SAINT-CHARLES, FRANÇOIS-XAVIER, merchant and banker; b. 7 March 1833 in Montreal, son of François Saint-Charles and Marie Dagenais; m. there 24 Nov. 1852 Delphine Tessier, and they had one child; d. there 20 Sept. 1910.
The career of François-Xavier Saint-Charles provides a striking indication of the degree to which the French- and English-speaking business communities of Montreal operated in almost complete isolation from one another in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Given the nature of the activities Saint-Charles undertook, it is hardly surprising that his career would be perceived in different ways by the two linguistic communities.
On leaving school Saint-Charles entered the wholesale flour and provision firm run by his father. In the late 1850s the elder Saint-Charles passed the business on to his son, and in the early 1870s the firm became known as F.-X. St-Charles et Compagnie; it would continue to operate under this name until it disappeared in 1887. If Saint-Charles was in any way representative of French-speaking merchants of the late 19th century, he probably came into infrequent contact with English-speaking clients. Montrealers of the period tended to do business with people who spoke the same language and professed the same religion.
Although Saint-Charles may have had some dealings with English-speakers as a member of the committee of management of the Montreal Corn Exchange Association, he and his fellow French-speaking merchants usually found themselves cut off from commercial credit provided by the English-run banks because of linguistic divisions within the Montreal business community. Accordingly, in the second half of the 19th century French-speaking merchants created seven banks of their own to assist them in their affairs. One such institution was the Banque d’Hochelaga, incorporated in 1873 at the request of 12 French Canadians, all of whom described themselves as “traders.” Saint-Charles was not one of the petitioners for incorporation, but he joined the group by the end of the year and was elected to the bank’s first board of directors; he was subsequently chosen as the bank’s initial vice-president.
Saint-Charles’s status in the new bank, which opened its doors in 1874, was commensurate with his position as the most important individual shareholder, a distinction he would maintain until the 1890s. When the bank teetered on the brink of collapse in 1879, Saint-Charles, the leading investor, was naturally asked to assume the presidency following the resignation of Louis Tourville. He inherited a situation that did not look promising. The Banque d’Hochelaga had had the misfortune of starting during the depression of the 1870s, which took its toll on many Canadian banks. The crisis reached its peak in 1879 when four banks failed. If this collapse were not enough, Saint-Charles also had to deal with a crisis created by the embezzlement of $85,000 by the cashier (general manager) of the bank, Jean-S. Paquet. As a result of both the general problems of the banking industry and the lack of confidence induced by the Paquet affair, the bank steadily reduced its operations throughout the year and seriously considered merging with another institution.
By the early 1880s, however, under Saint-Charles’s management, the bank had righted itself and entered a long period as the most stable of French Canadian banks. While other French Canadian banks were prone to expand their affairs too quickly and to tie up their resources in investments that could not yield cash on short notice, the Hochelaga under Saint-Charles was a model of conservatism, increasing its operations slowly and always keeping a sizeable portion of its assets liquid. This policy earned the bank substantial profits throughout the 1880s and 1890s and permitted it to pay healthy dividends to shareholders. Moreover, the bank’s solid reputation protected it from the run on other Montreal-based French Canadian banks that took place after the collapse of the Banque Ville-Marie in 1899 [see William Weir]. The Banque d’Hochelaga continued on the same successful course over the first decade of the 20th century. Accordingly, at Saint-Charles’s death the directors of the bank observed that their president had “devoted all his time and all his energy to promoting the interests of the institution.”
Aside from his business career, Saint-Charles distinguished himself in several capacities. He was a councillor for the Saint-Jacques ward in Montreal between 1866 and 1872, serving throughout the period on the finance committee of the city council. Moreover, he was a member of the board of governors of the Montreal branch of the Université Laval, from its establishment in 1876 to his death. Between 1893 and 1910 he served as the branch’s treasurer and was so closely associated with the institution that his death was described by La Presse as an equal loss to the bank and the university.
Saint-Charles’s attachment to the university was, at least in part, a function of his deeply rooted Catholicism. Indeed, all reports indicate that his death was hastened by overexertion at the International Eucharistic Congress held at Montreal from 7 to 11 Sept. 1910. His will also indicated a profoundly religious nature; in it he left a considerable fortune to various Catholic institutions and religious orders.
François-Xavier Saint-Charles’s reputation was such that his funeral was attended by French Canadian dignitaries from all walks of life. There were few English-speakers present, however, and even the English-language dailies of Montreal paid scant attention to his passing. In contrast, the French papers provided front-page coverage of both his death and his funeral. La Patrie was enthusiastic in its assessment of his career, proclaiming that his life gave the lie to the notion “that French Canadians lack genius for business.”
It is little wonder that a man who was both French-speaking and devoutly Catholic should have been seen by the editors of Montreal’s English-language dailies as a figure of relatively little interest to their readers. Saint-Charles was also perceived as rather unimportant because his business dealings rarely touched on the lives of English-speakers. Few of the clients and shareholders of the Banque d’Hochelaga were anglophones. Even the great success of the bank, which was so widely trumpeted in the French press, was seen in a different light by English newspapers. From the English perspective Saint-Charles’s bank was a comparatively insignificant institution in 1910 with only one-tenth of the assets held by the Bank of Montreal. To the French dailies, on the other hand, Saint-Charles was a man to be lauded for his role as a patron of Catholic works and as a success in the allegedly Anglo-Protestant world of business.
ANQ-M, CE1-51, 8 mars 1833, 24 nov. 1852. National Bank of Canada Arch. (Montreal), Banque d’Hochelaga, reg. des procès-verbaux, 1874–1910. Gazette (Montreal), 7 March 1879, September 1910. La Patrie, 23 sept. 1910. La Presse, 20 sept. 1910. Can., Parl, Sessional papers, 1874–1910, lists of stockholders of the registered banks in Canada. Directory, Montreal, 1850–1910. Ronald Rudin, Banking en français: the French banks of Quebec, 1835–1925 (Toronto, 1985). G. J. J. Tulchinsky, The river barons: Montreal businessmen and the growth of industry and transportation, 1837–53 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1977).