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FORTIN, PIERRE-ÉTIENNE, surgeon and politician; b. 14 Dec. 1823 at Verchères, Lower Canada, son of Pierre Fortin, carpenter, and Marie-Anne-Julie Crevier, dit Duvernay, sister of Ludger Duvernay*; he did not marry, but left his estate to his natural daughter, Suzanne-Marie; d. 15 June 1888 in Laprairie (La Prairie), Que.

Pierre-Étienne Fortin spent his youth in Laprairie, and then studied at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal, graduating in 1841. He later studied medicine at McGill College, and after his graduation in 1845 returned to Laprairie where he practised for two years. He spent his time in Montreal and at Grosse Île, Canada East, during the typhus epidemic of 1847–48, when he himself became ill. His medical practice was interrupted in 1849 when he formed and led a troop of mounted constabulary which helped quell the rioting that followed the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill in April 1849 [see James Bruce*].

In 1852 Fortin was appointed stipendiary magistrate and given responsibility for the protection of fisheries in the Gulf of St Lawrence; he was the first to hold such a position and he retained it until 1867. His duties included preparing annual reports, discouraging illegal fishing by foreign fishermen, issuing permits and collecting fees, and gathering statistics concerning catches and the production of fish oil. Fortin was also sent to Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and the French shore of Newfoundland to examine the fishing techniques used there. While travelling in his ship, La Canadienne, along the St Lawrence coastline, Fortin compiled a book containing descriptions of 80 species of marine animals and fish which inhabited the Gulf of St Lawrence, and prepared a collection of birds, both of which he intended to donate to the Université Laval.

Fortin succeeded in endearing himself to the Gaspesians through his sincerity and interest in protecting fishermen’s rights against foreign vessels and through his efforts to have measures passed which would improve their working conditions, such as the construction of lighthouses along the gulf coast. Concerned that the Gaspesians should not become wholly dependent on fishing, Fortin attempted to instruct them in agricultural methods. He also attempted to establish an oyster-bed in the village of Gaspé, Canada East, using imported oysters, but the project was not successful. Along with the regular functions of his office, Fortin provided free medical services in Gaspé.

In 1867 when John Le Boutillier*, member of the Legislative Assembly for Gaspé County, was named to the Legislative Council, the Conservatives asked Fortin to be their candidate for both the House of Commons and the Quebec assembly; he was elected to both. The provincial administration of Gédéon Ouimet* appointed him commissioner of crown lands in February 1873, but along with the other members of the government he resigned from the Executive Council in September 1874 because of the Tanneries scandal [see Louis Archambeault]. As commissioner of crown lands Fortin had shown initiative by establishing fire protection and conservation programmes to preserve provincial forests. Following his re-election in 1875 Fortin was appointed speaker of the assembly. In this capacity he founded in 1876 the marine section in the Legislative Assembly library; the library was destroyed by fire on 18 April 1883. Fortin was forced to resign as speaker on 10 Nov. 1876 when Edmund James Flynn*, his Liberal opponent in the election, charged that clerical interference had helped him win. Although an investigation exonerated Fortin, he had already been replaced as speaker by Louis Beaubien*.

In addition to being member for Gaspé in the House of Commons, Fortin was chairman of its special committee on navigation and the fisheries. In 1868 he attended the Maritime Exposition at Le Havre, France, to study ways of benefiting the fisheries, and sent reports on the exposition to La Minerve (Montreal). During this trip he also visited the electric lighthouses at Cap de la Hêve and Le Havre and the military ports and naval yards of Cherbourg, Portsmouth, and Glasgow. He retired from federal politics with the abolition of dual representation in 1874, but he was re-elected to the House of Commons on 17 Sept. 1878 and served until 15 Jan. 1887. Fortin was called to the Senate on 12 May 1887 to represent Kennebec but his health was failing and he died the following year.

Fortin’s significant achievements were the successful promotion of the Baie de Chaleur Railway (incorporated in 1872) and the establishment of a telegraph which more closely connected Gaspé and Bonaventure counties with the rest of province; the erection of lighthouses along the gulf coast; the establishment of navigation schools; and the institution of postal service in the wide-ranging Gaspé region. He strongly opposed reciprocity because he believed the United States would benefit from the agreement at Canada’s expense. He also concentrated on reducing the advantages of Newfoundland fishermen who charged Canadian fishermen lighthouse dues whenever they sailed to or from Newfoundland and who were exempt from the rigid laws concerning inspection of herring to which Canadian fishermen were subject. Fortin’s strenuous efforts to improve the fishermen’s situation were the beginning of a serious and organized attempt to protect Canadian fishing rights.

Fortin was responsible for the founding of the Société de Géographie de Québec, incorporated on 9 April 1879, to spread the study of geography throughout Quebec and Canada and to acquaint foreigners with Canada’s economic richness. He served as its first president. His cultural pursuits were broad, and he had a reputation as a musician, artist, and singer.

Irene Bilas

AP, La Nativité-de-la-Très-Sainte-Vierge (La Prairie), Reg. des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 1er févr. 1877, 19 juin 1888; Saint-François-Xavier (Verchères), Reg. des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 14 déc. 1823. “Parl. debates” (CLA mfm. project of parl. debates, 1846–74), 1867–74. Le Courrier du Canada,. 1869–71, 16 juin 1888. LÉlecteur (Québec), 16 juin 1888. La Minerve, 29 déc. 1865, 1867–68, 1872–73, 16 juin 1888. Le Monde (Montréal), 18 juin 1888. Montreal Daily Star, 16 June 1888. LOpinion publique, 23 déc. 1875. Achintre, Manuel électoral. Canadian directory of parl. (J. K. Johnson), 211. CPC, 1867, 1872–79. J. Desjardins, Guide parl. Wallace, Macmillan dict. Damase Potvin, Les oubliés: le commandant Pierre Fortin . . . (Québec, [1943]); Le roi du golfe: le Dr P.-ÉFortin ancien commandant de laCanadienne” (Québec, n.d.). Philippe Constant [J.-J. Lefebvre], “Le sénateur Pierre Fortin (1823–1888), son ascendance – ses alliés,” BRH, 68 (1966): 87–96. “Les disparus.” BRH, 35 (1929): 252. [N.-H.-É.] Faucher de Saint-Maurice, “Louis-Zéphirin Joncas, député de Gaspé,” Rev. dhist. de la Gaspésie (Gaspé, Qué.), 6 (1968): 58–68. “L’honorable Pierre Fortin, fondateur de la Société de géographie de Québec,” Soc. de géographie de Québec, Bull. (Québec), 4 (1910): 347–50. Michel LeMoignan, “Les députés de la Gaspésie,” Rev. dhist. de la Gaspésie, 1 (1963): 139–43. Firmin Létourneau, “L’histoire d’un Gaspésien,” Rev. dhist. de la Gaspésie, 5 (1967): 67–86. G.-É. Marquis, “La Société de géographie de Québec,” La Rev. de luniv. Laval (Québec), 2 (1947–48): 67–77.

General Bibliography

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Irene Bilas, “FORTIN, PIERRE-ÉTIENNE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 24, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fortin_pierre_etienne_11E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fortin_pierre_etienne_11E.html
Author of Article: Irene Bilas
Title of Article: FORTIN, PIERRE-ÉTIENNE
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1982
Year of revision: 1982
Access Date: April 24, 2014