LEFRANÇOIS, CHARLES, printer and bookseller; b. probably in 1773 in L’Ange-Gardien, Que., son of Nicolas Lefrançois and Marie Vézina; m. 2 June 1801 Louise Ledroit, dit Perche, at Quebec; d. there 1 April 1829.
By the time Charles Lefrançois was born, his family had been settled in the parish of L’Ange-Gardien on the Côte de Beaupré for four generations. Unable to make a living on the family farm, which had been divided into small pieces through the generations, Charles Lefrançois moved to Quebec. He was residing in the faubourg Saint-Jean when on 12 May 1798 he was hired as an apprentice printer by Pierre-Édouard Desbarats and Roger Lelièvre for their workshop. Two days later Desbarats and Lelièvre were officially appointed printers for the Lower Canadian statutes, and on 23 May they bought William Vondenvelden*’s Nouvelle Imprimerie.
To counteract the propaganda against Canadians being printed in the Quebec Mercury and to defend the interests of French-speaking members of the professions, Pierre-Stanislas Bédard, with the backing of some compatriots, founded a newspaper, Le Canadien, which was launched on 22 Nov. 1806. Charles Roi (Roy) was its first printer. Some time in 1807 Lefrançois took over, printing the paper at the Imprimerie Canadienne on Rue Saint-François until 1810. That year, exasperated by criticism of his government, Governor Sir James Henry Craig* decided to muzzle Le Canadien. A warrant for the arrest of Lefrançois was signed by executive councillors Thomas Dunn*, François Baby*, and John Young*. On the afternoon of Saturday 17 March soldiers burst into the printing shop, thoroughly searched the premises, took possession of equipment, seized the editorial staff’s papers, and took Lefrançois off to prison. The confiscated documents were deposited at the court-house in the presence of Ross Cuthbert*, a justice of the peace. In the days following, the owners and publishers of Le Canadien, Bédard, François Blanchet, and Jean-Thomas Taschereau, were incarcerated. Lefrançois was never brought before the courts and was not released until August.
In October he bought a two-storey stone house he had been renting since May 1809 on Rue Laval, a narrow street behind the Séminaire de Québec, to which he had to pay annual seigneurial dues. He opened a printing shop in this house, where he lived until his death, and over the years he added a bookstore and a bookbinding shop. In the second and third decades of the century new printing shops opened at Quebec, including the establishments of Flavien Vallerand, Charles Vallée, François Lemaître, George J. Wright, and William H. Shadgett, and competition became keen, even cutthroat. Thanks to his experience, Lefrançois was moderately successful in acquiring clients in a world largely dominated by two enterprises, the Neilsons’ Quebec Gazette, which had been operating for more than half a century, and the Nouvelle Imprimerie, belonging to Desbarats and Thomas Cary* Jr. After 1810 Lefrançois did no more newspaper work but turned out books and pamphlets on his presses; most of these were devotional pieces, often destined for religious institutions or groups at Quebec such as the Grand Séminaire and the Ursuline community. He also did an imposing manual of criminal law by Joseph-François Perrault*.
Lefrançois was afflicted with a liver ailment as a result of his incarceration and he died at Quebec on 1 April 1829. With the consent of the parish priest, Antoine Bédard, a cousin of Pierre-Stanislas, he was buried three days later in the church of Charlesbourg, which was then under construction and is still standing. The printing shop was closed, but Lefrançois’s widow made a living by keeping the bookstore open. The Quebec Gazette praised Lefrançois as “an honest, industrious, and useful citizen.” At a time when printing was often the riskiest of trades, he had survived for more than two decades. The extent to which he had shared and championed the political positions of Le Canadien remains a moot point. As a craftsman and professional above all, he simply set the texts of others and left no written work of his own. Events in 1810 showed that liberty of the press was still uncertain. Seeing their administrations openly criticized by certain papers and not knowing quite how to react, the governors sometimes attacked the printers themselves, putting them behind bars. Like Fleury Mesplet* before him and Ludger Duvernay* after, Lefrançois was both target and scapegoat.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 2 juin 1801; CE1-7, 4 avril 1829; CN1-208, 20 janv. 1820, 2 oct. 1822; CN1-262, 12 mai 1798; 1er juin 1801; 21 oct. 1810; 3 nov. 1813; 12 janv., 18 oct. 1815. “Les dénombrements de Québec” (Plessis), ANQ Rapport, 1948–49: 163. Recensement de Québec, en 1818 (Provost), 245. Quebec Gazette, 22 March 1810, 2 April 1829. Hare et Wallot, Les imprimés dans le Bas-Canada, 217, 229, 315, 352. Quebec directory, 1822. Raymond Gariépy, Les terres de L’Ange-Gardien (Québec, 1984), 602–3. J. [E.] Hare et J.-P. Wallot, “Les imprimés au Québec (1760–1820),” L’imprimé au Québec: aspects historiques (18e–20e siècles), sous la direction d’Yvan Lamonde (Québec, 1983), 110–11. P.-G. Roy, Toutes petites choses du Régime anglais, 1: 232–33. Charles Trudelle, Paroisse de Charlesbourg (Quebec, 1887), 198. N.-E. Dionne, “L’emprisonnement de Pierre Bédard,” BRH, 6 (1900): 58, 60. Claude Galarneau, “Les métiers du livre à Québec (1764–1859),” Cahiers des Dix, 43 (1983): 148, 150, 154. J.-E. Roy, “L’imprimeur Charles Lefrançois,” BRH, 2 (1896): 95. Charles Trudelle, “L’imprimeur Charles Lefrançois,” BRH, 2: 126.