VENIOT, PIERRE-JEAN (baptized Pierre Vignault, commonly known as Peter John, and he usually signed P. J.), journalist, typographer, newspaper owner, political organizer, politician, and civil servant; b. 4 Oct. 1863 in Richibucto, N.B., son of Étienne (Stephen) Vignault (Vineau) and Marie Morell (Morel, Morelle); m. 8 Feb. 1885 Catherine Melançon in Scoudouc, N.B., and they had six sons and one daughter; d. 6 July 1936 in Bathurst, N.B. and was buried there three days later.
Little is known about Pierre-Jean Veniot’s youth and private life. In 1870, at the age of seven, he moved with his parents to the English-speaking community of Pictou, N.S. From 1874 to 1878 he attended the Pictou Academy, an English-language public school, where it is thought a teacher suggested he adopt the name Veniot, which for anglophones was less difficult to pronounce than Vignault.
Probably as soon as he had completed his studies, Veniot went to work as a journalist for the Colonial Standard. There he also acquired basic skills in the typography trade, which he practised at the Daily Transcript in Moncton, N.B., beginning in 1882. It was during this time that Veniot returned to his Acadian roots. He learned French from Catherine Melançon, a unilingual francophone, whom he married in 1885. He became shop foreman at the Bathurst Courrier des provinces Maritimes and then editor-in-chief two years later. He bought the print shop in 1891 and the weekly in 1896.
In 1891 Veniot had been elected secretary of the organizing committee for the Liberal convention to choose the Acadian candidate for the riding of Gloucester in the next federal election. He was already beginning to be recognized as the Liberal leader of the Acadians in New Brunswick, although this political label would not stick until later. In the provincial election the following year he ran unsuccessfully in Gloucester. He won his seat there in the 1894 by-election and was re-elected in the general elections of 1895 and 1899.
Following an accident Veniot suffered serious health problems, which caused him financial difficulties. He had to leave politics, sell the Courrier des provinces Maritimes, and resign his position as editor-in-chief at the end of 1899. He joined the federal civil service as a customs officer, a more stable occupation, which he pursued in Bathurst beginning the following year. He was unable to conceal his political stripes, however, and lost his position when Robert Laird Borden’s Conservatives came to power in 1911.
Veniot reappeared on the provincial political scene during the election campaign of 1912, in which the Conservatives, led by Premier James Kidd Flemming*, returned to power on 24 June with an impressive majority, winning 44 of the 48 seats in the Legislative Assembly. With its ranks decimated, the Liberal Party had to rebuild and decided to call on the services of Veniot – who had been defeated in Gloucester – as well as on those of journalist Edward S. Carter and lawyer and Liberal mp Frank Broadstreet Carvell*. This trio made up the “Dark Lantern Brigade.” Veniot concerned himself mainly with the French-speaking regions located in the northeastern sector of the province, between Moncton and Edmundston, which he criss-crossed day and night to organize the Liberal machine and attract the Acadian vote. A talented orator in both English and French, and with a distinguished appearance, he was a charismatic figure.
In 1914, two years after the Conservatives’ crushing victory, the Liberals, prepared and supported by the famous trio, brought forward accusations of collusion and corruption against the premier. To shed light on the situation, the Conservatives set up two royal commissions of inquiry, whose conclusions led to Flemming’s resignation the same year.
The Liberals exploited these scandals and came to power in the general election of 1917. The influence of Veniot, who was elected in Gloucester, had been a determining factor since the Acadian vote had made a difference in ridings where the contest had been hard fought. The Conservative press called Veniot a conspirator, claiming that he had spent the previous five years using his network of electoral agents to set up a political machine aimed at giving power to the Acadians. Beyond these partisan criticisms, it was clear that Veniot was not only the Acadians’ political leader, but also indispensable to the party and its strongest mla.
Veniot became minister of public works on 4 April 1917. His appointment as head of the most influential department in Premier Walter Edward Foster*’s cabinet had great significance for the Acadian minority, for it acknowledged the important role and extended the political power of one of their own. According to the historian Jean-Guy Finn, “It was indeed generally recognized, both provincially and federally, that this department offered rather exceptional possibilities for ‘patronage.’” Veniot laid off hundreds of Conservative civil servants and replaced them with Liberals, many of whom were of Acadian descent. His sway within the cabinet created a certain frustration in Anglo-Protestant circles, thereby contributing to the ethnic divide between the political parties. A number of English-language newspapers portrayed Veniot as a leader of Acadians and the Liberal Party as a pro-Acadian party.
As minister, Veniot launched one of the most ambitious road construction programs in the country. Financed by debentures, fees paid by car owners, an annual federal government contribution of $230,000, and one-third of the provincial budget, it led to the creation or improvement of more than 1,200 miles of New Brunswick’s road network. These accomplishments even earned the minister the nickname “Good Roads Veniot.” During the electoral campaign of 1920 the opposition criticized this program for being imprudent and extravagant on the grounds that it catered to the idle rich who travelled the tourist routes rather than farmers, who used country roads. The Conservatives also accused the program of disproportionate spending in Acadian ridings.
In 1920 the Liberals were returned to power. Veniot succeeded once again in winning the Acadian vote and retaining his seat. Acadian voices were being heard more and more in the Legislative Assembly. In 1923 Premier Foster announced to his caucus that he was retiring from politics and asked that it support the candidacy of Veniot as his successor. He thus rose to the highest political position in the province, the first Acadian to do so. The elevation was regarded more as an expression of gratitude to a talented politician and loyal party man than a gesture of respect for the Acadian population.
As head of the government Veniot was preoccupied with the public debt and with a project to develop hydroelectric power in northern New Brunswick. The economic viability of the undertaking depended on plans for expansion by the province’s three big forestry companies: the Bathurst Lumber Company Limited, Fraser Companies Limited, and the International Paper Company. Even though the province had been in difficult financial straits since 1921 – chiefly because of the fall in prices and the declining demand for almost all raw materials, the numerous job losses in the working-class sector, and the successive dry seasons that affected the harvest – he thought that economic development called for an interventionist approach, rather than being under the control of these private companies. In a speech delivered to the Legislative Assembly on 7 March 1924, he summed up his opinion on the subject: “The opponents of public ownership will raise their hands in holy horror to high heaven and tell the people that our scheme will bankrupt the province. They will point to the necessity of economy in these times of commercial and industrial stress. But, it is not economy to with-hold the expenditure of public moneys when you are convinced that by proper and judicious expenditures you can create a greater expansion of trade and industry.… Hydro development is the salvation of the province of New Brunswick.”
The electoral campaign that began on 17 July 1925 would be waged on two fronts. The energy issue revealed the power of the private interests opposed to the nationalization of resources in any form. The forestry firms, especially the Bathurst Lumber Company, owned by Angus McLean, were Veniot’s major adversaries. Before the campaign had started, they brought pressure to bear on him. Because of the difficult economic times (half of the sawmills in the province had been closed since 1921), on 2 June they asked for, among other things, a reduction in stumpage fees and the adoption of the system of wood measurement used in the province of Quebec. At the beginning of July Veniot granted them a smaller reduction in fees. He could not grant their second request, for that would have required the passage of a special law. This reason was not good enough for McLean, who told the premier that the Lumbermen and Limit Holders’ Association of New Brunswick, of which he was one of the principal spokesmen, would not support him in the next election. According to the Telegraph-Journal of 7 Aug. 1925, Veniot replied in his usual fashion, telling him to “bring on [his] ‘dogs of war.’” He was not yet aware that McLean was one of the businessmen who had persuaded the Conservative federal mp John Babington Macaulay Baxter* to return to the provincial scene to become premier.
Veniot was also faced with an upsurge in intolerance. Perceived as the premier of the Acadians and Roman Catholics, he waged a campaign in the ridings where prejudice against the French language and the Catholic religion was strongly entrenched. Pamphlets circulating in the mainly anglophone regions declared that Veniot wanted to eliminate Protestants from the face of the earth. This time, on 10 August, the Acadian vote was not sufficient to bring the Liberals back to power; they won 11 seats, including that of Veniot. Strong tensions, combined with the mobilization of the forest industry, had prevented the return to power of a party led by an Acadian.
About a year later Veniot left provincial politics and became the first Acadian to sit in the federal cabinet, having been elected in the riding of Gloucester on 14 Sept. 1926. He served as postmaster general from 1926 to 1930 in the Liberal government of William Lyon Mackenzie King*. Under his direction, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of confederation in 1927, the country issued its first bilingual postage stamps. Veniot helped to organize the delivery of mail by air; in 1928, for instance, he inaugurated a connection between Montreal and Toronto [see Joseph-Hervé Saint-Martin]. Despite the defeat of King’s government in 1930, Veniot held the seat in his own riding, where he would win for the last time in 1935 and where his son Clarence Joseph would succeed him on 17 Aug. 1936.
After a political career of nearly 25 years Pierre-Jean Veniot died in office in Bathurst on 6 July 1936, succumbing to cancer of the stomach and liver. Three days later the pages of L’Évangéline paid tribute to him: “M. Veniot served his fellow citizens with a combination of remarkable qualities: a clear mind, an energetic will, the gift of eloquence … he left a work that will endure. In the province: a network of excellent roads and the ‘hydro.’… Through his talent, his deeds, and the perfect dignity of his private life, he will have contributed greatly to raising our prestige and inspiring our people with confidence in their own destinies.” Veniot can certainly be recognized for having persuaded the Acadians to vote for the Liberal Party. He was above all a politician who did not back away from political sparring, as well as a skilled organizer and unifier. He received honorary doctorates in law from the University of New Brunswick and the Université Laval, in 1923 and 1925 respectively.
The author would like to thank Maurice Basque, academic adviser at the Institut d’Études Acadiennes, Univ. de Montcton, N.B., for his assistance in the preparation of this biography.
FD, Saint-Antoine-de-Padoue (Richibucto, N.-B.), 8 nov. 1863; Saint-Jacques (Scoudouc, N.-B.), 8 févr. 1885. PANB, SD141, F19330, 9 juill. 1936. Courrier des provinces Maritimes (Bathurst, N.-B.), 5, 12, 26 févr., 14 mai 1891; 6 oct. 1892; 28 mai 1896; 6 juill., 31 août 1899. Le Devoir, 7, 8, 16 juill. 1936. L’Évangéline (Moncton), 13 nov. 1894, 17 mai 1911, 30 sept. 1926, 7 juill. 1927, 9 juill. 1936, 29 oct. 1942. Le Moniteur acadien (Shédiac, N.-B.), 5 avril 1887; 24 sept. 1889; 19 mai 1891; 13 nov. 1894; 28 sept., 7 déc. 1899; 12 juill. 1900; 12 avril 1917. Antoine Bernard, La renaissance acadienne au XXe siècle (Québec, ). Can., House of Commons, Debates, 1927–29. CPG, 1936. A. T. Doyle, Front benches & back rooms: a story of corruption, muckraking, raw partisanship and intrigue in New Brunswick (Toronto, 1976); “New Brunswick’s first Acadian premier,” Atlantic Advocate (Fredericton), 73 (1982–83), no.2: 48–49; The premiers of New Brunswick (Fredericton, 1983). Elections in New Brunswick, 1784–1984. Jean-Guy Finn, “Développement et persistance du vote ethnique: les Acadiens du Nouveau-Brunswick” (mémoire de ma, univ. d’Ottawa, 1972). Don Hoyt, A brief history of the Liberal Party of New Brunswick ([Fredericton?, 2000?]). Nicolas Landry et Nicole Lang, Histoire de l’Acadie (Sillery [Québec], 2001). N.B., Legislative Assembly, Synoptic report of the proc., 1924; “Veniot, Pierre John (P.J.) (Hon.)”: www.gnb.ca/legis/publications/tradition/premiers/bio-e/PJVeniot.pdf (consulted 14 Aug. 2015). PANB, “Mgr Donat Robichaud genealogical and historical research collection”: archives.gnb.ca/Search/FatherRobichaudTranscriptions/BiographyDocuments.aspx?culture=en-CA (consulted 14 Aug. 2015). Léon Thériault, La question du pouvoir en Acadie: essai (Moncton, 1982). [J.] R. [H.] Wilbur, The rise of French New Brunswick (Halifax, 1989).