For­got­ten Fa­ther


Canada's History - - CONTENTS - By Peter Black

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.”


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.

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