Source: courtesy Wikimedia Commons
BERNIER, THOMAS-ALFRED (baptized Thomas-Wolfred), journalist, lawyer, office holder, politician, and author; b. 15 Aug. 1844 in Henryville, Lower Canada, son of Thomas Bernier, a carpenter, and Julie Létourneau; m. there 15 Aug. 1871 Marie-Julie-Malvina Demers, and they had ten children, three of whom died in infancy; d. 30 Dec. 1908 in St Boniface, Man.
Thomas-Alfred Bernier was educated at the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe from 1857 to 1865 and then went on to study law. While articling in Saint-Hyacinthe, he worked as editor of Le Messager de Joliette in 1865, and in 1866 wrote for Le Bourdon, a satirical newspaper published in Saint-Hyacinthe. He also joined the Union Catholique de Saint-Hyacinthe, a discussion and reading club, whose president was Honoré Mercier*. There he formed lasting friendships with Abbé François Tétreau, the director of the association, and Pierre Boucher* de La Bruère, its secretary. He was called to the bar in 1869 and set up his law office in Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), where he soon built up a good practice. Still drawn to journalism, he was editor of the pro-Conservative Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe from 11 April 1871 to 3 Dec. 1872. Bernier was appointed district crown attorney for Iberville in 1874, but lost this post four years later when the Liberal party came to power under Henri-Gustave Joly. A meeting with Father Albert Lacombe*, who was in the province of Quebec recruiting families for the west, persuaded him to move to Manitoba.
Bernier arrived in St Boniface in April 1880 and began farming in Ste Agathe on the Red River. The following year, at the request of Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché*, he somewhat unwillingly accepted appointment as superintendent of Catholic education for the province. His task was not easy. As Bernier soon realized, a growing segment of the English-speaking population, most of them recent arrivals, were in favour of abolishing the dual public school system. He worked conscientiously to ensure that the Catholic schools developed high standards. He also took an interest in advanced education and served as registrar of the University of Manitoba from 1883 to 1893. In 1886 he sent a collection of daily class assignments to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, where the work attracted considerable attention and won diplomas and medals for a number of students in the Catholic system. Gédéon Ouimet, superintendent of public instruction for the province of Quebec, remarked to him, “All things considered, I am of the opinion that our system in Quebec and in your jurisdiction is as comprehensive as the one that has been adopted elsewhere.”
Despite the efforts of Archbishop Taché and of Bernier to preserve the Catholic school system in Manitoba, agitation against linguistic duality continued to grow. In March 1890 the government of Thomas Greenway abolished the dual public school system, as well as the use of French in the legislature, in the courts, and in off-icial documents. Bernier now found himself out of work and toyed with the idea of going into politics. He confided to his friend Boucher de La Bruère on 20 November: “Archbishop [Taché] has always been opposed to the idea of my going into politics. It was he who made me decide to bury myself in administration.” However, the death of Marc-Amable Girard* in 1892 created a vacancy in the Senate and on 27 October Bernier was appointed to the seat by the Conservative government of Sir John Joseph Caldwell Abbott*. As a senator, in 1896 he denounced the Laurier-Greenway agreement, which was considered by many to have settled the Manitoba school question. Speaking on 5 April 1897, he argued that those who believed the deal might in time be improved and further concessions granted to Catholics were deceiving themselves. “We have nothing more to expect in the future, and we have everything to apprehend,” he declared. Bernier’s stand never wavered throughout his life, and he expounded it in numerous articles in the St Boniface weekly Le Manitoba.
Despite what had happened, Bernier remained convinced that the future of the French Canadian people lay in Manitoba rather than the United States; he deplored the exodus to that country and denounced the idea that Providence had given the French Canadians a mission there. As mayor of St Boniface in 1883, 1884, 1886, 1891, and 1897, and as president of a colonization society, he worked tirelessly for the progress of his adoptive province. In 1887 he published a pamphlet entitled Le Manitoba, champ d’immigration (Ottawa), aimed at encouraging his compatriots in Quebec and New England to settle in the west.
Thomas-Alfred Bernier died of a paralytic attack on 30 Dec. 1908 in St Boniface. Le Manitoba emphasized the importance of his contribution to the various fields in which he had been active, concluding: “Perhaps never in the history of St Boniface have more citizens come forward spontaneously to pay their profound respects to the memory of one of their own.”
The Thomas-Alfred Bernier papers at PAM (RG 19, A3) and at the Arch. de la Soc. Hist. de Saint-Boniface, Man., were useful in the preparation of this biography. The Arch. de la Compagnie de Jésus (Saint-Jérôme, Qué.) and the Arch. du Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué., also hold some of Bernier’s correspondence.
In addition to his pamphlet on Manitoba, Bernier is the author of Prêtre, laïque et politique; incidents de la campagne scolaire au Manitoba (Saint-Boniface, 1894) and Question scolaire; discours . . . prononcé devant le Sénat canadien le 5 avril 1897 (s.l., ).
ANQ-M, CE4-7, 15 août 1844, 15 août 1871. Le Manitoba (Saint-Boniface), 1881–1908. Le Métis (Saint-Boniface), 22, 29 avril, 27 mai 1880. Noël Bernier, Fannystelle; une fleur de France éclose en terre manitobaine (Saint-Boniface, 1939). Paul Crunican, Priests and politicians: Manitoba schools and the election of 1896 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1974). Lionel Dorge, Introduction à l’étude des Franco-Manitobains; essai historique et bibliographique (Saint-Boniface, 1973). J. Hamelin et al., La presse québécoise. Man., Legislative Assembly, Journals, “Sessional papers,” 1881–87 (reports of the superintendent of Catholic schools). Newspaper reference book. Rumilly, Mercier et son temps.