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DUNN, OSCAR, journalist and public servant; b. 14 Feb. 1845 at Coteau-du-Lac, Canada East, son of William Oscar Dunn and Marie-Anne-Mathilde Beaudet; m. 5 Sept. 1876, at Montreal, Marie-Mathilde Leblanc; d. 15 April 1885 in Quebec City.

Oscar Dunn’s ancestor Charles Dunn was a Protestant loyalist of Scottish origin who was prompted to leave the United States by the American revolution, and settled in the parish of Sainte-Ursule, near Rivière-du-Loup (Louiseville, Que.). William Oscar Dunn studied medicine at McGill College and practised at Coteau-du-Lac. He married in 1844, was widowed in 1851, and died in December that year in Bermuda. The guardianship of his children, Oscar and Donalda, was a contentious issue. The Dunns won a first lawsuit, but in the conflict of family influences the French-Catholic Beaudets finally prevailed. In 1855 the Court of Appeal set aside the judgement of the court of first instance.

From 1855 to 1864 Oscar Dunn studied at the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe, where he made friend with the man who would later be his mentor and whom he was to call his adopted father, Abbé François Tétreau. The student was already incapacitated by the sporadic recurrence of a chronic infection which was probably tubercular. His disability made it even harder for him to choose a career and left him perplexed about his future for a long time. Coupled with the traumatic experience of being an orphan whose guardianship had been in dispute, it predisposed him to seek security and understanding.

While still at the seminary, Oscar Dunn contributed to Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, edited by Honoré Mercier*. His schooling finished, he began legal training under Francis Cassidy* and Charles-André Leblanc*, his future father-in-law, but quickly abandoned law for journalism. In June 1866 he was editing Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe and remained with the paper until March 1868, when he sailed for Europe to complete his training as a journalist.

As Paris correspondent for La Minerve of Montreal, he sent articles recording the shifts of public opinion in France and telling readers as much about the Parisian way of life as about his own thinking. Like his predecessor Elzéar Gérin, he also contributed to the Liberal newspaper of Jean-Jacques Weiss, the Journal de Paris. The diocesan journal in Montreal, Le Nouveau Monde, expressed fear concerning the baneful influence of free-thinkers on the Canadian journalist. He suffered petty annoyances, such as insinuations in a series of articles that he was leading “the Parisian life,” and reproaches for the bantering and somewhat derisive tone of his articles. Having had enough of “the study of free-thinking journalism,” Dunn then turned to LUnivers (Paris) for which the ultramontane journalist Louis Veuillot invited him to write an article on Canadian literature, but the draft was abandoned half-way through. In December 1868 and the beginning of 1869 Dunn visited Rome and the Canadian Zouaves, whom he had dreamed of joining. He had an audience with Pius IX, who urged him as a journalist to be upright at all times in order to avoid error.

Refreshed by almost a year spent at the very sources of French culture and of Catholicism, Dunn returned to Canada. However, he did not receive the position that La Minerve had seemed willing to reserve for him and he remained only a contributor. In April 1870 he resumed the editorship of Le Courrier, but retired six months later because of a disagreement with Camille Lussier, the owner of that regional newspaper. The latter considered Dunn was “not religiously minded enough for Le Courrier,” and “too readily accepted the French Republic.” After Dunn had contributed sporadically over a lengthy period to the illustrated journal LOpinion publique (Montreal), he seriously thought of going to France, for Quebec journalism did not offer him secure employment. However, in September 1872 he agreed to join the editorial staff of La Minerve. He remained a member until the autumn of 1873, and then replaced Laurent-Olivier David* at LOpinion publique. In December 1874 Dunn abandoned the role of committed journalist and became co-owner of the Revue canadienne in Montreal, which he left a year later; shortly after, he became a civil servant.

In the period preceding his trip to Europe in 1868, Dunn had not yet departed from conventional ideas; the views he expressed were fundamentally of a didactic and apologetical character and supported the ultramontane scheme. Dunn’s zeal to proselytize – which was equalled only by his patriotic concern – prompted him, among other things, to give a favourable press to the cause of the Zouaves and, almost without realizing what he was doing, to provoke a quarrel between Abbé Joseph-Sabin-Raymond of the Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe, and Louis-Antoine Dessaulles*, mainly about the participation of the teachers at the seminary in political struggles and in the editing of Le Courrier. In politics Dunn was dedicated to the cause of the Conservative party, which he never abandoned; he supported the new confederation by expressing anti-Americanism and a confusing mixture of religion with politics. Soon after his return from Europe the type of article for which he would develop a predilection began to appear under his signature: a short, concise, lively text, always urbane, sometimes humorous, and marked by a preference for reason over wit. Dunn discussed all the major questions of the day. To mention only the best known, these included the Pacific Scandal, the North West Territories, the New Brunswick schools question, and in particular the current politico-religious disputes. Dunn held certain ideas firmly, and these were in line with the stand he took in the name of union, order, and respect. Dunn had an intuitive grasp of the precarious balance of political and social forces. Whether it was the Métis cause, aversion to legislative union or annexation, the redefinition of colonial ties, the attempted amalgamation of the Institut Canadien of Montreal and the Institut Canadien-Français (Montreal), the political union of Catholic forces or that of political parties in Quebec – a subject about which he made one of his most significant contributions to current political thought – Dunn constantly attempted to define the roles and to ensure the survival of Catholic and French-speaking citizens. Religion and patrie: here was his leitmotiv, an inseparable pair. He was one of the first journalists to raise them to the level of values to be protected. Yet his conservatism in no way detracted from his lucidity. Before Benjamin Pâquet*, Joseph-Sabin Raymond, or Wilfrid Laurier*, he made needed distinctions in the unduly confused notion of liberalism; also he did not hesitate to call in question certain tenets which were not integral to it. He spoke readily of compulsory education and universal suffrage. In sum, Oscar Dunn’s thinking during his years as a journalist was that of a conservative with a mind open enough to understand new situations and to benefit from experience.

Fascinated by politics, for him the logical outlet from journalism, Dunn twice entered the electoral fray. But he was inclined to be haughty, and failed to win the support of the voters in the constituency of Saint-Hyacinthe in 1872 or in Soulanges in 1875. The second defeat, which was appealed, was followed by another change in his career for Dunn left Montreal and went to Quebec, where as he said he found himself a “public servant and happy.” He succeeded Napoléon Legendre* as editor of the official Journal de lInstruction publique (Quebec), and held the post until this pedagogical journal ceased publication in 1879. He then went into the secretariat of the Department of Public Instruction, taking Louis Giard’s post in 1882. Public service by no means consigned the former political journalist to oblivion. In 1876 he published Dix ans de journalisme and in 1878 Lecture pour tous, collections of the essays and articles he considered his best, drawn principally from La Minerve, the Revue canadienne, and LOpinion publique. In 1877, as a logical consequence of his enthusiasm for the teaching of drawing, he published a Manuel de dessin industriel à l’usage des maîtres décoles primaires. As opportunity arose he wrote a small number of articles for the Journal de lÉducation, LOpinion publique, and the Nouvelles Soirées canadiennes, all published in Montreal. Only once, in 1882, did he attend the meetings of the Royal Society of Canada, of which he was a member, and he did not contribute to its work. Throughout his life he attached considerable importance to linguistic questions. This interest led in 1880 to the Glossaire franco-canadien, a work which despite imperfections was the first to point out the contribution made by French dialects to the French spoken in Canada. He was unable to complete a revised edition of this study: he died suddenly on 15 April 1885, at the age of 40, at the Garrison Club in Quebec.

Beneath his aristocratic bearing, abrupt manner, ready sarcasm and irony, and dedication to serious study – for example, to bibliophily – this rather diminutive man hid a generous nature and a dry humour that delighted his friends, some of whom were the scholars of the time. His repartee and his anecdotes, deftly handled, seemed to be tossed off to see what effect they would have on his listeners.

Guy Provost

[Oscar Dunn was the author of Pourquoi nous sommes Français (Montréal, 1870); LUnion des partis politiques dans la province de Québec (Montréal, 1874); Dix ans de journalisme; mélanges (Montréal, 1876); Manuel de dessin industriel à lusage des maîtres décoles primaires (Montréal, 1877); Lecture pour tous (Québec, 1878); Glossaire franco-canadien et vocabulaire de locutions vicieuses usitées au Canada (Québec, 1880); and Une disparition mystérieuse (Montréal, 1884), which he signed as Charles de Soulanges.  g.p.]

ANQ-M, État civil, Catholiques, Notre-Dame de Montréal, 1er août 1859; Saint-Ignace (Coteau-du-Lac), 15 janv. 1844, 14 févr. 1845, 15 janv. 1847, 3 juill. 1851; Saint-Joseph (Soulanges), 21 avril 1823; Minutiers, Louis Adam, 20, 30 oct. 1851. ANQ-MBF, État civil, Anglicans, Saint Andrew de Rivière-du-Loup (Louiseville), 7 July 1822; Saint-Joseph (Maskinongé), 8 juill. 1786; Minutier, Eustache Sicard de Carufel, 26 mars 1852. PAC, MG 18, H6, 4: 444; MG 29, D40, 2: 1431–32, 1435; MG 30, D1, 12: 10–103, Décisions des tribunaux du Bas-Canada (17v., Montréal et Québec, 1851–67), V. Catalogue dune bibliothèque canadienne, ouvrages choisis en particulier sur lAmérique et le Canada, 2000 volumes, collectionnés par feu MOscar Dunn (Québec, 1885). Catalogue d’une bibliothèque canadienne, ouvrages sur lAmérique et en particulier sur le Canada collectionnés par MOscar Dunn (Québec, 1880). L.-P. Bender, Literary sheaves, ou la littérature au Canada français (Montreal, 1881). Jean Bruchési, Rappels (Montréal, 1941). Guy Provost, “Oscar Dunn, sa vie, son œuvre” (thèse de d. ès l., univ. Laval, Québec, 1973). F.-J. Audet, “Oscar Dunn” and “Encore Oscar Dunn” in BRH, 34 (1928): 291–94 and 406 respectively. L.-P. Bender, “Quebec City thirty years ago . . . sketch of Oscar Dunn,” Quebec Daily Telegraph, 18, 25 April, 2 May 1908. Jean Bruchési, “À propos d’Oscar Dunn” and “La famille d’Oscar Dunn” in BRH, 34 (1928): 344–46 and 571–74 respectively; and “Oscar Dunn et son temps,” Rev. trimestrielle canadienne (Montréal), 14 (1928–29): 183–204. Alfred Duclos De Celles, “Oscar Dunn,” RSC Trans., 1st ser., 4 (1886), sect.i: 65–70.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Guy Provost, “DUNN, OSCAR,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed December 18, 2014, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dunn_oscar_11E.html.

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Permalink: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/dunn_oscar_11E.html
Author of Article: Guy Provost
Title of Article: DUNN, OSCAR
Publication Name: Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher: University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication: 1982
Year of revision: 1982
Access Date: December 18, 2014