LE SAGE, SIMÉON, lawyer, politician, civil servant, landowner, and farmer; b. 3 June 1835 in L’Assomption, Lower Canada, son of Siméon Lesage, a carpenter, and Adeline Desautels; m. 29 Oct. 1863 Adine Pemberton in Montreal, and they had eight children; d. 9 Nov. 1909 at Quebec and was buried three days later in the cemetery of Notre-Dame de Belmont at Sainte-Foy.
After classical studies at the Collège de L’Assomption from 1845 to 1852, Siméon Le Sage was articled in the law office of George-Étienne Cartier*. Called to the bar on 2 March 1857, he went into partnership with his friends Hector Fabre and Louis-Amable Jetté* and practised at Joliette until 1860, and then in Montreal. When their collaboration ended, Le Sage decided to carry on as a sole practitioner in Montreal.
More interested in politics than in law, Le Sage stood as an opposition candidate in Montcalm riding under Louis-Victor Sicotte*’s moderate liberal banner in a by-election of February 1862. He withdrew, however, when another opposition candidate decided to let his name stand, a situation that might have split the vote and prevented either from being elected. From 1863 until 1867 Le Sage seemed to be questioning his party loyalties. He refused to run as a liberal in the 1863 general election, but in 1867 he accepted a Conservative candidacy in Montcalm at the invitation of Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau*, who was seeking people favourable to confederation. He ran against another Conservative who lived in the riding and who played this card for all it was worth. Beaten by 295 votes, Le Sage was offered the post of deputy commissioner in the Department of Agriculture and Public Works. At the time Chauveau was setting up the first Quebec civil service and was bringing together in this new department some of the personnel, and the Quebec responsibilities, of two departments of the former Province of Canada, Agriculture and Public Works.
Le Sage then began a career as a civil servant. At age 32 he had been placed at the top of the rudimentary hierarchy of the small Quebec bureaucracy. He was approached several times about a return to the hustings, in 1874 for Montcalm, in 1880 and 1881 for the federal riding of Chicoutimi and Saguenay, and in 1890 for Montcalm again, but each time he refused. A succession of family tragedies led him to be prudent in his career. Early in April 1872 the Le Sages, who had taken up residence at Quebec, lost three young children in a single week to a scarlet fever epidemic. On 20 Nov. 1879 36-year-old Adine succumbed to the same disease, as did the child she was carrying. Le Sage found himself alone with five young children, some of whom were in delicate health.
From 1867 till 1888, as deputy commissioner Le Sage was central to the process of formulating and administering provincial government policy on agriculture, colonization, immigration, emigration, railways, and public works. He had a free hand and enjoyed the support of Chauveau, who remained premier until 1873. His personal interests were in colonization and the immigration of settlers, as his own correspondence and his department’s annual reports show. Consequently Le Sage served as a good conduit for the sentiments of the colonization movement. He also proved a conscientious administrator mindful of his minister’s wishes.
Le Sage gave considerable attention to a number of particular concerns. For instance, confronted with French Canadian emigration to the United States and the arrival in Canada of large numbers of people from the British Isles, he took an active part in initiatives to increase immigration of francophones from Europe, exercising Quebec’s constitutional powers in this field. In the period 1868–75 numerous steps were taken to encourage such immigration, and Le Sage was at the hub of developments. He wrote The province of Quebec and European emigration, a pamphlet printed in 80,000 copies and later reprinted, which was used for promotional purposes. In addition, from 1870 he assisted in setting up agencies at Quebec and Montreal to welcome immigrants and try to keep them in Quebec. These agencies helped newcomers find lodgings and work, distributed information, and provided transportation for those who decided to settle in the province. From 1871 agents were employed in Europe, both on the Continent and in the British Isles, to attract immigrant farmers of good moral character, in particular from among those with some savings to buy land. Le Sage threw himself energetically into all these endeavours, which in retrospect seem to have been based on illusions and to have had minimal impact. The results fell short of expectations, and the immigrants who came – working men, turbulent radicals, or free-thinkers – sometimes turned out to be far from the skilled, experienced people wanted. The provincial government was disillusioned and consequently fell prey to the federal government’s inclination to run the province’s overseas immigration agencies. By 1875, to Le Sage’s great dismay, the province gave up responsibility for selecting immigrants, largely as an economy measure. He remained interested in this matter, despite growing disappointment. But without government support, there was little chance of effective action. However much Le Sage deluded himself about the merits of francophone immigration from Europe, he was more realistic than the government in the repatriation efforts that began in 1871 and intensified from 1875, replacing the European solution to the problem of French Canadian emigration. In both instances the measures adopted met with almost total failure.
Le Sage’s efforts matched his personal convictions about the importance of colonization and fitted into the climate of opinion among the various élites in the province. In government circles many shared this excessive enthusiasm, in particular Chauveau and Louis Archambeault*, Le Sage’s first minister. Le Sage was in a good position to try to improve a system of assistance already firmly established, which was particularly directed towards building roads to aid settlement, helping colonization societies, distributing information, and protecting settlers against seizure of property. He followed the progress of settlement closely and often found himself drawn into reaching compromises with the political aspects of settlement work, including patronage. In a private capacity, he was even involved with some French partners in the Société de Colonisation de Témiscamingue from 1884 to 1902. He does not seem to have shown any animosity towards timber operators and the Department of Crown Lands which represented them in large measure. According to historian Pierre Trépanier, he seemed to favour exploiting the forests before the regions were settled. On the other hand, even though the railways were a remarkable instrument for promoting settlement from the mid 1870s and in theory came under the department he ran, he apparently was not much interested in debates and matters concerning them, confining himself to his role as secretary of the railway committee.
His endeavours in agriculture were based on experiments carried out mainly in France to improve techniques, and possibly it was in this sector that his contribution proved the most realistic and innovative. With Édouard-André Barnard*, he supported efforts to cultivate sugar beet, a choice inspired by experience in Europe and by a desire to see local production replace importation of sugar from the West Indies. The same European influences, as well as evaluations of the profitability of agricultural production in various areas, turned Le Sage from the early 1870s into a convinced champion of dairying and the manufacture of butter and cheese, particularly for the British market. He helped found the Industrial Dairy Society of the Province of Quebec in 1882 and with others worked to bring Canadian cows back into favour. He was active in teaching and experimental research in agriculture. Le Sage was amongst those who questioned the role of the Council of Agriculture of the Province of Quebec and proposed that it be gradually replaced by departmental bodies. In addition he was involved in plans to manufacture phosphates as fertilizers for farmers.
Le Sage seems to have paid little attention to public works, except for technical considerations. The principal front of the Quebec legislative building was begun in 1883 [see Eugène-Étienne Taché*], but he apparently had little to do with it except for trying to see that his friend Napoléon Bourassa* was commissioned to undertake its ornamentation.
The year 1888 marked a turning-point in Le Sage’s career. Until 1887 he had survived changes in government without trouble and had maintained excellent relations with most of his ministers, a list including Louis Archambeault (1867–74), Pierre Garneau (1874–76), Charles-Eugène Boucher* de Boucherville (1876–78), Henri-Gustave Joly (1878–79), Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau* (1879–81), John Jones Ross (1881–82), Elisée Dionne (1882–84), and then Ross again. He had had to “put up with” only one, ephemeral Liberal cabinet, in 1878–79, and his relations with his minister, Joly, who was also premier, had been very good.
At the beginning of Honoré Mercier*’s government in 1887 Le Sage seemed to enjoy his favour, and his minister, James McShane*, left him complete freedom of action. The Riel affair of 1885 [see Louis Riel*], which brought his nationalism and his loyalty to the Conservatives into conflict, had in truth upset him. He was not sorry at the Conservatives’ defeat in 1886, and his sympathies lay with the National Conservatives, who had entered into coalition with Mercier’s Liberals to form the government. However, when the Department of Agriculture and Colonization was set up in 1888 – on the spur of the moment, according to him – and when parish priest François-Xavier-Antoine Labelle* was appointed as deputy commissioner, Le Sage lost responsibility for the two areas dearest to him, other than immigration and repatriation. He was relegated to the Department of Public Works for the rest of his career, and it was a sector for which he had no particular liking.
At 53, Le Sage, who had been a civil servant for 21 years, thought of retiring. However, his department was under Pierre Garneau, one of the leaders of the National Conservatives with whom he had already worked. The two got along well together, and Garneau protected him from the scheming of more orthodox Liberals. Le Sage offered his resignation, but the retirement provisions that he requested caused the matter to drag on until the fall of the Mercier government in 1891, an event not unpleasing to Le Sage. The return to power of the Conservatives stabilized his situation. When the Liberals came back in 1897, they left him in his job, and in 1901, at the time the Ministry of Colonization and Public Works was created, he fell heir to Public Works, although he was hoping to become involved again in immigration and settlement. He worked under various ministers, including Lomer Gouin* (1901–5) and Louis-Alexandre Taschereau* (1907–9), before retiring on 30 June 1909. By then he had put in 41 1/2 years of service. In addition to his pension the government allocated him supplementary funds to have him settle the old matter of abolishing toll-gates on roads and bridges, which kept him occupied and permitted him to retain his office.
Le Sage, who had no personal means, had lived in rather a grand style largely because of the wealth of his wife Adine, who had inherited the estate of Louis Guy*, along with her brothers Henry and William Pemberton. The brothers had died childless. Thus in 1869 she had been able to buy a house on Rue Sainte-Geneviève for $4,000, and then in 1878 to acquire for $2,400 a farm, Cap-Rouge, to the south of the Chemin Sainte-Foy, which served as a country home. As the Le Sages had chosen the regime of separation of property as husband and wife, their children inherited her fortune by substitution. Le Sage, who was the residuary legatee by the terms of her will of 1873, had to preserve this property for the children and pass it on to them. The estate included term loans being repaid by instalments on properties sold in the centre of Montreal, and thus there was fairly regular income that at the time of Adine’s death in 1879 had in total amounted to $22,671. In addition Le Sage had his annual salary as deputy commissioner. He was sufficiently well off to spend four months in Europe with his daughters in 1895. He also invested in real estate: land at Sans Bruit along the Chemin Sainte-Foy worth about $10,000 in 1906, and lots next to the Quebec Drill Hall worth $5,400. He even bought a farm at Hébertville in 1882 and tried to run it with the help of several sharecroppers, without much success. In periods of difficulty under the Mercier regime he toyed with the idea of going to live there and representing Chicoutimi riding. He finally let the farm go in 1900. Although financially well off, Le Sage still had his troubles, among them his son Jules’s repeated failure to pass the bar examinations and the difficulty of finding him a remunerative occupation, and the illness of his daughter Marie, who had to be confined to a mental hospital in 1908.
Le Sage began putting his affairs in order in 1905. He gave an accounting of his stewardship of his wife’s estate, which, with accumulated interest, amounted to $57,350. Of that sum, $45,300 was owed to the four children and more than $7,000 consisted of outstanding debts, the repayment of which they were also to share among themselves. In reality this wealth was not available for distribution, since it had served to keep and lodge the family. Le Sage therefore made over his wife’s net estate – except for the family home – to his children in fee simple. His will allowed them to recover what he had not already remitted to them, by making them preferential creditors of his own estate which included life insurance policies amounting to $25,000 plus accumulated interest. His affairs were on the whole in good order. His unexpected death on 9 Nov. 1909 came only months after he had begun his retirement.
[This biography draws heavily upon Pierre Trépanier’s extensive work on Siméon Le Sage. The following are particularly useful: Siméon Le Sage: un haut fonctionnaire québécois face aux défis de son temps (1867–1909) (Montréal, 1979); “Siméon Le Sage et l’affaire du Témiscamingue (1884–1902),” Rev. de l’univ. d’Ottawa, 47 (1977): 365–76; “Siméon Le Sage (1835–1909): un notable d’autrefois dans l’intimité” and “L’idéologie d’un haut fonctionnaire nationaliste: Siméon Le Sage (1835–1909),” L’Action nationale (Montréal), 47 (1978): 469–96 and 654–84. m.v.]
Siméon Le Sage is the author of The province of Quebec and European emigration (Quebec, 1870).
AC, Québec, État civil, Catholiques, Notre-Dame de Québec, 12 nov. 1909; Minutiers, Cyrille Tessier. ANQ-M, CE5-14, 3 juin 1835. ANQ-Q, P-149. Le Soleil, 10 nov. 1909.