On their arrival in Canada in 1841, the Oblates ministered first of all in the diocese of Montreal. Bishop de Mazenod and Father Honorat, however, were anxious to have a foundation in the diocese of Quebec, which was rich in vocations. Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal recommended that they await a request from Archbishop Joseph Signay of Quebec. In fact, the latter did appeal to the Oblates in 1844 to replace two of his priests who were missionaries among the Amerindians and who were ill. During the summer, Father Médard Bourassa accompanied the diocesan priest, Étienne Payment, during a two-month visit among the Amerindians along the Saint-Maurice river and Father Pierre Fisette accompanied Father Armand Boucher during a three-month visit among the Indians on the North Shore of the Saint Lawrence to the east of Quebec.
Archbishop Signay then suggested making an establishment at Saint-Alexis, near Grande-Baie, in Saguenay for the purpose of ministry among the Indians in Saguenay and the North Shore. On October 15, 1844, Father Jean-Baptiste Honorat and three Canadians, Fathers Médard Bourassa, Pierre Fisette and Flavien Durocher took the place of the diocesan Father Charles Pouliot. In Saint-Alexis they found a poor little chapel and a presbytery, which was still under construction. In the Saguenay region there were then 3,000 inhabitants, mostly forest workers employed by Mr. William Price (1789-1867), an Englishman who had come to Canada and who had the monopoly of the timber industry in Saguenay.
For a long time the Hudson Bay Company had the monopoly of the fur trade in all northern Canada. In 1837-1838 the Company had ceded to a Canadian group, the Twenty-One Company, the right to cut 60,000 pine trees on its domain. Having cut the trees the Twenty-One proceeded, without authorization, to cultivate the land that had been cleared. In 1842, the Twenty-One was heavily in debt and decided to sell its rights and its nine sawmills to Mr. Price who was already the purchaser of their timber, which he sold to England. That made him master of employment, salaries and prices in the region. In that same year, the government renegotiated the deal with the Hudson Bay Company specifying that they clear the land for sale to the colonists. Agricultural land on the shores of the Saint Lawrence was all now occupied and the Saguenay region with its fertile land had to be opened up to agriculture.
The apostolate of the Oblates in Saguenay
There were ten Oblates who spent some time in Saint-Alexis between 1844 and 1853: Jean-Baptiste Honorat from 1844 to 1853; Flavien Durocher from 1844 to 1853; Médard Bourassa and Pierre Fisette from 1844 to 1846; André-Marie Garin from 1845 to 1853; Eusèbe Durocher from 1846 to 1848; Charles Arnaud from 1849 to1852; Eugène Cauvin from 1849 to 1853; Horace Pinet from 1849 to 1853; and Louis Babel from 1851 to 1853.
Almost all these priests spent the summer months travelling among the Indians. Some travelled also in winter to learn the Montagnais language while others visited the forest workers in their camps at that time.
Father Honorat often remained to minister among the colonists of Saint-Alexis, Saint-Alphonse, Chicoutimi, Grand-Brûlé and other centres which were being formed and where he hoped to build chapels (see the map of Saguenay). When he visited the region in 1845 he realized immediately that the people were slaves to Mr. Price and his co-operators. He summed up his impressions in 25 notes addressed to the authorities. He brought the situation to the notice of Father Bruno Guigues, his religious superior, the bishops of Quebec, the civil authorities and the newspapers but all remained silent because they were benefiting from the present arrangement. He pointed out numerous injustices: 12-hour working days, famine wages for the forest workers who received coupons as their wages to be used only in the stores run by Mr. Price, waste of the forest, appropriation of land, exorbitant prices to be paid for timber purchased by the colonists to build their cabins etc.
The interventions made by Father Honorat were known to Mr. Price and especially to his lieutenants on the spot, especially Marc Simard in the area of Grande-Baie and Peter McLeod in Chicoutimi. They created difficulties for Father Honorat who wanted to purchase land on which to build chapels. In Chicoutimi there were numerous colonists who met frequently. McLeod opposed the building of a chapel in 1845. Bishop Turgeon, coadjutor in Quebec, and Mr. Price had to intervene and McLeod finally agreed to allow a chapel to be built but on condition that the priest in charge would not be an Oblate. Father Honorat wished to establish the Congregation in Chicoutimi, which was a more important centre than Saint-Alexis and nearer to the Indians, but he gave up the idea. A diocesan priest, Father Jean-Baptiste Gagnon was appointed priest in charge.
In 1846 Father Honorat decided to create a free colony in Grand-Baie. Large areas had been ravaged by fire in 1841 on a plateau along the river Moulin above Chicoutimi. The land was fertile and the clearing had been done. He wanted to begin by building a chapel and had chosen a site for the purpose. When he began the work, Marc Simard intervened to stop him saying that land belonged to him as first occupier. In 1847 the case was submitted to the court. Father Honorat was declared to be at fault and condemned to pay the costs. Immediately about fifty colonists came to settle in Grand-Brûlé where Father Honorat had bought some land for the Oblates and had set up a sawmill and a flourmill. He lent some money to the colonists who had come and thus created a number of debts, which he hoped, would be paid off by the revenue from the mills and the land.
Departure of Father Honorat
His activity in the social field made some enemies for Father Honorat. Letters of complaint were written to the archbishop of Quebec. Even Father Gagnon, whom Father Honorat considered to be his friend, spoke against him during a visit to Quebec. Already in 1845, Archbishop Signay had asked Father Guigues to recall Father Honorat, who would have been glad to leave as he wished to live in community, but Father Guigues refused.
In 1849 Archbishop Turgeon pressed Bishop Guigues, who had now become bishop of Bytown, to take Father Honorat away from Saguenay. It was not considered desirable to displease Mr. Price and besides, a calumnious rumour stated that Father Honorat had lost the trust of the people who no longer went to confession to him. During the summer Bishop Guigues asked him to leave Saguenay and he obeyed at once. Father Honorat explained his position in a letter to Bishop de Mazenod on October 21, 1849: “By doing all in my power to approach those whose duty it was and by the means which the bishop himself had indicated to me, I tried to defend the weak against the strong, and before I had succeeded, the jealousy of those, who would have wished that the same could have been said about themselves, intervened against me in a variety of ways; the timidity of those in authority made them fear to offend these jealous people and considered that the thing to do was to remove me and risk compromising the outcome for the poor people … I had certainly succeeded in doing good for the weak because for the past three years they have established themselves there with advantages which are not to be found elsewhere. A parish of free people has been formed and they are working only for themselves on the best land in the country.”
Father Flavien Durocher was superior in Saint-Alexis from 1849 to 1853. He continued the apostolate of Father Honorat among the faithful of Saint-Alexis and the surrounding area. He opened some schools. Horace Pinet, who was still a scholastic, spent some time in Saint-Alexis to arrange the financial affairs of the mission. The Oblates owed Mr. Price the sum of 12,360 Francs. On August 30, 1862, Father Durocher wrote to Archbishop Baillargeon of Quebec: “An easy way to escape from our embarrassment was to cede our property to him. We did not want a deal which we considered would be a misfortune for the parish of Laterrière (Grand-Brûlé).” In 1854 the lands and the mills of the Congregation in Grand-Brûlé were sold for a modest sum to Mr. Jules Gauthier. The Oblates had left Saguenay the previous year to establish themselves in Quebec from where it would be easier to visit the Indians of the North Shore, Saguenay and Lac-Saint-Jean by boat.
Yvon Beaudoin, o.m.i.