Notary, historian and poet

Notary, historian and poet

I remember that our great poet Michel Garneau often repeated that he was quite proud of his origins. His ancestor, François-Xavier Garneau, friend of Louis-Joseph Papineau, was also a poet, but above all a historian. His Histoire du Canada , published from 1845, is an essential reference.

Unlike Lord Durham, for whom we were a people without history and deserved assimilation at best, F.-X. Garneau was convinced that we had the right to live as a French community in America. By plunging into the past of his ancestors, he discovers that “his nation was born out of a desire for France to establish and take root in America”, but that it had to face powerful adverse forces. And it is to this task of disseminating our history, that of “resuscitating memory”, that he will devote a good part of his life.


Patrice Groulx tells us in minute detail about the life and work of F.-X. Garneau, which makes it a very lively document. Born into a humble and illiterate family in Quebec City, Garneau was lucky enough to meet on his way an educated man, a notary in love with letters, who opened, in September 1821, the first free school for poor children. Noting his great desire to learn, the notary will teach him the first rudiments of his profession. Canada was then under a dual jurisdiction: French civil law and English criminal law. François-Xavier will take six years to learn the profession and the spirit of French civil law, thanks to the notary Archibald Campbell who, in the meantime, took charge.

Very early on, he learned of “the contempt of Campbell's English clerics, who laugh at the Canadians, those vanquished without glory and without a future.” But one day, he promises them, “he will avenge the honor of his people by writing his true history”. At that time, there was no book telling the story of the (French) Canadians, while those telling the story of the conquerors abound.

Despite everything, F.-X. will become a recognized and successful notary. He will marry, build himself and have children. During the insurrections of 1837-1838, he ranks among the temperate reformists. The debate then rages on the subject of the use of armed violence: as with the Front de liberation du Québec, the insurgents are blamed for the repression. But the abuses that follow leave no doubt, because even moderates are thrown in prison. There are more than 800 political prisoners, twelve executions by hanging, villages set on fire, houses looted, several dozen deportees at the end of the world, etc.

National identity

The Durham Report will shatter last hopes. Many will throw in the towel and wish for “an assimilation that breaks the barrier that separates them from the populations that surround them on all sides”. The Act of Union will be voted and Lower Canada will pay the debts of Upper Canada, a measure described by many as “real theft”. We are still waiting to be reimbursed …

Garneau prefers to express his discontent through poetic writing. A real bookworm, F.-X. is particularly interested in period documents. Around 1843, Garneau began his project to write this story which would rehabilitate the memory of his compatriots, whose “destiny is to fight continually”. A publication without the imprimatur of the clergy, it should be noted, which will shock the devotees.

Garneau's work, revolutionary in his time, “helped cement a national identity based on all the rights, institutions and culture inherited from the French regime.”

Small personal disappointment: the time is to come to terms with the enemy. The elites now claim to have two cultures: French and British. “Condemned to live in dependence on London or Washington, Canadians must point out to Britain that they have helped to keep half of the continent and demand that this debt be translated into rights. ”

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