MACDONALD, RONALD, educator and newspaper editor; b. February 1797 in Priest Pond (Prince Edward Island), son of John Macdonald and Margaret MacKinnon; d. 15 Oct. 1854 at Quebec, and was buried there two days later in the Cimetière Saint-Louis.
Nothing is known of Ronald Macdonald’s childhood except that he came from a family of modest means. He was brought to Lower Canada as a result of Bishop Joseph-Octave Plessis*’s determination to give the English-speaking Roman Catholics of the Maritimes a sufficient number of clergy. Several “carefully chosen” youths were sent to study in the seminaries of Lower Canada at the expense of the ecclesiastical authorities. Angus Bernard MacEachern*, a missionary at St Andrews on Prince Edward Island, apparently recruited Macdonald and Bernard Donald Macdonald and recommended them to Plessis. Ronald arrived at Quebec in October 1812 and entered the Petit Séminaire in a preparatory class, knowing not one word of French. From his first months there he attracted the attention of Plessis, who wrote to MacEachern: “Ronald is a student whose ability and progress [are] remarkable.” A brilliant pupil, he advanced rapidly and in 1813 he went into the second-year class (Syntax). In the summer of 1816 he began the sixth-year class (Rhetoric), and in 1817 the philosophy program. After only five years he had finished his classical studies. He entered the Grand Séminaire de Québec in 1817 to become a priest, and received the tonsure on 5 October in the cathedral at Quebec. According to some sources Plessis, who was impressed with Macdonald’s capabilities, wanted to make him his suffragan bishop at Halifax; however, his correspondence makes no mention of this matter. In any case, after less than a year at the Grand Séminaire, Macdonald decided to give up the soutane.
Having renounced the priesthood, Macdonald was faced with financial difficulties, since he no longer received assistance from Plessis. In the early 1820s the former seminarist took up the study of law, did a little translation, and taught at the English Catholic school in Saint-Roch. He also decided to establish a family of his own. On 16 April 1822, at Quebec, he married Louise Lavallée; the marriage certificate bears the notation “law student.” Ronald and Louise were to have 13 children, of whom at least two boys and three girls reached adulthood. Macdonald’s wife and a daughter, Eugénie, would perish when the Théâtre Saint-Louis at Quebec was destroyed by fire on 12 June 1846.
Immediately after his marriage, Macdonald, burdened with financial responsibilities and without means, had abandoned the study of law and decided finally to become a teacher at the English Catholic school in Saint-Roch. In 1824, in association with schoolmaster Germain Kirouac, he started a private school on Rue Sainte-Ursule; this partnership lasted two years. Soon after, in 1826, Macdonald went to Rivière-du-Loup (Louiseville) to take charge of the boys’ class. He is thought to have stayed there three years.
At this point, the House of Assembly, having decided it was expedient to adopt measures “for procuring a master or Preceptor to instruct the Deaf and Dumb in this Province,” approached Macdonald, whose career then took a dynamic new turn. On 2 March 1830 he appeared before a special committee of the house studying educational problems, and it was suggested that he go to the United States for training in the methods of teaching deaf mutes. Macdonald set down several conditions before accepting: he was to receive a grant large enough to cover the expenses of his move and to provide for his family, and on his return he was to be appointed head of an institution financed by the government. These terms were agreed to, and by a law enacted on 26 March 1830 he was granted the necessary £300.
In June, Macdonald went to Hartford, Conn., where the American School for the Deaf, America’s first and most renowned establishment of its type, was located. The method taught was that of Abbé Roch-Ambroise Cucurron, dit Sicard, a French educator of the early 19th century. Instruction was given in French and English. In May 1831, after a year’s study, Macdonald returned to Quebec armed with the requisite certificates. On 15 June the Deaf and Dumb Institution, the first such establishment in Lower Canada, came into being when Macdonald, as a tutor, opened a school at Quebec. That year there were 408 persons in the province listed as deaf mutes. The initial sum allocated for setting up the school was quickly exhausted, and Macdonald had to present a report to the House of Assembly on 31 Jan. 1832 applying for a further grant. On 25 February “An Act to make temporary provision for the instruction of the Deaf and Dumb and for other purposes relating to the same object” received royal assent. Given the provisional nature of this statute, the institution in time found itself short of funds, and had to close in 1836. Macdonald’s endeavours had again come to nothing, despite his devotion to this humanitarian cause.
Under the circumstances, Macdonald went back to regular teaching and at the same time took up journalism. He became a schoolmaster at Saint-Laurent, on Île d’Orléans, and there acquired a reputation as a scholar; but it is hard to understand why a man of such ability had to teach in a rural school for two years.
Macdonald’s journalistic career began in 1836 when, according to Henry James Morgan*, he joined the staff of the Quebec Gazette, which published an English and a French edition alternately; he held the position of editor. When John Neilson*, a reformer who had edited the newspaper since the end of the 18th century, decided to publish an original French edition, Macdonald obtained the position of editor-in-chief of what would also be called the La Gazette de Québec. He presented his program in the issue of 2 May 1842. He proposed to make La Gazette a complete newspaper, devoting space to scholarly, scientific, artistic, and political matters. To avoid religious controversy, Macdonald planned to rely on the clergy for the material to be published on religion. In all cases he would turn to sound sources, and would keep himself informed of developments in both America and Europe. The program was ambitious, but Macdonald’s venture and the French edition itself lasted only until 29 Oct. 1842. The balanced thinking, correct style, reliable information on domestic and foreign politics, and the quality and elegance of the translations made La Gazette de Québec a paper that was read and well regarded by the clergy and educated classes.
From 4 Oct. 1836 he also worked as an editor on John Lovell*’s Montreal Daily Transcript, with which his name would continue to be associated until 1849. Macdonald joined Le Canadien in November 1842, replacing Étienne Parent*, who had just been appointed clerk of the Executive Council. In an article published on 4 November Macdonald stated that he would be solely responsible for everything appearing in the paper. He proposed to uphold its motto: Nos institutions, notre langue et nos lois. At his request the proprietor, Jean-Baptiste Fréchette, agreed to expand the paper in order to include more information on religious matters.
Five years later Fréchette turned Le Canadien over to his sons. The new owners dismissed Macdonald, replacing him with Napoléon Aubin*. In February 1848 Macdonald joined La Journal de Québec for a brief stint, but during the year he went to the Quebec Gazette, where he remained until 1849. That year E.-R. Fréchette became sole owner of Le Canadien and lost no time reinstating Macdonald as editor. It was his last position. On 15 Oct. 1854 Ronald Macdonald, then 57, died at Quebec. Le Canadien, “bearing a black border,” mourned its editor as a writer who was a “model of clarity of expression and good taste.”
All Ronald Macdonald’s contemporaries agreed that he was a great journalist, a competent schoolteacher, a discriminating writer, and a conscientious and honest man. Among the writers who had come from outside Lower Canada to settle there, he was, as many stressed, one of those who had contributed the most to the awakening and appreciation of literature and the arts. He was French in heart and mind, not by duty, but by choice.
ANQ-Q, CE1-1, 16 avril 1822, 17 oct. 1854. ASQ, Fichier des anciens. L.C., House of Assembly, Journals, 1830–32. Le Canadien, 31 mars 1832, 4 nov. 1842, 16 oct. 1854. Quebec Gazette, 2 May–29 Oct. 1842. Beaulieu et Hamelin, La presse québécoise, 1: 2–3, 16–17, 72, 86, 91, 93. F.-M. Bibaud, Le panthéon canadien (A. et V. Bibaud; 1891). Caron, “Inv. de la corr. de Mgr Plessis,” ANQ Rapport, 1927–28: 297; 1932–33: 127–28. L.-M. Darveau, Nos hommes de lettres (Montréal, 1873), 273–74. Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis. Quebec almanac, 1824–26. I. [-F.-T.] Lebrun, Tableau statistique et politique des deux Canadas (Paris, 1833). Germain Lesage, Histoire de Louiseville, 1665–1960 (Louiseville, Qué., 1961), 148. P.-G. Roy, L’Île d’Orléans (Québec, 1928), 419–21. A.[-E.] Gosselin, “Ronald MacDonald,” BRH, 27 (1921): 319. “L’incendie du théâtre Saint-Louis,” BRH, 5 (1899): 343–44. Lacertus [Richard Lessard], “Un instituteur d’autrefois,” L’Écho de Saint-Justin (Louiseville), 1er mars 1926: 11. P.-G. Roy, “Le journaliste Ronald MacDonald,” BRH, 42 (1936): 443–48. “Les sourds-muets en Canada,” Magasin du Bas-Canada (Montréal), 1 (1832): 112–14.
Revisions based on:
Bibliothèque et Arch. Nationales du Québec, Centre d’arch. de la Mauricie et du Centre-du-Québec (Trois-Rivières, Québec), CE401-S15, 9 juill. 1828, 23 mars 1830; Centre d’arch. de Québec, CE301-S1, 2 févr., 18 mai 1823; 18 févr., 25 juill. 1824; 26 avril 1825; 17 nov. 1826; 19 juin 1830; 1er juill. 1832; 3 juill. 1834; 21 oct. 1835; 21 janv., 10 juill. 1838; 15 avril, 10 mai, 28 août 1839; 11 nov. 1840; 5 nov. 1841; 24 août 1843; 9 janv. 1844; 14 juin 1846; 19 nov. 1880; CE301-S93, 9 août 1847. Library and Arch. Can. (Ottawa), R233-29-7, vol.158–259, Canada-East, dist. Quebec (38), subdist. Quebec (City) (558): 1440. Claire Paradis-Rioux, Charles Drolet, 1795–1873, Ronald Macdonald, 1797–1854: histoire et généalogie (Montréal, 2017).