HÉBERT, JOSEPH, mail carrier and folk hero; b. 12 July 1830 in Berthier (Berthier-sur-Mer), Lower Canada, son of Jean-Baptiste Hébert, a day labourer, and Marie-Anne Blais; d. October 1919 in the hospital at Harrington Harbour, Que., and was buried 19 October in the cemetery at Tête-à-la-Baleine.
When he was 15 years old, Joseph Hébert decided to follow the example of many others from Berthier and try his luck on the north shore of the St Lawrence. He settled in Tête-à-la-Baleine, on the lower north shore, where he worked as a fisherman and seal hunter. An Oblate missionary who visited the region in 1860 reported that three Roman Catholic families were living there at the time.
In 1879 the federal government decided to establish regular postal service on the lower north shore. This vast region was divided into four sections: from Betsiamites to Pointe-des-Monts, from Pointe-des-Monts to Moisie, from Moisie to Pointe-aux-Esquimaux (Havre-Saint-Pierre), and from there to Blanc-Sablon on the Quebec-Labrador border. “Jos.” Hébert, as he was commonly called, was appointed mail carrier for the last section. His route covered some 450 miles, the few isolated settlements along the way being separated by long stretches with treacherous passages. He had to make the journey from Blanc-Sablon to Pointe-aux-Esquimaux at least twice each winter. Since the terrain was quite flat, he got the idea of using a dog sled, or komatik, for the mail. By this means, he could cover long distances every day, carrying up to about 550 pounds. From 1893 Hébert served only the settlements from Blanc-Sablon to Natashquan. He was met by another carrier who started out from Pointe-aux-Esquimaux. Except for 1890, when Joseph Galibois replaced him, Hébert maintained the service in both winter and summer for 39 years, until his death.
In all the tiny, remote villages through which he passed, Hébert received an enthusiastic welcome. People offered him meals and a warm place to sleep. He appreciated the villagers’ hospitality and took pleasure in celebrating with them when the occasion arose. Short and stocky, he had a beard and long hair as insurance against the cold. He often slept in the open during the winter. He would position his komatik and the mailbags so that they protected him, and surround himself with his dogs for warmth. When a storm suddenly hit, he had no choice but to dig a hole in the snow and huddle there with the dogs.
The man whom Placide Vigneau of Pointe-aux-Esquimaux described as “one of the most popular and best-known men of the shore” would achieve much wider fame through the song “Jos Hébert,” which Gilles Vigneault composed in 1959. The mail carrier of the north shore, “With his Kaska dogs, / His whip, his long snowshoes, / His mailbags, his drag brake, / And his big komatik,” would henceforth call to mind that it takes people of courage, stamina, and energy to build a country.
AC, Québec, État civil, Catholiques, Lourdes de Blanc-Sablon, 19 oct. 1919. ANQ-Q, CE2-2, 13 juill. 1830. Gaston Carrière, Histoire documentaire de la Congrégation des missionnaires oblats de Marie-Immaculée dans l’est du Canada (12v., Ottawa, 1957–75), 4: 42–45; 8: 251–56. [J.-B.-A.] Ferland, Louis Gamache, le Labrador, opuscules (Québec, 1877). Marc Gagné, Gilles Vigneault; bibliographie descriptive et critique, discographie, filmographie, iconographie, chronologie (Québec, 1977). Louis Garnier, Du cométique à l’avion; les pères eudistes sur la Côte-Nord (1903–1946) (Québec, 1947). Damase Potvin, “L’être le plus extraordinaire que j’ai rencontré: Jos. Hébert, le premier postillon de la Côte-Nord,” Concorde (Québec), 3 (1952), no.9: 19–20; no.10: 25–26. Lucien Rioux, Gilles Vigneault (Paris, 1969), 82–83. Placide Vigneau, Un pied d’ancre; journal de Placide Vigneau . . . (Lévis, Qué., 1969).