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CÔTÉ, CYRILLE-HECTOR-OCTAVE (baptized Cyrille-Hector), teacher, physician, politician, Patriote, journalist, and Baptist minister; b. 1 Sept. 1809 at Quebec, son of Charles Côté, a skipper, and Rose Duhamel; d. 4 Oct. 1850 in Hinesburg, Vt.

Cyrille-Hector-Octave Côté’s Acadian ancestors emigrated to Canada in 1756, shortly after the deportation. Stripped of financial resources and in dire poverty, they settled at Quebec and had to engage in several kinds of work to survive. Côté’s father was a skipper, but he also was obliged to become a carpenter or day-labourer during the off-season. While still young, Côté learned that life is harsh and demanding and that he would have to work hard if he wanted to succeed. In these circumstances he developed at an early age the ambitiousness which was one of his striking traits. Given the family’s Acadian roots, it is highly likely that he was also brought up on anti-British sentiment. To escape from his environment he would take one of the few avenues available at that time: education.

In September 1818 his parents enrolled Côté in the Petit Séminaire de Québec, but the disappearance of the honour rolls for the period makes it impossible to assess his achievement. Nor is anything known of the reading he did or the people he met, factors that may have shaped his first political and religious opinions. In 1823 the family moved from Quebec to Montreal, and in September Côté entered the sixth year (Rhetoric) at the Petit Séminaire de Montréal. This period of study ended in 1826 with Côté receiving a first prize in philosophy. On leaving school, Côté was uncertain what direction to take: with his boundless curiosity, everything attracted him. None the less he had to make a living, and that was probably why he went into teaching for the time being.

Côté seems to have been sensitive to the political developments taking place in the province. From 1826 Louis-Joseph Papineau* was consolidating his political leadership of the Canadian party, which became the Patriote party that year. Côté already had an intense admiration for Papineau, whose nationalist ideas he swiftly espoused. In his eyes Papineau was the only man capable of defending the rights of the French Canadian collectivity.

Around 1830, through some meetings with lawyers Édouard-Étienne Rodier and Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine*, Côté was able to join several groups of intellectuals who met in Édouard-Raymond Fabre*’s bookshop and Ludger Duvernay*’s printing-shop. These young men studied the 18th-century philosophes, defended the principles of democracy and the sovereignty of the people, affirmed their unshakeable hostility to the colonial régime, and demanded the separation of church and state. Côté’s early political and social convictions were firmly rooted in these years of reading and reflection.

In 1831 Côté was suddenly attracted to the professions and registered in medicine at McGill College. After a few months there he decided to transfer to the University of Vermont, in Burlington, where in October 1831 he was awarded a certificate of medical studies recognizing his right to practise. But by obtaining his diploma in less than five years he had infringed the regulations governing medical practice in Lower Canada. At its meeting of 7 Jan. 1832 the Board of Examiners for the district of Montreal denied him the right to practise in the province. Three months later Côté was accepted none the less by the Board of Examiners for the district of Quebec, which gave him his licence on 11 April.

In the summer of 1832 Côté decided to set up at Sainte-Marguerite-de-Blairfindie (L’Acadie), where a number of Acadian families had been living for several generations. On his arrival he was put to the test by the cholera epidemic that was striking down children and old people in the parish, and in the fear-ridden community he gave medical care with exceptional zeal. At this time he learned of the death of his mother, who had also succumbed to cholera, and he drew up a will in which he made no reference to religion but commended his soul directly to God. He went to live at Napierville in 1833 and in less than a year became immensely popular because of his dedication.

On 25 June 1833, at Saint-Valentin, Côté married Margaret Yelloby Jobson, eldest daughter of one of the richest farmers, Thomas Jobson, who was also barrack master on the Île aux Noix. There was no longer any doubt that Côté belonged to the rural petite bourgeoisie. He had no land or capital, but he owned one of the finest houses in the village of Napierville, an achievement that set him apart from the craftsmen and farmers. In addition, his education gave him considerable influence in local matters. He soon came into conflict with curé Noël-Laurent Amiot when he demanded that parish property be administered by leading figures of the laity elected by the parishioners as a whole. On the other hand, he supported the cause of the farmers, who among other things were grappling with the unending increase in seigneurial dues.

The prestige that Côté enjoyed whetted his interest in politics. In November 1834 he easily won election to the Lower Canadian House of Assembly for L’Acadie, and he retained his seat until 1838. Receptive to the constitutional demands of the assembly and angry about the seigneurs’ encroachments in his region, he soon attracted the attention of the French Canadian members. His decided views on the Roman Catholic Church, the colonial government, the seigneurial regime, and the farming class also led him to some intellectual affinity with the Patriote party radicals in the house. A doctor who read the Bible and was fascinated with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, Côté was sensitive to issues related to colonialism and attentive to democratic and republican ideas. He took an interest in legislation concerning the seigneuries, as well as in the drawing up of lands rolls, and by this time he had personal views about the workings of the seigneurial system that seem to have shaped his democratic and social ideas.

In 1836 Côté was called to testify before a committee of the assembly investigating the land issue and the seigneurial regime. He denounced the high rents imposed in the seigneury of Léry and took exception to the numerous illegal practices of the seigneurs in his region. Not wanting to frighten the moderate group in the Patriote party, he advocated reform of the system. He continued none the less to call in question the entire institutional basis of French Canadian society: the union of church and state, the seigneurial regime, and the denominational school. As a democrat and republican he saw that the idea of national independence had to be linked with the real demands of a social revolution. Despite his profound disagreement with Papineau over the seigneurial question, Côté – probably for strategic reasons – attached himself to the moderate wing, which was dedicated primarily to the achievement of national independence.

It was mainly on the local level, however, that Côté’s political endeavours carried the most weight. From 1835 till 1837 he travelled around the parishes and participated in public assemblies. By the eve of the rebellion he had become the chief spokesman for the Patriote movement in his region. On 7 May 1837 he took part in the meeting at Saint-Ours. On 17 July he presided with Papineau over the one held at Napierville. In September he joined the Fils de la Liberté, a group of revolutionaries in Montreal. On 23 October he attended the great Assemblée des Six Comtés, at which he delivered a particularly vigorous speech. Two days later he attacked the bishop of Montreal, Jean-Jacques Lartigue, and his pastoral letter of 24 October. Acting on his own, Côté set up a revolutionary organization in his county in November, gathering together a number of farmers and forcibly taking from the presbyteries of Napierville and Saint-Valentin the money needed for arms. Nevertheless, the set-back suffered by the Patriotes at Saint-Charles-sur-Richelieu on 25 November was confirmation for him that the rebellion would not continue in his region. Forced into exile because a price had been set on his head, he reached the United States, from which he hoped to organize another rebellion.

From late December 1837 Côté played an important role in the split between the moderate and radical elements in the Patriote movement. For him Papineau was no longer the man for the situation; his secret departure from Saint-Denis on the Richelieu on 23 November and his repeated vacillation during the events of 1837 led Côté to reject his leadership. It was at this time as well that he established an enduring friendship with Dr Robert Nelson*. At the meetings held in Middlebury and Swanton, Vt, early in January 1838, the two of them, successfully thrusting Papineau aside, imposed their views on the rebellion and made new plans for an invasion. Côté and Nelson were at the peak of their influence and in control of the Patriote movement. They took the initiative in drawing up a declaration of independence for Lower Canada evoking the broad directions that the future Patriote government would take: creation of a republic, institution of equality of rights for all citizens, separation of church and state together with establishment of religious freedom, abolition of feudal tenure and tithes, and removal of the death penalty.

On 28 Feb. 1838 Côté and Nelson set out on foot at the head of 300–400 Patriotes to conquer Lower Canada. But on crossing the border they were quickly repulsed by British troops. Back in the United States, Côté, Nelson, and several other leaders, including Chevalier de Lorimier and Lucien Gagnon, were arrested for violating American neutrality, but they were rapidly discharged by a sympathetic Vermont court. After the failure of the February invasion Côté attempted to regroup the Patriote movement. He planned a secret military organization, the Association des Frères-Chasseurs, with branches in Lower Canada and the United States. His traces are difficult to follow closely at this period. It is certain that in April he went to live in Plattsburgh, N.Y., where he practised medicine on occasion. It was also in the spring of 1838 that his relations with the fugitives began to deteriorate. A stubborn man, Côté defended his ideas with extraordinary vehemence, often in defiance of those around him. Several times in the course of the summer he went off to Lower Canada to work on organizing the Frères-Chasseurs. All his activity was focused on preparing for a new invasion through this secret society.

Côté and Nelson set the second uprising for 3 Nov. 1838. They arrived at Napierville that night and with their men took possession of the village, where they established a camp for the insurgents. As the general in charge of the camp, Côté used every tactic to obtain arms and supplies for the Patriotes. He succeeded, for example, in wheedling £327 out of the fabrique of Saint-Cyprien in Napierville. On 5 November he was in command of a 500-man detachment that went to get arms stored at Rouses Point, N.Y. Once again the Patriotes were easily defeated by volunteers attached to the British army. On 9 November the decisive battle was fought at Odelltown, Lower Canada, and ended in the defeat of the insurgents [see Charles Hindenlang]. Disappointed and bitter, Côté managed to return to the United States.

After the November failure Côté became touchy and distrustful of the people around him. He could not stand being annoyed, refused ever to recognize that he was wrong, and thus set a number of Patriotes against him. In meetings at Swanton on 24 Jan. 1839 and at Corbeau, N.Y., on 18 March, Côté attacked the apathy of certain insurgents and showed a deep hostility to Papineau. He demanded that the organization get rid of its former leader, whose negative attitude was in his view doing considerable harm to the movement. He also peppered his comments with often vicious attacks against the Catholic Church, which he held responsible for the collapse of the 1837–38 insurrections. Criticized by Édouard-Élisée Malhiot* and denounced by parish priest Étienne Chartier*, Côté was accused of sowing discord in the revolutionary ranks. He none the less rejected every ideological compromise. In the course of the summer of 1839 there was a rash of defections, disagreements, dirty tricks, and personality conflicts. Côté increasingly became the target for the fierce reproaches of the insurgents, who found him more execrable with every passing day. Except for Nelson and Gagnon, all were against him. In September Côté settled at Swanton to practise his profession. Eager to have revenge on Papineau and some of his former companions, he wrote several articles in the North American, which was published there. He was wounded by the insults heaped upon him and downcast at the failure of his dream of independence for Lower Canada, and he definitively abandoned the Patriote movement at the end of 1840.

In February 1841 Côté moved to Chazy, N.Y. There he dreamt of leading a quiet life and practising medicine with complete peace of mind. That year he met Henriette Odin* and Louis Roussy*, who converted him to Protestantism. His political failure thus resulted in withdrawal into a religious struggle. In 1843, following the amnesty, Côté returned to Lower Canada and preached in several parishes in the Saint-Hyacinthe and Dorchester (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu) region. A great many priests in the diocese of Montreal feared this well-educated and clever apostate, who openly attacked the Catholic Church and its institutions in his sermons. At Saint-Pie the parishioners subjected him to a charivari which lasted a week and culminated in the setting on fire of the house in which he was preaching. In 1844 Côté went back to the United States and spent a month at Savannah, Ga, where he was treated for pneumonia. He returned to Lower Canada that year, was ordained a Baptist minister, and became pastor for Saint-Pie.

Despite the contempt and insults of his compatriots, Côté continued to believe in the validity of his choice of religion and persisted in his fight against Roman Catholicism. He also managed to gather a few of the faithful about him. In 1848 he left his congregation and went to Philadelphia, where the American Baptist Publication Society asked him to help distribute proselytizing works. That year he published a French translation of Stephen Remington’s Reasons for becoming a Baptist. In 1848 and 1849 he wrote some pamphlets stressing the basic principles of Protestantism. At that time his reflections on baptism and marriage heightened his influence in Canada and the United States.

Late in 1849 Côté was back in Lower Canada, where he was appointed minister for Sainte-Marie-de-Monnoir (Marieville). In September 1850, being recognized as a missionary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society, he planned to attend an important Baptist meeting in Hinesburg. But on the way he had a heart attack and was rushed to Hinesburg, where he died on 4 October.

Côté had doubtless been one of the most worthy representatives of the radical Patriotes. An advocate of a doctrinaire liberalism, known for his anticlericalism, he had chiefly wanted to reconcile the idea of national independence with the goals of a real social revolution. But his fierce opposition to Papineau, his incessant quarrels with the moderates, and his sharp attacks on the clergy had contributed greatly to making him vulnerable. What did it all amount to? Through his boldness and his radical ideas Côté might have shaken up his era.

Richard Chabot

Among the pamphlets which Cyrille-Hector-Octave Côté wrote for the American Baptist Pub. Soc. are Un mot en passant à ceux qui ont abandonné l’Église romaine et ses traditions (Montréal, 1848), translated as The basis of infant baptism; a word in passing to those who have abandoned the church of Rome and her traditions (1853), and Letter from RevDrCHOCote to Kirwan, (RevDrMurray,) on the subject of Christian baptism (Elizabethtown, N.Y., 1849). He also translated Stephen Remington, Reasons for becoming a Baptist (Philadelphia, n.d.) into French.

ANQ-E, CN2-8, 31 oct. 1843. ANQ-M, CE4-16, 25 juin 1833; CN1-122, 1er août 1832; CN4-24, 16 oct. 1843; CN4-30, 26 juin 1834, 3 nov. 1835. ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 1er sept. 1809; E17/31, no.2437. Arch. de la chancellerie de l’évêché de Saint-Hyacinthe (Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué.), XVII C33, 25 mars, 22 juin 1849. Arch. du diocèse de Saint-Jean-de-Québec (Longueuil, Qué.), 13A/79–83, 13A/ 85–86, 13A/92, 13A/98, 16A/58. BVM-G, Fonds Ægidius Fauteux, notes compilées par Ægidius Fauteux sur les patriotes de 1837–38 dont les noms commencent par la lettre C, carton 3. PAC, MG 24, B2: 2322–25, 2350–53, 2368-71, 2381–82, 2400–3, 2412–19, 2496–99, 2515–17, 2531–38, 2550–52, 2565–68, 2591–94, 2672–75, 2721–24, 2729–32, 2735–38, 2741, 2766–73, 2826–29, 2853–56, 2965–68, 2973–78, 2983–86, 2991–3002, 3008–11, 3031–34, 3123–26, 3208–13, 3221–22, 3232–35, 3263–64, 3293–96, 3371–74, 3425–28, 3441–44, 3478–83, 3748–51, 3993–98; B18, 1: 11; B34: 34–36; C3: 47–48, 85–86, 101, 614–15, 867–68, 897–99, 919–20, 1163–67, 1201–8, 1257–61, 1318–25, 1335–50, 1356–61, 1601–4, 1616–20, 1628–29, 1668–70, 1699- 1700, 1721–22, 1726–27, 1744, 1747, 1841–44, 1846, 1871–72, 1951–52, 1969–70, 2018, 2033–38, 2161–65, 2219–22; MG 29, D61, 6: 1920; MG 30, Dl, 9: 47–49; RG 4, AI, 516: 1–6, 74; 524: 8; B28, 52: 1581–82; B37, 1: 111, 597, 599. Narcisse Cyr, Memoir of the RevCHOCote, M.D., with a memoir of Mrs. MYCote and a history of the Grande Ligne mission, Canada East (Philadelphia, 1852). L.C., House of Assembly, Journaux, 1835–36: 86; app.EEE. Quebec Gazette, 1 July 1833. P.-G. Roy, Fils de Québec, 3: 157–59. Mario Gendron, “Tenure seigneuriale et mouvement patriote: le cas du comté de L’Acadie” (thèse de ma, univ. du Québec à Montréal, 1986), 88–89, 93, 126–27, 130–32, 139–41, 156–59. Sylvio Leblond, “Docteur Cyrille-Hector-Octave Côté (1809–1850),” L’ Union médicale du Canada (Montréal), 102 (1973): 1572–74; “Le docteur Cyrille-Hector-Octave Côté et le mouvement baptiste français au Canada,” Laval médical (Québec), 29 (1960): 633–41.

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Richard Chabot, “CÔTÉ, CYRILLE-HECTOR-OCTAVE,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed February 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cote_cyrille_hector_octave_7E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/cote_cyrille_hector_octave_7E.html
Author of Article:   Richard Chabot
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 7
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1988
Year of revision:   1988
Access Date:   February 24, 2024