LABELLE, LUDGER, lawyer, journalist, and politician; baptized 7 April 1839 in the parish of Notre-Dame in Montreal, son of Jean-Baptiste-Napoléon Labelle and Éloïse Leclaire; d. 29 Dec. 1867 at Montreal.
Ludger Labelle’s childhood was saddened by the death of his mother, who for many years had been “in a decline.” His father, an artisan who had been at the Collège de Montréal with Louis-Hippolyte La Fontaine and had thought of becoming a priest, saw that he received a sound education. After attending primary school, Ludger studied at the Collège de Montréal from 1850 to 1857; he then chose the legal profession. He was called to the bar on 3 July 1860, and went into partnership with Joseph-Alfred Mousseau*, the future leader of the Quebec Conservative party.
Labelle, according to his brother-in-law André-Napoléon Montpetit, had “a brilliant mind, an extremely likable nature,” and he rapidly emerged as one of the most promising young professional men. By 1861 he was a captain and staff officer in the Chasseurs Canadiens, a militia corps which the superintendent of police, Charles-Joseph Coursol*, recruited during the Trent affair. For Labelle, law was primarily a means of livelihood. He had a bent for journalism, and he was intellectually drawn towards politics. Described by Laurent-Olivier David*, who knew him well, as “the most unorganized person imaginable,” Labelle drafted at night the articles he published. While a student, he had been for a time editor of the paper La Guêpe, which had been started by Cyrille Boucher in 1857. Later, at Montreal, Labelle founded Le Colonisateur, which first appeared on 2 Jan. 1862. This bi-weekly numbered among its contributors prominent young Conservatives such as Mousseau, David, and Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau*, and advocated colonization as “the surest means of preserving intact the precious trust of our faith and traditions.” Le Colonisateur reflected the interests of its editors in the arts, science, and literature; it proclaimed a genuine political independence but never hesitated to defend the Bleus and fight the Rouges. Well written, but not a paying proposition, the paper came to an unceremonious end when on 27 June 1863 the printer Pierre Cérat refused to continue to print it.
For Labelle Le Colonisateur had been merely a stepping-stone to politics. He had rallied to the Liberal-Conservative banner, and his first political success came in 1863 when he was elected a councillor for the Sainte-Marie district in Montreal, an office he held until his death. He and his friends dreamed of still greater successes and were dumbfounded by the announcement in June 1864 of a coalition of parties to set up a Canadian confederation. They split into two camps. Chapleau and Mousseau remained loyal to their party, but in the summer of 1864 Labelle joined Médéric Lanctot* and the young Turks who opposed confederation and were in revolt against George-Étienne Cartier*.
While conducting a vigorous campaign with Lanctot to bring politics to the mass of the people and to mobilize them, Labelle started the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Club, where the opinions expressed privately corresponded to those L’Union nationale, Lanctot’s paper, was voicing aloud. The club was started either in the autumn of 1864 or during the winter of 1865, and had a meeting-place, initiation rites, and a password. It included members of the assembly, lawyers, businessmen, and, the final ironic touch, the Montreal chief of police, Guillaume Lamothe, and a number of police officers. With this organization the club was more noisy than dangerous, but it managed to worry the establishment. Judge Charles-Joseph Coursol, infuriated as much by the club’s relentless opposition to Cartier as by the fact that it had given shelter for a month to one of the Confederates who had made a raid in October 1864 against St Albans, Vt, ordered its dissolution.
The club had some success in politics. It ensured the defeat by a merchant-grocer of young Chapleau in the elections for the municipal council, and it got Labelle re-elected. The son of a workman, Labelle had remained close to his roots. Short and puny, he had retained the awkward bearing and impulsive movements that were the mark of his working-class origins. Affable and courteous, he knew “the names of most of the workers in the East division of Montreal, as well as those of their wives and children,” according to L.-O. David. Labelle maintained with his Sainte-Marie electors a political relationship typical of rural circles.
The unconditional support of his electors helped Labelle to establish himself as the leader of young dissident Conservatives and Lanctot’s right hand man. Their role became clear in the 1867 elections. Both men tried their strength, unsuccessfully, against Cartier in Montreal East: Lanctot sought election to the House of Commons and Labelle to the provincial legislature. It is the duel between Lanctot and Cartier that is remembered, and the role of Labelle is underestimated. Throughout the whole summer he went from door to door and harangued the electors in the streets and at popular meetings. André-Napoléon Montpetit, his comrade in arms, later recalled the hard campaign of 1867: “We have had few men as skilful in organization, as shrewd in method, as wily in expedients, as persevering, not to say unrelenting.”
Labelle emerged from this electoral campaign emotionally broken and financially ruined, and seems to have abandoned the struggle at that time. He was living with his father and aunt. Disillusioned, he returned briefly to the practice of law, which ill suited his bohemian inclinations. Like his brother Elzéar, he had a poet’s soul, with a particularly lively gift for rhyming songs. Labelle died in December 1867, remembered as a man endowed with a noble and charitable nature, a just spirit, and a shrewd mind.
[Ludger Labelle did not leave any private papers. Contemporary newspapers note his political activities but reveal nothing of his professional and private life. Laurent-Olivier David, who knew him well, drew a faithful portrait of him in Mes contemporains (Montréal, 1894), but no further attempt has been made to investigate this intriguing person. He has received only passing mention in historical works. É.-Z. Massicotte* in Faits curieux de l’histoire de Montréal (Montréal, 1922) and Victor Morin* in his article “Clubs et sociétés notoires d’autrefois,” Cahiers des Dix, 16 (1951), 233–70, describe the Club Saint-Jean-Baptiste and sketch Labelle’s role in it. Labelle figures briefly in Léon Trépanier*’s articles on Montreal, “Figures de maires,” and “Guillaume Lamothe (1824–1911),” in Cahiers des Dix, 22 (1957), 163–92, and 29 (1964), 143–58, respectively, as well as in Robert Rumilly, Hist. de Montréal. j.h. and h.f.]
ANQ-M, État civil, Catholiques, Notre-Dame de Montréal, 7 avril 1839. PAC, MG 30, D62, 17, pp.27–32. Elzéar Labelle, Mes rimes, A.-N. Montpetit, édit. (Québec, 1876), 15–16, 21. Le Colonisateur (Montréal), 2 janv. 1862–27 juin 1863. Le Pays, 31 déc. 1867.