LABRIE, JACQUES, journalist, physician, militia officer, educator, author, and politician; b. 4 Jan. 1784 in Saint-Charles, near Quebec, son of Jacques Nau, dit Labry, a farmer, and Marie-Louise Brousseau; d. 26 Oct. 1831 in Saint-Eustache, Lower Canada.
Like many of his generation, Jacques Labrie received an elementary education through the endeavours of the parish priest in his village. At 14 he entered the Petit Séminaire de Québec, where he proved a brilliant student. Having received his baccalauréat in 1804, he chose to prepare for a medical career and from 1804 to 1807 studied under François Blanchet, one of the eminent doctors of the period. After this apprenticeship he completed his medical training with a year in Edinburgh.
While studying medicine, Labrie had also begun a career as a journalist. In the autumn of 1806 he was editor of the bi-weekly Le Courier de Québec, founded by Pierre-Amable De Bonne*. This newspaper had set out to defend the interests of the Canadians. It nevertheless denounced the Canadian party and its paper, Le Canadien. Le Courier de Québec reported political and literary news, both local and foreign, as well as research findings on the history of Canada. Labrie was the author of most of the articles. By this time he was an admirer of the British constitution and English liberalism, and he constantly flayed the despotism of the former French governors and France’s neglect of her colony. Above all, Labrie demonstrated an uncommon interest in his country’s past.
After Le Courier de Québec ceased publication in December 1808, Labrie devoted himself solely to the medical profession. He practised for some months in Montreal and then established his office in Saint-Eustache, where on 12 June 1809 he married Marie-Marguerite Gagnier, daughter of Pierre-Rémi Gagnier, the local notary. They had nine children but only three reached adulthood. During the War of 1812 he became surgeon to the 2nd Battalion of the Select Embodied Militia of Lower Canada.
In addition to professional activities, Labrie gave much of his energy to the cause of education. In 1821 he founded two schools in his parish, one for girls and the other for boys. Although he ran both, he clearly preferred the girls’ establishment, which his eldest daughter, Zéphirine, attended, and he became its principal teacher. Labrie wrote history and geography manuals, and the school also gave courses in French, English, and mathematics. Built on a pleasant site at the junction of the Du Chêne and Des Mille Îles rivers, it had an excellent reputation but was obliged to close in 1828 because of a lack of funds. Labrie had supported it with his own money throughout its existence.
A devotee of the history of Lower Canada, an observer of its society, and a defender of the Canadians’ rights, Labrie entered politics in 1827. In June he served as secretary for a general meeting held at Saint-Eustache. At that time he announced his intention of running for the House of Assembly in the constituency of York. He also severely criticized the administration of Governor Lord Dalhousie [Ramsay*] and his clique. In the elections held that summer one of Labrie’s opponents was none other than Nicolas-Eustache Lambert Dumont, seigneur of Mille Îles, who was one of the members for York. The riding was hotly contested: voters had to force their way to the polling station. Labrie was elected along with Jean-Baptiste Lefebvre, and their opponents, Lambert-Dumont and John Simpson*, had to relinquish their seats.
In the autumn Labrie was busy persuading his compatriots to sign a petition that would be sent to London in 1828 with Denis-Benjamin Viger*, Augustin Cuvillier*, and John Neilson*. Labrie gave a particularly convincing speech at a meeting held in Vaudreuil on 27 Dec. 1827. The address, which was reported in La Minerve of 7 Jan. 1828, revealed that he still had confidence in British institutions; if the constitution of Lower Canada was being violated, then Dalhousie and his creatures on the Legislative Council were to blame. Historian Michel Bibaud* ranks this speech as one of the most inflammatory pieces of oratory in the years before the rebellion.
In the House of Assembly Labrie devoted his efforts to promoting the cause of education and the medical profession in Lower Canada. He was appointed to the medical board of examiners for the district of Montreal in 1831. In the autumn of that year he made a tour to inspect the schools in his riding. Fatigued by his travels, he came down with the pneumonia that was to prove fatal. On 26 October, feeling dangerously ill, he summoned his friend the notary Jean-Joseph Girouard* and indicated his intention of making a written declaration. Labrie delegated to Augustin-Norbert Morin*, a member of the assembly and a writer for the Patriote party, the task of completing a manuscript on the history of Canada which was his life’s work. He then passed away at his home in Saint-Eustache.
Morin proved equal to the mission that his friend Labrie had entrusted to him. He studied the manuscript carefully, corrected it, and in November presented the house with a request for publication of the work, which was to comprise three or four volumes, each about 500 pages long. Labrie had commenced with the beginnings of New France and ended with the main events of the War of 1812. A house committee agreed to Morin’s request, but the Legislative Council refused to publish the manuscript, citing the author’s lack of objectivity. The councillors would consent only to buy it and deposit it with the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec. The assembly, however, refused to go along with the council’s wish and decided to wait for better days to publish the work. In the mean time Morin deposited it in the library of his friend, the notary Girouard, in Saint-Benoit. There Labrie’s history of Canada was destroyed by fire in 1837.
The value of Labrie’s manuscript will never be known, but the author should surely be acclaimed as one of the great historians of French Canada. He was intensely interested in its history at a time when the subject was not even on the curriculum in the secondary schools. At that time the curious still had to turn to the work of Pierre-François-Xavier de Charlevoix*, who ended his account with the year 1731. Thus for the period from 1731 to 1812, Labrie was a pioneer. His correspondence with Jacques Viger* shows that he used original sources and carried his desire for accuracy to great lengths.
What attitude Labrie would have adopted in the rebellion of 1837–38 is an open question; he was an ardent supporter of Louis-Joseph Papineau* and father-in-law of Patriote leader Jean-Olivier Chénier*, who had married Zéphirine in 1831. It is certain that he remains one of the most illustrious representatives of the Patriote generation. Above all, he was passionately fond of the history of his land and dedicated all his leisure to it, a history that – symbolically – perished in the fire at Saint-Benoît.
Jacques Labrie is the author of Les premiers rudimens de la constitution britannique; traduits de l’anglais de M. Brooke; précédés d’un précis historique, et suivis d’observations sur la constitution du Bas-Canada, pour en donner l’histoire et en indiquer les principaux vices, avec un aperçu de quelques-uns des moyens probables d’y remédier; ouvrage utile à routes sortes de personnel et principalement destiné à l’instruction politique de la jeunesse canadienne (Montréal, 1827).
ANQ-M, CE6-11, 12 juin 1809, 29 oct. 1831; P1000-32-774; P1000-45-889. Le Canadien, 7 janv. 1832. La Minerve, 7 janv. 1828. Quebec Gazette, 14 June 1827. M.-J. et G. Ahern, Notes pour l’hist. de la médecine. Béatrice Chassé, “Le notaire Girouard, patriote et rebelle” (thèse de d. ès l., univ. Laval, Québec, 1974). A. [-H.] Gosselin, Un bon patriote d’autrefois, le docteur Labrie (3e éd., Québec, 1907). L.-J. Rodrigue, “Messire Jacques Paquin, curé de Saint-Eustache de la Rivière-du-Chêne (1821–1847),” CCHA Rapport, 31 (1964): 73–83.