ARCHAMBEAULT (Archambault), URGEL-EUGÈNE (baptized Urgèle), teacher and school administrator; b. 27 May 1834 in L’Assomption, Lower Canada, son of Louis Archambault, a farmer, and Angélique Prud’homme; brother of Louis Archambault; m. 1 Oct. 1860 Azilda Robitaille in Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, Lower Canada, and they had 11 children; d. 20 March 1904 in Montreal.
Early in the 1840s Urgel-Eugène Archambeault’s father left L’Assomption and moved first to Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, and then to Saint-Jacques-de-l’Achigan, where he died in 1867. The locality had eight rural schools and one in the village. Urgel-Eugène probably discovered his vocation for teaching, a profession which received little recognition, while learning reading, writing, and arithmetic on the benches of one of these schools. On finishing his elementary education he did not go to a classical college as had his elder brother Joseph, who wanted to be a priest. In 1851, at 17 years of age, he chose to become a teacher. He began his career in the country at Saint-Ambroise-de-Kildare and then pursued it at L’Assomption and Châteauguay.
People at that period were starting to question the state of instruction in Lower Canada, and especially the skills and calibre of the lay teachers, both men and women. In 1853 an inquiry into education in Lower Canada under the chairmanship of Louis-Victor Sicotte*, the member for Saint-Hyacinthe, was set up by the Legislative Assembly. Two years later Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau* became superintendent of the Board of Education. He was determined to put into effect a number of the recommendations in the Sicotte report. In 1856 bills were passed authorizing the creation of a periodical on education (the Journal de l’Instruction publique was launched the next year), the founding of normal schools, and the establishment of a council of public instruction. These institutional bases made it possible henceforth for the men and women who embarked upon teaching careers to move in new directions.
Archambeault undoubtedly followed with interest the debates that engendered this transformation of the educational system in Lower Canada. In September 1857 he himself enrolled in the École Normale Jacques-Cartier, which had opened in March. The following year he obtained a diploma for model-school teaching. His initiative in attending normal school gained him a position with the Roman Catholic Board of School Commissioners of the city of Montreal in 1859 as principal of the first Catholic school there to be run by lay teachers, the École Doran. Founded in 1854 and named after its former principal William Doran, the school under Archambeault became the Catholic Commercial Academy of Montreal in 1860.
Having reached the age of 26 and attained a certain status, Archambeault could turn his thoughts to establishing a home and family. That year he married Azilda Robitaille. In 1863 he enrolled again at the École Normale Jacques-Cartier to improve his qualifications. He took courses for a year leading to a diploma in academic teaching, which he was awarded in July 1864.
In the late 1860s various French Canadian leaders were demanding that the educational system be adapted to the economic realities which were transforming Lower Canada. The school board gave Archambeault and Mathias-Charles Desnoyers, its treasurer, permission to travel to a number of major American cities to learn about the different kinds of instruction in the public schools. Upon his return Archambeault was in a position to give fresh impetus to the board’s lay schools. At the opening on 19 June 1872 of a new building for the Catholic Commercial Academy of Montreal, commissioners and representatives of the Quebec government took occasion to stress the importance they attached to both lay schools and practical education. On 27 June L’Opinion publique of Montreal emphasized that the commissioners “wanted to show the great value they set upon [commercial and industrial] education by dedicating this magnificent building to it and by choosing a man of talent and high character to direct it, one of [their] most estimable fellow citizens, M. Archambault.” The building, erected on a promontory in English neo-Gothic style, would thereafter be known as the Académie du Plateau. The following year the board created the post of local superintendent to discharge its supervisory responsibilities for monitoring teachers, conducting course examinations, and determining curricula. Archambeault was the first to hold the position and he retained it until shortly before his death.
Archambeault gradually made a name for himself as an authority on specialized teaching in Montreal. When the Université Laval refused a grant from the provincial government to initiate instruction in applied sciences, the principal of the Académie du Plateau convinced the school board and the government that his establishment could accommodate a true polytechnical school. In October 1873 plans for a scientific and industrial course at the Académie du Plateau were accepted by the new minister of public instruction, Gédéon Ouimet. The École Polytechnique of Montreal would be the result, with Archambeault as its principal. He devoted himself unstintingly until his death to this French engineering school. Poorly subsidized and outside the system of higher education – the classical colleges and the Université Laval, which were dominated by the clergy – this lay school managed none the less to graduate 114 civil engineers during Archambeault’s tenure. This first generation of qualified French Canadians would play an important role in the formation of a new social group in French Canada, engineers. They owed a great deal to Archambeault who, for the survival of the school, had to recruit students, find jobs for its graduates, and campaign for legislation to aid the engineering profession.
Archambeault also played a key role in raising the status of teaching by laity. In 1879 he unhesitatingly and openly criticized the Boucherville act, which three years earlier had made all the bishops ex officio members of the Council of Public Instruction [see Sir Charles-Eugène Boucher* de Boucherville]. In 1881 he drew up a memorandum that was presented to the bishops on that body by 133 Quebec teachers, both men and women. The document explained the nature of the conflict between the lay and religious systems of education. It outlined the claims of the lay teachers, who thought the statute required much more of them than of the religious. Archambeault helped stop the attacks of the ultramontanes, who were demanding outright that the normal schools be abolished. That year, along with three other advocates of lay-controlled education – Abbé Hospice-Anthelme-Jean-Baptiste Verreau and Joseph-Octave Cassegrain among them – he revived the Journal de l’Instruction publique, which had ceased publication two years earlier. From 1880 to 1886 he took an active and important part in drafting and defending a bill on the pensions of those employed in primary teaching. In 1892 Archambeault gave up his post at the Académie du Plateau to assume the office of director general of all the schools under the authority of the Montreal Catholic board. As the 20th century began, he was engaged in providing the École Polytechnique with the building it had always lacked. He died on 20 March 1904, only a few months before the new premises were officially opened.
AC, Montréal, État civil, Catholiques, Cimetière Notre-Dame-des-Neiges (Montréal), 23 mars 1904. ANQ-M, CE5-12, 1er oct. 1860; CE5-14, 27 mai 1834. Arch. de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, Corr. d’U.-E. Archambault. Arch. Hist. de la Commission des Écoles Catholiques de Montréal, Fonds U.-E. Archambault. Bibliothèque Nationale du Québec (Montréal), Fonds Soc. hist. de Montréal, coll. U.-E. Archambault, 101/1/1–101/2/8. L’Opinion publique, 27 juin 1872. La Presse, ler juill. 1886. Jules Archambault, “Notes biographiques sur Urgel-Eugène Archambault” (copie dactylographiée, 2v., Montréal, 1962). L.-P. Audet, “La fondation de l’École polytechnique de Montréal,” Cahiers des Dix, 30 (1965): 149–91; “Urgel-Eugène Archambault . . . ,” Cahiers des Dix, 26 (1961): 143–75; 27 (1962): 135–76; 28 (1963): 219–54; 29 (1964): 159–91. Ruby Heap, “L’Église, l’État et l’éducation au Québec, 1875–1898” (thèse de