SIR ÉTIENNE-PASCHAL TACHÉ WAS THE LITTLE-KNOWN GAME-CHANGER OF CONFEDERATION.
Sir Étienne-Paschal Taché was the little-known game-changer of Confederation.
THE BOOM OF FOUR MUSKET-FIRED VOLLEYS thundered over the farming settlement of SaintThomas, about ninety kilometres downriver from Quebec City. Commanding the gunfire was Charles Taché, local militia leader, struggling farmer, and the father of then three-year-old Étienne-Paschal Taché, who would grow up to play a key but forgotten role in Confederation.
Maybe little Étienne-Paschal was there, bundled up in his mother’s arms, startled by the gunfire, eyes fixed on a bonfire flickering in the deep winter’s darkness along the lower St. Lawrence River. Present or not on that evening of January 10, 1799, he would have known about the event to mark the Battle of the Nile — a British naval victory over France — because the triumph was celebrated in a popular song.
Thirteen years later, Étienne-Paschal and his older brother Charles were firing their own guns in the service of the British, defending Canada from the United States in the War of 1812. Soldiering would have a most profound effect on Étienne-Paschal Taché, one that would guide and propel him through a lengthy, varied, and actionpacked life culminating in the chairmanship of the 1864 Confederation negotiations in Quebec City.
Despite his role as a senior statesman — he was twice premier of the United Province of Canada — Taché tends to get ignored or downplayed in the saga of the birth of Canada. With larger-thanlife figures like John A. Macdonald, George-Étienne Cartier, George Brown, Charles Tupper, and Leonard Tilley crowding the spotlight, some general histories scarcely acknowledge Taché’s role — or he is politely dismissed as nominal, symbolic, token, titular, or temporary.
For someone who was a player, in some cases a game-changer, in all the major events in Canada leading to Confederation, from the Rebellion of Lower Canada, to the struggle for responsible government, to the musical chairs of party evolution, there has been a paucity of written reflection on Taché’s record. It wasn’t until 2006 that a biography emerged, dedicated exclusively to the life and times of Taché. It was commissioned by the town council of his native Montmagny, Quebec, formerly known as Saint-Thomas, where his stately house in the town’s centre has been preserved as a tourist attraction and National Historic Site.
Yves Hébert, the author of Étienne-Paschal Taché, le militaire, le médecin et l’homme politique, says one reason Taché may have been relegated to relative obscurity is that he was not particularly outspoken or controversial. And yet, one of the rare famous quotes attributed to Taché packs a provocative punch.
In a speech to the Assembly of the United Province of Canada on April 24, 1846, Taché defended French Canada against accusations of disloyalty and championed the need to reorganize the militia in Canada East (present-day Quebec): “Our loyalty is not one of speculation, of pounds, shillings, and pence, we do not carry it on our lips, we do not make a traffic of it. But we are in our habits, by our laws, by our religion ... monarchists and conservatives.” Recalling the service of French Canadians such as himself in the War of 1812, Taché said, “Be satisfied we will never forget our allegiance till the last cannon which is shot on this continent in defence of Great Britain is fired by the hand of a French Canadian.”
Taken out of context, the declaration, according to Andrée Desilet, who wrote Taché’s entry in the Canadian Dictionary of Biography, has “aroused doubts about Taché’s attachment to his own people; the speech is, however, an excellent expression of French-Canadian nationalism of the time, which fought the dominance of the British in America without questioning the colonial tie.”
The “last cannon” quip reveals the inherent contradictions of “the old colonel,” as he became known. Taché, a former Patriote rebellion leader, was made an honorary colonel of the British army in 1860 when he served as aide-de-camp for the Prince of Wales during his visit to Canada; Queen Victoria had knighted him two years earlier at Windsor Castle.
He was a practical, visionary politician who loathed the deviousness and corruption of politics, once reportedly telling a woman seeking his influence: “A politician is a man without compassion, I would say almost without conscience.” One might say it was Taché’s abundance of both those qualities that shaped his life as a soldier, doctor, and politician. His transcendent compassion and humanity appear to derive, in biographer Hebert’s view, from his edifying time as a soldier in the War of 1812.
Taché was just sixteen in May 1812 when he enlisted, following the lead of his older brother Charles. War broke out in June, and, having turned seventeen at a training camp near Montreal in September, Taché quickly became a junior officer with the Chasseurs Canadiens militia battalion.
The following year, he led his company in the Battle of Châteauguay alongside another future giant of Canadian history, Louis-Joseph Papineau. Though not a key exchange of the war, Châteauguay is notable for what historian George Stanley says was its impact on morale: “A relatively small group of Canadian militia, some of them only partially trained, resisted and turned back an attack by American regulars.”
Though his detachment did not fire a shot in the battle, Taché and his men were awarded a medal, which he thought deserving, since they endured the hardships of war just the same. “If my laurels of Châteauguay are not stained with blood, they are on the other hand drenched in sweat and covered with enormous quantities of mud and mire.”
There would be blood, much of it, a year later at the ill-fated Battle of Plattsburgh, on the shores of Lake Champlain. Thirteen of Taché’s company of seventy were killed or wounded in the land encounter, out of total Canadian casualties of thirty-seven dead and one hundred and fifty wounded. Legend has it that it was during that campaign that Taché, in the presence of carnage and other physical suffering, began his apprenticeship in medicine.
Taché was what writer and family friend Philippe-Joseph Aubert de Gaspé called a “self-made” man, meaning an autodidact. He had been denied access to extensive formal education due to the limited means of his parents. There being no medical school in Lower Canada at the time — a shortcoming that he would help to remedy later as a politician — after the war Taché was able to gain enough practical experience at the side of local doctors to be accepted in 1818 at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. His English was likely up to snuff, having gotten ample polishing under British army commanders.
He only studied in Philadelphia for a year but picked up adequate training to be certified by the medical board of Lower Canada in March 1819. Thus, at age twenty-four, began the future premier’s twentytwo-year career as a country doctor, and thus also began his domestic life. He married nineteen-year-old Sophie Baucher. Together, they had fifteen children, only nine of whom would survive infancy.
The 1830s were a time of economic hardship and political discontent in the British North American colonies, developments a country doctor could not help but observe and feel as he did his rounds. Taché was no stranger to politics; several members of his extended family had held elected office. As a prominent citizen in the region, and having built a grand house suiting his stature, he welcomed visitors, some of whom bore ideas that were then stirring up the land. He was well acquainted with Louis-Joseph Papineau, the fiery Patriote leader, since they served and suffered together in the War of 1812. He was also a friend of Augustin-Norbert Morin, who, with Papineau, penned the ninety-two resolutions that stated the grievances of the Canadiens against colonial authorities. Taché would later shelter Morin, a future premier of the United Province of Canada, when he was a fugitive during the rebellion.
Taché’s credentials as a Patriote — a moderate one who did not take up arms — rested on his efforts to organize illegal rallies in his home village. One of them took place in June 1837 as political agitation was about to break out in violence. Papineau gave a long speech to a gathering of about six hundred people in Saint-Thomas. Sir Louis-Hippolyte LaFontaine, then a member of the Assembly, also spoke. It was with LaFontaine, Morin, and another moderate Patriote, GeorgeÉtienne Cartier, that Taché would later take up the post-rebellion fight for responsible government and the rights of French Canadians.
The aftermath of the rebellion gave rise to an event that belies the impression of Taché as a mild-mannered country doctor. In the spring of 1849 the new responsible government was put to the test with the passage of the Rebellion Losses Bill, which compensated people in French Canada for property damage sustained during the rebellion. Some English Canadians saw the bill as payment for disloyalty. An angry mob of liquored-up English Montrealers burned the Parliament building in Montreal to the ground, attacked Governor General Lord Elgin for upholding the bill, and invaded and damaged the home of LaFontaine, who, with Robert Baldwin, led the United Province of Canada.
The situation calmed down for a while, but in mid-August a mob amassed to again besiege LaFontaine’s house. Taché, himself a member of the government, wrote to his wife a few days before the incident, “I have fortified and stocked LaFontaine’s house so as to sustain a siege; if the Tory loyalists present themselves, they will eat something indigestible.” He added, reassuringly, “I don’t, however, expect anything serious.”
HE WAS A PRACTICAL, VISIONARY POLITICIAN WHO LOATHED THE DEVIOUSNESS AND CORRUPTION OF POLITICS.
When the mob began to scale the wall around the house, there was a volley of gunfire from men hidden by the windows. Those armed defenders of LaFontaine’s home, in the premier’s absence, were Taché, his nephew Joseph-Charles Taché, and his son-in-law, Charles-Joseph Coursol. One of the mob was killed by gunfire, and, while Taché talked himself out of a homicide charge, doubts linger about his actions. (Hébert cites research that suggests JosephCharles was the shooter.)
Taché’s role in this affair suggests his actions were guided by a sense of honour in the defence of rights that was born of his military experience. It may also reflect a darker side to his courtly reputation. His friend Aubert de Gaspé wrote this reflection on Taché in 1866: “His friends, knowing the inherent violence of his character, feared he might become embroiled in parliamentary battles, but with unbending will he succeeded in mastering his temper, as combustible as saltpetre, and showed himself to be consistently calm, cool, and deferential in his political dealings with fellow citizens and in parliamentary debate. To conquer one’s own nature seems to me the greatest, noblest, and most difficult of triumphs.”
The self-control Aubert de Gaspé ascribes to Taché seems to have lapsed somewhat in an 1845 incident in which he challenged Dominick Daly, a rival member of the Assembly, to a duel. As historian Jacques Monet describes in The Last Cannon Shot, at the appointed hour the two parliamentarians “stood on snowshoes watching their seconds try to count twenty paces in a field of deep snow. Both principals burst out laughing.”
This ultimately comic showdown in the snow took place about a year before Taché’s famous “last cannon” quip, which, curiously enough, prompted his appointment as head of the militia in Lower Canada. This meant he had to resign as an elected member. But he returned to Parliament in 1848, and from that point forward he was a minister in a variety of posts in successive governments until he stepped down in November 1857.
Taché’s time in government, during a period of mind-boggling machinations and manoeuvring, is complex and eventful. The list of posts he held in that period includes commissioner of public works, receiver general, commissioner of Crown lands, speaker of the Legislative Council, and leader of the Canada East contingent in the Assembly. He became co-premier of Canada, with Allan Napier MacNab of Canada West, when his compatriot Morin stepped down for health reasons. When MacNab in turn withdrew from politics in 1856, Taché was called upon to form a government. He sought the assistance of Macdonald, then Attorney General of Canada West and the leading successor to MacNab. At this juncture begins a littleknown relationship of personal affection and political convenience.
Taché admired Macdonald, even “loved [him] as a son,” according to Joseph Pope, Macdonald’s long-time confidant and biographer. “Far from entertaining any feeling of jealousy at the proofs that Macdonald was daily giving of his skill as a leader of men, Colonel Taché welcomed the success of his colleague as evidence that he could safely commit the leadership of the party to him and his brilliant Lower Canadian lieutenant, Mr. Cartier,” wrote Pope.
As Pope suggests, Taché was not driven by ambition but by service to his country. In a letter to LaFontaine at the time, Taché confided, “all I’ve done was to follow from a distance the leaders the country has chosen.” With the younger and energetic Cartier waiting in the wings to lead Canada East, Taché prepared his exit from politics, a departure hastened in no small measure by the death at age twenty-four of his daughter Eulalie. He told the Assembly, “after a long and lengthened period in the service of my country, I wish to retire to the bosom of my family from the cares attendant on public life.”
Once back in his beloved Montmagny, though, Taché kept watch over Macdonald’s journey. In early 1858 Macdonald pondered quitting after facing a serious election setback and his own personal tragedy — the death of his wife. Taché wrote him a letter — in French, as a matter of principle for a veteran defender of language rights in the legislature — prefaced with a doctor’s tender condolences. Taché beseeched Macdonald to “not abandon ship ... the difficulties are great, but your resources are greater.”
Taché’s retirement was short-lived. It is this final political act of his life that rescues his unique legacy from obscurity. Macdonald called upon him in March 1864 to be the compromise choice for premier of Canada and the nominal leader of the Great Coalition of himself, Cartier, and George Brown.” Taché balked. Governor General Charles Stanley Monck had to twist his arm before he agreed, “if necessary, to make sacrifices for my country.”
With a stable coalition government now established thanks to Taché’s sacrifice, the Confederation project took wings. And, though the old colonel was not in Charlottetown for the champagne-soaked September gathering of delegates from the British North American colonies, he was ready to serve, when called upon, to chair the subsequent Quebec Conference.
Taché, as it turned out, had especially intimate knowledge of the documentation being brought to the table; his nephew Joseph-Charles Taché — yes, he of the LaFontaine house siege — was the civil servant in charge of drafting the essential study papers of Confederation.
Taché, though making few interventions in the talks, served another, more profound, purpose. Historian Christopher Moore, in his brilliantly detailed analysis of the Quebec Conference, Three Weeks in Quebec City, writes: “Taché was not merely master of ceremonies. He was a living reminder of the political history that had made the conference possible.”
Macdonald biographer Donald Creighton describes him at Quebec as “the benevolent old chairman, with his round friendly countenance and his nimbus of white hair.” But Taché’s avuncular presence masked fierce vigilance. He wrote this to a friend about the Confederation talks: “Is this plan possible without sacrificing Lower Canada? That’s what we’ll have to see. For me, it’s a major point, and since I hold the key to the shop, I can always close it down, if I perceive we cannot do something good.” Here we have a Taché who decidedly does not see himself as a timid placeholder but as a wily Patriote lion ready to leap to the defence of his people.
The pact did pass Taché’s muster — and that of Cartier and the three other Lower Canada delegates. As premier of Canada, it was Taché’s duty to introduce the Confederation resolutions in the Assembly for debate, on February 3, 1865.
This veteran of a bloody war against the United States began by saying that, if the deal failed, Canada risked being “forced into the American union by violence, and if not by violence, would be placed on an inclined plane which would carry us there insensibly.” He then went to the core of the French-Canadian argument for Confederation: “If a federal union were obtained it would be tantamount to the separation of the provinces, and Lower Canada would thereby preserve its autonomy together with its institutions it held so dear, and over which they could exercise the watchfulness and surveillance necessary to preserve them unimpaired.”
Macdonald seconded Taché’s motion. This unlikely partnership had been one of the crucial elements in the bewildering interaction of personalities that created Confederation. There’s something almost tragically noble in the fact that, as the sixty-nine-year-old Taché gave this most historic speech to the Assembly, with Macdonald at his side, he would soon suffer a mild stroke that signalled his approaching death. After the Confederation debate wrapped up in March, Taché returned home to Montmagny. He would, against doctor’s orders, make one last trip to Quebec in July, anxious to confer with the delegation that had just returned from England to polish the Confederation details. He was forced to return home as his health deteriorated.
On July 15, he wrote one of the last letters of his life to Macdonald. In it, the premier asked Macdonald to take on his duties as head of the militia during his “absence.” Then he added: “I would like to see you one more time before the long voyage I will soon take.”
Taché would not live to see the blueprint of the Confederation dream realized. He died on July 31, 1865. Macdonald was among the six thousand dignitaries, townspeople, and militia members who gathered for Taché’s funeral in the village that had so long ago saluted a momentous event in the history of the British Empire. Biographer Hébert wonders, given the importance accorded his funeral, why Taché “has nearly fallen into oblivion since his death.”
There has been, in recent years, a modest redress of whatever injustice such historical anonymity has dealt Taché. Besides Hébert’s biography packed with intriguing family lore, there were events in Montmagny in 2015 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of his death, his role in Confederation, and his good works in the region. In 2014, Quebec City unveiled a plaque in Taché’s honour on the shores of the St. Lawrence, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Quebec Conference.
Perhaps a particularly fitting legacy for this forgotten Father of Confederation — one whose “last cannon” quote may have called his allegiance to his people into question — might be the words of his son. Eugene-Étienne Taché was the architect chosen to built Quebec’s National Assembly in 1875. Above the building’s main entrance, under statues of James Wolfe and Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, Taché fils affixed: Je Me Souviens. These three meaning-laden words became the official motto of Quebec.
The Battle of Châteauguay by E.H. de Holmfield. This War of 1812 battle was Étienne-Paschal Taché’s first taste of war.
A detail from The Burning of the Parliament Building in Montreal by Joseph Legare, circa, 1849.
A white-haired Étienne-Paschal Taché sits front and centre at the 1864 Quebec Conference, which brought together delegates of the legislatures of the United Province of Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. The meeting led to an agreement on Confederation.
PETER BLACK is a journalist based in Quebec City, where for many years he was a CBC radio producer. He writes a weekly column on Quebec affairs, as well as a regular column on Canadian issues.