch. de Québec, CE301-S1, 4 oct. 1881. Instit. généal. Drouin, “Fonds Drouin numérisé,” Notre-Dame de Québec, 1er juin 1910: www.imagesdrouinpepin.com (consulted 9 Jan. 2008). Library and Arch. Canada (Ottawa), R1102-0-4; R4278-0-4; R8207-0-X; R10383-0-6. Palais de justice, Québec, Cour supérieure, Greffes, Joseph Sirois. Le Devoir (Montréal), 16 mai, 2 oct. 1940; 16, 20, 21 janv. 1941. La Patrie (Montréal), 20 janv. 1941. Le Soleil (Québec), 16 mai 1940; 17, 18 janv. 1941. L. R. Betcherman, Ernest Lapointe: Mackenzie King’s great Quebec lieutenant (Toronto, 2002). Biographies canadiennes-françaises, Raphaël Ouimet, édit. (Montréal), 1931-32: 368. Canada, Royal commission on dominion-provincial relations, Report (3v., Ottawa, 1940). Barry Ferguson and Robert Wardhaugh, “‘Impossible conditions of inequality’: John W. Dafoe, the Rowell-Sirois royal commission, and the interpretation of Canadian federalism,” Canadian Hist. Rev. (Toronto), 84 (2003): 551-83. G. M. Giroux, “Le notaire Joseph Sirois,” La Rev. du Barreau de la prov. de Québec (Montréal), 1 (1941): 51-54. International Labour Office, The Rowell-Sirois report: a Canadian reaffirmation of the democratic faith in social progress (Montreal, 1941). P. A. Linteau et al., Histoire du Québec contemporain (2v., Montréal, 1979-86), 2. Sylvio Normand, Le Droit comme discipline universitaire: une histoire de la faculté de droit de l’université Laval (Québec, 2005). Qué., Commission des droits civils de la femme, Rapport (3v., Québec, 1930-31); Commission royale d’enquête sur les problèmes constitutionnels, Rapport ... (4 tomes en 5v., Québec, 1956). La Rev. du notariat (Lévis), 43 (1940-41), numéro consacré à Joseph Sirois. J. E. Roy, Histoire du notariat au Canada depuis la fondation de la colonie jusqu’à nos jours (4v., Lévis, 1899-1902). Univ. Laval, Annuaire, 1903-40. W. A. M., “Douglas Alexander Skelton (1906-1950),” Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science (Toronto), 17 (1951): 89-91.
© 2009–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
Sylvio Normand, “SIROIS, JOSEPH,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 17, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 7, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sirois_joseph_17E.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:||Sylvio Normand|
|Title of Article:||SIROIS, JOSEPH|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 17|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2009|
|Year of revision:||2013|
|Access Date:||June 7, 2023|