Source: courtesy Wikimedia Commons
LA RIVIÈRE, ALPHONSE-ALFRED-CLÉMENT (baptized Alfred-Alphonse), businessman, civil servant, newspaper owner, and politician; b. 24 July 1842 in Montreal, son of Abraham Clément, dit La Rivière, a carriage maker, and Adélaïde Mercil; m. 4 Feb. 1867 Marie-Melvina Bourdeau (d. 1885), and they had 13 children, 4 of whom survived him; d. 20 Sept. 1925 in St Boniface, Man.
Alphonse-Alfred-Clément La Rivière entered the Jesuits’ Collège Sainte-Marie in Montreal in 1855 and the École Normale Jacques-Cartier in 1857. After his studies there he trained at the School of Military Instruction of Montreal. Following his graduation in 1866, he established a wholesale and retail hardware business in Montreal, which he ran until it failed in 1871. During this period, he served in the militia and was active in a number of cultural and social organizations, including the Cercle Saint-Pierre, founded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to provide morally healthy recreational and cultural facilities for Montrealers. La Rivière became its first president in 1869. He was also prominent in several trade associations and, as president of a subcommittee of the Council of Arts and Manufactures of the Province of Quebec, he was instrumental in organizing the Quebec provincial exhibition in 1871.
After the failure of his business in 1871, La Rivière accepted a position with the Dominion Lands Office in Winnipeg, encouraged by Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché* of St Boniface, who was eager to attract educated French Canadians to lead Manitoba’s francophone community. His salary was disappointingly small: he complained that he could not bring his family from Montreal unless the government paid their way, and even then they had to share a house with another recruit from Quebec, the lawyer Joseph Dubuc*, and his wife.
When La Rivière arrived in St Boniface on 27 Oct. 1871, provincial and local institutions were being set up and the francophones in particular, still almost half of Manitoba’s population but facing a massive immigration of anglophone settlers, needed professionals and businessmen as leaders. La Rivière quickly became involved in the community. He participated in the founding of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste in December 1871 and was among the notables who congratulated Taché the following month on his elevation to archbishop.
As part of the French-speaking elite, La Rivière naturally became involved in politics. He supported efforts to obtain an amnesty for Louis Riel* and other Métis who had participated in the 1869–70 Red River uprising and particularly in the killing of Thomas Scott*. In September 1872 he and Dubuc joined Joseph Royal* and Marc-Amable Girard* (two other recruits from Quebec) in helping to persuade Riel to withdraw his candidacy for a House of Commons seat in favour of Sir George-Étienne Cartier*, who had just been defeated in his own riding of Montreal East. They wanted Cartier to show his gratitude by obtaining an amnesty, but he died in May 1873. La Rivière and the others then nominated Riel, who was acclaimed in a by-election that October. Despite this show of confidence by the voters, who repeated it in the general election of 1874, no amnesty was announced. When Riel was expelled from the commons in April 1874, La Rivière became discouraged, believing that the Métis leader’s candidacies were counter-productive. This attitude, however, earned him the antipathy of Riel’s Quebec supporters (some of whom suspected him of wanting Riel’s seat) as well as of the Manitoba Métis. He would antagonize the former again in 1885 by opposing the Quebec movement of protest against Riel’s execution – a protest which, he feared, would provoke a dangerous backlash against French Canadians in the west.
In 1874 La Rivière became involved in conflicts with his superiors in the Dominion Lands Office and with Antoine-Aimé Dorion*, minister of justice in the new Liberal government of Alexander Mackenzie* and leader of the Quebec caucus in the House of Commons. By 1875 he had lost his job. He had already begun speculating in land, however, and had launched a real estate business. He had also joined Taché and others in efforts to promote the settlement of French Canadians in Manitoba. In 1874 La Rivière took the leading role in founding the Société de Colonisation de Manitoba, whose first president he became. Expecting a large number of French Canadians to move to the west and wanting to locate them within a consolidated community, he applied to the federal government for a reserve adjacent to the one already set aside for the Métis. The government was slow to respond and when the land was finally granted, it was not in the desired location. In any case, few French Canadians were drawn to Manitoba. La Rivière would work continually over the next 37 years to attract francophones from Europe as well as from Quebec and New England, but the number who came was never enough to preserve Manitoba’s linguistic balance in the face of the massive immigration of anglophones.
La Rivière entered the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba as the member for St Boniface after the general election of December 1878. He was soon caught up in controversy. The relative strength of Manitoba’s francophones had declined from about half to 15 per cent of the population during the 1870s, as large numbers of anglophone settlers arrived. French-speaking politicians had tried to compensate by forming a united block whose weight could be decisive in alliance with one anglophone party or another. However, Royal, who led the French caucus, believed that the position of the francophone population could never be properly secured unless it could gain acceptance of the principle that all governments must be supported by a majority of the mlas within each of the two linguistic groups. When La Rivière came to the assembly, Royal had just entered the government of John Norquay*, although it did not have a majority of anglophone members behind it. In May 1879 Royal presented Norquay with an ultimatum: he must obtain a majority among the English or lose the support of the French. At the same time, La Rivière approached another anglophone, Thomas Scott, about forming an alliance to replace Norquay.
Norquay, however, outmanoeuvred them all. Overnight he formed a new coalition of anglophone members and demanded the resignation of his two French-speaking ministers, Royal and the Métis Pierre Delorme*. He then introduced legislation to abolish the use of French in the provincial parliament and its records. Only the refusal of the French Canadian lieutenant governor, Joseph-Édouard Cauchon*, to sign the bill prevented it from becoming law.
La Rivière’s role in the crisis earned him the resentment of Norquay, who accused him of having conspired for months beforehand. Nevertheless, by November 1881 he had been sufficiently forgiven to be brought into the cabinet as provincial secretary. In September 1883 he took over the ministry of agriculture, statistics, and health, in August 1886 he became provincial treasurer, and in June 1887 he was appointed provincial land commissioner.
Meanwhile, La Rivière had gone into journalism. In October 1881 he had purchased Royal’s Le Métis (which he would control until the end of 1897) and had changed its name to Le Manitoba, promising that it would be a “vigilant sentinel” protecting the rights of the “French” population. It was, in fact, a strong defender of the French language in Manitoba, but La Rivière’s conception of Frenchness went beyond language. The graduate of an ultramontane college, closely associated with an ultramontane archbishop, he wanted his paper to be “entirely devoted to the interest of religion” – and ethnicity. “Unity of origin, unity of language, unity of manners and habits” – these were the elements of “a strong nationality.” His ethnic and religious conception of nationality inspired La Rivière’s continued advocacy of French Canadian settlement – and perhaps, too, his opposition to some other groups. When the first Jewish refugees from Russian pogroms arrived in 1882 [see Benjamin Zimmerman], Le Manitoba was the only local newspaper to oppose their settlement in the province. Wherever Jews settled, the paper warned, it was “to seize the wealth of the country and to plunder the inhabitants.”
La Rivière’s career in provincial politics ended in controversy in 1887. Late in the year he had met with Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald* and thought he had obtained his approval for a transfer of federal lands to the Winnipeg and Hudson Bay Railway. The lands were to serve as security for bonds the province wanted to issue to pay the railway’s contractors. La Rivière issued the bonds, but Macdonald denied that he had approved the transfer. Without the land, Manitoba’s books were in disarray. Accused of serious improprieties in their handling of provincial finances, La Rivière and Norquay resigned in late December and less than a month later the Liberals, under Thomas Greenway*, came to power for the first time in Manitoba’s history. Federal Conservatives blamed Norquay and La Rivière for handing Manitoba over to the Liberals. Royal – now an mp – was particularly harsh, calling La Rivière “the evil genius” whose financial misdeeds had brought disaster to the party. Yet when Royal was appointed lieutenant governor of the North-West Territories in 1888, it was La Rivière who replaced him as federal member for Provencher after a by-election in January 1889.
La Rivière was not very active in Ottawa. Although he obtained federal funding for new efforts to recruit francophone settlers into Manitoba, he did not play a prominent role in the House of Commons. He spoke twice on the bill introduced by D’Alton McCarthy* in 1890 to abolish the official use of French in the North-West Territories, but, in the end, he supported an amendment which allowed the territorial assembly to stop using French. He spoke again in 1895 and 1896, in support of measures to restore the public funding for Manitoba’s Roman Catholic schools which Greenway’s government had abolished in 1890, but all in all he proved a weak champion for Manitoba’s Catholics. Father Albert Lacombe*, sent to Ottawa in late 1895 to lobby for remedial action, complained to Taché’s successor, Archbishop Adélard Langevin*, that nothing was to be expected of La Rivière or of Senator Thomas-Alfred Bernier*. “Without energy or the necessary ability, what kind of a fight can they possibly put up?” In the end, La Rivière compromised again, accepting what he considered an inadequate remedial bill and urging Langevin to do the same.
Despite his ineffectiveness, La Rivière retained the Provencher seat until 1904. From 1905 to 1911 he worked in Montreal as Manitoba’s agent to recruit settlers from eastern Canada and New England. When the Conservatives came back into power in 1911 under Robert Laird Borden*, La Rivière was made a senator. He was less active in the Senate than in the House of Commons and more willing to follow the government line even when it went against French Canadian or Catholic interests. He supported a bill to annex the District of Keewatin to Manitoba in 1912, though it would mean a loss of school rights for Catholics in the region and was strongly opposed by French Canadian nationalists. In 1917, when the Borden government introduced legislation for conscription – a measure overwhelmingly rejected by French Canadians – he remained docile. He said nothing during the debate and then quietly voted in favour of the bill. It was his last political act. He withdrew to his home in St Boniface and on 29 August, the day the bill became law, he resigned from the Senate. Age and ill health were the reasons he gave, but Montreal’s nationalist newspaper, Le Devoir, thought the anger he had provoked by his vote on conscription was probably the real cause.
La Rivière had never been a great leader. In a society more mature than the Manitoba of the 1870s and 1880s he might never have attained the prominence he did. Even there, he seemed always to be the next in line after his better-known colleagues, Royal, Dubuc, and Girard. He followed Royal as mayor of St Boniface (1881) and Dubuc as superintendent of Manitoba’s Catholic schools (1879), as mp for Provencher, and as president of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste. Later he followed Girard and Bernier in the Senate. In this way, he left his mark on Manitoba’s history. It was a modest one, however, and when he died at home in St Boniface, the newspapers spared only a few paragraphs to take notice.
There is no known collection of La Rivière papers in any Canadian repository. The odd letter may be found in the papers of the politicians with whom he had contact, such as Sir George-Étienne Cartier (NA, MG 27, I, D4), but the most significant body of correspondence is probably at the Arch. de la Soc. Hist. de Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg, in the Fonds de la Corporation Archiépiscopale Catholique Romaine. It includes 62 letters in the Série Taché, mostly from La Rivière to Taché, and 110 letters in the Série Langevin. No books have been written about La Rivière and his name rarely appears in works on the history of Manitoba. P. [E.] Crunican, Priests and politicians: Manitoba schools and the election of 1896 (Toronto and Buffalo, N.Y., 1974), and Robert Painchaud, Un rêve français dans le peuplement de la Prairie (Saint-Boniface, 1986), give an indication of his role in history. A chapter in M. S. MacGregor and [A.-A. Taché], Some letters from Archbishop Taché on the Manitoba school question (Toronto, 1967), throws light on his ineffectiveness in business as well as in politics. Short notices in the Canadian directory of parl. (Johnson), Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898 and 1912), the CPG, 1878–1927, and A.-G. Morice, Dictionnaire historique des Canadiens et des Métis français de l’Ouest (Québec et Montréal, 1908), provide basic biographical information. The Manitoba Free Press, a Liberal newspaper, was generally hostile to the Conservative La Rivière, but it is the most important Manitoba paper. The most abundant and sympathetic source on La Rivière is his own newspaper, Le Manitoba (Saint-Boniface), which was published until 1925. Unfortunately only the issues to 1900 have been microfilmed and are widely available. The Index du journal “le Manitoba” (1881–1925) (Saint-Boniface, 1982) provides numerous references to him, but it also leaves out many more.
A speech delivered by La Rivière before the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba is included in L. M. Jones et al., The budget . . . ([Winnipeg?, 1888?]). Other speeches by him can be found in the Debates of the Canadian House of Commons and Senate.
ANQ-M, CE601-S51, 25 juill. 1842, 4 févr. 1867. Le Métis (Saint-Boniface), 2 nov., 14 déc. 1871; 27 janv. 1872; 17 mai 1877. Directories, Man., 1877–78; Montreal, 1842, 1869–72; Winnipeg, 1880–84.