HRB Pamphlets: The Honourable Joseph Dubuc, K.S.M.G.

Manitoba Department of Cultural Affairs and Historical Resources
Honourable Norma Price, Minister

The Honourable Joseph Dubuc, K.S.M.B.

The Honourable Joseph Dubuc, K.S.M.B.
Photo Courtesy of Manitoba Archives

Invited by Louis Riel and Father Ritchot “to come share the fortune, be it good or bad, of the French [-speaking] Catholic population in the new province”, Joseph Dubuc arrived in the Red River Settlement in June 1870. The young Montreal lawyer became a close acquaintance of Bishop Tache, Introduced immediately into Manitoba society, he began a long and prestigious career in law and politics. A Conservative and a very devout Roman Catholic, Dubuc also believed in the bilingual and bicultural character of the Province of Manitoba, and sought to defend the rights of his compatriots as they had been set out in the British North America Act and the Manitoba Act of 1870.

Joseph Dubuc was born 26 December 1840 in Sainte-Martine, county of Chateauguay, Lower Canada. He was the first of fifteen children born to Joseph Dubuc and Marie-Euphremie Garand. Joseph's early schooling was disrupted by his father's need for assistance in operating the family farm. At the age of eighteen he left home, travelling to the United States in order to learn the English language and to find a well-paying job in a factory. Returning to his native land, Dubuc enrolled at the College de Montreal where he met and became a companion of Louis Riel. Having completed his “cours classique”, he was admitted to the faculty of law at McGill University in 1866. At this point, Dubuc adopted a pseudonym and began to contribute articles to local newspapers. He later worked for the Montreal newspaper La Minerve, reporting, writing, editing and translating short articles.

Dubuc graduated from law school in September 1869 and set up a modest practice with another recent graduate. A few months later, he received an invitation from Louis Riel to join him in the North West. He met Father Ritchot, who had been delegated to Ottawa in order to discuss Manitoba's terms of entry into confederation, and was convinced by the priest to accompany him back to Fort Garry.

As a young man, Dubuc was dynamic and unafraid to express his convictions. Arriving in the settlement when Riel's Provisional Government was still in power, he became its supporter. He believed in the legality and morality of the Metis resistance of 1870, and his early political career was linked to the interests of Riel and the Metis. When the arrival of Wolseley's troops in late August of 1870 forced Riel to seek refuge in American territory, Dubuc advocated amnesty for Riel and other Metis leaders. In 1871, he and his law partner, Joseph Royal founded Le Metis, a French-language weekly newspaper whose aim was to defend Metis rights and to inform the French-Canadians in Manitoba and Quebec of their activities and interests. For approximately one year following his arrival, Dubuc also wrote regularly for La Minerve, presenting Riel's obiectives and describing the situation in the North West.

The amnesty question remained unresolved for some time and Riel did not return to Manitoba except for the occasional secret visit to his family. In spite of the Government's refusal to grant Riel a pardon, Dubuc urged the Metis leader to run for election in 1872 in the federal riding of Provencher. Riel's nomination in Provencher created some disagreement among the Metis, prominent among them being Breland, Hamelin and Bruce, who opposed such a course of action as dangerous to Riel and their supporters in Ottawa, but Dubuc and Royal supported Riel. When news arrived from Ottawa that Sir George Cartier required a parliamentary seat, however, Riel stepped aside in his favour.

In his absence, Riel has selected Dubuc to assume the leadership of the Metis. The surveying and distribution of lands remained contentious issues, and Dubuc's leadership proved to be a moderating influence. He was often called upon to intervene when thorny problems arose over the ownership of lands the Metis had traditionally held and regarded as theirs, or in the distribution of the Half Breed land grants. He also assisted many of the "old settlers" in obtaining compensation for the loss of their traditional hay privilege lands, the two mile strip of land at the back of their river lots which had once been used as common pasture. By 1873, Dubuc was appointed land commissioner and as such, investigated individual claims, hearing evidence and attempting to award fair and equitable compensation.

In the newly created province of Manitoba men such as Joseph Dubuc, Marc Girard and Joseph Royal sought to defend the interests of the French-speaking cultural group in the political arena as well as in the courts and through the press. One of Dubuc's initial political duties prior to the province's first general election had been to direct the census by which twelve French-Catholic and twelve English-Protestant electoral districts were created, closely based on the existing parish boundaries and distribution of population. With equal representation in the new legislature assured for his compatriots according to the Manitoba Act, Dubuc became active in the election campaign which followed. He wrote many editorials in Le Metis advocating unity in the face of opposition from the "Canadians" - a group of English-speaking settlers from Ontario who opposed amnesty for Riel and the principle of duality envisioned by the Electoral Act.

First page, first issue of Le Metis, founded by Joseph Dubuc and Joseph Royal, May 1871

First page, first issue of Le Metis, founded by Joseph Dubuc and Joseph Royal, May 1871

The election was held on 28 December 1870 and Dubuc was returned for the district of Baie St. Paul by acclamation. The campaign had proved to be a turbulent, emotional event which erupted into open violence when those calling themselves "loyalists" demanded retribution against those who had supported Riel. They opposed the "government party", the supporters of Lieutenant-Governor Archibald and his moderate approach of organizing a government based on the consensus of all groups in the province. Such tensions were not dispelled immediately afterwards, but again erupted during the federal election of 1872, when Dubuc was a witness and a victim of political resentment and ill-feeling. In the constituency of Selkirk the "government" candidate was victorious, and the fury of the defeated so-called "loyalists" broke out in violence. During the fall assizes of 1872 Dubuc was called upon to give evidence of the riots; as he left the courthouse he was attacked and left for dead on Main Street.

The turmoil had not prevented Dubuc from taking his seat in the Manitoba Legislature which opened in March 1871. He pronounced the first address in reply to the Speech from the Throne in both English and French, and during the first session played a leading role in drafting the province's educational legislation. The School Act of 1871 provided for a Board of Education composed of two sections, one Protestant, the other Catholic, with from five to seven members each. Each section was responsible for all educational matters under its jurisdiction. The dual school system was well accepted, and Dubuc and Royal were credited for its inauguration.

Dubuc was to remain active in the field of education in the following years. He served as Superintendent of Catholic Schools from 1872 to 1874; in this capacity he was responsible for curriculum changes, supervising the organization of new districts, and inspecting the performance of teachers of the Catholic section, among other duties. In 1877 he was appointed to the Governing Council of the newly-established University of Manitoba, and served as Vice-Chancellor of that institution from 1888 to 1914.

In the early years of the legislature, the principle of duality, the equality of French and English, Catholic and Protestant, created a delicate balance which was easily upset. Proceedings were dominated by shifting, temporary alliances as various factions sought to maintain the precarious balance of power within a system of responsible government. To complicate matters, internal differences also became evident among the French-speaking members. Marc Girard, described by Dubuc as "un brave et honnete homme, pacifique avant tout, il restait a son poste et laissait faire les autres", faced increasing criticism by his compatriots, but more moderate than Dubuc or Royal, he was preferred by the English-speaking members. Growing and increasingly evident differences emerged between the French-Canadians and the Metis, and among the former and co-religionists such as the Irish Catholic Henry J. Clarke. Added to this was the pressure of continued and determined opposition of the so-called "Canadians".

The legislative session of 1874 proved critical. Trouble arose over a bill to alter the electoral districts so as to give representation to the influx of new settlers, predominantly from Ontario. Manitoba's first Attorney-General and one time supporter of the Metis, Henry J. Clarke, had introduced the bill, anticipating support from the new Ontario settlers. Since the animosities of the 1872 federal election, he had issued warrants for the arrest of Riel and Lepine, effecting an open breach with his former colleagues. Clarke's actions upset the balance of dual representation in the Executive Council. These critical events brought Dubuc's skill and mastery of British parliamentary practice to the fore, as he adroitly maneuvered the introduction of a motion of no confidence, by reaffirming his confidence in the Council, but expressing reservations about Clarke's responsibility. A new administration was formed as a result, with Marc-Amable Girard as Premier. Dubuc became Attorney-General and two English-speaking members were given to other ministeries. The principle of equality of the two cultural groups within the Council had been maintained largely because of Dubuc's effort. The resignation of two Cabinet Ministers, however, resulted in the fall of the short-lived Girard government. In the ensuing election of 1875, Dubuc was elected by acclamation for the district of St. Norbert. He was appointed Speaker of the R. A. Davis administration.

Dubuc continued to strive for unity and cooperation between English- and French-speaking members. Although he left provincial politics in 1878 to become the Member of Parliament representing the federal riding of Provencher, he continued to play an intermediary role in provincial affairs, offering his assistance in 1879 to resolve a dispute between Joseph Royal and Premier John Norquay which had resulted in the former's resignation and renewed attacks upon the use of French in the legislature. When offered the post of Attorney-General in Norquay's Cabinet, however, Dubuc declined, and was never again to play an active role in provincial politics.

Dubuc had been among the first group of applicants admitted to the Manitoba Bar in 1871. He was instrumental in setting up the Court of Queen's Bench and in 1874 had been named Crown Counsel. In 1879, Dubuc left politics to fill one of two vacancies on the Court of Queen's Bench.

He was pleased with the appointment, more than willing to leave the turmoil of political battles for the dignity of the magistrature. With Dubuc's retirement from active politics the French-speaking Manitobans lost one of their leaders, but as Justice Dubuc he continued to exercise his influence behind the scenes. In 1880 he again served as an intermediary, this time between aspiring French-Canadian leaders Marc Girard and A. A. C. La Riviere. Dubuc supported La Riviere and finally in November 1881, with the assistance of Archbishop Tache and the cooperation of Joseph Royal, he was able to negotiate an agreement between the two politicians; La Riviere replaced Girard as Provincial Secretary.

Dubuc's earlier political ties with the Metis cause receded into the background after his appointment. The former supporter of Metis rights refused to serve as Appeal Judge in the trial of Louis Riel in 1885, justifying his position on the basis of Riel's religious heresy and his personal acquaintance with the accused. Dubuc's active promotion of French-Canadian settlement in Manitoba, however, ensured his influence with this latter group. In 1875 Dubuc had co-founded La Societe de Colonisation, which aimed to repatriate French-Canadians who had emigrated to the United States and to encourage settlement from Quebec. He became Director and President of the organization which brought in 15,000 French-Canadians to Manitoba between 1875 and 1880.

Provincial Cabinet Minister, 1874

Provincial Cabinet Minister, 1874
Photo Courtesy of Manitoba Archives

Chief Justice Dubuc and his colleagues from the King's Bench and the Court of Appeal just prior to his retirement, November, 1909

Chief Justice Dubuc and his colleagues from the King's Bench and the Court of Appeal just prior to his retirement, November, 1909
Photo Courtesy of Archives of Western Canadian Legal History, Faculty of Law, University of Manitoba

Despite such efforts, the 1880s and the decades which followed saw the gradual decline of French-Canadian influence in Manitoba. French-speaking communities settled by pioneers from Quebec and Massachusetts had been established, but the large-scale settlement from Ontario finally left French-speaking Manitobans in a minority. The use of the French language was abolished in the Legislature, the civil service, and the courts. Powerless before these changes and further disillusioned by the divisions within the national Conservative Party, Dubuc withdrew more and more from public life. He fought for a repeal or a disallowance of the Public Schools Act of 1890 that established a non-confessional public school system, but for the remainder of his career, Dubuc was left with the alternative of trying to postpone the introduction of laws prejudicial to the French-speaking Manitobans.

On 8 August 1903, twenty-four years after his appointment to the Bench, Joseph Dubuc became Manitoba's sixth Chief Justice. He held that prestigious position until his retirement in November 1909.

Throughout his life in Manitoba, Joseph Dubuc was a resident of St-Boniface. Immediately following his arrival, he boarded with Archbishop Tache. In 1872 he travelled to Montreal, returning with his bride, the former Marie-Anne Henault. The young couple then shared a double family dwelling near the forks of the Red and the Assiniboine with A. A. C. La Riviere and his wife. Shortly thereafter, Dubuc had a home built near the corner of Notre Dame Street and Tache Avenue in St-Boniface. Completed in October 1874, it was "a white-washed frame building two storeys high". In this house Dubuc and his wife raised a family of ten children, five sons and five daughters.

After 1880 Dubuc engaged occasionally in land speculation, mostly in the St-Boniface area. Two transactions proved to be financially disastrous and although he managed to repay all his debts, he did not die a wealthy man.

Joseph and "Annie" Dubuc, 1905

Joseph and "Annie" Dubuc, 1905
Photo Courtesy of Manitoba Archives

The Dubuc residence near the corner of Notre Dame Street and Tache Avenue, circa 1890

The Dubuc residence near the corner of Notre Dame Street and Tache Avenue, circa 1890
Photo Courtesy of Manitoba Archives

Leaving the Bench in 1909 after thirty years of service, Dubuc was able to enjoy a few years of retirement. In 1912, he received some well-deserved recognition as he was knighted, the first French-Canadian in Western Canada to receive such an honour. He died on 7 January 1914 and was laid to rest in the grounds of the St-Boniface Cathedral.

A man of lofty ideals, versatile and public spirited, he served his province with acceptance as an educator, as a writer, as a legislator, and for the later years of his life as an honored member of the provincial judiciary.

Winnipeg Tribune
9 January 1914

Bibliography of Suggested Readings

Maureen McAlduff's thesis "Joseph Dubuc: Roles and Views of a French Canadian in Early Manitoba" (MA, University of Ottawa 1967) is a fairly detailed study of Dubuc's legal and political career in Manitoba. Edouard Lecompte's book Un Grande Chretien Sir Jospeh Dubuc (Montreal: lmprimerie du Message, 1923) provides additional information on his childhood, education and personal life.

In addition, Dubuc has left a voluminous amount of correspondence and private papers including his letters to Mgr. Tache in the Archives de l'Archeveche de Saint-Boniface and the Dubuc Papers on deposit at the Provincial Archives of Manitoba.

For general information on the early years in the Manitoba Legislature, W. L. Morton's Manitoba: A History (University of Toronto press, 1957), M. S. Donnelly's The Government of Manitoba (University of Toronto Press, 1953) and Larry J. Fisk's "Controversy on the Prairies: Issues in the General Provincial Elections of Manitoba, 1870-1969" (PhD, thesis University of Alberta, 197S) are very good sources.


Special thanks are extended to Professor Cameron Harvey of the Archives of Western Canadian Legal History whose assistance in the preparation of this pamphlet was greatly appreciated and to Mr. Lionel Dorge, Director of the St-Boniface Historical Society, for his review of the pamphlet text.

Two plaques (English and French) located on the original site of the Dubuc Residence, Notre Dame Street near Tache Avenue, St-Boniface.

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Joseph Dubuc (1840-1914)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Joseph Dubuc Plaque (Rue Notre Dame, Winnipeg)

Page revised: 23 May 2023