PRÉVOST, OSCAR (baptized Amable-Oscar-Alexandre), lawyer and militia officer; b. 9 May 1845 in Montreal, son of Amable Prévost and Rosalie-Victoire Bernard; m. 25 May 1874 at Quebec Louise-Élizabeth Juchereau Duchesnay, daughter of Édouard-Louis-Antoine-Charles Juchereau Duchesnay, deputy adjutant-general of the militia of Lower Canada and politician, and they had six children; d. there 16 Sept. 1895.
The son of a well-to-do merchant who may, indeed, have been wealthy, Oscar Prévost received his classical education at the Jesuit Collège Sainte-Marie in Montreal, and then began to study law. After being an articled clerk in the law office of George-Étienne Cartier*, he was called to the bar on 30 Oct. 1866. He then practised in partnership with Joseph-Adolphe Chapleau, but in 1870 his interest in army life turned his career in a new direction. In 1866 he had joined the 4th Battalion of Rifles (Chasseurs Canadiens) with the rank of lieutenant and served along the border at the time of the Fenian troubles [see John O’Neill*]. Promoted captain in 1869, he joined the 8th Battalion of Rifles (Stadacona Rifles) the following year and took part in the expedition sent to restore peace in the Red River settlement (Manitoba) [see Garnet Joseph Wolseley*]. He remained on duty there until 1872. He was then assigned to the Quebec Field Battery, stationed at the city, of which he was adjutant from August 1873 to February 1880. Promoted major on 10 July 1879, he became a lieutenant-colonel on 26 Nov. 1894.
In December 1879 the federal government had decided to establish a cartridge factory at Quebec. The cartridges that the militia needed for its Snider-Enfield rifle had to be imported from England, and the powder company in Hamilton, Ont., had refused to manufacture them. Quebec was chosen as the location for this factory because it was well fortified, had excellent communication links, and was farther away from the American border than Kingston, Ont. In addition, Artillery Park, where the British troops had been garrisoned before being withdrawn from North America in 1871, could accommodate the factory without the need for new buildings.
Given the responsibility for setting up the cartridge factory, Major Prévost was sent to the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich (London) in the spring of 1880 to learn about the manufacturing process. He took the opportunity to buy the necessary machinery from Greenwood and Batley in Leeds. On his return to Quebec on 21 April 1881 he had, as superintendent, to resolve a wide range of technical problems before the equipment could be put into operation. Production finally began in the autumn of 1882. That year Prévost also renovated the buildings at Cove Fields (now called the Plains of Abraham) that were to house the laboratory. The filling and assembling of the cartridges were to be transferred there because of the danger of explosions. A suitable site also had to be selected for test firing to check the quality of the cartridges.
During his 14 years as head of the factory, Prévost dealt with all aspects of the enterprise. He oversaw the administration with a bare minimum of staff. He also had to worry about maintaining buildings that had been put up for other purposes many years before. From time to time he had serious difficulties in obtaining equipment and raw materials, particularly gunpowder. In 1884, for example, he had to wait eight months for delivery of an order placed at Woolwich. Moreover, because of the danger of explosions on transatlantic crossings and during unloading at the port of Quebec, shipping firms were most reluctant to carry the fulminates required for making the cartridges. Prévost even had to arrange for them to be produced in Canada.
Obviously his chief responsibility was the manufacture of the cartridges, which was a “difficult and complicated” process that involved more than 50 different operations, mainly of a mechanical nature, and that required not only great care but also dry gunpowder of top quality. It is hardly surprising that there was occasional criticism, particularly during the North-West rebellion in 1885 [see Louis Riel*], which necessitated a dramatic increase in output to more than 1,500,000 cartridges in two months, or 450,000 more than had been manufactured the previous year, and the employment of 150 workers, about 100 more than in previous periods of peak demand. A commission of inquiry, appointed at Prévost’s request, found fault with the quality of the powder used but not with that of the work done in the cartridge factory. Another committee had reached the same conclusion a few years before. Moreover, Prévost was always concerned to improve and perfect the equipment he was using, as can be seen from his annual reports and the devices he invented, such as a machine for making cotter pins and a cartridge clip. His efforts ultimately earned him more praise than blame.
Under Prévost’s management, production changed over the years. One important development came in 1887, with the addition of a foundry that made it possible to produce four different shells: the 9-pound solid and shrapnel shells and the 64-pound varieties. In 1891, three years after Prévost wanted production facilities to be made ready, the factory began to turn out cartridges for the Martini-Metford rifle. The following year, the necessary modifications were begun for the production of the .303″ cartridge, which in Prévost’s last year as head of the factory, 1895, became the main product, since the Snider cartridge had been dropped the year before.
Oscar Prévost deserves the credit for setting up the Quebec cartridge factory and ensuring its operation for nearly 15 years. It outlasted him, providing work for thousands of citizens from Quebec and the surrounding area until it closed in 1964. The arsenal at Valcartier, completed in 1939, then took over the manufacture of all munitions for the Quebec region.
NA, RG 9, II, A1. Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1882–95; Parl., Sessional papers, 1880–95 (annual reports of the Dept. of Militia and Defence). Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), 2: 612. P.-G. Roy, La famille Juchereau Duchesnay (Lévis, Qué., 1903), 309–14. The dominion arsenal at Quebec, 1880–1945 (Quebec, 1947). Les travailleurs de l’Arsenal de Québec, 1879–1964 (Ottawa, 1980).