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CRONYN, BENJAMIN – Volume X (1871-1880)

d. at London, Ont., 21 Sept. 1871


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VANIER, JOSEPH-ÉMILE (baptized Émilien), civil engineer, surveyor, teacher, and architect; b. 20 Jan. 1858 in Saint-Louis-de-Terrebonne (Terrebonne), Lower Canada, son of Émilien Vanier, a baker, and Lucie Soucisse (Soucie); m. first 11 July 1881 Olivine Pariseau (d. 29 July 1929) in the parish of Saint-Jean-Baptiste, Montreal, and they had two children; m. there secondly 4 Nov. 1929 Marie-Adrienne Trottier in the parish of Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur; d. 11 Oct. 1934 in Montreal.

Joseph-Émile Vanier was the son of a baker who had become quite a prosperous grain merchant, and thus was able to enrol at the École Normale Jacques-Cartier and the Catholic Commercial Academy in Montreal. While he was a student there in the early 1870s, the academy went through a remarkable expansion. Originally a small school of the Roman Catholic Board of School Commissioners of the City of Montreal, it was transformed under the leadership of its principal, Urgel-Eugène Archambeault*, into one of the educational institutions most sought after by well-established families in the Montreal area. A new building opened in 1872 and, two years later, a scientific and industrial school was set up there with money from a provincial government grant. In 1876 the academy took the name École Polytechnique of Montreal and became the first teaching institution for engineers in French Canada. Vanier was in the initial cohort and, upon earning his degree in 1877, he was part of the first graduating class. The emergence of new training schools, which followed close upon the increasing urbanization of Montreal during the second half of the 19th century, was undoubtedly a determining factor in Vanier’s decision to practise as a professional engineer. Urban development, which intensified in the last quarter of the century, would also play a key role in his career and, above all, give him the ability to establish himself as an important figure in laying down infrastructure and sewer and water-distribution systems in the Montreal region.

In its early days the École Polytechnique, little known to Montrealers, could nevertheless boast of a benefactor, Prudent Beaudry. A brother of Jean-Louis*, an entrepreneur and mayor of Montreal (1862–66, 1877–78, 1881–85), Prudent was an influential Los Angeles developer and builder. After serving as a municipal councillor there, he was its mayor from 1874 to 1876. He had certainly heard about the inauguration of the École Polytechnique from his brother, for in 1875 he donated $2,000 to establish an annual scholarship of $150 there. Two years later he told Archambeault that he needed an engineer for major work on infrastructure in Los Angeles; Archambeault recommended Vanier, who had been a brilliant student. After a stint of a few months as an assistant engineer in Hochelaga (Montreal), Vanier left for California, where there was no shortage of work for him. As an assistant engineer, he oversaw the setting up of the Los Angeles water-distribution system, where his tasks included conducting performance tests on the steam pumps. In addition, he was assigned to the construction of the Rancho San Rafael Tunnel. On his return to Montreal in 1879, he was appointed a provincial surveyor. Armed with his practical experience, especially in hydraulic engineering, he received his first commissions from Montreal’s suburban municipalities. In 1880 he formed an engineering consultancy that would rapidly become one of the largest specializing in municipal engineering in Canada and would employ 16 or 17 in 1893. In 1891, while continuing to run his own business, he was hired as an engineer at the Montreal Water and Power Company (MWPC).

The spectacular development of Montreal in the latter half of the 19th century was responsible in no small measure for the success of Vanier’s firm. The construction of the water mains in the 1850s and the first trunk sewer system in the following decade gave Montrealers municipal services that would soon be demanded by the inhabitants of the small municipalities on the city’s outskirts. Between 1880 and 1915 Vanier’s engineering consultancy oversaw and completed numerous civil-engineering, sewage, and water-distribution projects in Côte Saint-Louis, Sainte-Cunégonde, Saint-Henri, and Maisonneuve (now all part of Montreal). As an MWPC engineer, Vanier designed the water mains of Côte-Saint-Antoine (Westmount) as well as those of Côte-des-Neiges, Côte Saint-Paul, Saint-Louis, Outremont, and Lachine (now all part of Montreal). He also supervised the installation of the water-supply systems of Beauharnois and Salaberry-de-Valleyfield.

Vanier was active in Ontario as well, in Brockville and Prescott county, where he executed civil-engineering projects, and in the Maritimes, especially in New Brunswick. As chief engineer, he did some of the preparatory work for constructing the Montreal and Western Railway that served the northern end of the metropolitan region. A versatile engineer, he also drew up the plans for the Montreal streetcar system and was in charge of the installation and distribution of electric lighting in Salaberry-de-Valleyfield. In addition, he turned his hand to architecture, drafting the blueprints for several public buildings, including the town halls of Saint-Louis and Côte Saint-Paul, and for numerous churches, among them Saint-Jean-Baptiste in Montreal.

Vanier’s career was exceptional in many respects. At the time, few French-speaking engineers were as successful, especially in the private sector. Indeed, nearly all the principal Canadian engineers were anglophones. Moreover, in the last quarter of the 19th century, the graduates of the École Polytechnique generally practised professionally with the federal government, while their counterparts from the faculty of applied sciences at McGill University mostly had jobs in major industries. In contrast, Vanier, at the head of an engineering consultancy, maintained close relationships with political figures and his firm negotiated several contracts with elected civic officials. As an MWPC engineer, he was also often sought out by town councils. In addition, towards the end of the century he was the municipal engineer for Saint-Louis and for Lachine. His status, therefore, was not that of an entirely independent professional. His involvement in laying down urban infrastructure permitted him to develop close ties to town councillors and to private firms providing public services. His French Canadian origins, his standing as a qualified engineer (which was quite rare for that generation of engineers), and his experience in the United States consequently gave him an advantage in the expanding markets of infrastructure and urban services.

In French Canada Vanier’s success as an engineer and entrepreneur had a considerable impact on the development of a new social group composed of engineers. Knowing that he was greatly indebted to his alma mater and to the profession for which it had prepared him, the prosperous engineer was totally dedicated to the École Polytechnique and missed no opportunity to favour its graduates. First of all, he taught topography and geodesy at the school from 1879 to 1896. He thus made it possible for the students of an institution struggling for survival to benefit from his wealth of experience. In addition, at the end of the 1880s Vanier had also supported an amendment to the 1882 Act respecting the land surveyors of the province of Quebec and the survey of lands that would have allowed the graduates of the École Polytechnique to be recognized as engineers and surveyors without writing a qualifying exam. Despite his efforts, the amendment was not part of the Act amending the law respecting the land surveyors and survey of lands that was enacted in 1889. His engineering consultancy also provided employment for a large number of graduates. In 1895, for example, Vanier had hired 44 of the 71 graduates of the school for varying durations. As well, many engineering consultants and municipal engineers owed the start of their careers to him. Vanier donated his services for drawing up the plans for the school’s new building, which was inaugurated in 1905. That year he helped the Corporation de l’École Polytechnique with an 11th-hour donation of $1,500. In 1909 he solved a number of financial problems for a group of the institution’s alumni. As a result, the Association des Anciens Élèves de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal was formed and obtained a charter the following year. Vanier was its president in 1913. At the beginning of the 1920s, to ensure the development of the honours program in industrial chemistry [see Alfred Fyen], he gave $25,000 to the Corporation de l’École Polytechnique, on which he had been serving as alumni representative for several years. In 1923 he proposed to the corporation that Augustin Frigon* be appointed principal of the École Polytechnique, and under his leadership the school would experience an unprecedented expansion.

In the 1920s Vanier became president of the Laurin and Leitch Engineering and Construction Company Limited. In 1915 the firm had acquired land in Saint-Vincent-de-Paul (Laval) on the Île Jésus near Montreal. It then obtained from the municipal council a permit to work a quarry. The following year the organization ceded its rights and properties to the Montreal Crushed Stone Company Limited, of which Vanier became secretary-treasurer in 1922. He invested his time and money in the firm. However, the economic depression slowed many of the enterprise’s activities, and in 1931 the business was handed over to its creditors. It was in bankruptcy the following year. In 1932 Vanier opened an engineering consultancy, but his health began to deteriorate, a development that did not bode well for his company.

On the national scene Vanier had been, in 1887, one of the first members of the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers. He belonged to several professional associations around the world. These memberships enabled him to keep abreast of the work being conducted on the production and distribution of electricity (notably the efforts of Thomas Alva Edison, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, Zénobe Gramme, and Antonio Pacinotti), an activity that characterized industrialized countries at the time. Nonetheless, he also took an interest in his immediate cultural milieu. He was one of the first directors of the Opéra Français, which was founded in Montreal in 1893. In politics, Vanier supported the Conservative Party both federally and provincially.

As for his personal life, Vanier had married Olivine Pariseau on 11 July 1881. They had two children, of whom one son, George, followed in his father’s footsteps. He was, indeed, a member of the 1910 graduating class of the École Polytechnique and continued his studies in France at the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts. Subsequently he pursued a career as an engineer and architect in that country. In 1927 he became vice-president of the Montreal Crushed Stone Company. Joseph-Émile Vanier died in Montreal on 11 Oct. 1934 at the age of 76.

Through his involvement in the Corporation de l’École Polytechnique, the Association des Anciens Élèves de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, and the Canadian Society of Civil Engineers, Joseph-Émile Vanier played a major role in raising the profile of engineers. It was, however, through his oversight of major public works in the Montreal area that he made his mark on the history of Canada and modern-day Quebec.

Robert Gagnon

Arch. de l’École Polytechnique de Montréal, Lettre de J.‑Émile Vanier à U.‑E. Archambault, 9 nov. 1895; Travaux de génie civil exécutés par J.‑Émile Vanier, février 1889. BANQ-CAM, CE601-S35, 11 juill. 1881; CE606-S24, 22 janv. 1858. FD, Saint-Jacques, cathédrale de Montréal [Saint-Jacques-le-Majeur], 4 nov. 1929. VM-SA, P49. Le Devoir, 12 oct. 1934. BCF, 1920: 166. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1898). Robert Gagnon, Histoire de l’école Le Plateau (1856–1996) ([Montréal], 1997); Questions d’égouts: santé publique, infrastructures et urbanisation à Montréal au XIXe siècle ([Montréal], 2006). Robert Gagnon et A.‑J. Ross, Histoire de l’École polytechnique, 1873–1990: la montée des ingénieurs francophones (Montréal, 1991). Montreal illustrated, 1894 … (Montreal, [1894]), 132. Claire Poitras, “Construire les infrastructures d’approvisionnement en eau en banlieue montréalaise au tournant du XXe siècle: le cas de Saint-Louis,” RHAF, 52 (1998–99): 507–31. Vieux-Rouge [P.‑A.‑J. Voyer], Les contemporains: série de biographies des hommes du jour (2v., Montréal, 1898–99), 1.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

Robert Gagnon, “VANIER, JOSEPH-ÉMILE (baptized Émilien),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 21, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/vanier_joseph_emile_16E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/vanier_joseph_emile_16E.html
Author of Article:   Robert Gagnon
Title of Article:   VANIER, JOSEPH-ÉMILE (baptized Émilien)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2018
Year of revision:   2018
Access Date:   September 21, 2023