Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Errol Robert Bouchette



BOUCHETTE, ROBERT ERROL (1863-1912) author and public servant, was born in the city of Quebec, 2 June, 1863, son of Robert Shore Milnes Bouchette, commissioner of customs for Canada, by his wife Clara Lindsay. Bouchette was descended from a family notable in the public service of Canada for three generations. The first of the stock to settle here was Marc Bouchet, or Bouchette, who, at Quebec, in 1724, married Marie-Thérèse Grenet. He was a son of Alain Bouchet and Servienne Bureau, both native of St. Malo, in Britanny [sic], a seaport illustrious as the birthplace of Jacques Cartier, and of a score of hardy mariners who shone in the expansion of France's maritime power. Marc Bouchet died about 1737, and two years later his widow, Marie-Thérèse Grenet, married François Rolet, or Rolette, whose descendants are remembered as early explorers and colonizers of Manitoba and the Canadian North-west.


A son of Marc Bouchette, Jean-Baptiste (1736-1804) was master of the Gaspé, a craft which navigated the waters of the river and gulf of St. Lawrence. Broaching on Laterrière's Memoirs, Sulte surmises [sic] that the wife of Jean-Baptiste Bouchette was Angélique Duhamel, noted for her beauty and fine physique, qualities which were still apparent in the following generations. A more telling circumstance in Bouchette's career, was his rescue, in 1775, of Governor Carleton from the hands of the Yankee invaders, whose sloops obstructed the channel between Berthier and Sorel cutting off access to Quebec, where the governor's presence was sorely needed to stave off an attack of the combined forces of Arnold and Montgomery. In the true spirit of gallantry of his seafaring Breton forbears, Bouchette volunteered to take the governor through the enemy's lines, a feat which he successfully accomplished.


Thereafter, fortune smiled on skipper Bouchette and his family, who were highly considered and sedulously looked after in government quarters. When presently it appeared desirable to have some armed vessels to patrol the waters of Lake Ontario, Carleton appointed his erstwhile rescuer as commodore of the fleet, with headquarters at Kingston. On the authority of La Rochefoucault, a French refugee, Agnes Maule Machar, in her Story of Old Kingston, depicts Captain Bouchette as an altogether incorruptible officer, who treated his subalterns with justice and mildness. That gentleman's residence, it is added, eclipsed all others in the town, and he seems to have "lived in a style superior to that of some of the early governors."


A son of this Commodore Bouchette, Col. Joseph, (1774-1841) made further progress on the road to social serviceableness and eminence. His early practical training under the expert guidance of his father, while cruising over Lake Ontario , combined with the thorough grasp of first principles secured by schooling in the old country, made of him a well equipped geographer. He was for many years Surveyor-General of Canada .


Through his family connections, French or Scotch, as well as through his personal activities in the public service, Joseph Bouchette was brought in close alliance with government officials and members of the pro-British party in Canada. He married into the family of a prominent partner of the North-west Fur Trading Company, Charles-Jean-Baptiste Chaboillez, whose elder daughter was the wife of Simon McTavish, the energetic head of the company, while a younger daughter married Roderick McKenzie, also a North-wester, a bourgeois, a seigneur of Terrebonne, and a prospective member of the Legislative Council of Lower Canada.


A son of Joseph Bouchette who was to be Robert Errol's father, was honoured at his christening with the name and surnames of his godfather the then Lieutenant-Governor of Lower Canada, Sir Robert Shore Milnes, a man of high aristocratic predilections. In after years, the Bouchette family had many an opportunity of acknowledging their obligations for protection and preferment to the Duke or Duchess of Kent, as well as to Edward Ellice, M.P., brother-in-law of Earl Grey.


Robert Shore Milnes Bouchette's early education was, in an even larger measure than his father's, modelled [sic] on that of an English gentleman. After studying the classics under the supervision of the Rev. Dr. Wilkie, a teacher and scholar of parts, he read law for five years with Andrew Stuart, a friend of his father, and an outstanding legal luminary in Quebec . He followed his father to England, when the latter crossed over to supervise the editing of his latest work and spent there more than two years, admitted in the most select society, meeting with authors and artists of note. There also he made the acquaintance of a daughter of the Honourable Herbert Gardner and granddaughter of an English peer, Admiral the Viscount Gardner, whom he married, but had the grief of losing in an epidemic shortly after their return to Quebec .


But there was to be rather unexpected, nay tragic, aftermath to this young Canadian's prolonged sojourn in England during the years 1830 and following, and to his intimacy with the growing generation of the educated upper and middle classes of the metropolis. Unconsciously as it were, he imbibed a good deal of their freedom of thought and of speech. From the narrow conservatism of the colonial placemen he changed to views of liberalism and constitutional reform which would not brook restraint. The new spirit flared up in 1837, when trouble was brewing between the popular party in Lower Canada and an irresponsible executive. Robert Shore Milnes Bouchette, who in the meantime had become editor of a paper in Quebec, Le Libéral, and chairman of a committee of patriots, left town secretly and joined Wolfred Nelson and his followers on the Richelieu.


Some two weeks later ( 6 December, 1837) he was at Moore's Corners, close to the Bay of Missisquoi, heading a detachment of insurgents who had just invaded Canada from Swanton, Vermont. Wounded and made a prisoner at this first encounter, he was with some others taken to Montreal and subsequently exiled to Bermuda on orders from the capital. A few months later, these measures of Durham having been declared illegal by the British Parliament, Bouchette was fortunate in recovering his liberty and returning to Canada .


Neither did this escapade interfere materially with his progress in the world or with his promotion in the public service, wherein he finally occupied a high post in the Department of Customs, at Ottawa. Meanwhile, he had married at Quebec, Clara Lindsay, of Scotch parentage, but of a strain which had become merged as it were in the French Canadian social surroundings of Quebec City and the valley of the Chaudière.


The foregoing circumstantial data concerning Bouchette's forbears are really part and parcel of the latter's biography, since it is through this complex of social and psychological characteristics that one is the most readily enabled to reach a clear understanding of the frame of mind and life activities of Bouchette himself. To one fairly familiar with the latter's every day thoughts and deeds, it will be an easy matter to discern in his make-up traces of the gallantry of the Breton sailor, much of the inbred loyalty of the Canadian official, as well as of the thoroughness of the trained investigator; much of the chivalrous spirit and good breeding of the born gentleman; much also of the amiable disposition, though highly sensitive temper, of the French Canadian.


Bouchette was educated at elementary schools, Ottawa, the Quebec Seminary and Laval University, graduating LL.B. (1885) and was called to the Bar of the Province of Quebec in the same year. He immediately established himself as an advocate in Quebec City , but subsequently moved to Montreal. Possessed of some oratorical ability, Bouchette nevertheless did not make very rapid headway as an advocate, and on the invitation of Sir H. Joly de Lotbinière federal Minister of Inland Revenue (1898-1900) he became his private secretary. In 1900 he was appointed chief clerk of the staff of the Library of Parliament, Ottawa, and he was to hold this position for the rest of his life. Bouchette was now to find scope and time for furthering his active intellectual plans. Learned in the lore and history of his native province, he bent to the task of interpreting its genius and traditions. He looked forward with great zeal to her economic resurgence which was reflected in his books, his numerous appearances on the lecture platform together with many contributions to the daily and magazine press. He unceasingly defended the British connection and sought to confound those who wished to describe and perpetuate an exclusively French hegemony in Canada. He maintained "that the Canadiens, before the English came, were considered a separate people by their friends in France, and so in this country they are not French; the Canadiens are not an alien race but are Britishers who speak French". Bouchette was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada in 1905, and was secretary of a section in 1906. He gave valuable assistance to Benjamin Sulte in editing the memoirs of his father Robert Bouchette, published in Montreal , 1904. For a time he was editor of L'Électeur, Quebec, and a councillor of the Canadian Landmarks Association (1907). He married at Arthabaskaville, P.Q., in 1891, Alice, youngest daughter of the Hon. E. L. Pacaud, K.C., one time member of the Quebec Legislative Council, and had issue of three sons and two daughters. He died 13 August, 1912, at Water Street Hospital, Ottawa, after a short illness from typhoid, which later developed into intestinal paralysis. He was survived by his widow and children. His eldest son Edouard was later (1917) killed in action in the Great War. Bouchette is buried at Notre Dame Cemetery, Ottawa.


Bouchette's fame will largely rest upon his politico-economic treatises based upon scholarly sociological study. Despite the difficult nature of his subjects, his earlier style was characterized by spontaneity and flexibility which may partly be attributed to his journalistic training. Later he was much influenced by the social scientists Le Play and Tourville, which resulted in a complete re-orientation of his outlook and his adoption of direct methods of observation and enquiry, and a profound modification in his manner of writing. His study on Les Éccossais [sic] du Cap-Breton (1910) was his first attempt in this sense. He had assembled material for a second more comprehensive study on the rural community of the Chaudière Valley when death interposed.


All his writings, whether imaginative or didactic, illustrate the same remarkable combination of racial and educational influences. Bouchette was taken up with the idea that his compatriots, who in the past have been content with clearing land and catering to primitive forms of agriculture and industry, should show greater enterprise and strive to become leaders in both these departments. He had the rare quality of discarding all personal prejudice or blind adherence to cut and dried opinions; his willingness at all times to improve his early methods so as to better conform with the latest advance in the study of social phenomena. In this direction he was making marked headway until the very hour of his premature demise.


Equally conversant with the literary lore of France and the English-speaking world, endowed with a mastery of both languages rarely found in the same individual, he was besides gifted with a tactfulness which enabled him to drive home wholesome truths without giving offence. Those French Canadians who are specially concerned with the progress of their people along economic and social lines, rightly hold Errol Bouchette in high esteem.


Further publications of Bouchette are as follows: - Emparons-nous de l'industrie (Ottawa, 1901); L 'Evolution économique du Canada (1901); Robert Lozé, a novel (Montreal, 1903); Études sociales et économiques sur le Canada (Montreal, 1905); L'Indépendence économique du Canada français (Arthabaskaville, 1906); L'Instruction primaire et le progrès social (1907); Les débuts d'une industrie et notre classe bourgeoise (1912).


[ Morgan Can. Men, 1912; Can. Who's Who, 1910; Proc. Roy. Soc. Can. 1913; B. Sulte, in Proc. Roy. Soc. Can. 1908; R. E. Bouchette, Mémoires of Robert Shore Milnes Bouchette, Montreal, 1904; Can. Mag. Mar. 1900; La Presse, Montreal, 23 Mar. 1903; Citizen, Ottawa, 13 Aug. 1912; private information; personal knowledge.]


Source : L.G. in Charles G. D. ROBERTS and Arthur L. TUNNELL, A Standard Dictionary of Canadian Biography. The Canadian Who Was Who Vol. 1, Toronto, Trans Canada Press, 1934, pp. 62-64. A few minor typographical errors have been corrected.






© 2004 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College