Lafontaine, Louis Hypolite (DNB01)

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

LAFONTAINE, Sir LOUIS HYPOLITE, first baronet (1807–1864), Canadian statesman, born at Boucherville, in the county of Chambly, Lower Canada, in October 1807, was the third son of Antoine Médard Lafontaine, a farmer of that neighbourhood, by his wife Marie J. Fontaine Bienvenu, and the grandson of Antoine Médard Lafontaine, member of the legislative assembly of Lower Canada. He was educated at Montreal, and after a course of five years proceeded to study law, entering the office of Denis Benjamin Viger [q. v.] His political reputation was considerable while he was yet a clerk, and after his call to the bar he quickly acquired a large practice among the French Canadians. He joined Viger in organising the national movement in the district of Montreal, and was returned to the legislative assembly of Lower Canada at the general election of 1830 for the county of Terrebonne, for which he continued to sit until 1837. He was at first a follower of Louis Joseph Papineau [q. v.], whom he vigorously urged on in his resistance to the home government. In a year or two, however, he developed from the follower to the rival of Papineau, from whom eventually he became completely estranged. While Papineau was associated with the parti prêtre, Lafontaine led that of la jeune France, and was regarded by the orthodox as little better than an infidel. Although he indulged in unmeasured opposition to government, he saw the outbreak of the rebellion of 1837 with feelings of consternation, being convinced that the resources of the insurgents were quite inadequate. The government, however, mindful of his incendiary language on former occasions, issued a warrant against him for high treason. Lafontaine escaped to England and thence to France. He was able to establish his innocence, and returned to Canada in May 1838. He was imprisoned on 7 Nov. 1838, during the hostile expeditions of Robert Nelson [see Nelson, Wolfred] from the United States, but was released from lack of evidence.

After the suppression of the rebellion Lafontaine found the leadership of the parti prêtre vacant owing to Papineau's exile. He conciliated the priests and assumed the position. On Papineau's return in 1847 he found his place filled and was compelled to become the head of the more extreme party which Lafontaine had formerly directed. Lafontaine opposed the union of Upper and Lower Canada in 1840. On 21 Sept, 1841, after contesting Terrebonne unsuccessfully, he was returned to the parliament of the united provinces for the fourth riding of York, a county in Upper Canada, chiefly thro ugh the instrumentality of Robert Baldwin [q. v. Suppl.] He was at once recognised as the leader of the French Canadians in the new assembly, and early in 1842 declined an offer of the solicitor-generalship of Lower Canada from the governor-general, Charles Edward Poulett Thomson, Baron Sydenham [q. v.], made to him on the condition that he should support the governor's policy. In September 1842, at the instance of Sydenham's successor, Sir Charles Bagot [q. v. Suppl.], he joined Baldwin in forming the first Baldwin-Lafontaine administration, in which he held the portfolio of attorney-general for the lower province. During his term of office he obtained a cessation of proceedings against the political offenders of 1837, including Papineau. The ministry resigned on 28 Nov. 1843 in consequence of a difference with Bagot's successor, Sir Charles Theophilus Metcalfe (afterwards Baron Metcalfe) [q. v.], with regard to the control of the nomination of government officials. In November 1844 Lafontaine was returned for Terrebonne, which he represented during the whole period of his opposition. In March 1848, after a stormy election in which several persons were killed, he was returned for the city of Montreal, which he represented during the remainder of his public life.

In March 1848 the reform party triumphed at the general election, and Baldwin and Lafontaine again took office, Lafontaine as premier and attorney-general for Lower Canada. In January 1849 he passed an amnesty bill, and in February he introduced the famous rebellion losses bill, which was intended to compensate innocent sufferers in 1837. This bill was bitterly resented both in Canada and England, because it was feared that it would benefit disloyal French Canadians, and it gave rise to the most extraordinary scenes of riot in Montreal [see Bruce, James, eighth Earl of Elgin]. Lafontaine's house was partly burnt down and he himself on more than one occasion exposed to imminent peril. In consequence of the disorder the seat of government was permanently removed from Montreal. In the meantime Lafontaine felt that he was growing out of sympathy with the younger reformers. The temper of his mind was naturally aristocratic and conservative. The movement which he had led had been national, and when questions of class interest became of importance he found himself out of accord with his former supporters. He was opposed to the secularisation of the clergy reserves in Upper Canada and the abolition of the seigneural tenure in the lower province, both of them measures steadily demanded by a large section of the reform party. In consequence he retired from political life towards the close of 1851. On 13 Aug. 1853 he was nominated chief justice of Lower Canada in succession to Sir James Stuart [q. v.], and on 28 Aug. 1854 he was created a baronet. He continued to hold the office of chief-justice until his death at Montreal on 26 Feb. 1864. He was twice married: first, on 9 July 1831, to Adèle, daughter of Amable Berthelot, an advocate at Quebec. She died without issue on 27 May 1859, and he married secondly, on 30 Jan. 1861, Jane Morrison, a widow of Montreal. By her he had an only surviving son, Louis Hypolite, on whose death, in 1867, the baronetcy became extinct.

[Burke's Peerage, 1900; Dent's Canadian Portrait Gallery, Toronto, 1881, iii. 104–8 (with portrait); David's Biographies et Portraits, Montreal. 1876, pp. 96–113 (with portrait); David's Union des deux Canadas, Montreal, 1898; Morgan's Sketches of Celebrated Canadians, Quebec, 1862. pp. 417–9; David's Patriotes de 1837-1838, Montreal, 1886, pp. 269–76; Gérin-Lajoie's Dix Ans au Canada de 1840 à 1850, Quebec, 1888; Turcotte's Canada sous l'Union, Quebec, 1871–2, pts. i. and ii.; Dent's Last Forty Years, Toronto, 1881; Kaye's Life and Corresp. of Lord Metcalfe, 1858, ii. 329–425; Hincks's Reminiscences, Montreal, 1884; Hincks's Lecture on the Political History of Canada between 1840 and 1855, Montreal, 1877; Bibaud's Panthéon Canadien, Montreal, 1891.]

E. I. C.