CARON, JOSEPH-ÉDOUARD, farmer, office holder, and politician; b. 10 Jan. 1866 in Saint-Roch-des-Aulnaies, Lower Canada, son of Édouard Caron, a farmer, and Marie des Anges Cloutier; m. there first 3 July 1888 Léopoldine Gastonguay (d. 1894); m. secondly 2 Aug. 1897 Mathilda Destroismaisons in the neighbouring village of Sainte-Louise, and they had three children; d. 16 July 1930 at Quebec and was buried 19 July in Sainte-Louise.
Joseph-Édouard Caron grew up on a farm on the third row of concessions at Sainte-Louise. After three years of a commercial course and a year of classical studies at the Collège de Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, he returned to his father’s farm at the age of 14. There he witnessed the beginnings of the dairy industry in the region, with a growing number of butter and cheese factories, which left him with the abiding conviction that agriculture could be profitable provided farmers used more efficient farming methods. By installing a silo to store fodder, he himself would set an example of the reforms to be carried out.
Caron began his long public career in 1893, becoming secretary-treasurer of the municipal council of Sainte-Louise. He would hold this office, as well as that of secretary-treasurer of the school board from 1899, until 1910. He was also secretary-treasurer of the county council from 1895 to 1913, and of the Société d’Agriculture du Comté de L’Islet.
Brought up in a Liberal family, Caron had become active in the political arena at age 17. A member of the electoral machine of François-Gilbert Miville Dechêne, who represented L’Islet riding in the Quebec legislature from 1886 to 1902, Caron distanced himself from the Liberal party in 1899, when Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier* agreed to send a contingent of Canadian troops to South Africa to aid Great Britain in her war with the Boers. At the urging of a coalition of Liberal supporters and Conservatives in the constituency, he ran against the sitting member, Liberal Arthur Miville Dechêne, in the federal election of 7 Nov. 1900. Despite divisions within the local Liberal organization, Dechêne retained his seat. Caron would be accused of having betrayed his party on this occasion, but he defended himself by declaring that he had acted from anti-imperialist convictions. He would, indeed, be a fierce opponent of conscription, attacking it in speeches and in articles in Le Soleil. He would even head the Quebec provincial delegation that marched on Ottawa in May 1918 to protest the mobilization of farmers’ sons.
On 15 Jan. 1902 Caron was again a candidate in L’Islet in the by-election made necessary by Arthur Miville Dechêne’s resignation upon his appointment to the Senate. He ran as a Conservative, but without renouncing his allegiance to the Liberal party. This second attempt also failed. The untimely death in May 1902 of the mla for L’Islet, François-Gilbert Miville Dechêne, would allow him to realize his political ambitions, however. On 26 Sept. 1902, at the age of 36, he was acclaimed as a Liberal in this constituency. He would be re-elected by acclamation in 1904 and by a majority of 470 in 1908.
As a backbencher, Caron took part in various debates concerning the interests of rural voters. Lumbering, colonization, roads, and especially agricultural issues held his attention. In May 1905, for instance, soon after Lomer Gouin had formed his first cabinet, Caron made judicious suggestions to the new minister of agriculture, Auguste Tessier. In particular, he proposed that a system of compulsory inspection and categorization of dairy products be instituted to improve quality control. He also made a fervent plea for the promotion, among the province’s schoolchildren, of agriculture as an occupation. On 21 Jan. 1909 he was appointed minister without portfolio.
At the end of that year, Gouin shuffled his cabinet and Caron became minister of agriculture. His predecessors, who were mostly lawyers, had not always had a practical knowledge of the problems. When the premier, who was much more at home with financial and industrial matters, decided to offer the agriculture portfolio to Caron, a farmer, he made a strategic choice. Caron was sworn in on 18 Nov. 1909 and would retain this office continuously until April 1929. Defeated in his constituency in the election of 15 May 1912, he would immediately be re-elected in Îles-de-la-Madeleine, by a majority of 191, and he would hold this seat without opposition until 1927. In addition to agriculture, his responsibilities would include highways from 1912 to 1914.
Caron was imbued with an agriculturalist ideology. He liked to repeat, from any and every available platform, that work on the land constituted the true foundation of the prosperity of nations. He also warned rural people against the illusory charms of city life. Unlike the most conservative representatives of this school of thought, however, he did not preach a simple return to the traditional way of life and its values. Indeed, the minister saw modernization of farming methods and increased activity in the marketplace as the ways of procuring a decent income for farmers and thereby stemming the rural exodus that the province of Quebec experienced at the outset of the century.
When he came to the ministry of agriculture, which then had about 40 employees, Caron was able to rely on a competent deputy minister, George-Auguste Gigault*, who held this office until his death in 1915. The successor to curé François-Xavier-Antoine Labelle*, Gigault had reoriented the ministry’s policy by supporting local farm clubs and adopting various measures to improve the quality of dairy products. There was still much to do, but financial resources were limited. Things would change, however, during Caron’s term of office.
From 1912 to 1924, under the act passed in April 1912 to promote agriculture, a federal subsidy was paid to the provinces. Until 1919 it represented more than a quarter of Caron’s budget, and ensured that Quebec, like Ontario, equipped itself with a team of county agronomists. The agricultural schools in Oka and Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pocatière, as well as Macdonald College in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, received a substantial part of the federal assistance. From 1916 all the able graduates of these three institutions were hired by the ministry. By the end of 1929 the province’s agronomical service, which had been set up in November 1913, would have a staff of 77 agronomists and 13 assistant agronomists. Although these experts were not at first always well received in the countryside, they provided valuable services to farmers. Through lectures, demonstrations, exhibitions, and contests, they persuaded farmers to make gradual changes in their methods. For instance, the use of good breeding stock, along with improved feed for the herds, led to an increase in milk production, despite a decrease in the number of cows. The agronomists’ work would show even greater results, however, after World War II.
When the federal subsidy was frozen after 1919, and withdrawn five years later, the ministry had to draw more heavily on the provincial treasury. The amount voted for agriculture by the Legislative Assembly almost doubled between 1919 and 1923 and continued to rise after that. Although the Service Agronomique was an important item in the budget, the various programs to stimulate agriculture accounted for most of it. In 1927–28 the ministry’s budgetary appropriation exceeded $2 million, whereas 20 years earlier it had been only $228,000.
Among the noteworthy measures adopted during Caron’s term of office were the act passed in 1915 providing for the compulsory inspection of butter and cheese factories, the organization of short courses in agriculture for farmers, the establishment of demonstration farms in various places across the province, and the opening in Rimouski in 1926 of the first agricultural middle school to train model farmers. He also encouraged poultry farming and fruit growing, but his greatest source of pride was the agricultural cooperatives which proliferated from 1910. The earliest ones had been the work of Gigault, as Caron’s opponents never failed to remind him, but he soon embraced the system and consistently supported the movement throughout his career. In particular, he gave it greater cohesion by forcing the three central cooperatives to amalgamate. The Coopérative Centrale des Agriculteurs de Québec, formed in 1910 as the Société Coopérative Agricole des Fromagers de Québec, had enabled producers to obtain a fair price for the province’s cheese, which had fallen out of favour on the British market. The Comptoir Coopératif de Montréal, founded in 1913, had specialized in selling merchandise to farmers for use in their farming operations. The Société Coopérative Agricole des Producteurs de Semences de Québec had been set up in 1914 and was based in Sainte-Rosalie. These three bodies merged to form a large provincial organization, the Société Coopérative Fédérée des Agriculteurs de la Province de Québec, better known as the Quebec Federated Co-operative.
The three central cooperatives had provided good service to farmers, but as time went on competition between the first two was putting the movement’s very existence at risk. Many people were hoping for a merger. Caron speeded matters up following the sale on 19 Oct. 1921 of the Bulletin des agriculteurs (Montréal), the official organ of the Coopérative Centrale des Agriculteurs, to a group led by agronomists Firmin Létourneau and Joseph-Noé Ponton which supported the United Farmers. A movement that had developed first in the western provinces [see James Speakman*], the United Farmers had gained considerable ground in Quebec beginning in 1918, and the minister feared it would come to control the province’s cooperatives. He manoeuvred in such a way as to have the directors of the Coopérative Centrale who had agreed to the sale replaced by men who were utterly loyal to him. He then had his proposal for a merger ratified by the directors of the three cooperatives and submitted it for approval by the shareholders at a hastily called meeting on 31 Oct. 1922. The statute incorporating the Société Coopérative Fédérée des Agriculteurs de la Province de Québec was enacted on 29 December. The cooperative’s first charter granted the minister substantial powers, tantamount to putting it under his supervision. Caron also appointed the ministry’s accountant to be the manager of the cooperative. These decisions were widely criticized in newspapers not of the Liberal persuasion.
Caron did not show the same broadmindedness in party politics as he did in the administration of his ministry. Responsible for ensuring support for the Liberal party in rural constituencies, he had every reason to fear the rise of the United Farmers at the beginning of the 1920s. Even after its leaders had been defeated at the polls and had redirected their energies towards organizing farmers’ unions, he continued to fight them relentlessly, a more questionable stance on his part. This ideological battle turned into a personality conflict between Caron and Ponton.
These events cast a cloud over the last part of Caron’s career as a minister. To make matters worse, he suffered from serious stomach ailments, something not calculated to improve his disposition. Agronomist Jean-Charles Magnan, who was present in 1929 when Caron bade farewell to the staff of the ministry he had run for nearly 20 years, noted: “That day, he showed himself as fatherly, humble, and human. His heartfelt and friendly words moved us deeply. He was revealing himself in a new light, exhibiting genuine qualities of kindness, generosity, and sympathy . . . When he left, we were almost beginning to miss him.”
A man of great integrity in cabinets that were not always above reproach, Caron was a loyal colleague of Sir Lomer Gouin and his successor, Louis-Alexandre Taschereau*. He referred to himself as Gouin’s “political pupil,” and kept up his friendship with him until the end of his life. Taschereau recognized his services by appointing him to the Legislative Council on 23 Dec. 1927, so that he could continue as minister of agriculture despite his health problems. Late in 1929, irritated by statements made by his ambitious successor, Joseph-Léonide Perron, implying that nothing had been done for agriculture in Quebec until then, Caron obtained Taschereau’s assurance that these remarks had in no way lessened the confidence he had always shown in him.
Possessed of keen intelligence and biting wit, Caron was a fine orator and also a glutton for work – he is said to have typed most of his own correspondence. He was an effective minister and a formidable debater. On the other hand, he was ill served by his stubbornness, which ruled out any compromise with his opponents. He had, however, a clear understanding of the problems of rural life. More than any previous minister he helped to popularize agricultural knowledge. Although the cooperatives did not owe their origins to him, he made them a key instrument in the province’s agricultural policy during his term of office. Even after he was appointed minister of agriculture, he continued to go to Sainte-Louise, where his land was being worked by a farmer. According to a friend of the family, he liked to chat with his fellow parishioners, who had no hesitation in coming to him with their problems after mass or at his home. He took great pride in his rural roots, and debaters on both sides of the Legislative Assembly had to acknowledge his competence in agricultural matters.
Forced to leave politics in April 1929 for reasons of health, Joseph-Édouard Caron accepted the office of vice-president of the Quebec Liquor Commission. He died in July of the following year at the age of 64, leaving his heirs an estate valued at nearly $180,000, including a portfolio of some $50,000, consisting mainly of shares in mining companies. In 1918 the Université Laval had recognized Caron by conferring on him an honorary doctorate in agricultural science. In 1928 his son Amédée had succeeded him as the mla for Îles-de-la-Madeleine.
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