GÉRIN, ELZÉAR (baptized Édouard-Elzéar), journalist, lawyer, and politician; b. 14 Nov. 1843 at Yamachiche, Canada East, son of Antoine Gérin, dit Lajoie, and Amable Gélinas; m. 14 Oct. 1873 at Trois-Rivières Marie-Agathe-Élodie Dufresne; d. during the night of 18–19 Aug. 1887 at Montreal, Que.
Elzéar Gérin spent his childhood in the family home in the region of Yamachiche called Petites-Terres. He followed his elder brother Antoine to the Séminaire de Nicolet in 1857 for the usual secondary studies, which he completed in 1863. He was strongly influenced there by Abbé Louis-François Laflèche*, who from 1856 to 1861 was teacher in mathematics and philosophy, prefect of studies, and superior of the college.
His classical studies finished, Elzéar Gérin soon joined his elder brother in Quebec and made his start in journalism with Le Journal de Québec. Antoine Gérin-Lajoie was at that time seriously overworked; he was not only the deputy parliamentary librarian, but also the manager, treasurer, and secretary of Le Foyer canadien. Hence he asked Elzéar (already known through his publication of a history of the Quebec Gazette in 1864) to enliven the periodical by writing a monthly column, which the paper was to carry from 10 January to 15 June 1866. In his column Gérin reflected on the plan for confederation, the United States, which had just “laid down arms,” and European politics, to which he thought the Canadian press did not attach enough importance. In the July 1866 issue of Le Foyer canadien, Hector Fabre* took over the column from Gérin, who had accepted the editorship of the recently established Ottawa newspaper, Le Canada.
Elzéar Gérin left Quebec without regret. At the Institut Canadien-Français of Ottawa, in a talk on “Québec jadis et aujourd’hui,” he admitted it openly: “I am not one of those who miss everything they have left at Quebec, everything including the northeast wind. I should like to talk to you about Quebec as a man who lived there without becoming attached to it, who no doubt sometimes had a pleasant time there, but who was more often bored there.”
The first issue of Le Canada had come out on 21 Dec. 1865. A tri-weekly, the paper became what its owners, the brothers Louis-Napoléon and Ludger Duvernay*, wanted it to be, “the advocate of our faith and of our distinct nationality in the capital.” Gérin, who on 13 May 1866 was elected to the management committee of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Ottawa, decided to ensure that the national festival would be especially spectacular by bringing together volunteers through the columns of his paper. The climax of this patriotic festival in 1866 was obviously Laflèche’s sermon in the cathedral at Ottawa in which he went over briefly the arguments of his book, Quelques considérations sur les rapports de la société civile avec la religion et la famille, whose publication Gérin had announced in his paper. Certain passages of the address by Laflèche aroused enthusiasm in some, but filled others, such as Liberal member of the Legislative Assembly Jean-Baptiste-Éric Dorion*, with explosive indignation. “So I say again,” stressed Laflèche, “the heaviest tax imposed upon us by the conquest is the necessity to learn English. Let us pay it honourably, but only as required. . . . It has been my privilege to travel in the United States. There I met compatriots who received me hospitably. I spoke in French to the small children clustering round their mother; they did not understand me.”
“All would have been for the best in the best of all worlds,” Gérin wrote in his paper, “if M. Éric Dorion had not permitted himself to make the most unseemly remarks concerning the situation of French Canadians in the United States.” Dorion, the “Enfant Terrible” whose opposition to confederation was strengthening his annexationist sympathies and admiration for the great neighbour to the south, was in Ottawa for the parliamentary session and he reacted vehemently to Laflèche’s assertions. He, also, had visited many towns and villages in the United States where thousands of Canadians were settled, and he was proud to report favourably on their prosperity and their love for the beautiful French language.
A friend of Dorion’s was offended by Gérin’s remark and, under the pen-name of “Pic Dur,” on 23 July sent Dorion’s paper, Le Défricheur (L’Avenir, Que. ), a playful description of a picnic that he alleged had taken place the previous Sunday, at the time of high mass, on the banks of the Ottawa River. Besides Gérin, those present included Joseph Royal*, “a writer of high principles,” Joseph-Alfred-Norbert Provencher, “editor of the holy and devout Minerve,” and Magloire McLeod, “editor of Le Journal des Trois-Rivières, the great church newspaper.” Accompanying them were “two of the actresses of the French theatrical troupe from New York, who happened to be passing through Ottawa.” Gérin was furious and vowed to have his revenge: on the evening of Tuesday 31 July when Dorion went to the Library of Parliament Gérin was already there. A violent altercation took place that degenerated into combat; for Dorion, who had a weak heart, it could have been fatal if others had not put an end to it. Back in the assembly Dorion invoked the parliamentary privilege of immunity. Gérin was arrested and imprisoned on Parliament Hill. Le Défricheur of 8 August announced mockingly: “M. Gérin has the honour to be the first prisoner of the great legislative palace.” His confinement ended at the close of the session a week later.
No doubt satisfied with his work at Le Canada, the Duvernay brothers sent Gérin to England as correspondent of La Minerve to cover the London conference, which opened officially on 30 Nov. 1866. Gérin obtained his information about the developing plan of confederation from a reliable source, Hector-Louis Langevin*, who reserved the right to inspect his communications to the Montreal paper.
From England Gérin went to France, to complete his “literary and political education.” While continuing to send material to La Minerve, he helped edit the Journal de Paris, which had been launched a few months earlier by Jean-Jacques Weiss and Édouard Hervé, opponents of the imperial régime. Gérin made it clear on his return to Canada in early July 1868 that he was quite proud of having published his “modest articles” in a paper whose patrons included the most illustrious representatives of the liberal Catholic school, Bishop Félix Dupanloup, Frédéric, Comte de Falloux, and Charles Forbes, Comte de Montalembert.
On 16 July 1868 the subscribers to La Minerve read in its pages the following solemn and intriguing lines: “We present to Canadian readers today a document not yet published in Europe that we guarantee is authentic.” There followed a lengthy text of four large closely printed columns of material from which, as lines of dots indicated, passages had been omitted. The text was highly critical of the liberal and Gallican principles of the person to whom it was addressed; its introductory sentence intimated that it was a brief sent by Pius IX to his “venerable brother” Georges Darboy, archbishop of Paris, and its final sentence, that the brief had been issued from St Peter’s in Rome on 26 Oct. 1865.
There was no indication of how La Minerve had obtained this confidential text, whose publication would eventually prevent Archbishop Darboy from being created a cardinal, despite Napoleon III’s requests to Pius IX for a crown-cardinal. It was only when this issue of La Minerve was copied by the French newspapers in Europe that the government of France became disturbed and asked its consul at Quebec, Abel-Frédéric Gautier, to make discreet inquiries on behalf of the minister of public worship about the origins of this “leak.” On 18 May 1869 the consul forwarded the information he had “been able to collect.” He told the minister that the pope’s letter to Darboy was to have been printed in the Journal de Paris, and that only the intervention of the nuncio in Paris had prevented its publication. “But the type had already been set up,” the consul added, “and one or two proofs had been obtained for the proof-reader before the authorization to print. At that time in Paris there was a Canadian named Elzéar Gérin, who was attached, I do not know in what capacity, to the editorial staff of the Journal de Paris. This Gérin . . . apparently took and kept one of these proofs, which on his return to Lower Canada he handed over to the newspaper La Minerve, of which he had been the correspondent in Paris.” The consul was accurately informed. This was how Gérin played a decisive role in an episode of the struggle in France between “liberals” and “ultramontanes.”
On his return to Canada, Gérin was called to the bar and went to Trois-Rivières to practise law; on 21 Sept. he also became editor of Le Constitutionnel, started on 4 June by Télesphore-Eusèbe Normand. As its title indicated, the new paper intended to follow the political line of the Conservative party which had secured the adoption of the new Canadian constitution in 1867.
In this post Gérin, who was a born journalist, showed how much strength and flexibility he had gained from his association with European masters. In addition, he was giving freer rein to his gifts as a lively writer and as a keen observer of nature, for example in “Le Saint-Maurice; notes de voyage,” which appeared in the Revue canadienne (Montreal) in January 1872.
As a journalist Gérin had on several occasions dealt in Le Constitutionnel with two aspects of the economy of Quebec that he considered vital for the development of the province, lumbering and railway building. When he was elected as member of the Legislative Assembly for Saint-Maurice County in the provincial elections of 1871, he undertook to enlighten his colleagues about the importance of timber as a main source of provincial revenues and to expose those profiteering from the system of private sales of timber limits on crown lands. As it was the period of “railway fever,” Gérin also commanded attention through speeches that favoured the development of regional railway networks but with the help of the latest technical improvements and the consequent abandoning of wooden rails.
In 1868 Gérin had also been a candidate for Saint-Maurice in the federal elections but had been defeated by Dr Élie Lacerte. Lacerte was again successful in 1875, this time in the provincial elections. Gérin returned to journalism. In 1882, to reward him for his many services to the Conservative party, the government of Joseph-Alfred Mousseau named him to the Legislative Council as representative for the division of Kennebec.
A frail man long in indifferent health, Elzéar Gérin died prematurely at the age of 43 in Montreal. He was one of those gifted men who, especially in the 19th century, were unable to fulfil their exceptional promise of mind and spirit in the service of their fellow Canadians.
Elzéar Gérin was the author of La Gazette de Québec (Québec, 1864); “Relations commerciales entre les États-Unis et le Canada,” Rev. canadienne, 2 (1865): 748–57; 3 (1866): 108–22; “Chroniques,” Le Foyer canadien (Québec), 4 (1866): 47–57, 165–76, 243–72, 316–24; “Québec jadis et aujourd’hui: causerie lue devant l’Institut canadien-français d’Ottawa,” Le Canada (Ottawa), 15, 17 févr. 1866; and “Le Saint-Maurice; notes de voyage,” Rev. canadienne, 9 (1872): 33–57.
ANQ-MBF, État civil, Catholiques, Immaculée-Conception (Trois-Rivières), 14 oct. 1873; Sainte-Anne (Yamachiche), 14 nov. 1843. Le Canada (Ottawa), 21 déc. 1865–décembre 1866. Le Défricheur (L’Avenir, Qué.), 4 juill.–14 août 1866. Beaulieu et J. Hamelin, La presse québécoise, II: 115. F.-L. Désaulniers, Les vieilles familles d’Yamachiche (4v., Montréal, 1898–1908), I: 109–10. Henri Vallée, Les journaux trifluviens de 1817 à 1933 (Trois-Rivières, 1933). Désilets, Hector-Louis Langevin. J.-A.-I. Douville, Histoire du collège-séminaire de Nicolet, 1803–1903, avec les listes complètes des directeurs, professeurs et élèves de l’institution (2v., Montréal, 1903). M. Hamelin, Premières années du parlementarisme québécois. Réjean Robidoux, “Les Soirées canadiennes et le Foyer canadien dans le mouvement littéraire québécois de 1860” (thèse de des, univ. Laval, Québec, 1957), 81–100. P.-G. Roy, “Elzéar-Gérin-Lajoie et l’enfant-terrible,” BRH, 7 (1901): 125. Philippe Sylvain, “Le rôle de La Minerve dans l’échec au cardinalat de Monseigneur Darboy,” Cahiers des Dix, 33 (1968): 193–213.