BOIVIN, GUILLAUME, footwear manufacturer and businessman; b. 10 Dec. 1834 in L’ancienne-Lorette, Lower Canada, son of Jean Boivin, a stonemason, and Françoise Anger; m. first 21 May 1860, in the church of Saint-Jean-Baptiste at Quebec, Adéline Lefebvre (d. 1875), and they had at least six children; m. secondly 3 Jan. 1877, at the cathedral of Saint-Jacques in Montreal, Robertine Leclerc, and they had six children; d. 24 May 1912 in Montreal.
Guillaume Boivin attended elementary school in his native village and then was apprenticed as a shoemaker. At age 16 he went to Quebec for further training in his trade. From 1854 to 1856 he lived in Stoneham, Mass., in the heart of the region that dominated the North American footwear industry. It was very likely there that he acquired a thorough knowledge of the technology beginning to revolutionize this sector.
On his return to Quebec City, Boivin opened his first shop in 1856 and brought in machinery three years later. In 1864, describing himself as a master shoemaker, he went into partnership with George Paquet to do business as shoemakers and merchants. The experiment was not a success, however. In 1866 Boivin went bankrupt, and 6,000 pairs of footwear were sold at auction. The firm of Paquet et Boivin apparently disappeared shortly thereafter.
Around 1867 Boivin moved with his young family to Montreal, the Canadian footwear metropolis. For the next 30 years he would manufacture boots and shoes at a factory in the east end of Old Montreal, the geographical heart of this industry in the 19th century. From 1871 to 1873 his premises were located at 300 Rue Saint-Paul, and in 1874 at 42 Place Jacques-Cartier. In the latter year Boivin and Edward Ashworth Whitehead founded the Côté Counter Company, which produced fittings for footwear in an adjacent building. That company went out of business in 1878. As of 1879 Boivin’s factory occupied the two buildings and from 1885 to 1895 it was at 286 and 288 Rue Saint-Paul.
Boivin seems to have begun his career in Montreal in a rather modest way. In 1871 he had a medium-sized business with 45 employees, a fixed capital investment of $13,000, and steam-engines generating three horsepower. In annual output per worker, however, he ranked among the few top manufacturers, a probable indication of his technical knowledge. In 1869 he had been one of those affected by a strike of the Knights of St Crispin. Boivin was interested in all aspects of production and was constantly seeking to innovate. Over the years he would be granted patents for some of his inventions. He earned an enviable reputation among Montreal footwear producers and was one of the major French Canadian manufacturers in the city. Set-backs connected with the economic crisis of the 1870s drove him into bankruptcy about 1881, but he again built a prosperous enterprise that around 1890 had 150 to 200 employees and annual sales of some $200,000.
On 1 Oct. 1892, at the age of 57, Boivin handed over the administration of the firm to his eldest son, Alexandre. From then on he devoted himself to managing his properties and portfolio. Even more important, he embarked on a new career in the field of popular education and leisure. From 1893 until the end of his life, he would be involved in various museum-related enterprises in Montreal. The first project to attract his attention was the Musée Lasalle, a wax museum conceived in 1891 by Raymond Beullac as a permanent exhibit of Canadian history. Boivin became a shareholder, as did Louis-Philippe Hébert the sculptor and Honoré Beaugrand*, a former mayor of Montreal, and he was its vice-president in 1893. After it went bankrupt in March 1894, Boivin invested in the Société des Galeries Historiques, which opened the Musée Éden a few months later in the basement of the Monument National on Rue Saint-Laurent. Around 1897 he took on the management of this museum and he seems to have become its sole owner around 1905. It offered a wide range of entertainment including a wax museum with historical figures and various curiosities, as well as vaudeville shows. In 1897 it screened the first movies filmed by Thomas Alva Edison, and there was a presentation of the “historiographe” [see Henry de Grandsaignes* d’Hauterive]. Boivin later bought a movie projector, and in 1904 the venture became the Musée Eden et Odéon. It may have been about the same time that he founded or bought another entertainment company, the Cosmorama or Tour du Monde. At his death, he would bequeath these two enterprises to his children.
Boivin’s industrial success enabled him to enjoy the comfortable lifestyle of middle-class Montreal society. After living for a time on Rue du Champ-de-Mars, he purchased an elegant house on Rue Saint-Denis in 1880. By then he owned two horses, a cart, and a coach, and the family always kept two or three servants – maid, cook, chambermaid, or coachman. He bought lots outside the city and invested in shares of corporations such as the Bell Telephone Company of Canada and the Montreal Tramways Company, as well as in insurance policies.
In a number of ways Boivin typifies a whole generation of self-made men, British or French Canadian in origin, who dominated Canadian industry in the 19th century. But he stands out from the majority of his peers because of the extent and prominence of his public activities. As a manufacturer, he was engaged in the struggle to defend the interests of a budding industry and obtain protective tariffs. In 1872 he took action to have the patent law amended. He was appointed to the Council of Arts and Manufactures of the Province of Quebec in 1873. For a dozen years he would promote industrial progress and technical education.
It was early in the 1870s that Boivin became involved in the protectionist campaign. Severely affected by the slump in the Canadian economy and Montreal industries after 1873, he was at the forefront of the battle for tariff protection, especially in the riding of Montreal East, which was represented at the federal level by Liberal Louis-Amable Jetté In 1874 Boivin’s leadership and credibility were enhanced when he was invited to testify before the parliamentary committee appointed to look into the condition of the manufacturing sector. He would also be heard by the committee named in 1876 to study the causes of the depression ravaging the economy. Boivin relentlessly championed protectionism. During the summer and autumn of 1875 and the following winter, he organized public meetings and helped found the Protective Association of Montreal. His endeavours continued until the introduction of the National Policy by the Conservatives in 1879. Premier Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau* called him “the father of protection in the province of Quebec.”
Boivin was active on the Montreal Board of Trade from 1876 to 1886 and was a director in 1885. He was also an important member of the Chambre de Commerce du District de Montréal from 1889 until the end of his life: he served nine terms on its board of directors and was second vice-president in 1896 and 1897. He sat on many of its committees, including one on hides and leather (1891–1907) and one on exhibitions and museums (1903–12). Colonization and forests, finances, legislation, and municipal affairs drew his interest as well. For five years he was a member of the chamber’s arbitration tribunal.
Like many French-speaking businessmen of his generation, Boivin espoused liberal ideas but recognized the need for tariff protection, just as he sought to reconcile individualism and nationality. For many years he was a director of the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Montreal. In 1874 he served as its vice-president and chaired the reception committee responsible for the celebrations marking its 40th anniversary. Ten years later, as president of the Saint-Jacques section, he organized the industrial parade on the occasion of the society’s 50th anniversary. This nationalist sensitivity no doubt explains his support in 1864 for the campaign to protect the Monument aux Braves in Sainte-Foy [see Pierre-Martial Bardy*]. He committed himself publicly to a nationalist position at the time of Louis Riel*’s execution in 1885, and endorsed the anti-imperialist stands taken by Sir Wilfrid Laurier at the opening of the 20th century. Although he had been a Conservative in politics since confederation, he supported Laurier in the 1904 election.
Boivin’s political contacts, as well as his position in the French-speaking business world of Montreal, explain his appointment to the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in February 1888 as a replacement for Louis Côté He joined the 15 other commissioners just as they were completing their hearings in Montreal, and attended all the sessions held elsewhere in Quebec, in the Maritimes, and in eastern Ontario. Boivin and five other commissioners signed a minority report. He wrote three appendices devoted respectively to the promotion of the manufacturing sector, the consequences of mechanization, and convict labour. During the commission’s public sessions, Boivin proved to be a well-informed investigator with a diversity of concerns. He was fascinated by anything connected with footwear and the leather trades. With his interest in economics, he tried to verify the effects of industrialization on the cost of living and examined trade between firms. He paid special attention to the organization of labour, the sanitary condition of workshops, and the technical training of workers. He already showed the sensitivity to social issues and the desire for reform that would soon lead him to join the Unions de la Paix Sociale. From 1891 to 1899, in fact, he would participate in this social movement, which was connected to the school of the French sociologist Frédéric Le Play.
Guillaume Boivin was a surprisingly complex man. Like some other artisans of his generation, he succeeded in making the transition to a new mode of production. Though trained to be a master craftsman, he would become a manufacturer. Endowed with considerable technical skills, he displayed a curiosity that went beyond the realm of industry. He studied economics and voiced a conviction that technological progress would have beneficial effects for society and for workers. However, he also examined the social problems created by the very industry whose expansion he favoured. Although he called for state intervention to regulate patents and protect manufacturing, he agreed that legislators must act to improve conditions for working people as well. The study of Boivin’s career is an invitation to go beyond stereotypes to reassess the contributions French Canadian businessmen made to their society.
[The author wishes to acknowledge the research assistance of Claude Bérrardelli, Céline Bouchard, and John Oja, who helped with the fact-gathering, and Fernande Roy, who supplied information on Guillaume Boivin’s activities within the Montreal Chamber of Commerce. j.b.]
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