VÉZINA, FRANÇOIS, financier; b. 13 Aug. 1818 at Quebec City, son of François Vézina, a baker, and Claire Moisan; m. 11 June 1844 Éléonore Rinfret, dit Malouin, third daughter of Rémi Rinfret, dit Malouin, a master mason; d. 25 Jan. 1882 at Quebec, and was buried three days later in the Belmont cemetery at Sainte-Foy, Que.
François Vézina, the eldest child in a family of modest means, received his secondary education at the Petit Séminaire de Québec from 1829 to 1840. At the conclusion of his studies a natural aptitude for business led him to accept a position as clerk with the firm of Babineau et Gaudry, merchants and suppliers to the navy. During his 18 months in this position, he demonstrated by his industriousness and by his precise, cautious, and practical mind, that he had a real capacity for business. Louis-Joseph Massue* and notary Charles-Maxime Defoy were impressed by his abilities, and recommended him to Daniel McCallum, manager of the Canada Fire Insurance Company, who hired him. The great fires that ravaged the city of Quebec in 1845 struck the company hard and it went bankrupt, leaving its employees out of work. But Vézina, who already had a reputation and some friends, had little difficulty finding employment; John Sharples*, the supervisor of cullers, hired him to work for his office. In the space of six years Vézina had thus made contact with the principal business circles in Quebec City; meanwhile he had used his leisure to read works on political economy.
In 1848 the Quebec Building Society lost its secretary, who died leaving the accounts in an indescribable mess. The worried shareholders demanded drastic action. The French-speaking directors, including Guillaume-Eugène Chinic and Dr Olivier Robitaille, suggested securing the services of Vézina, to the displeasure of many English-speaking shareholders. However, Sharples apparently managed to allay their fears and gain their support for Vézina. They had no reason to regret their choice; in January 1849 Vézina presented a clear, precise balance sheet, which earned the shareholders’ admiration and secured his reputation as “a man [who handled] figures and financial matters with outstanding ability.” Businessmen began to seek his advice, and investors regained confidence in the Quebec Building Society. Like all groups incorporated under the statutory regulations for building societies, the Quebec institution raised its capital by issuing shares on which members undertook to make periodic payments, and in turn lent the money as mortgages to them when they wanted to construct buildings or acquire real estate. Vézina did not agree with the society’s rules and some features of its constitution. He studied similar societies, and even went to Toronto to familiarize himself with the way in which the building society in that city operated. In 1856, armed with this experience, he made a proposal to the shareholders to wind up the existing society and create the Quebec Permanent Building Society, for which he had worked out a structure, rules, and mode of operation. The new society would differ from the old by being more liberal in its loan policy and by not requiring all borrowers to be jointly responsible for its losses or profits. The shareholders accepted Vézina’s proposal and appointed him secretary-treasurer of the new company, with power to liquidate the old one. The society prospered, and paid an average dividend of 10 per cent to its shareholders. In 1863 Vézina became president, a post he retained until his death.
It was also in 1848 that the members of the Society of St Vincent de Paul of Quebec, which had been founded by François Soulard in 1844, asked Vézina to help set up a savings bank for the less favoured class. Such banks, which had been in existence for some time in Europe and the United States, attempted to stimulate “habits of orderliness, economy and morality,” and to “provide the worker with a way to build up capital for himself in the course of time.” Often established and managed by philanthropists, at least in the earliest examples, these banks never discounted notes “without having provincial bonds as collateral security”; they invested savings in readily convertible debentures of public corporations, guaranteed a modest but stable rate of interest, and used a portion of their profits to support charitable institutions. On 11 May 1848, a 13-member committee of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, including Vézina who acted as secretary, met to lay the foundations of the Caisse d’Épargnes de Notre-Dame de Québec, which at its incorporation in 1855 became the Caisse d’Économie de Notre-Dame de Québec. The constitution and rules, based on those of the St Roch’s Savings Bank, Quebec, were adopted on 28 May and the bank opened on 18 June. It accepted deposits ranging from 1s. 3d. to 500 louis, required ten days’ notice for any withdrawal of ten louis or more, and guaranteed an interest rate of four and a half per cent. From the outset Vézina had played a major role; as the committee’s secretary, he had a hand in the preparation of the rules and “the setting up of the books and forms” necessary for keeping accounts, and he was appropriately elected secretary of the first board of directors. Combining the posts of secretary and treasurer from 2 March 1851, he became the guiding spirit of the bank. It encountered difficulties initially because the workers were mistrustful but, thanks to the influence of the clergy and to prudent investments, the clientele increased to such an extent that in December 1851 the directors had to rent larger premises at 19 Rue Saint-Jean. From May 1852 the bank was open three times a week and during the financial year of 1853–54 it registered 308 new deposits. Resistance had been overcome and the enterprise launched.
It now had to be consolidated. Vézina devoted all his energies to this task. He was the bank’s secretary-treasurer until April 1863, its cashier (general manager) from 1 May 1863 to May 1872, and then its manager until his death. Under the wise direction of Vézina and Olivier Robitaille, its president from 1849 to 1870, the Caisse d’Économie survived the recurrent crises that periodically disrupted the banking system, in particular that of 1856–57 which resulted in the bankruptcy of the St Roch’s Savings Bank. On 27 Dec. 1871 the Caisse d’Économie de Notre-Dame de Québec applied for a charter authorizing it to continue with a. capital of $1,000,000 provided by 2,500 shares of $400 each, with the privilege of increasing the capital to $2,000,000. This reorganization influenced the development of the Caisse d’Économie, which gradually came to act like a chartered bank. Early in the 20th century Alphonse Desjardins* in setting up the Caisse Populaire de Lévis reverted to the original spirit of the founders of the Caisse d’Économie.
The posts held by Vézina in the Quebec Permanent Building Society and in the Caisse d’Économie had placed him at the centre of French-speaking business circles. The members of these circles, as Vézina observed, often had landed property but did not always “possess the ready capital to give the necessary impetus to their businesses.” The Caisse d’Économie served as a channel for the savings of the poor, but because it did not discount commercial notes it cut itself off from the business world. The founders of the Caisse d’Économie increasingly felt the need to establish a bank to serve merchants and industrialists. The 1856–57 crisis delayed the project until 1858. On 20 December of that year a group of businessmen including Ulric-Joseph Tessier*, Guillaume-Eugène Chinic, Isidore Thibaudeau*, Olivier Robitaille, Cirice Têtu, Abraham Hamel, Octave Crémazie*, and Vézina held a preliminary meeting. Two days later, 51 citizens, under the chairmanship of Mayor Hector-Louis Langevin*, decided to found the Banque Nationale, whose capital of $1,000,000 would be subscribed in $50 shares. The name of the bank was in itself a manifesto. Naturally, the Banque Nationale would be open to all those in business, whatever their ethnic group, but it reflected the desire of French-speaking businessmen to have a network of credit that they would control and could utilize as an instrument to forge a place for themselves in the world of commerce. And time was to prove them right. Vézina noted a few years later: “The success of the Banque Nationale has led our fellow citizens to have more confidence in themselves and not to leave to others sources of revenue which can be as usefully and easily exploited by themselves . . . , and has greatly increased and facilitated modes of investment and saving which have long been limited to the acquisition of landed property,”
Here again, Vézina was the architect of a new institution. A founding member, he assumed the office of treasurer and prepared the charter, regulations, prospectus, and account books. He contacted subscribers during the summer of 1859, and on 26 December he was appointed cashier. On 28 April 1860 the bank began operations. It was not until June 1866 that the subscribed capital was paid up in full. The Banque Nationale, which from 1860 to 1875 had transactions of the order of $22,000,000 annually, had an immense influence in the Quebec region, but this has never been adequately studied. For its part, Le Canadien claimed in 1882 that the leather industry owed its prosperity to this institution. In 1924 the bank merged with the Banque d’Hochelaga to become the Banque Canadienne Nationale.
The founding of the Banque Nationale marked the peak of Vézina’s career. Its success firmly established his reputation. Public corporations and business establishments such as the council of the parish of Notre-Dame de Québec, the De Léry Gold Mining Company, of which he was treasurer from 1870, the Quebec Harbour Commission, of which he was vice-president from 1870 to 1874, the firm of Hamel et Frères, and many others used his services. An uncompromising defender of private enterprise and a believer in the Scottish banking system, Vézina acted on several occasions as the spokesman for Quebec businessmen in their dealings with the government. Thus in March 1860 he publicly opposed the plan of Alexander Tilloch Galt* to create a treasury department to act as a state bank which would have a monopoly in the circulation of notes.
His many occupations did not prevent Vézina from taking a close interest in his family. He and his wife had ten children, seven of whom reached adulthood, and he was concerned to see that they got a good start in life. His son Adolphe succeeded him as secretary-treasurer of the Caisse d’Économie, and another son, Ludger, was an accountant in this bank. He gave the same careful attention to the future of French-speaking young men who were anxious to launch themselves into business. A score or more of those he trained held high office in branches of the Banque Nationale or found employment in the Canadian banking system. Despite his wife’s death in 1880, Vézina did not slacken the pace of his activities, but he was to die suddenly in 1882, at the age of 63, from the after-effects of pneumonia.
[François Vézina’s first biographer, Jean-Chrysostome Langelier, published his Biographie de Frs. Vézina, caissier de la Banque Nationale (Quebec, 1876) during Vézina’s lifetime. Written at the request of the staff of the Banque Nationale, the book, which in places verges on hagiography, is still basic for an understanding of both the man and the impressions his contemporaries had of him. Auguste Béchard took much of his material from it, often simply copying passages, for the study of Vézina which he published in Le Nouvelliste (Quebec) from 10 to 22 Dec. 1877, and subsequently brought out as a pamphlet entitled Biographie de M. François Vézina, caissier de la Banque Nationale . . . (Quebec, 1878). Written with the education of a young audience in mind, Béchard’s biography reflects the nationalist views current in certain professional circles in Quebec City. The articles by Pierre-Georges Roy* in Fils de Quebec (4 sér., Lévis, Qué., 1933), IV: 28–30, and by Francis-Joseph Audet*, “François Vézina,” BRH, 39 (1933): 117–20, are summaries of Langelier’s study, as is the article on Vézina in the Canadian biog. dict., I: 144–46. The Dominion annual register, 1882, provides no additional information on Vézina.
There are two reliable sources for the organizations founded by Vézina. The first, again by Auguste Béchard, is Histoire de la Banque Nationale . . . (Quebec, 1878). Written on the basis of reports and financial statements of the Banque Nationale, this study has a supplement with articles published by Vézina between 1858 and 1860 in the Quebec City newspapers, Le Canadien, Le Courrier du Canada, and the Morning Chronicle. The second, Récit historique de la progression financière de la Caisse d’Économie de Notre-Dame de Quebec (Quebec, 1878), is a compilation by Vézina of reports and financial statements, and constitutes an excellent source for the history of the Caisse d’Économie.
Other sources useful for various aspects of Vézina’s career include: Can., Prov. of, Statutes, 1858, c.131; 1859, c.103; 1866, c.140; Can., Statutes, 1871, c.7; Quebec directory, 1847–83. Finally, the dates for Vézina’s birth and marriage are to be found in ANQ-Q, bat civil, Catholiques, Notre-Dame de Quebec, 13 août 1818, 11 juin 1844. His death date is given in Le Canadien, 25 janv. 1882, and L’Opinion Publique, 23 févr. 1882. j.h.]