VOYER, ANTOINE, businessman, politician, and strong man; b. 23 May 1782 in Montreal, son of Jacques Voyer and Judith Taton, dit Brind’amour; m. there 26 Nov. 1804 Marie-Anne Sainte-Marie, and they had three children; d. there 27 Dec. 1858.
Like most of those renowned for performing great physical feats, Antoine Voyer is enshrined in a legend so that it is difficult to separate reality from folklore. The man nicknamed “le grand Voyer” lacked neither panache nor reputation. Twenty years older than Joseph Montferrand*, strong man extraordinary, Voyer apparently had such a commanding physical presence that Jos looked up to him as to a father. Voyer was also sufficiently active in civic affairs to acquire social status and even to hold office as a town councillor. Paradoxically, this phase of his life is the least known although it can be more readily traced in documents, whereas the mighty deeds that make up his legend seem to have been written down only after long years of being recounted by one generation to the next.
Voyer was the eldest of seven children. His father owned some land, including four properties in different locations in the faubourg Saint-Laurent and the Coteau-Saint-Louis, which constituted the estate inherited jointly by his mother and her children in 1803. Voyer’s share may have given him the beginnings of financial independence, for he is not known to have had any recognized trade. According to legend he was an innkeeper, but no proof of this has been found. He is supposed to have been taller than average and slender, “six feet and a half” and weighing just over 200 pounds. His strength cannot be assessed because there is no known record of his involvement in any challenges or performances. Voyer reportedly took part in several of the election riots or social disturbances that marked the early years of the 19th century. During one election, he and Jos Montferrand are said to have used a 250-pound weight to clear a polling-station occupied by one of the political parties. He supposedly picked quarrels with members of the army: once, aided by another strong man, he beat up seven or eight soldiers who were harassing an old woman, and then himself successfully took on five soldiers who, because of that incident, attacked him not far from a sentry-box. Legend also has it that when he was an innkeeper on Rue Saint-Laurent in Montreal he once cleared the establishment by dumping a number of brawling seamen out of the window one by one.
Of all Voyer’s exploits, however, there is documentary evidence for only one: his participation in the by-election in Montreal West in 1832, during which he laid out one of the most redoubtable bullies in Montreal. The election began on 25 April and pitted Stanley Bagg, who described himself as a businessman, against Dr Daniel Tracey*, publisher of the city’s Vindicator and Canadian Advertiser, a reform newspaper. Bagg was supported by the tories and the Montreal Gazette; Tracey was backed by French Canadian reformers and La Minerve, and counted on the Irish vote. Voyer, who lived on Rue Saint-Laurent, was on the riding’s electoral list. He gave his support to Tracey, and with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine* signed a circular inviting other voters to do the same.
On the first day of the election, a group of toughs in Bagg’s pay, some of whom had also been sworn in as special constables by local magistrates, attempted to gain control of the polling-station and prevent Tracey’s supporters from getting near. On the second day Voyer was present and, when the trouble-makers again resorted to threats and violence, he knocked out their leader, a certain Bill Collins who had already been convicted of homicide, with one blow of his fist. Tradition has it that Collins died of Voyer’s blow, but the outcome remains uncertain and no charges were brought against Voyer. However, Voyer’s appearance served to rout the tory ruffians and to restore calm until the bloody incident of 21 May when the army fired on a crowd and killed three people.
Despite the bravado on which Voyer’s legend is based, the label of ruffian did not stick to him; on the contrary, he was looked up to and respected by his contemporaries, including La Fontaine, and he was not given to picking fights over trifles. There is little if any doubt that Voyer did not depend on his physical prowess for a living. His reputation, unmarred by the incidents of 1832, was sufficiently solid for him to be on the city council of Montreal in 1834 and 1835. There, incidentally, he was among a number of well-known citizens who had been involved in the 1832 election: La Fontaine, Jacques Viger, Charles-Séraphin Rodier*, and John Anthony Donegani*. The only evidence of Voyer’s business activities dates from this period. Some 30 notarial instruments, concluded between 1834 and 1843, show him busy in real estate. Most of these are leases for houses, which suggests that Voyer was able to turn his paternal inheritance to good advantage and make a place for himself as a large property owner in Saint-Laurent ward. He died there in December 1858 at the age of 76.
Among strong men, Antoine Voyer is a special case. The legend surrounding him rests not so much on the number of his exploits as on their character; none the less it is sufficiently impressive for him to be regarded as a predecessor to Jos Montferrand. His civic life was that of a man in comfortable circumstances, one who was numbered among the prominent citizens of his district, who was only unintentionally involved in fights, and who lived on the income from his properties. Legend, however, has discarded the bourgeois side of this man, favouring instead the image of one who used his strength to protect his fellow citizens during the troubled period of the early 19th century in the Canadas that saw the introduction of the British parliamentary régime and the development of Anglo-Saxon social patterns.
[Three accounts of Antoine Voyer’s feats, based on oral history and thus lacking in dates and places, are in Hector Berthelot, Montréal, le bon vieux temps, É.-Z. Massicotte, compil. (2v. in 1, Montréal, 1916), 1: 99–101; É.-Z. Massicotte, Athlètes canadiens-français; recueil des exploits de force, d’endurance, d’agilité, des athlètes et des sportsmen de notre race depuis le XVIIIe siècle . . .
biographies, portraits, anecdotes, records (2nd ed., Montréal, ); and Sulte, Mélanges hist. (Malchelosse), vol.12. Massicotte*’s volume unquestionably provides the fullest treatment. p.b.]. ANQ-M, CE1-51, 23 mai 1782, 26 nov. 1804, 27 déc. 1858; CN1-32, 1834–35, 1837, 1839–43; CN1-194, 21 déc. 1803. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1832–33, app.M; 1834, app.NN. La Minerve, avril–mai 1832. Montreal Gazette, April–May 1832. Vindicator (Montreal), April–May 1832. F.-M. Bibaud, Le panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891). Montreal almanac, 1829, 1848. Montreal directory, 1820, 1850. Hist. de Montréal (Lamothe et al.). Robert Rumilly, Histoire de Montréal (5v., Montréal, 1970–74), 2.