PONTON, JOSEPH-NOÉ (baptized Joseph-Noé-Hormisdas), agronomist, professor, and journalist; b. 8 Dec. 1885 in Sainte-Marie-de-Monnoir (Marieville), Que., one of the 14 children of Noé Ponton and Émélie Dandurand; d. unmarried 11 Dec. 1929 in Montreal and was buried on 14 December in Bromptonville, Que.
Joseph-Noé Ponton was only three years old when his father sold his land and bought a woodlot in Brompton Falls (Bromptonville). He experienced the hard life of pioneers and, in order to help with the farm work, in June 1902 he had to give up the commercial course he had begun the previous September at the Séminaire Saint-Charles-Borromée in Sherbrooke. At the age of 20, however, he decided to undertake classical studies at the seminary as a day student, while continuing to work on the farm. On the advice of the head of the Institut Agricole d’Oka, in 1912 he enrolled at the Ontario Agricultural College in Guelph, where he obtained a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science three years later. He gained his first professional experience of agronomy while working during the summer for the Ontario Department of Agriculture in the Sudbury region. The French-speaking community there would have liked him to become their permanent agronomist, but he chose to return to his native province.
Ponton held a number of jobs from 1915 to 1920. He was professor at the Institut Agricole d’Oka until 1919, property manager at the farm of Dr Louis de Lotbinière Harwood* in Vaudreuil for a season, and promoter of animal husbandry for the federal Department of Agriculture. According to a former student, he had no great talent for teaching. A man of imposing stature and boundless energy, he was more disposed to be a champion of people’s rights. Ponton finally opted for agricultural journalism. In 1920 Auguste Trudel, the manager of the Coopérative Centrale des Agriculteurs de Québec, invited him to take charge of its official publication, Le Bulletin des agriculteurs. For nearly two years Ponton carried out his various tasks for the paper, staying in the background while Trudel signed the editorials.
During the summer of 1921 Ponton was asked by the provincial minister of agriculture, Joseph-Édouard Caron, to serve on a committee to study the organization of agricultural education in the Canadian provinces. He refused to sign the report commissioned by the minister, however, on the grounds that it ought rather to be submitted to the Canadian Society of Technical Agriculturists. Furthermore, the deepening agricultural crisis that had followed World War I prompted him to conduct a large-scale, province-wide inquiry into the state of the farming community. More than 40 per cent of those who replied to his questionnaire asserted that they could not afford to buy fodder and commercial feed to keep their herds through the winter. This situation convinced Ponton that it was urgent to set up a system of farm credit, but Caron saw no need for it.
When a federal election was called in the fall of 1921, Ponton had an opportunity to publicize his views. At a banquet in honour of Thomas Alexander Crerar*, the leader of the Progressive party, which had been founded in 1919 by dissident Liberals and farmers’ associations in Ontario and western Canada, he was approached by James John Harpell, a printer from Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, who suggested that he launch a newspaper for the party in the province of Quebec. Ponton, who for some time had been contemplating starting an independent paper to champion farmers’ interests, consulted his friends and his employer. Trudel proposed instead that he purchase the debt-ridden Bulletin. The transaction was concluded on 19 October with the approval of the directors of the Coopérative Centrale des Agriculteurs. Ponton’s paper became the organ of the Parti Fermier-Progressiste, which was founded on 31 October with the assistance of the 5,000-member Fermiers Unis de Québec, an organization with some 100 local branches, and the Union des Cultivateurs, a professional association formed a few years earlier.
The party nominated 21 candidates in the election. With a platform that included some planks that were very popular in Quebec, such as local processing of natural resources, Canadian independence from Great Britain, and free trade with the United States, the Parti Fermier-Progressiste received 11 per cent of the popular vote, but none of its candidates were successful, whereas 64 Progressives were elected elsewhere in Canada. Liberal propaganda connecting it with the Conservative party, which had been responsible for conscription, contributed to this defeat, but it was handicapped mainly by its rural roots in a province becoming increasingly urbanized, and by the fact that it catered more to the demands of farmers producing for sale rather than subsistence, who were then still a minority in the province’s farming community.
The party’s electoral failure in Quebec forced Ponton and his colleagues to change their tactics. Now that he had an independent mouthpiece, Ponton began to criticize the agricultural cooperative movement, which agriculture minister Caron had brought under his authority following the merger of the three big federations of cooperatives in 1922. His remarks were often stinging. The minister struck back in Le Soleil and Le Bulletin de la ferme (Québec), leaping to the defence of the new Quebec Federated Co-operative. Since the farmers were losing control of the cooperatives, Ponton turned his attention to promoting the organization of the farming community on a professional basis, like other social classes. In 1924 he put forward the idea of an agricultural convention to study the possibility of setting up a new professional association for the province’s farmers. The convention, held at Quebec on 1 and 2 Oct. 1924, was attended by 2,400 people. A wide-ranging program of reforms was adopted, including agricultural education, the establishment of a system of farm credit, and the organization of local study groups. Laurent Barré*, a farmer backed by Ponton, became the first president of the Union Catholique des Cultivateurs.
Caron resigned himself to accepting the new association, but he tried to convince its members that Ponton’s paper was doing a disservice to their cause by constantly criticizing government measures. Some of the stands taken by Le Bulletin also irritated prominent members of the clergy. To dispel any misunderstanding, at its 1926 convention Ponton asked the UCC to look to another newspaper for support, and Barré, who was also hostile to the Liberal government, resigned as president. The two men did not abandon their crusade, however.
Caron had been opposed to the creation of the UCC because he suspected its two leaders of wanting to use it as a springboard to enter politics. Rumour had had it that Ponton would be a candidate in the 1921 election, but he had confined himself to the role of campaign organizer for the Parti Fermier-Progressiste. It was not until the end of the UCC convention in 1926 that he showed his political ambitions for the first time. He justified his move by saying that it had become necessary to supplement union activity by parliamentary struggle in order to back the UCC’s demands. Ponton and Barré then allied themselves with the Conservatives to fight the government of Louis-Alexandre Taschereau* in the provincial election of 16 May 1927. Ponton ran in Richmond. Despite an effective campaign, they were defeated at the polls. In their view the loss was due to a lack of organization, and they convened a meeting during the next few weeks at which they laid the basis for a new party, the short-lived Action Politique Populaire.
Ponton’s entry into active political life alienated a number of Liberal supporters in the farming community, including some leaders of the UCC. His opposition to the proposal for creating a commercial section within it gave rise to other criticisms in the UCC’s new organ, La Terre de chez nous. For the first time in his career, Ponton saw his leadership challenged. It was at this very point, in December 1929, that he died, at the age of 44, following an attack of nephritis. Agronomist Armand Létourneau, who had met him a month earlier, would write in La Terre de chez nous that he had seemed old, tired, and, above all, disillusioned.
Little is known about the influences that shaped Ponton’s career. As a very young child he appears to have been profoundly influenced by the study of heroic deeds in Canadian history and also, of course, by his religious education. According to those who were close to him, he believed he had a mission and devoted all his energy to the defence of his ideals. In Le Bulletin des agriculteurs he himself described his struggle as a campaign for agricultural renewal. His demands evolved over the years: an increase in the resources allocated to agricultural schools, reform of the agricultural cooperatives, farm credit, diversification of the markets for dairy products by the export of cream to the United States, a reduction in imports of foodstuffs, the improvement of stockyards, and restoration of auctions for dairy products and other produce. He had the pleasure of seeing a number of his ideas incorporated into the program of reforms put forward by Joseph-Léonide Perron, who succeeded Caron as minister of agriculture. Perron even offered him the position of deputy minister shortly before he died.
Though Joseph-Noé Ponton denied it, the polemic he carried on with Caron was to a large extent a personality conflict. The vehemence with which he criticized the minister’s agricultural policy could not fail to draw a belligerent response. Furthermore, the reformer was not always right. The sale of cream to the United States, for instance, did not bring the anticipated results, since the Americans adopted measures to restrict the entry of agricultural produce from Canada, leaving the dairy industry in disarray in part of the Eastern Townships. Despite their differences, Ponton and Caron, who both came from farming backgrounds, were looking for ways to stem the rural exodus and to restore some degree of dignity to those who played an essential role in society without receiving a fair reward for their labour. In the struggle between the two men, Ponton took the high ground by going selflessly to the defence of the weakest who were confronted with a government that he accused of being insensitive to their demands and incompetent in agricultural matters. His former colleagues, including Firmin Létourneau, accorded him the stature of a true hero, the equal of those who had filled his imagination as a child. This is on the whole a fairly accurate portrait, but one that requires some refining. Ponton’s great accomplishment was the founding of the Union Catholique des Cultivateurs. He was awarded the gold medal of the Order of Agricultural Merit posthumously in 1961.
With Firmin Létourneau, Joseph-Noé Ponton published Album des animaux domestiques: dédié à nos jeunes compatriotes des campagnes ([Montréal, 1924?]).
ANQ-M, CE602-S21, 9 déc. 1885. Le Bulletin des agriculteurs (Montréal), 1920–29. Le Devoir, 12 déc. 1929. La Terre de chez nous (Montréal), 18 déc. 1929, 9 sept. 1931, 26 févr. 1947. J.-P. Kesteman et al., Histoire du syndicalisme agricole au Québec: UCC–UPA, 1924–1984 (Montréal, 1984). Nicole Lacelle, “Le Bulletin des agriculteurs,” 1921–1929: les visages d’un journal (Montréal, [1981?]). Firmin Létourneau, Histoire de l’agriculture (Canada français) ([Montréal], 1950). J.-C. Magnan, Le monde agricole (Montréal, 1972), 64. Robert Migner, Quand gronde la révolt verte (Montréal, 1980). Rumilly, Hist. de la prov. de Québec, vols.24–31. Jacques Saint-Pierre, Histoire de la Coopérative fédérée: l’industrie de la terre (Québec, 1997).