ARCHAMBAULT, LOUIS, artisan, building contractor, and promoter of benefit societies; b. 7 March 1829 in L’Assomption, Lower Canada, son of Louis Archambault, a farmer, and Angélique Prud’homme; m. first 11 Jan. 1853 Odile Leblanc in Saint-Jacques-de-l’Achigan, Lower Canada; m. secondly 29 April 1886 Luce Pelland of Montreal (d. 1898), widow of Ambroise Gélinas, dit Lacourse; m. thirdly 12 Oct. 1898 Hermine Coderre, widow of Joseph Cormier, in Saint-Ours, Que.; m. lastly, some time after 1900, Marguerite Audet, dit Lapointe; d. 2 Oct. 1906 in Saint-Eustache, Que.
Louis Archambault was the second child in a family with three girls, Célina, Anne, and Philomène, and two other boys, Joseph and Urgel-Eugéne. He left Saint-Jacques-de-l’Achigan in 1863 and established himself in Montreal as a carpentry contractor. There he oversaw the construction of the Catholic Commercial Academy of Montreal [see Urgel-Eugène Archambeault], opened in 1872, and of the Institut des Aveugles. Later he became works manager for the Roman Catholic Board of School Commissioners.
Soon after his arrival in the city, Archambault had become a member of the Canadian Society of Joiners and Carpenters of Montreal. This association had been founded on 6 Dec. 1853 by Antoine Mayer after a serious fire in July 1852 burned down a section of Montreal east of the Champ-de-Mars, destroying more than a thousand homes and making it necessary to rebuild a quarter of the city. It was in this period of reconstruction that Archambault began promoting mutual benefit insurance within the organization. In 1865 he was elected president by his colleagues, and during the three years he served in this capacity he tried to draw in reluctant joiners and carpenters and get them to contribute to the insurance fund, which provided benefits in case of illness or death.
This first association, which was the forerunner of the French Canadian Artisans’ Society of the City of Montreal, limited itself to bringing members of a single trade together on mutual benefit principles. Thus it was not the broadly based organization its founders had envisaged. After a precarious 23-year existence, it no longer had the required minimum of eight members and had to disband. On 8 Oct. 1876 the three remaining joiners and carpenters liquidated the assets with a view to creating a benevolent society open to members of “all commercial, industrial, and manual trades” who did not work in an unsanitary environment; it was to become, in effect, a life insurance cooperative.
At the first provisional meeting, held on 9 Oct. 1876, Archambault was elected president and in this capacity he was authorized to “withdraw the funds [held by] the treasurer of the Society of Joiners and Carpenters of Montreal, namely, 150 dollars, and to use them for the purpose of incorporating the French Canadian Artisans’ Society of Montreal.” On the strength of this resolution, he set to work. He gathered together a few of his former colleagues from the mutual benefit movement. His brother Urgel-Eugène gave him information about the operations of the workers’ brotherhoods that he had heard about in Europe. Nine members, who came to be considered the founders of the French Canadian Artisans’ Society of the City of Montreal, signed a petition to the Quebec Legislative Assembly requesting legal recognition for the new society. Its purpose would be to provide coverage for members in the event of illness or death, “in return for a monthly payment based on the applicant’s age [and] on the face value and type of his insurance.” Incorporation was achieved on 28 Dec. 1876.
Primarily oriented toward individual advancement, the society also had patriotic and religious objectives. The “progress of the country” was interpreted as the “preservation of language, traditions, and faith.” According to J.-Z.-Léon Patenaude’s research, it was in reaction to the freemasons and similar organizations such as the Foresters that a number of French Canadian benevolent societies were set up. Hence the first requirement for membership in the new artisans’ society was “to be Catholic and not to belong to any secret or other society forbidden by the Catholic Church.” It was also necessary to be of good character and healthy, not to work at certain occupations dangerous to health, to be at least 18 and not more than 45, to be French Canadian (or considered such) or French, and to speak the French language.
In his report of 5 Sept. 1877 the society’s treasurer noted that it still had only 15 members. Recruitment was difficult because of the economic depression. In 1878 only six new members joined. Despite these modest beginnings, the pioneers persisted. The board of directors met every Tuesday evening at eight o’clock to deliberate. At the outset, the society made its headquarters on the ground floor of Louis Archambault’s home, where he had converted his joiner’s shop into a comfortable room. It was here, in these premises on Rue Cadieux, that he had first begun to work at his daytime trade.
In 1876 Archambault had become president of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal. The members of the artisans’ society must have shared his patriotic sentiments for, beginning in 1884, they gathered under the banner of their society to march in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste parade on 24 June. There were then 110 of them.
Archambault was president of the artisans’ society until 1884 except for three brief periods: 5 Sept. 1878 to 6 March 1879, 3 March to 5 April 1881, and 6 March to 19 June 1883. Essayist Jacques-André Lamarche explains these gaps by the fact that “his occupation as a contractor and joiner required [Archambault] to be away from home quite often.” By January 1880 Archambault had become chairman of the board of the Banque Ville-Marie. The new board considered itself compelled to liquidate the bank. It had been badly managed during the depression of the 1870s, when too many loans had been approved, and now it could not pay its debts. Archambault watched closely as parliament passed the act defining the liquidation process.
According to historian Ronald Rudin, on 13 Aug. 1880, when the shareholders had been convened to elect three liquidators, “the meeting, to the great surprise of Archambault and of many shareholders, refused to appoint liquidators and decided instead, by a narrow majority, to turn the bank into a successful business once more.” Despite Archambault’s efforts at persuasion, the shareholders, who underestimated the bank’s bad debts, refused to consider a closing in which they stood to lose everything. In June 1881 he was replaced as chairman of the board by William Weir, who would hold office until the bank failed in 1899. With Weir’s arrival, all the French-speaking directors were gradually replaced by his English-speaking friends.
At the end of 1884, after eight years as president of the artisans’ society, Archambault resigned and presented his successor to the meeting. The 144 members elected alderman Joseph Lamarche, a Montreal sheet-metal worker and roofer, to replace him. Now 55 years old, Archambault went back to his work as a building contractor. With the return of prosperity, construction was booming. Fifteen years later, at 70, he became a farmer on land along the Richelieu, probably at Saint-Ours.
After he had resigned the presidency, Archambault continued to take part in meetings of the artisans’ society. It grew from 103 members in 1884 to 676 in 1888. That year the first article of the constitution was amended to make it possible for people in the liberal professions to be enrolled. Membership increased even more rapidly, reaching 1,651 by 1889. For the first time, the society could lower the monthly payment for life insurance from one dollar to 85 cents and pay $1,000 to the beneficiaries.
Until the end of his life Archambault regularly attended the annual meetings. He died in Saint-Eustache on 2 Oct. 1906 at the age of 77, two months before the society’s 30th anniversary. He was buried in Notre-Dame-des-Neiges cemetery, Montreal. In November the general council began raising funds to erect a monument honouring its founder. A bust of Louis Archambault, done by Alfred Laliberté*, was unveiled on 12 Sept. 1909.
With 30,000 members, the society was the strongest French Canadian mutual benefit association of the time. Several thousand people attended Archambault’s funeral. The messages of condolence all emphasized his modest social background as well as his religious, patriotic, and humanitarian sentiments. The distinguishing feature of “this worker’s accomplishment,” according to the society’s members, was its “fraternal, national, religious, and democratic” character.
ANQ-M, CE5-14, 7 mars 1829. Le Devoir, 24 févr. 1976; 18 avril 1977: 19. L.-A. Bélisle, Références biographiques, Canada – Québec (5v., Montréal, 1978), 1: 17. “Condoléances,” L’Artisan (Montréal), 7 (1906): 159. DAF (Dufresne et al.), 344. “Les funérailles du fondateur,” L’Artisan, 7: 159–61. J.-A. Lamarche, Les 100 ans dune coopvie (Montréal, 1977); Le mouvement Desjardins (Lévis, Qué., 1962). “Louis Archambault, fondateur,” L’Artisan, 1 (1900): 22. L.-J. Marien, “La petite histoire de la Société des artisans” (dossier ronéotypé, Montréal, 1952). “Médaille du fondateur,” L’Artisan, 7: 101. “M. Louis Archambault,” L’Artisan, 7: 158. “Quelques mots sur l’histoire de notre société,” L’Artisan, 3 (1902): 5–11. Règlement de la Société des artisans canadiens-français de la cité de Montréal sous le patronage de la Sainte-Famille (Montréal, 1898). P.-G. Roy, “Les monuments commémoratifs de la province de Québec,” BRH, 30 (1924): 8. Ronald Rudin, Banking en français: les banques canadiennes-françaises de 1835 à 1925 (Montréal, 1988), 87–95. Robert Rumilly, Histoire de la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Montréal: des patriotes au fleurdelisé, 1834–1948 (Montréal, 1975). G. Sauriol, Le cinquantenaire de la Société des artisans canadiens-français . . . 1876–1926 ([Montréal], 1926). “Un monument au fondateur,” L’Artisan, 7: 177.