SICOTTE (Cicot), LOUIS-VICTOR (baptized Louis), lawyer, politician, and judge; b. 6 Nov. 1812 at Boucherville, Lower Canada, son of Toussaint Cicot, a farmer, and Marguerite Gauthier, dit Saint-Germain; d. 5 Sept. 1889 at Saint-Hyacinths, Que.
Louis-Victor’s ancestor, Jean Chicot, who came to New France in 1651, gained some historical notice. Étienne-Michel Faillon* records that on 6 May 1651 at Ville-Marie “the cruel Iroquois removed [his] hair with a piece of the skull”; he survived this scalping and lived for another 14 years.
Louis-Victor Sicotte received his secondary education at the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinths from 1822 to 1829. Information on his activities during the next few years is incomplete. It is known that he spent a few years in Montreal, and that he was a clerk with Larocque, Bernard et Cie, a French Canadian firm established in 1832, while preparing for the bar. He is thought to have studied law with Dominique Mondelet*, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, and Norbert Dumas. On 28 Dec. 1828 he was called to the bar. It is also known that he belonged to the group of young Patriotes led by Ludger Duvernay*, that he frequently visited the Librairie Fabre, a hotbed of nationalism, and that he was the secretary-treasurer of Aide-toi, le Ciel t’aidera, (God helps those who help themselves), an organization founded in March 1834 on the model of a similarly named French society which played a part in the July Revolution. This society, whose focus was on politics, introduced the celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day as the national festival of French Canadians. If it can be accepted that there is an “indisputable relationship” between the festival of 24 June and the founding of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal, then Sicotte, who stated that he was “the first” to have had “the idea of a national festival under the patronage of Saint-Jean-Baptists,” can be considered the co-founder of this society. It was indeed at a banquet in Saint-Hyacinths to honour Sicotte that Duvernay proposed Saint-Jean-Baptists Day as a national festival.
On 16 Feb. 1832 Sicotte had published in the correspondence column of La Minerve of Montreal a strongly partisan letter, signed S***********, which sparked a three-year controversy between La Minerve and L’Écho du pays of Saint-Charles on the one hand and L’Ami du peuple, de l’ordre et des lois of Montreal on the other. This letter, which outlined the difficult situation of French Canadians, went so far as to advocate immediate separation from Britain, and, if necessary, revolution. “There is considerable belief,” he said, “in the possibility of a revolution, but at a distant date; I myself think it is close at hand.”
There is no doubt that Sicotte was an ardent Patriote, but also no documentary evidence that he took an active part in the 1837 rebellion. The most that can be said is that his name is found, along with those of Jacques Viger*, Édouard-Raymond Fabre*, Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine, Charles-Ovide Perrault, Côme-Séraphin Cherrier, and George-Étienne Cartier*, at the head of a list of contributors to a fund to compensate Duvernay in 1836 for “the losses and sacrifices he suffered in the cause of Reform” when he was imprisoned in 1832 for libelling the Legislative Council. Furthermore, in 1838 Sicotte confided to Duvernay that he was not convinced rebellion would help to ensure the country’s acquiring the democratic freedoms it needed. In his view the insurrection was doomed to failure. Hence he would criticize the Patriotes’ frontier raids in 1838, fearing they might provoke official sanctions and lead only to the dreaded union being imposed on Upper and Lower Canada.
In 1838 Sicotte settled in Saint-Hyacinths, opening a law office on Rue Saint-Antoine; he was made a qc in 1854. His firm grew and he acquired a number of law partners including, in 1863, Magloire Lanctôt*. According to Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinths, he had a large clientele and became “one of the most eminent members of the bar in the district of Montreal”; given 19th-century traditions his position was bound to lead him into politics. Meanwhile he joined the Société des Amis, a literary society formed in 1842 and considered the forerunner of the Institut Canadien of Montreal.
In January 1848 Sicotte stood as a Reform candidate in Saint-Hyacinthe but was defeated by Thomas Boutillier*, a doctor, who was also a Reformer. After this setback, Sicotte won the seat by a large majority in 1851. He identified himself at that period as one of the dissident Reformers, a group that stood somewhere between the supporters of La Fontaine and the Rouges. As soon as Sicotte entered parliament, Augustin-Norbert Morin* offered him the portfolio of the Crown Lands Department, but he declined because the government of Francis Hincks and Morin had no plans for the abolition of seigneurial tenure and the secularization of clergy reserves.
On 22 Feb. 1853 the Legislative Assembly appointed him chairman of a select committee on education in Canada East which addressed a questionnaire to all parish priests and Protestant ministers, as well as to municipal secretary-treasurers [see Louis Lacoste*]. According to historian André Labarrère-Paulé, the Sicotte report, submitted on 7 June 1853, was “the harbinger of a new climate more favourable to reforms and radical changes in the educational field.” But the government was in such a critical situation that the Sicotte inquiry had no immediate impact [see Jean-Baptiste Meilleur*].
At this juncture the growing number of factions in the legislature was paralysing the Hincks-Morin government. For his part, Sicotte made an alliance with Joseph-Édouard Cauchon, although he himself claimed to be a democrat and closer to the Rouges – who, in his words, were no redder than he was. In 1854, by a skilful parliamentary manœuvre on the important issues of the reserves and seigneurial tenure, Sicotte and Cauchon brought about a coalition of all opposition groups in the house which defeated the government. In the subsequent general elections Sicotte was returned by acclamation for Saint-Hyacinthe. In September 1854 he was chosen as the Rouge candidate for the post of speaker of the house, and thanks to the support of the Reformers of both Canada East and Canada West he was elected by 76 to 41, after Cartier, the ministerial candidate, had failed in his bid for the office. This development reveals the weakness of the government, which was forced to make alliances in order to survive: hence the resignation of Hincks and the formation of the Liberal-Conservative coalition under Sir Allan Napier MacNab* and Morin, whose aim was to create a stable government and settle the two major issues before it.
As speaker of the house, Sicotte was confined to a neutrality which removed him from the limelight. He was not completely forgotten, however; La Minerve gives this caricature: “Sicotte, with his butter-coloured gloves, his wretched little hat perched on his head, his figure muffled in a large black cloak reminiscent of a domino without a hood, and holding in his right hand his little handbook on parliamentary procedure bound in red leather.” But in November 1857 Sicotte, who had just been re-elected by acclamation, entered a new phase of his career, accepting the portfolio of the Crown Lands Department left vacant by the resignation of Étienne-Paschal Taché*. During his brief term as commissioner of crown lands, Sicotte sponsored an especially important bill for the preservation and operation of the fisheries. This bill received the support of all the French Canadian members, regardless of party, because it encouraged an industry previously neglected in Canada East.
Sicotte appeared, then, to have entered the ranks of the Liberal-Conservative party. In fact, in August 1858, he refused a ministerial post in the government of George Brown* and Antoine-Aimé Dorion*, finding himself quite unable to betray his principles in order to join Brown. Justifying his decision, he explained: “I will never have dealings with those who insult and cast aspersions on my religion and . . . I will never give power to those who have used . . . their fanaticism and bigotry as means of advancement.” The Brown–Dorion government was defeated 48 hours after it had been sworn in, and Sicotte again found himself in a Liberal-Conservative government, this time as commissioner of public works under Cartier and John A. Macdonald*. Sicotte was not, however, a convert to the party. Hence there is a bitter tone in his letters to Hector-Louis Langevin* when he speaks of Cartier and his manner of exercising power. “Friend Georges,” he wrote one day, “has the knack of stirring up a storm over everything, and to this he owes the formation of three or four governments since 1855,” and again, “It is the policy of M. Cartier and M. Macdonald to keep ambitious men constantly barking.” When the government faced the issue of the choice of a capital, and, despite the vote of the house, affirmed that it would defer to the queen’s selection of Ottawa, Sicotte resigned his portfolio on 10 Jan. 1859. He became the leader of the opposition from Canada East, and in May 1862, when the Cartier-Macdonald government was overthrown on the Militia Act, Sicotte formed a ministry with John Sandfield Macdonald*. This government brought together the moderate Liberals of the two sections of Canada, Sandfield Macdonald now leading the Reformers from Canada West and Sicotte having gradually replaced Dorion in Canada East after the latter’s defeat in the 1861 election. Sicotte succeeded in gaining the support of men of talent and experience such as Thomas-Jean-Jacques Loranger, François-Xavier Lemieux*, Lewis Thomas Drummond, and Thomas D’Arcy McGee*; he also brought Dorion back into the ministry.
The Sandfield Macdonald–Sicotte government had to face insurmountable financial difficulties, for the American Civil War had already adversely affected foreign trade. The preceding government had been defeated on a legislative measure judged too expensive; the new one signed its death warrant by defending the Intercolonial Railway Bill, which was also considered too costly. Dorion, the provincial secretary, resigned on this issue, and Loranger disengaged himself by accepting the post of judge at Trois-Rivières after refusing to assume Dorion’s office.
The Sandfield Macdonald–Sicotte government was also a victim of the defects of the system itself. It resorted to compromises with the principle of “double majority,” especially in regard to Richard William Scott*’s bill to grant separate schools to the Catholics of Canada West, which was adopted despite the opposition of a majority of the members from Canada West. The government also ran into trouble on the issue of the representation of the province’s two sections in the house, a recurrent concern in the parliament of the Province of Canada. Summoned to guide the country in a period of economic depression and political deadlock, the government was defeated on a motion of non-confidence on 8 May 1863. After this setback, Macdonald passed under the wing of George Brown, who increasingly imposed his requirements on Macdonald, considering him narrow-minded and spineless. Asked to “radicalize” his government, Macdonald tried to bring back Dorion. The latter refused unless he would “be recognized as leader of the Lower Canadian section.” For his part, Sicotte declined “to serve under Dorion,” and, as Brown persisted in his demand, Sicotte and all the ministers from Canada East tendered their resignations. The moderate element of Canada West was treated in the same fashion, to the benefit of Brown’s chief associates.
Once more leader of the Liberals from Canada East, Dorion offered a cabinet post to Sicotte, but the latter refused it with disdain, well aware that the reshaping of the government had been undertaken at the behest of and under pressure from Brown. In his manifesto to the electors, Sicotte specifically stated: “It was required that control be in the hands of a certain man, and not in my own. But the direction decided upon in this way constituted a distinct policy with new tendencies, under a new banner. It involved the whole federal issue; it meant government of Canada by Upper Canada; for if the demand that such and such a man and such and such a direction be imposed on us were accepted, all sectional difficulties would be settled from the exclusive point of view of Upper Canada and in its exclusive interest.” Sicotte even signed a pact with the groups in opposition to overthrow the Sandfield Macdonald–Dorion government. He agreed to support any motion of censure on condition “that it contained no retrospective criticism of the government of which he himself had been part.” When the house returned on 21 Aug. 1863, it was he who proposed the motion of non-confidence, alleging that the formation of the new government had been unconstitutional and that the principle of double majority had been violated by the ministry, thus imperilling Canada East. The motion was rejected by 63 to 60: Sicotte did not have the support of the moderate Liberals, who refused to make any alliance whatever with Cartier’s Conservatives. It was with this setback that Sicotte ended his political career.
A few days later, on 5 September, Sicotte became a puisne judge of the Superior Court for Saint-Hyacinthe District. The appointment caused a great stir in political circles. The parliamentary opposition was indignant that the government was muzzling one of its most formidable adversaries in this fashion. A motion of censure followed in the assembly and was narrowly rejected by 63 to 61. Sicotte’s supporters themselves found it hard to understand his withdrawal, and interpreted it as a complete about-face. The house was functioning at the time with no solid parliamentary majority and Sicotte’s departure, which meant one vote less for the opposition, therefore strengthened the government. The most conciliatory of his friends saw a reason for his action, however: Sicotte was the father of 11 children, and politics had literally ruined him. “The only excuse,” wrote Laurent-Olivier David*, “was his poverty. . . . Let us add that he was disappointed, disillusioned, [and] offended by the way the house and even his friends had treated him.” In short, Sicotte was at a crossroads; he chose the safest and probably the wisest path.
Taking stock of Sicotte’s career, one may question whether there was any place in Canada East at that time for a party which in ideology fitted between the Conservatives and the Rouges. It seemed that the inevitable alliance with the Upper Canadian wing of a party – a wing in the event dominated and made intolerant by George Brown – meant certain disaster for the political career of any moderate Liberal. It was Brown who moved the pawns around on the contemporary political chessboard. The “Great Coalition” of 1864 was only a more spectacular demonstration of his daily manœuvring. In this game Sicotte was probably the greatest loser during the period of the union.
Having given 12 years to politics, Sicotte devoted almost a quarter of a century to the administration of justice in Saint-Hyacinthe. He retired on 7 Nov. 1887 and died on 5 Sept. 1889 at Saint-Hyacinthe. On 7 Nov. 1837 he had married Marguerite-Émélie Starnes, sister of Henry Starnes*. Of their 11 children, the eldest, Victor-Benjamin, became a lawyer in Saint-Hyacinthe, and their second son, Eugène, was a notary in Montreal.
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