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DEVAU, Retor, CLAUDE – Volume IV (1771-1800)

d. 14 April 1784 at Sainte-Anne-de-la-Pérade (La Pérade, Que.)


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From the Red River Settlement to Manitoba (1812–70)

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The Fenians

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The Charlottetown and Quebec Conferences of 1864

Introductory Essays of the DCB/DBC

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LANCTOT, MÉDÉRIC, lawyer, journalist, and politician; b. 7 Dec. 1838 at Montreal, L.C., son of Hippolyte Lanctot and Mary Miller; d. 30 July 1877 at Lucerne (Gatineau County), and buried 2 August in the cemetery at Côte-des-Neiges (Montreal), Que.

Médéric Lanctot was born when the turmoil of revolution was at its height. His father, a notary in the village of Saint-Rémi (Napierville County), had been stagnating in the prison at Pied-du-Courant since 14 November. He had been put behind bars for having stirred up rebellion in the Richelieu valley and taking part in the fight at Odelltown as a lieutenant under Charles Hindenlang*, commander of the rebels’ right wing. On 19 March 1839 he was found guilty of high treason, and, in September of that year, deported to Australia. He did not return to Canada until January 1845.

This incident profoundly affected the personality of young Médéric, who until the age of six was brought up by his mother. It has been said, although without proof, that she was a descendant of the French family of Janson, to which belonged Charles-Auguste-Marie-Joseph de Forbin-Janson*, bishop of Nancy, famous in the history of Quebec for the religious lectures that he delivered in the 1840s. It is not possible to follow the Lanctot family during the father’s exile. Laurent-Olivier David*, who knew the Lanctots well, says that Mme Lanctot lived with her children at Montreal.

On his return in 1845, Hippolyte installed his family at Saint-Édouard, an agricultural parish in the Richelieu valley, and devoted himself to his profession. A courteous and hospitable gentleman, he deeply resented his years of exile, which had not shaken his convictions. He remained a democrat, a republican, and a nationalist. When Médéric and his brothers came home from school, their father’s memories completed their history lessons. Médéric grew up in the “mystique of 1837–38.” Later, he explained his political commitment by reference to his youthful memories: “I had only to follow my inclinations, and the feelings inspired by a political education drawn directly from the unshakeable patriotism of an exile who had returned to the family hearth.”

Lucky speculations, the post of clerk of the Commissioners’ Court, and his professional activities, gave Hippolyte Lanctot a comfortable income. In September 1849 he sent his two sons, Médéric and Edmond, to the college of Saint-Hyacinthe. They entered the third year of the classical course. Médéric was not yet 11 years old. He was said to be brilliant, but inattentive and refractory. Laurent-Olivier David reported that he was “in all the plots, all the revolts against authority, all the pranks against an unpopular teacher.” Bishop Charles-Philippe Choquette*, historian of the college of Saint-Hyacinthe, numbered him among the four pupils who plotted to set fire to the institution in January 1851. It is difficult here to distinguish between history and legend, for the seminary’s archives contain little about Médéric, except that he was a mediocre student, passionately interested in history and French. He was informed at the end of the fifth year of his classical course that he would have to repeat his year “until he had given satisfactory answers in Latin grammar.” Médéric did not register at the beginning of the next school year. Presumably, therefore, he left the college in the summer of 1852.

Médéric was then faced with the dilemma of thousands of young men of his age: in what direction should he turn? There was no system of specialized or professional schools for those who, on leaving college, wanted to take up a trade, a profession, or some kind of artistic career. The schools of medicine at Quebec and Montreal were the only institutions of this type. Apprenticeship was the sole means of entry into the arts and trades. Médéric’s father, who had connections in business and political circles, asked Augustin Cuvillier*, an influential financier of Montreal, to take his son as a clerk.

Médéric therefore moved to Montreal. Like the majority of apprentices of the period, he probably received board and lodging from his master, who undertook to initiate him into the mysteries of his calling. Médéric lived with the Cuvilliers for three years. This phase of his life is obscure. One may suppose that he spent his leisure time reading, and mingling with those of his own age who shared his liking for things of the mind and for politics. These young men had a meeting place: the Institut Canadien, which from its foundation on 17 Dec. 1844 had been called a “rallying-point for youth.” The pleiad of well-known and distinguished men who frequented the institute attracted the young Médéric, steeped in the liberal and nationalist mystique. He was a reader and a diligent listener at the institute. Joseph Doutre*, a lawyer and journalist, and president of the institute, soon advised him to seek work with the Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, which had been started in February 1853.

It is difficult to give a date for Médéric’s arrival at Saint-Hyacinthe, and to state precisely the role he played in the newspaper. It is said that he was assigned his new duties in the autumn of 1855. As journalists did not sign their articles at this time, it has not been possible to determine with certainty what was written by Médéric. Once more David must be trusted: “For two years he polemized in this newspaper with a vigour and skill which caused him to be thought of as a rising star of the Liberal party.”

The period at Saint-Hyacinthe was only an interlude in Lanctot’s life. Montreal, the centre of the principal ideological and political movements, attracted him. He returned there in 1858 to undertake the study of law. His friends of the institute, Joseph Doutre and Charles Daoust*, who had their office on Rue Saint-Gabriel, accepted him as a clerk to study law.

Médéric resumed his activities at the Institut Canadien at the time when Bishop Ignace Bourget* declared war on rougisme. He lost no time in making his presence known by creating an uproar. Around 3 o’clock in the night of 8–9 April, together with Guillaume-Ernest Roy, a medical student, he shattered the windows of the Oeuvre des Bons Livres, on Rue Saint-Joseph. This library, organized by Bishop Bourget, made pious and edifying literature available to the public [see Jacques-Victor Arraud]. The affair gave rise to a law suit. Joseph Papin*, a prominent member of the Rouge party, defended the young fanatic. Judge Charles-Joseph Coursol* sentenced Médéric and his accomplice to a fine of $20, or, failing payment, to two months of hard labour in a reformatory. Médéric was quickly to forget that he had a judicial record; the Conservatives, on the other hand, remembered it.

Bishop Bourget’s fulminations did not shake Médéric, who took part in all the institute’s activities and gained a reputation as an eloquent lecturer and a skilful dialectician. He was invited to give a number of public lectures before the élite of Montreal. During the winter of 1859 he read an essay on electoral reform in England, and another on that country’s social and political situation. On 2 May, thanks to the intellectual qualities and untiring energy that he placed at the service of the institute, he was elected its corresponding secretary. He was also asked to contribute to Le Pays, the institute’s newspaper.

On 7 May 1860, with 11 other candidates, Médéric was authorized by the Montreal bar to practise law. His years of training were therefore over. Physically of small stature, thin and muscular, he had black, piercing eyes that reflected a tenacious will-power and a lively intelligence. His fertile imagination, ceaselessly in ferment, formed grandiose visions, devised expedients, and formulated syllogisms, which kept the writer and orator well primed. He derived his ideas from family tradition, the institute’s library, L’Avenir, and Le Pays. English history revealed to him the social problems that sprang from the industrial revolution, and gave him a deep-rooted respect for individual rights. From the time of his birth he had thus lived in an atmosphere in which two ideological currents prevailed: nationalism and liberalism. Would he be able, having reached manhood, to make of them a fruitful synthesis, on which coherent and sustained action could be based?

The new lawyer set up his office first at 7 Rue Sainte-Thérèse, then around 1862 at 126 Rue Notre-Dame. He had specialized in no particular area, and accepted all the cases that came his way. His professional activities did not lessen his participation in the work of the Institut Canadien, but this feverish existence began to undermine his health, and he felt a need for rest. On 11 July 1862 he boarded a steamer for Liverpool. A maze of conjecture surrounds Lanctot’s travels in Europe. From his later writings it can be deduced that he visited England, France, and the adjoining countries. On 16 Oct. 1862 Le Pays announced his return, and stated that he “has arrived from Europe in good health.”

This voyage gave Lanctot an opportunity to determine where he stood. As a frequenter of the Institut Canadien he was in close touch with the Doutre family, particularly with Joseph, who seems to have been his counsellor at important moments of his life. At 16 Rue Saint-Gabriel, where Lanctot lived, Joseph Doutre also had his residence and here too was the office of the lawyers Doutre and Daoust. It was perhaps there that Lanctot made the acquaintance of Agnès, the sister of Joseph, Léon, and Gonzalve Doutre. He returned from Europe determined to make Agnès his life’s companion. The marriage took place on 28 Oct. 1862.

The decision to marry was not the only one made during his stay in Europe. Because of his spirited and excitable nature, he felt too hampered within the confines of the courts, and decided to become a crusading journalist. Together with Toussaint Thompson and C.-E.-E. Bouthillier he acquired the printing-shop of M. de Montigny, probably during the autumn of 1862. On 15 Sept. 1863 he issued the prospectus of a new newspaper, La Presse, which began to appear regularly on 5 October. He was its editor. The paper had original features: it was a daily and was independent of parties. This was a difficult challenge to maintain, for the cheap press financed by subscriptions and advertising did not yet exist. The majority of the papers of the time were party organs supported by party funds. Not only was La Presse independent of parties, it wanted them to disappear. It advocated a new formula: the union of all French Canadians within a national party. Claiming kinship with the Patriotes of 1837 and the intellectuals of the institute, La Presse was a nationalist organ.

The birth of La Presse occurred at a turning-point in Canadian history. In June 1864 John A. Macdonald*, George-Étienne Cartier, and George Brown announced the formation of a great coalition, aimed at bringing about a federal union of the colonies of British North America. Only the Rouges of the institute remained aloof from the coalition. Lanctot was dumbfounded by this news, for in his view federal union would endanger the future of the French Canadian people. Throughout the summer of 1864, he fired shafts against the coalition group in his paper. A few young Conservatives, such as Laurent-Olivier David and Joseph Leblanc, and some young Liberals, among whom were Louis-Amable Jetté*, Wilfrid Laurier*, and Narcisse Valois, rallied to Lanctot to organize the struggle against the project of confederation. In August they formed a national committee and published a manifesto signed by 46 adherents, and on 3 September they launched the first number of a new journal, L’Union nationale, which replaced La Presse.

The young nationalists set in motion a vigorous press campaign against the plan of confederation and against the old parties. They favoured setting up an independent state of Quebec. Side by side with this press campaign, Lanctot organized a campaign of political agitation, which, conducted at a brisk pace by the team of L’Union nationale, took on the appearance of a crusade. Two phases can be distinguished. From August to November, the young nationalists held public meetings which brought together some hundreds of people; there they denounced the principle of confederation, then got resolutions passed condemning the plans of the coalition. From November on, they demanded an appeal to the people, and got petitions signed to this effect. They had the support of two liberal papers: L’Ordre and Le Pays.

The press campaign and the political agitation did not prevent the politicians from pursuing the plan of confederation. But while Cartier, one of the principal architects of confederation, was advancing towards a triumph on the parliamentary scene, Lanctot hoped to humiliate him electorally in Montreal East. Although in the winter of 1866 Médéric was only 28 years old, he had considerable prestige in Montreal. He was the leader of a group of young nationalists and he could count on numerous supporters in working-class circles, whom he defended unceasingly against employers, in particular the Canadian Grand Trunk, whose lawyer Cartier was. His gifts as a demagogue, his indomitable energy, and his ability for organization made him a dangerous opponent. He was thus a formidable political force in Montreal, and he was eager to tackle Cartier.

In February 1866, municipal elections gave him the opportunity to take the measure of his opponents. He stood in Montreal East against Alexis Dubord, Cartier’s man of straw. He had a programme: installation of sewers, improvements to the Place Jacques-Cartier, and utilization of waste ground. Cartier himself came to Montreal to direct Dubord’s campaign. It was to no purpose, since on 28 February Lanctot was elected by a majority of eight votes.

This victory filled him with wild enthusiasm, and convinced him that even in an election against Cartier himself he would win. However, he could leave nothing to chance. All his political activity from then on was directed towards the duel he would one day fight with Cartier. He utilized his post as councillor to undermine the prestige which the latter enjoyed with the city council. The riposte was not slow in coming: Alexis Dubord challenged the election of Lanctot, on the grounds that he did not fulfil the necessary property qualifications to sit in city hall. The hearing of the case took place at the end of November. Lanctot faced an annulment of the election, but he did not slow up his activities in any way. He began to draft a pamphlet in support of independence.

At the beginning of 1867 a great dream took shape: the union of all workers in one powerful association. Intuitively, Lanctot believed that national liberation would bring the improvement of the lot of the working classes. On 5 February his newspaper proclaimed: “Association is the salvation of the French Canadian nationality.” On 27 March Lanctot summoned all workers to the Champ de Mars, and there, before 5,000 persons, he delivered a speech lasting several hours. The assembly formed a committee to prepare the founding of the Grande Association de Protection des Ouvriers du Canada. Each evening Lanctot held meetings in the working class districts. On 6 April he received the reward for his toil: in the great hall of Bonsecours Market 3,000 persons voted on statutes and rules. The Grande Association was born. Conceived as an instrument for the liberation of the working classes, the Grande Association, in the heat of action, became a political instrument for achieving the union of all French Canadians. The association was a federation of trade organizations. It was directed by a commission on which sat about 200 representatives of the various organizations, representation being proportionate to the numbers of their members. Each adherent paid a subscription of 10 cents a month to finance the movement. The founders established a triple function for the Grande Association: to ensure harmony between capital and labour, to improve the well-being of its members, and to stop emigration to the United States. On 9 May the commission elected an executive and appointed Lanctot to the presidency.

The new president made use of all his prestige to settle a conflict over wages and hours of work that divided the master bakers and their employees. He opened low-price bakeries to provide for the needy, asked people to buy bread only from the bakers who had negotiated with their employees, and on 10 June organized a great popular demonstration. That evening more than 8,000 workers, grouped by their trade associations, marched on the Champ de Mars, chanting slogans and holding aloft the green, white, and red flag of 1837–38.

Lanctot was at his zenith. Praised, greeted with cheers, he seemed to be advancing towards a resounding political victory, even though his opponents did not give up. Judge Samuel Cornwallis Monk handed down a judgement in favour of Alexis Dubord on 10 June 1867, but this slap in the face was a stimulus to Lanctot, who was actively preparing his electoral campaign against Cartier in Montreal East.

The poll was to take place on 5 Sept. 1867. All summer long, Lanctot held public meetings. He experienced some difficulty, however, in maintaining the enthusiasm of 10 June, for the people’s bakeries and consumers’ cooperatives he had set up had gone bankrupt. These disappointments worked to the advantage of the Conservatives, who on 21 August, through the intermediary of La Minerve, launched a smear campaign against Lanctot. He was called “a breaker of windows, a Fenian, a violent anticlerical, an annexationist, an excommunicate, a revolutionary, a plague of Egypt, etc.” La Minerve closed its campaign with a piece of scandal: Alderman Lanctot, it reported, had degraded himself by associating with a certain Jérémie Sinotte in order to obtain contracts from the municipality. On the evening of 6 September, Cartier was victorious by a majority of 348 votes.

Lanctot did not accept defeat. He was convinced that Cartier had “stolen the election.” He began to busy himself again, hoping to stir up violent protest in working class districts. He held public meetings, had petitions circulated, and thundered in L’Union nationale against the priests who had supported Cartier and confederation. This agitation worried the Rouges, who felt uncomfortable in his company. Lanctot isolated himself by his excessive behaviour. He never recovered from the defeat that Cartier had just inflicted on him.

By the end of September 1867 Lanctot no longer had friends or political allies. He returned to his law practice to meet the needs of his family. The massive support of the parish priests for confederation led him to question his faith. He ceased to publish L’Union nationale; it no longer paid its way. But these difficulties did not prevent him from forming new plans, and from preparing a counterstroke.

On 15 Feb. 1868 Lanctot issued a prospectus for a new newspaper, L’Indépendance canadienne, the first number of which appeared on 22 April. He had found a new cause: the independence of Canada from England and annexation to the United States. According to him, confederation was a provisional situation. It would evolve towards a legislative union or a federation of states within a zollverein, or annexation to the United States. Canadians must therefore prepare themselves from now on to adopt one of these three options. He proposed annexation. Lanctot’s appeal aroused no enthusiasm among French Canadians, and it irritated English Canadians. When in August he tried to organize an independence league, he received only gibes.

Ruined financially and politically, he decided to go to the United States where he hoped to find among Franco-Americans a more open mind about the annexation of Canada. He arrived at Detroit on 10 Sept. 1868. The Club Démocratique Français gave him a warm welcome. On the 22nd he gave a speech which was a manifesto, designed to launch “L’Association de l’Indépendance pacifique du Canada.” Encouraged by his first success, he then went to New England, where he encountered nothing but indifference. In the spring of 1869, at Burlington, he started L’Idée nouvelle to propagate his movement, then, at Worcester, he launched L’Impartial. These papers touched off no response among Franco-Americans and went bankrupt.

In the autumn of 1869 Lanctot returned to Detroit, where on 13 October a Franco-American convention was held. He succeeded temporarily in setting up cells among the delegates and in getting his campaign for the independence of Canada endorsed by a majority. On 20 November he again began to publish L’Impartial, in which he idealized American society. A fleeting victory, obtained by intrigues at a convention! The content and tone of L’Impartial were displeasing. For want of money, Lanctot had to abandon publication of his paper with the tenth number.

The failure of L’Impartial meant the end of another dream for Lanctot. It gave rise to an internal crisis, about which little evidence exists. In a moment of despair and revolt, he rejected the faith of his forefathers and became a Baptist. Perhaps he hoped he had found a means of acquiring celebrity in the American republic, where it was good form, in certain circles, to attack Catholicism. In the defence of his new cause he displayed the ardour of a neophyte. He published a pamphlet whose very title was a declaration of war, Rome, the great usurper . . . . In March he began at Detroit the publication of a paper, the Anti-Roman Advocate, in which he denounced “the despotism, superstition and ignorance” of the Catholic Church. The Baptist religion awakened no response among Franco-Americans, any more than annexation had. The Anti-Roman Advocate foundered, swamped by debts if not by ridicule, barely five months after its first number appeared.

Ruined and discredited, Lanctot returned to Montreal in the autumn of 1870. He took up the practice of law again, in partnership with his brother Philéas. He waited for an opening. It occurred at the time of the provincial elections in the spring of 1871. Lanctot stood for Montreal East. He counted on the support of the Knights of St Crispin, a secret association that grouped workers of the boot and shoe industry, and that the church had denounced. The loyalty of these workers did not spare him a humiliating defeat. Lanctot did not give up. He hung on to the workers and attempted to revive the Grande Association. In March or April 1872 he published a 46-page pamphlet, Association du capital et du travail, in which he demonstrated that workers should share in entrepreneurial revenues by a system of dividends. In the federal elections of autumn 1872, Cartier, in difficulties in Montreal East because of the ultramontanist opposition, gambled on the working class issue, and made use of Lanctot’s talents. The latter’s about-face is largely explicable by his financial needs, even if he did try to justify it by the interest Cartier was beginning to take in the working class. This strategy profited neither Cartier nor Lanctot. The former was beaten in Montreal East, and the second, who had repudiated the ideas of his youth, was now merely “a dead leaf at the mercy of every wind.”

Lanctot no longer had any following at Montreal. His lawyer’s office was deserted. He learned what destitution was. David places his return to the bosom of the Catholic Church during these difficult months. Did Lanctot yield to popular pressure? Did he truly rediscover the faith of his forefathers? Had he even lost it? It would be fruitless to elaborate, for Lanctot entrusted his secret to no one.

Lanctot’s life, from then on, was a succession of rebuffs. In 1873 or 1874 he tried in vain to make a new life for himself in the United States. In January 1875 his friend Alphonse Lusignan got for him the post of editor of the Courrier de l’Outaouais, and a few months later that of stenographer in the House of Commons. Lanctot bought the Courrier de l’Outaouais in June 1875, and moved it to Hull. He launched out into municipal politics, and played the role of defender of the people. For a while he seemed to have struck a lucky vein. He was appointed lawyer of the town of Hull, and published a sort of unofficial paper of the town council, called L’Écho de Hull. But he misused his prestige, and revealed his personal interest too clearly. His supporters deserted him, and in their turn his enemies, once back in power, ostracized him. Exhausted, worn out physically, he already needed, at 38 years of age, to retire to a quiet place to recover his health. In the spring of 1877 he went to live on a farm at Lucerne. He died during the night of 30 July.

Lanctot belonged to his time. In more than one respect he was an embodiment of the French Canadians, ceaselessly torn between their admiration for British institutions and their situation as members of a colony, between their French origin and their North American environment. In particular, he was the embodiment of a city, Montreal, where in the second half of the 19th century problems were of two kinds: those related to national considerations and those related to social considerations. He was one of the first French Canadian ideologists to make a tentative beginning at a synthesis of them.

Lanctot left five daughters and one son. Two children had died in infancy. His wife, Agnès Doutre, survived him by less than two years. She died on 9 May 1879 and was buried in the cemetery at Côte-des-Neiges.

Jean Hamelin

[Lanctot’s private papers have disappeared. To follow his intellectual development we must fall back on his printed writings, which are numerous: La Presse (Montréal), 5 oct. 1863 – 5 sept. 1864; L’Union nationale (Montréal), 3 sept. 1864 – 7 nov. 1867; L’Indépendance canadienne (Montréal), 22 avril – 3 août 1868; Association du capital et du travail ([1872]). Other works by Lanctot are known to have been published, but could not be consulted, usually because they no longer exist: L’Idée nouvelle (Burlington, Vt., et Worcester, Mass.), spring 1869; L’Impartial (Worcester, Mass., et Detroit, Mich.), autumn 1869; Rome, the great usurper . . . church and man ([1870]); The Anti-Roman Advocate (Detroit, Mich.), March–August 1870; Le Courrier de l’Outaouais (Hull), janv. 1875 – avril 1876; L’Écho de Hull, 1876.

No one was indifferent to Lanctot; his enemies replied to his words. For this reason La Minerve (Montréal), Cartier’s mouthpiece, Le Pays (Montréal), the Rouge party’s organ, L’Ordre (Montréal), paper of the moderate liberals, Le Nouveau Monde (Montréal), the ultramontane tribune, L’Opinion publique (Montréal), the nationalist paper, provide further information.

Laurent-Olivier David, who knew the Lanctot family well, published a biography of Lanctot in L’Opinion publique on 23 Aug. 1877. Stripped of its romanticism, David’s study remains a valuable source, which is full of details. In March 1968, Gaétan Gervais presented at the University of Ottawa a thesis entitled, “Médéric Lanctot et l’Union nationale,” which analyses in depth Lanctot’s political thought from 1864 to 1867. Philippe Constant [J.-J. Lefebvre] published a genealogy of the Lanctot family in SGCF, Mémoires, X (1959), 27-48.

Some references to Lanctot are found in the following more general works: Alexandre Belisle, Histoire de la presse franco-américaine; comprenant l’historique de l’émigration de Canadiens français aux États-Unis, leur développement et leurs progrès (Worcester, Mass., 1911), 21–77. J.-C. Bonenfant, La naissance de la Confédération (Montréal, 1969), 136–43. Silas Farmer, The history of Detroit and Michigan; or the metropolis illustrated; a chronological cyclopædia of the past and present, including a full record of, territorial days in Michigan and the annals of Wayne County (Detroit, 1884), 678. Fauteux, Patriotes, 284–85. Télesphore St-Pierre, Histoire des Canadiens du Michigan et du comté d’Essex, Ontario (Montréal, 1895), 234–49, 325–39. “Biographie de Médéric Lanctot,” La Minerve (Montréal), 1er août 1877. Gustave Lanctot, “La fin d’une légende,” Revue franco-américaine (Montréal), X (1912–13), 282–91. Télesphore St-Pierre, “Les sociétés et les conventions canadiennes aux États-Unis,” Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Québec, Annales, IV (1902), 466–69.  j.h.]

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Jean Hamelin, “LANCTOT, MÉDÉRIC,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed April 14, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lanctot_mederic_10E.html.

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Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/lanctot_mederic_10E.html
Author of Article:   Jean Hamelin
Title of Article:   LANCTOT, MÉDÉRIC
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 10
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1972
Year of revision:   1972
Access Date:   April 14, 2024