DENIS, ARSÈNE (baptized Pierre-Arsène Denys), farmer, stockbreeder, office holder, agricultural-society administrator, and politician; b. 8 March 1857 in Saint-Norbert, Lower Canada, son of Dieudonné Denys, a farmer, and Odile Masse; m. first there 21 Jan. 1879 Georgiana Laporte (d. 21 Feb. 1930), and they had 15 children; m. secondly 22 Sept. 1931 Hermina Larue, widow of Acté Lambert, in Joliette, Que.; d. 3 Oct. 1936 in Saint-Norbert.
In 1882, two years before Dieudonné Denys died at the age of 49, Arsène Denis, the second of 14 children, was given the 200-acre parcel of his father’s land in Saint-Norbert. In accepting this settlement, he agreed to certain commitments to his younger siblings: to pay for the classical studies of three of his brothers and help the others get established, and to provide dowries for his sisters. He also had to look after his mother, his own children, and, later on, six orphaned nephews.
The following year Denis tried raising trotting horses. As he would note in 1920 in Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, he quickly abandoned this idea. “I realized that trotters were better suited to the rich than to farmers burdened with debt[,] as I was.” He turned instead to raising the Canadian horse, famed for its overall usefulness, but undervalued because of its light weight, a characteristic for which Denis attempted to find a remedy. He also took an interest in the campaign led by the veterinarian Joseph-Alphonse Couture* to preserve the Canadian cow. After purchasing ten pure-bred specimens in the region north of Joliette, he worked to improve their size, appearance, and productivity. Through appropriate care and proper feeding, he managed to double his herd’s annual production, which sometimes climbed as high as 10,000 pounds of milk per cow. He took part in the major Canadian exhibitions, where he had the opportunity to meet buyers. He won numerous prizes, notably at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901, thereby establishing a solid reputation. According to what he would write in 1920 in Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, raising pure-bred animals (horses, cows, and sheep) enabled him to provide for his large family.
The provincial department of agriculture often sought Denis’s stockbreeding expertise, which was why, for example, he made several trips to Scotland, where he bought swine and sheep. In addition, the department put him in charge of importing Percheron and Belgian horses. Denis also appeared as a speaker and judge at agricultural fairs (including the competition for the Order of Agricultural Merit from 1896 to 1928), sat on the Council of Agriculture, and was head of the Industrial Dairy Society of the Province of Quebec. It was easier for him to take on these duties once his children were old enough to look after the family farm. From 1897 to 1926 the government paid him just over $12,650 for his services.
It was with stockbreeders’ associations, however, in which he continued to be active until 1934, that Denis made his greatest contributions to agricultural advancement. He was at the centre of every initiative to improve the livestock industry in the province of Quebec. In 1895 he helped found the Société Générale des Éleveurs d’Animaux de Race Pure de la Province de Québec, and he missed its annual meeting only once in 40 years, because of his first wife’s death. As well, he sat on the boards of the four principal affiliated organizations (for horses, cattle, swine, and sheep), and he was president of the Société des Éleveurs de Bovins Canadiens from its foundation in 1895 until 1924.
Denis was also active in municipal politics for nearly 30 years, including 25 as mayor of Saint-Norbert and some 10 (from 1889) as warden of the county of Berthier. His political allegiance to the Liberal Party earned him the confidence of the provincial minister of agriculture, Joseph-Édouard Caron*, but made him suspect in the eyes of Caron’s opponents, such as agricultural journalist Joseph-Noé Ponton*, farmer Laurent Barré*, and agriculture professor Firmin Létourneau. These Conservatives, who were founding members of the Union Catholique des Cultivateurs, regarded Denis as the minister’s pawn.
A constant desire for improvements in agriculture in the province led him to support the cooperative movement. First, from 1914 to 1922, he served on the management board of the Société Coopérative Agricole des Producteurs de Semences de Québec in Sainte-Rosalie. As the most influential man on the board, he was authorized to take part in preliminary discussions to amalgamate the society with the two other large central cooperatives, the Coopérative Centrale des Agriculteurs de Québec and the Comptoir Coopératif de Montréal. In 1923, with the backing of agriculture minister Caron, he became the first president of the Quebec Federated Co-operative. He headed the organization at the time when it had to battle its private-sector competitors and win over its detractors in the farming community. At the 1931 general meeting the members of the board of directors elected a new president by a vote of five to four.
By involving himself in social issues, Arsène Denis stood out from the other farmers of his time. His family, his fellow citizens, and the entire farming community of Quebec benefited from his business acumen. The Société Générale des Éleveurs d’Animaux de Race Pure de la Province de Québec paid tribute to him by organizing a banquet in his honour at the close of their convention in 1934, the year in which he retired for health reasons. On this occasion, Adélard Godbout*, the minister of agriculture, presented him with the medal of commander of the Order of Agricultural Merit. Denis was decorated with the King George V Silver Jubilee Medal in 1935. He died on 3 Oct. 1936 after a career devoted to promoting the livestock industry in the province of Quebec.
Arsène Denis is the author of “M. Arsène Denis en 1882 et en 1920,” Le Bull. des agriculteurs (Montréal), 17 juill. 1920: 9.
BANQ-CAM, CE605-S35, 8 mars 1857, 21 janv. 1879. École des Hautes Études Commerciales, Service des arch. (Montréal), P012, A; P062, A. FD, Cathédrale Saint-Charles-Borromée, Joliette, Québec, 22 sept. 1931; Saint-Norbert, Québec, 24 févr. 1930. LAC, R233-35-2. Le Devoir, 5 oct. 1936. Le Soleil, 23 févr. 1934. “Une carrière bien remplie,” Le Bull. de la ferme (Québec), 1er mars 1934: 84. Claude Beauchamp, “Les débuts de la coopération et du syndicalisme agricoles, 1900–1930: quelques éléments de la pratique,” Recherches sociographiques (Québec), 20 (1979): 337–81. Concours Provincial de Mérite Agricole, Rapport des juges (Québec), [1893?]: 41–42. Jacques Saint-Pierre, “Arsène Denis (1857–1936): un exemple de dévouement,” Le Coopérateur agricole (Montréal), 26 (1997), no.5: 14; Histoire de la Coopérative fédérée: l’industrie de la terre (Québec, 1997).