Manitoba History: Review: Archbishop A.-A. Taché of St. Boniface. The “Good Fight” and the Illusive Vision by Raymond Joseph Armand Huel
by Lucien Chaput
Alexandre-Antonin Taché was only 22 years old and not yet an ordained priest when he arrived at Red-River in 1845 as the first Oblate in Western Canada. And yet, as indicated by Professor Raymond Huel, whose authoritative biography of Taché has been published by The University of Alberta Press, he would, during the next 50 years, become one of the most important men in the history of the Canadian North West.
Titled Archbishop A.-A. Tache of St. Boniface; The “Good Fight” and the Illusive Vision, Huel’s 429 page biography is divided into 12 chapters with a preface and an introduction. The chapters are organized chronologically, and within each chapter, the information is presented thematically. Sixty-one pages of end notes, an 8-page bibliography as well as a 17-page index complete the work. Although Huel’s book is an academic work and a worthy recipient of the Manitoba Historical Society’s 2004 Margaret McWilliams award for best scholarly book, it can be enjoyed by anyone who has a basic knowledge of Manitoba and Western Canadian 19th century history.
Huel is without a doubt the only Western Canadian historian that could have done justice to the life and works of Taché. As a francophone born and raised in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan, as a scholar who has done extensive research in Catholic and Western francophone history, Tachê’s writings, which are primarily in French, hold no secrets for Huel. Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Lethbridge, Dr. Huel is also the general editor of “The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate in the Canadian North West” series. Amongst his more recent publications is his “Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and Métis.” It is one of the strengths of Huel’s biography that the reader learns as much about the “politics” of the Catholic Church as about the “politics” of the Canadian and Manitoban governments.
In his introduction, Huel sets out the parameters of Taché’s biography thusly: “[...] a biography of Alexandre-Antonin Taché is more than the story of an individual. It is the history of the Catholic Church in Quebec and the Canadian North-West and of the Oblate establishment in that latter region. It is an account of the attempt to create a new Quebec in the West much like that of his ancestors who fashioned a New France in North America. It is a story of cultural confrontation and conflict involving First Nations, French and English, Catholic and Protestant. There is also an internecine facet of this cultural conflict that is not as well known and it involves Métis and French Canadians, and Irish Catholics and French Catholics.” (p. xxv)
There is no doubt that Huel has succeeded in his objective. From Chapter One, where he explains the formative influences of religion, language, politics and social class on the future clergyman, to Chapter Twelve, where he presents a succinct picture of Taché as “a noble figure who was simultaneously of heroic and tragic proportions” (p. 327), the reader comes into contact with all of the important events and players of Manitoba history. We learn much about Taché; we learn even more about a multitude of events, from the Red River Resistance and the Amnesty Question to the Manitoba School Question.
Professor Huel also succeeds in avoiding one of the pitfalls that awaits biographers, that of becoming the subject’s biggest fan. In presenting Taché’s accomplishments and failures, as well as his strengths and weaknesses, we get a fair and balanced picture of the first archbishop of St. Boniface. We also get a better sense of the challenges he faced in trying to be at the same time a Catholic religious leader and a secular francophone leader. That this dual role would cause growing frustrations and eventual failure is well brought out in Huel’s biography of Taché.
Born at Riviere-du-Loup on 22 July 1823 in one of the “patrician families that dominated Lower Canada” and related to the explorer La Verendye and Marguerite d’Youville, foundress of the Grey Nuns, Alexandre-Antonin Taché was two and a half years old when his father died. Raised by his mother and one of her brothers, Taché left home at the age of 10 to attend St. Hyacinthe College. He was 18 when he completed his classical education and later joined the Oblate in 1842. Ordained by Bishop Provencher at Red River in 1845, he was named bishop in 1851 at the tender age of 28, and became bishop of St. Boniface upon Provencher’s death in 1853 effectively putting an end to his career as an active missionary amongst the First Nations.
During the next 15 years, Taché assumed his role as the undisputed leader of the Franco-Catholic population at Red River and in the Canadian North West. An able administrator in things financial, he was less successful in the human resources area. As Huel indicates, “The bishop was at his worst when relating to individuals because he was unable to delegate authority and would not admit that there could be differing perspectives.” (p. 73) He was also, in a sense, politically naive, believing that your word was all that was required when dealing with honourable men. “In the manner characteristic of the missionary, the bishop believed that his message was so powerful and compelling that truth would prevail over error. Politicians, however, were not interested in conversion but in re-election and while they have admitted that Taché had a point, their ultimate behaviour was dictated by political expediency and the need to survive.” (p. 319)
The Red River Resistance and the Amnesty controversy brought Bishop Taché to the national stage, elevating him “from an obscure and distant prelate into a significant figure on the national scene.” (p. 140) After reading Huel’s book, it could be said that this was also the beginning of the end of Taché’s dream of making Manitoba a “sister province” of Quebec. For from 1870 to his death in 1894, Taché’s “good fight” for his “elusive vision” was for not. Demographic forces quickly put Catholics in a minority position in Manitoba and the West, while the francophone population became a minority within this Catholic minority. A growing rift between French-speaking Métis and the newly arrived French Canadians from Quebec, as well as the growing rift between French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Catholics exacerbated the situation even more.
In evaluating Taché’s role, Huel states that “Taché never truly assimilated to the West and his nationalist vision and his political convictions reflected a Quebec tradition. Despite the distance separating him and his native province, the bishop always remained a Quebecer at heart. So deep was this attachment that Taché attempted to reproduce his native province on the western plains by seeking constitutional guarantees for the French language and Catholic faith and by promoting French Catholic immigration to Manitoba and the North West.” (p. 318) Fair enough. Taché is more of an aristocrat than a democrat. Before 1870, he was quite satisfied with the “non democratic” way that the Council of Assiniboia governed the territory. He would not have been Canadian” vision, a vision that could have stood up to the Anglo-Protestant vision that took hold and prevailed in the West. In the final analysis, the problem was not with the man but with the vision, which was not Taché’s alone. A Catholic bishop, indeed a Catholic, answers to a higher power, which is what Taché did. One cannot fault Taché for not having been able to define a Western Canadian way of accommodating the spiritual with the secular that would have allowed francophone communities to exist and prosper in Manitoba and Western Canada.
On the book’s back cover, John S. Moir says that “Raymond Huel has given us the definitive biography of A.-A. Taché.” Although Huel’s work is “exhaustively researched” and “clearly and authoritatively written,” labelling this book as the definitive biography is no doubt a slight exaggeration on the part of the publishers. The fact that only Taché’s year of birth (and not the day and month) appears in the book is no doubt an oversight due to the fact that it is mentioned in the general introduction of the situation in Lower Canada at the time of his birth. An unfortunate oversight when the same work tells us the exact time of his death (6:10 AM, 22 June 1894). There are also a few editing errors. The Grey Nuns arrived at Red-River in 1844 and not in 1841 as indicated on page 14. The photo of the cathedral on page 340 is identified as Bishop Langevin’s Cathedral when in fact it is a photo of Bishop Provencher’s Cathedral, and for several years Taché’s Cathedral before it was destroyed by fire in 1860. It is also regrettable that no maps were included in this otherwise fine book.
This being said, Huel’s biography is no doubt the definitive English-language biography of Bishop Taché. By chronicling a vital era of 19’ century Western Canadian history that is documented almost uniquely in French, Huel’s biography, like his previous publications on the Oblates of Mary-Immaculate, has done much to promote a better understanding of our history and ourselves.
Page revised: 9 September 2010