THIBAULT (Thibeault), NORBERT, named Brother Oliver Julian, teacher, literary critic, and teaching brother; b. 11 July 1840 at Saint-Urbain-de-Charlevoix, Lower Canada, son of Olivier Thibeault, a farmer, and Carmelle Tremblay; d. there on 10 Aug. 1881.
Norbert Thibault entered the École Normale Laval in Quebec City when it opened in May 1857. A brilliant student, on 14 June 1859 he obtained a diploma permitting him to teach in model schools. After winning first prize for “rhetoric, Latin, Greek, and correctness of language,” he received a diploma on 2 July 1860 enabling him to teach in academies. In September he was appointed an assistant master at the school and was to have a considerable influence upon his colleagues. Acting as an adviser to the Association des Instituteurs de la Circonscription de l’École Normale Laval from August 1860, he served as its secretary from 1861 to 1863, vice-president in 1863, and became president in August 1864. He delivered a number of lectures to its members. In 1864, when he was 24, he was being listened to “in scrupulous silence,” and praised for his talents as an orator.
In January 1864, Thibault, Joseph Létourneau, and Charles-Joseph Lévesque, dit Lafrance, established La Semaine (Quebec), a “religious, pedagogical, literary and scientific review” that was the first in French Canada produced for and by teachers. The editors, while reiterating their respect for religious and political authorities, maintained that the teachers themselves must resolve pedagogical problems, as well as difficulties arising from their material or social circumstances. They must break out of their isolation and make teaching a more respected and remunerative occupation with fewer burdens. The man of letters in the editorial group, Thibault also took up the cudgels for the teaching profession, in order that a true “teaching class” might develop, for teachers had both aspirations and interests in common and a social role to play. The journal ceased publication in 1865 because of lack of money, the collective inertia of the teachers, and the absence of support from the government.
In February 1866, drawing on his experience with La Semaine, and convinced that “French literature was constantly and significantly developing in this country,” Thibault became literary critic of Le Courrier du Canada of Quebec City. Introduced to the readers as “a talented young man, with sound judgement, a great love of work, and a ready pen,” he proposed “to set up a kind of tribunal to examine and assess, with justice and moderation, if not with skill, the works of our writers” which he had reread “for perhaps the fifth time.” Faithful to his motto, Sponte favos, cegre spicula (give honey willingly, sting with regret), he analysed numerous works of Canadian writers, including the poetry of Octave Crémazie*, whose Promenade de trois morts he cut to shreds. Taking no offence, the exiled poet had only admiration for the young teacher who “is truly opening the way for literary criticism.” In a letter to Abbé Henri-Raymond Casgrain*, Crémazie recognized the talent of Thibault, champion of the classics and foe of the romantics, and acknowledged that through him “Canadian criticism will soon extricate itself from the ridiculous course it has followed up to now.” Despite this commendation, Thibault gave up his vast project and contented himself with an occasional brief report for Le Courrier du Canada on pedagogical texts.
Norbert Thibault was a director of the Société de colonisation de Québec in 1865 and 1866. A member of the Institut Canadien of Quebec by January 1864, he served as its temporary secretary and assistant registrar that year, before becoming a director in 1865 and corresponding secretary in 1869. He was a captain-lieutenant in company no.7 of the 9th Battalion Voltigeurs de Québec (1864–67). He was also assistant secretary for the national subscription fund to commemorate Franqois-Xavier Garneau* in February 1866. In 1871 he published a treatise entitled De l’agriculture et du rôle des instituteurs, dans l’enseignement agricole, which had first appeared in instalments in Le Courrier du Canada in 1870, under the pseudonym of Agricola. He may also have published a Petite Histoire du Canada à l’usage des écoles élémentaires, as a notice in Le Courrier du Canada of 23 Dec. 1870 indicates. However, no trace has been found of the Traité d’éducation which Ernest Gagnon* claimed he published in 1876.
Despite all this activity, Thibault was not happy; deprived of the joys of family life and contact with society, he felt he was on the wrong track, as he confessed to Ernest Gagnon in September 1871. He resigned his teaching post in October. It may have been because he had not been chosen as a candidate for Charlevoix in the June 1871 elections (as Le Journal de Québec of 11 March 1871 indicated in a paragraph which was reprinted in Le Courrier du Canada two days later), or because he was showing his irritation at not being re-elected to the management committee of the school that October. In the event, he was immediately approached to teach the workers of the Saint-Jean and Saint-Roch districts at Quebec, but he evidently preferred to give private lessons at his boarding-house, to judge from an announcement printed in Le Courrier du Canada from 25 Oct. to 15 Nov. 1871.
In April 1872 a notice in L’Événement of Quebec City intimated that Thibault had accepted the position of editor of Le Courrier de Rimouski, but four days later he entered the noviciate of the Brothers of the Christian Schools at Montreal. He took the habit on 25 May under the name of Brother Oliver Julian and was officially assigned on 3 August to Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu). He was then appointed successively to Saint-Laurent near Montreal on 3 April 1873, to the parish of Saint-Jacques in Montreal on 1 Aug. 1873, to Saint John, N.B., on 5 June 1875, to Laval, Que., on 28 March 1876, again to Saint John on 9 Aug. 1876, and finally to Chambly, Que., on 18 April 1877. In the summer of 1877 he became deranged and was sent back to his family in August. The priest of his village, Ambroise Fafard, wrote on 25 Sept. 1878 requesting the bishop of Chicoutimi, Dominique Racine, to intervene and force Thibault’s religious community to help his family financially. He died at his home on 10 Aug. 1881.
If this tragic end, recounted by Ernest Gagnon in Nouvelles pages choisies, reveals Thibault’s sensitivity, it still “must not,” as André Labarrère-Paulé wrote, “make us forget the journalist of La Semaine.” As Charles-Joseph Magnan* noted, he was “a serious writer, a man of letters endowed with considerable taste. His lively, deft pen has left pages that do honour to Canadian literature.” He was also a littérateur who championed the cause of teachers.
AP, Saint-Urbain (Saint-Urbain-de-Charlevoix), Reg. des baptêmes, mariages et sépultures, 11 juill. 1840, 12 août 1881. Arch. des Frères des écoles chrétiennes, District de Montréal (Laval, Qué.), Papiers divers sur Norbert Thibault, dit frère Oliver Julian. Octave Crémazie, (Euvres complètes de Octave Crémazie publiées sous le patronage de l’Institut canadien de Québec, H.-R. Casgrain et H-J-J-B. Chouinard, édit. (Montréal, ). Le Courrier du Canada, 16 févr., 22 juin 1866. La Semaine (Québec), 1864. Réal Bertrand, L’École normale Laval; un siècle d’histoire (1857–1957) (Québec, 1957). Aurélien Boivin, “Norbert Thibault, l’homme et l’ceuvre” (Mémoire de licence, univ. Laval, Québec, 1968). Ernest Gagnon, Nouvelles pages choisies (Québec, 1925). André Labarrère-Paulé, Les laïques et la presse pédagogique au Canada français au XIXe siècle (Québec, 1963). Guy Savoie, “Bio-bibliographie de Norbert Thibault” (Mémoire de licence, univ. Laval, 1968). C-J. Magnan, “Éducateurs d’autrefois – anciens professeurs à l’École normal Laval – M. Norbert Thibault,” BRH, 48 (1942): 172–78.