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Senator Télesphore-Damien Bouchard. The Devil from Saint-Hyacinthe

By , retired professor of Pediatric Surgery, McGill University
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With a political career spanning nearly half a century, Télesphore-Damien Bouchard (1881-1962) was an advocate for progress in Quebec’s history. He began his political life in 1905 becoming an alderman in his native city of Saint-Hyacinthe. That year he also became owner and publisher of the Liberal Newspaper in Saint-Hyacinthe, L’Union.

An editorial in 1905 declared his antipathy for anti-Semitism, when he railed against Jules-Paul Tardivel’s outrageous views. (1) Tardivel criticized Laurier for participating in a demonstration against the Russian government’s complicity in the pogroms of 1905, and said that the Jews were the killers of Christ, and not needed in Canada. Bouchard held that Jews and French-Canadians both had crooks and good people. The Jews worked hard and valued education “We should try to emulate them….If some are rich, it is because they save their pennies and don’t go to the tavern on Friday afternoons. Strong language for a newspaper publisher at the age of 24.

In 1912 he was elected as a member of the Legislative Assembly of Quebec. He went on to become mayor of Saint-Hyacinthe for twenty-five years, (1917) speaker of the house, (1930-35), acting house leader of the Liberal Party (1936-1939) and finally, the most influential cabinet minister from 1939-1944. Bouchard emerged as one of the most powerful leaders of the Liberal Party.

A leading anti-clerical who thought that the Catholic Church had no business in politics, the social sphere, or public education, Bouchard became a beacon of light in the struggle for education reform, women’s suffrage, and workers’ legislation. During the Depression, he introduced measures that relieved the misery of the poor and destitute, making Saint-Hyacinthe renowned for its management of the crisis.

All those who evaluated his contribution agree that he was ahead of his time. In the words of Yves Michaud, who was a teen-age apprentice, later editor and then publisher of Le Clairon, Bouchard was an infuriating and provocative fighter, and an idealist. He was one of the most discussed politicians of his day, and a great partisan of democratic reforms in French-Canada. Yet no Quebec historian has written about Bouchard. Victor Teboul has suggested that the silence concerning another major liberal contributor to Quebec thought, Jean-Charles Harvey is due to indifference :: ‘‘parce que libéral, il semble subir l’indifférence que souscite le libéralisme contemporain auprès des chercheurs québécois.’'

A large proportion of the historiography of Quebec is devoted to the ultramontains, the conservatives. Bouchard has also been ignored by Quebec historians, a curious silence on a major figure in the first half of the XXth Century.

Bouchard had progressive ideas that he defended vigorously. He was in favour of abolishing the seigneurial annuity. He campaigned for compulsory and free education, bilingual education, freedom of expression, the municipalization and then the nationalization of electric power, and the municipal taxation of manufacturers and the clerical institutions in his City. He was an early proponent of the vote for women. At the same time, he was against socialism. Privately, he would rant against union leaders, and against paid holidays for his workers. He defended the rights of owners to reward ability and to fire the incompetent. He was the author of the improved Quebec Worker Accident Compensation Act of 1935. He was also a staunch proponent of closed bids for government public works and a fierce opponent of patronage.

How should we judge him now? There is no doubt that he was a harbinger of the Quiet Revolution. In all his progressive goals, he was a leader who was 60 years ahead of his time. His anti-clericalism, fighting against the stranglehold that the Church exercised on Quebec society and politics, was certainly a portent of the radical and sudden change in Church-society relations of the 1960s. He was also a resolute foe of the ultra-nationalist elements of French-Canadian society. T-D Bouchard, known as “the devil from Saint-Hyacinthe”, a description not without substance, called that by Duplessis.(2) Conrad Black has termed him one of the most remarkable Mayors of twentieth century Quebec, the man who made Saint-Hyacinthe a beautiful town and the greatest anti-clerical political leader since Papineau. (3)  The Ottawa Citizen compared him to Edouard Herriot of France, predicting that the name of Bouchard would become as historically important as that of Laurier. (4) A major Quebec history text mentions Bouchard briefly as having belonged to the radical wing of the Liberal party, of having served as President of the Farmers Association, and as having been a leader in the battle for educational reform. (5) 

As noted, there is no published biography of Bouchard, except for the laudatory account of his life from 1935-1944 by Robert Saint-Germain and Yves Bibeau in the form of their Master’s thesis at the University of Sherbrooke. (6) I have contributed to the understanding of Bouchard. (7)

Bouchard’s outstanding characteristic was his courage. He always remained steadfast in the face of the “enemy”, no matter what the outcome. He was, perhaps, trying to overcome his feelings of inferiority, but in any event he stood up for his principles. His greatest hours were as acting leader of the opposition facing Duplessis in his first Union Nationale mandate from 1936-1939. He did not allow Duplessis to get away with any accusation or with the absence of government programs. In fact, Duplessis greatly admired him, as did Duplessis’ two biographers each coming from different viewpoints, Conrad Black and Robert Rumilly. (8)

His astonishing and aggressive opposition to Duplessis during those years no doubt worked to the advantage of the Liberal Party and contributed to the victory of 1939.

A convinced federalist with a love of Canada as a whole, Bouchard fought Henri Bourassa for his erratic behaviour in betraying his hero, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, even though fundamentally Bourassa was a federalist. He hated the ultramontane view of church-state relations. Although constantly accused of freemasonry, atheism, and even Protestantism, he was a believing Catholic, often attending mass secretly so that it would not appear that he was doing so out of political self-interest. (9)

Bouchard’s stand on educational reforms in 1912 and 1919 no doubt contributed to keeping him out of the Gouin and Taschereau cabinets. Another factor may have been Gouin’s antipathy for someone of plebeian origins.

Bouchard’s insistence on open bidding and surveillance of the terms of tenders led to conflict within his party, with activists, organizers, as well as ministers.

His innovative approach to the economic crisis of the 1930s aroused the disapproval of many interested parties. Saint-Hyacinthe finances were solid  during those early 1930s through Bouchard’s leadership in reducing municipal taxes for owners, eliminating them for renters, establishing a co-operative low-cost bakery, and introducing make-work projects on infrastructure of the city. Nevertheless, he held to his views. He said that the duty of the elected was to give a proper accounting to the public, not by passing popular laws out of a self-interested concern with re-election. If the elected could not convince the electorate through education that theirs was the proper course, then they deserved to lose.

This philosophy consoled him when he was defeated as MLA in 1919,  re-elected in 1923, and as Mayor in 1930, re-elected in 1932, as well as after his dismissal as President of Quebec-Hydro in 1944.  All who knew him drew attention to his lack of bitterness, and to the spirit of forgiveness, which he extended to his enemies.

On the municipal level, T-D Bouchard guided the destiny of Saint-Hyacinthe for over twenty-five years. His achievements included the outdoor municipal swimming pool, the City Hall, many parks, bridges, underpasses, and fair grounds. He introduced a plan to redress the plight of the poor during the depression and at the same time provided strict control of the city’s finances, allowing Saint-Hyacinthe to be singled out for praise by all Canadian newspapers. His hometown remembers him by naming a bridge, a park and a street after him.

T-D Bouchard certainly had faults. He was stubborn and vain. He often pursued his goals with a self-destructive single-mindedness. Bouchard’s relationship with Godbout was strained by his feeling that Godbout’s clerical background tainted his leader. As well, there was the natural strain between a leader out of legislature and a very effective acting house leader. (1936-39) When Godbout’s cabinet was formed in 1939, there was no doubt who was the most powerful minister. There was much material in the situation for cartoonists and comics.

Although said to be arrogant when in power, Bouchard always worked for the common good. This allegation of arrogance was no doubt a comment on his rigid integrity, which enraged his colleagues and the party activists who resented the lack of a level of patronage that had been the norm for Quebec.

Credit, for the progressive reforms of the Liberal administration of 1939-1944, certainly go to both Premier Godbout and to Bouchard. The vote for women would certainly not have survived Cardinal Villeneuve’s initial attack with a weaker person than Godbout leading the cause. He stood up to the Cardinal and delivered on a campaign promise. (If the Cardinal persisted in opposing the bill, Godbout threatened to resign, and thus Bouchard would become premier. The Cardinal then remained silent!)

The law on compulsory and free education must also be attributed to both men who were imbued with a common desire to se French Canada progress. The creation of Hydro-Quebec perhaps owes more to Bouchard than to Godbout but this is certainly debatable. There is no doubt that Bouchard’s performance before the Lapointe Commission in 1935 helped turn the tide towards nationalization of the province’s electrical resources. He the star of these hearings, appearing in over eighteen hours of testimony, well prepared with documents and calculations. Godbout showed that he considered Bouchard to be the only man who could properly administer the merged institution, when, while offering Bouchard the presidency of Hydro-Quebec he declared that if Bouchard did not take the job he would annul the law of nationalization of the major power companies of Montreal.

Certainly, Bouchard’s stewardship during his two months at Hydro-Quebec demonstrated that he was in command. He almost immediately reduced the price of electricity. Godbout’s dismissal of Bouchard after his famous speech in the Senate, criticizing education in Quebec and the Ordre de Jacques Cartier, may be termed political realism or ignoble weakness. In any case, it did not help his campaign, although perhaps nothing would have saved the Liberal Party in 1944 from Duplessis’ effective use of the autonomy issue on which Godbout was on shaky ground.

In spite of his political and financial success, Télesphore-Damien Bouchard remained true to his working class roots. He laboured constantly to improve the condition of the poor. Growing up in poverty, he never neglected to increase his personal fortune, so as to spare his family that curse, but he was always careful to separate public and private functions. Even as a young man, he refused to accept mediocrity. He demanded excellence of himself and from his entourage. He celebrated his own rise in society, “to the upper town” and held that progress through education was an achievement within the reach of all the people. He held that the backwardness of French-Canadian society was attributable to poor education and widespread illiteracy. His major preoccupation was progress of the French-Canadian nation within a united Canada. This led to his conclusions about the lack of education in the province and to his conflict with the narrow-minded clergy and an inert inward-looking society.

St. Germain and Bibeau emphasize that, although the public memory of T-D Bouchard may be that of a small town, belligerent opponent of the clergy, in private life he had the soul of a poet. They remark on his honesty, how candid he was about the one-sided nature of his relationship with his wife Blanche-Corona. He loved her completely, a love she did not reciprocate. He told this story publicly in his published memoirs. He could be regarded as a tragic hero because of this personal sadness and because of his political banishment after his Senate speech. Bibeau and St. Germain celebrate him as having contributed greatly to the development of Saint-Hyacinthe and as having been one of the principle precursors of the Quiet revolution of the 1960s.

Thus, Télesphore-Damien Bouchard stands out as a representative of his people, in a long line of nineteenth century rouges, Liberals on the radical side of the party, such as Papineau, Doutre, Dessaulles, Langlois, and Langelier. Although he modified the rougisme of those nineteenth century rouges who preceded him to correspond to Laurier’s views on the Liberal Party, he remains among the few politician/journalists in the first half of the twentieth century to distinguish himself as outstanding in this tradition. He maintained the radical rouge anti-clerical position, and as well their burning hopes to eliminate the Church from control of education and social agencies. Yet again, he was typical of many French-Canadians, who contrary to the wishes of the Philippe Hamels of the period (10) did not espouse the extreme ethnocentric views of the nationalists, typical of the many the French-Canadians, who historically were broad-minded, accepting the indigenous native culture early on, and then other cultures after the British conquest.

The awakening and expression of this open-mindedness certainly had its ups and downs. Yet, for the first part of this century, in spite of the alleged clerical control, the rouges (from Hell) were elected consistently from 1897-1936. 

Thus, the liberal reign of Godbout from 1939-1944 advanced Quebec into the twentieth century with much needed legislation. From 1944-1959, the Duplessis regime returned to many of the autocratic practices of the nineteenth century. The narrow-minded elite held sway. Then came the Quiet Revolution, and a reawakening of the French-Canadian people, acknowledging its own potential.

Télesphore-Damien Bouchard always stressed this potential, which he foresaw would obtain through open interchange with fellow Canadians and other citizens of the world, and through advances in education. His nephew, Charlemagne Bouchard, quotes him as follows: “I came from the common people, and I had a surplus of their qualities: love of justice; love of liberty; and a devotion to open minded ideas.” (11) He had the courage to fight those occult chauvinistic forces, which had captivated the elite. He had the courage to defend “others.” He had the courage to urge progress for his fellow French-Canadians. He certainly was a man two generations ahead of his time and a major contributor to the birth of a new Quebec.


1. L’Union, Dec. 26, 1905. editorial T-D Bouchard.
2. Jean-Noël Dion. Personal communication and Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, 21 août, 1987.
3. Conrad Black, Duplessis,  Vol I L’ascension; II Le pouvoir (Montréal : Les Duplessis,  Vol I  L’ascension; II Le pouvoir (Montréal : Les éditions de l’Homme, 1977 )     p. 318-319.
4. Editorial, The Ottawa Citizen July 17, 1944.
5. Linteau, Paul-André, Durocher, Réné,  and Robert Jean-Claude,  Histoire du Québec contemporain, Vol I .De la confédération à la crise , Vol II,  also with François Ricard, Le Québec depuis 1930  (Montréal : Boréal, 1979-1989) - L.D.R., p. 487, 531, 557.               "De l'Équilibre et de la Nuance dans l'Interpretation de l'Histoire Du Québec." Bulletin d'histoire politique 4, no. 2 (1995-1996): 13-19.
6. Robert Saint-Germain and Jacques Bibeau, M.A. Thesis (History) Télesphore-Damien Bouchard; Un chef du Parti Libéral, (1935-1944) Université de Sherbrooke, novembre, 1973.
7. Guttman Frank M.  “The Bouchards of Saint-Hyacinthe and Dr. H. N. Segall”; Essays in Honour of the 90th Birthday of Dr. H.N. Segall. The Osler Library. McGill University Press. Montreal, 1989. and Frank M Guttman, The Devil from Saint-Hyancinthe, Senator Télesohore-Damien Bouchard,  Omaha Nb: iUniverse Press, 2007.)
8. In the English edition of Black’s biography, Duplessis, there are only three photographs of people other than Duplessis: King and Taschereau together, Cardinal Leger, and T-D Bouchard and daughter.
9. An exchange of letters between Msgr. Decelles, Bishop of Saint-Hyacinthe and T-D Bouchard, the Mayor, in 1927, confirms that Bouchard was a practicing Catholic. Msgr.. Decelles requests that T-DB attend mass and confession at Easter. (March 19, 1927) In a very friendly reply T-DB confirms that he will do so gladly but not in the local church so as not to give his enemies the opportunity to call him hypocritical. (March 22, 1927) ANQ. P-10/1. He kept this secret practice even from his close friends. However, Judge Marcel Nichols is of the opinion that T-DB kept the faith rather loosely.
 10. ‘For twenty years I fought to against the forces that threaten our existence more and more without ever receiving the necessary support from the intelligentsia... The Jewish minority... expresses its opinion openly and underhandedly.”   Letter from Philippe Hamel to Dr. Pierre Jobidon, 22 novembre, 1948, Rumilly, HPQ XXXIII, p. 124.
 11. Charlemagne Bouchard; La Patrie 15-21 novembre 1962 .

January 14, 2012

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