An intimate sketch of the one-time village lawyer who has become the chieftain of Quebec Liberalism
M. GRATTAN O'LEARY
SCOFFERS and cynics notwithstanding, there is sentiment in politics — and gratitude. Finely illustrative of this was the decision of leading Liberals to provide a fund for Hon. Ernest Lapointe, Minister of Justice, so that he might continue in Parliament. This was the second instance of its kind in Canadian politics in recent years—the other being a purse presented to the late Mr.
Fielding—and in both cases a high service was rendered to the Dominion’s public life. For since that winter day a decade ago when the nation grieved over Laurier, Ernest Lapointe has been the leader of his race in one of those traditional partnerships of French and Englishspeaking in the government of Canada. What Lafontaine was to Baldwin, what Cartier was to Macdonald, what Fielding was, though in a lesser degree, to Laurier, Ernest Lapointe has been to Mackenzie King.
It was once written of Laurier that he looked and acted as though he were the joint, picturesque descendant of Wolfe and Montcalm, with a mandate to make Canadian Liberalism an instrument of Empire, a bi-racial Government a final proof of the eternal wisdom of the British North America Act, and a measure of reciprocity a safeguard of an Anglo-American entente.
That, with modifications, could be written of Lapointe. Like Laurier, whose Quebec mantle he wears, he came from a little tin-spired village of French Canada to become the most eloquent exponent of the tenets of British Liberalism, the prophet of racial harmony, a foremost orator in both languages in the Parliament of Canada, and the most intelligent and enlightened interpreter of British constitutional principles in that august assembly.
From the Farm to Law School
rT'HERE have been few richer careers, or braver, in our modern politics. For Ernest Lapointe, unlike many of Quebec’s great chieftains, was not born in the political purple. Cradled in the rocky inhospitable hills of Témiscouata county, at St. Eloi, near the base of the long peninsula which juts out into the Gulf of St. Lawrence, he was reared in poverty. He was born on a farm, but not a farm in the sense of the broad acres of the prairies or the rich rolling fields of the Province of Ontario. It consisted of a few acres of land from which the elder Lapointe, thrifty God-fearing habitant, managed to wring a living for his wife and family. There Lapointe grew up; there he went to the little parish school; and there he became accustomed to the arduous toil and simple pleasures of the Quebec peasantry. If he was dreaming then' of the outside world, he gave no evidence of it. Inured to the hard life of the small farmer, removed even from the books and newspapers that would tell him of the throbbing civilization beyond the confines of Témiscouata, he asked, perhaps, no better fortune than a small piece of land, so passionately loved by his people, and the means to till it.
Sometimes the first step in a great career is the most important and inexplicable event of all. Ernest Lapointe, were it not for a parish priest, might have grown to manhood, lived all his life and died on a Témiscouata farm. This good curé, always solicitous for the Church, saw in his young parishioner the promise of higher things, the promise, perhaps, of a future bishop; and decided he must help him. And so, young Lapointe went to Rimouski College, where, justifying the perception of the parish shepherd, he carried off the Prince of Wales scholarship and with it a course in law at Laval University.
A graduate in law, and further buttressed in legal knowledge by study under Chief Justice Lemieux, Lapointe one day returned to the little town of Fraserville and began to practise. The place offered no promising future. A great English jurist once said that law was all roses and no bed, or all bed and no roses. Lapointe, struggling to get his share of the few petty lawsuits which form the main litigation of a small Quebec community, had little of either roses or bed. He had no influential friends in Montreal or Quebec who could help him; he was not one of those young men whom French-Canadian politicians single out for preferment; he had not even the oratorical gift so common among his compatriots.
Yet his star was in the ascendant. The crown prosecutor in the Fraserville district at that time was H. G. Carroll, later to become a member of Parliament, SolicitorGeneral, a judge of the High Court of Quebec, and finally LieutenantGovernor. Carroll took quite an interest in the struggling young lawyer; and later on, when Carroll had become something of a figure in politics, Lapointe became one of his lieutenants.
T_TE WAS not an early success.
He was no match for the sleek, slick-tongued attorneys that the parties sent from the cities; he was not even rated a good speaker; and there were things that his temperament prohibited him from doing even for the sake of his party. Lapointe’s first success, indeed, did not come until years afterward. It was upon the occasion of a banquet to Carroll in honor of his elevation to the solicitor-generalship, when distinguished figures came from Ottawa to take part in the celebration. There were many orators and numerous speeches, but the most brilliant contribution came from the young Fraserville lawyer; whereupon the party chieftains marked him out as a coming man. When Carroll went to the High Court Bench he urged that Lapointe be appointed as his successor. As a result, the young lawyer found himself elected a member of the House of Commons for Kamouraska by acclamation. That was in 1904.
Those who were in the Press Gallery in those far-away years remember Lapointe’s beginnings. Not often had a Quebec member come to Ottawa who seemed less likely to succeed. Completely ignorant of the language in which the debates in the House are carried on, rising only rarely to say a few words on some trifling question in his own tongue, without the social graces or gifts that often help toward parliamentary recognition, he seemed fated for back-bench obscurity.
Even after 1911, when Laurier, back in Opposition, was mustering all his promising lieutenants, Lapointe was never considered. In the smoke rooms and card rooms which he sometimes visited, he became known to the Press Gallery and to other members; but nobody saw more in him than a youthful, awkward habitant whose parliamentary influence would never be more than a name on a division list.
These years, Lapointe now confesses, were the hardest of his life. Cut off from much of social contact with the majority of his fellow members, overlooked and ignored by his leaders, ignorant of Canada outside of his own province, more ignorant still of the English language and of English history and literature, and without financial means, success seemed all but impossible. Then came a strange friendship. Jacques Bureau, whatever his faults as an administrator, was one of the most lovable and popular figures that the House of Commons has known. With the romantic background of having pioneered in Western Canada and of having once been mayor of a United States Middle West town, a doughty warrior who could fight without rancor, fluent in both languages, and an unrivalled raconteur, he was as welcome among Ontario Orangemen as among his compatriots from Quebec. For some inexplicable reason he was attracted to Lapointe. He saw that the almost uncouth young visionary held immense possibilities, and it is even told that he predicted to Laurier that, once divorced from his dreams and idealism and taught real, practical politics, Lapointe would some day become a great figure in Quebec.
Lapointe, at all events, went under the tutorship of Bureau. Bureau told him that his first resolution must be that during the entire session he would not speak a word of French. He would have to confine himself to English newspapers; read only the English speeches in Hansard; never be without an EnglishFrench dictionary; and speak English in ordering his food. Never was a schoolmaster more strict with his pupil. Day after day Bureau gave Lapointe long lists of English words to memorize, and short articles to translate; and night after night he walked home from the House with him to note and measure his progress.
Lapointe was a good pupil. Between meals, during which he struggled with the English of the waitresses, he lived in the reading room or the Library. He read the English newspapers, editorials, sports page, and even advertisements; read Hansard from cover to cover, and put circles round the words he didn’t understand. There were times when Bureau’s lists were the bane of his life. He would have them in his pockets, on his desk, pinned over the wash basin at his hotel, often over his telephone. But he stuck doggedly to his task.
Lapointe made his first English speech in Parliament in the session of 1913. When he had concluded, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, always alert for promising recruits, went and sat beside him and congratulated him warmly. He told him that if he would choose his reading carefully, if he would study the essays of Macaulay, the writings of Morley and the speeches of Fox, Burke, Sheridan and Gladstone, he would some day become an orator of power. How well Lapointe profited from that advice is evidenced in the stately diction of his speeches today.
His First Great Triumph
T3UT it was not until 1917, a year heavy with fate for Liberalism, that Lapointe came definitely to the fore. One by one the old captains who had marched and bivouacked with Laurier were being surrendered to the foe. Guthrie, once the rising hope of Ontario Liberalism; Pardee, Sir Wilfrid’s broth-of-a-boy; Michael Clark, bitter in his desertion; Carvell, “Fighting Frank”—all went over to Unionism. In desperation the old leader scanned his ranks for new captains to carry on.
It was then that Ernest Lapointe moved down to the front benches. He was the youngest and least experienced of Sir Wilfrid’s new shock troops, but not the least brave or brilliant. Rodolphe Lemieux could be more eloquent, Charles Murphy more bitter, Frank Oliver more tempestuous and James Robb more cautious, but for the passionate intensity with which he pleaded the cause of the “Old Chief,” Lapointe had not an equal. Almost overnight the once awkward habitant had been transformed into the powdered and rapiered parliamentarian.
When Laurier died, after a last two years of tragedy, a Liberal convention was called as his “last will and testament.” It was a critical time for Liberalism. Words had been spoken in war-time that seared across the years; there was an undercurrent of racial bitterness; the West was suspicious, sullen. There were many, indeed, who predicted that the convention would fail, that schism would tear its ranks, that the wounds of 1917 could not be healed. Blood was thicker than party.
It was into this atmosphere that Ernest Lapointe projected himself on the. first day of the convention to make the speech of his life. In that now historic gathering, notable for its eloquence, there were three extraordinary speeches. One of them was that with which Mackenzie King swept himself into the party’s leadership. The other was Fielding’s noble renunciation in surrendering the prize to Mr. King. The third—and most potent—was the clarion call of Ernest Lapointe for forgetfulness and reconciliation.
Like a flaming apostle of peace, he appealed and pleaded for harmony. And when toward the close, after a brilliant panegyric upon the triumphs of Liberalism, he repeated Macaulay’s stirring resolve, “never will I desert that banner,” Ontario Grit and Quebec Rouge rose in one thunderous volume of defiance and acclaim. Ernest Lapointe stepped down from the platform secure in a party triumph.
Mackenzie King’s First Lieutenant
IN71919, a few months after the Liberal Convention, Lapointe was elected to Sir Wilfrid’s old seat in Quebec East: the mantle of the “Old Chief” had descended upon him and Jacques Bureau’s prophecy had been fulfilled. There were, it is true, periods of doubt; a few years of eclipse when, answering the demands of political expediency, Sir Lomer Gouin appeared in Ottawa as the strong man from Quebec. But these were only temporary. There came a day, finally, when Sir Lomer, disillusioned and discouraged, left Ottawa and the portfolio of Justice, to be succeeded by Lapointe, who became the acknowledged leader of Liberalism in Quebec. It was a far cry from the little farm at St. Eloi, but Lapointe, delegate to historic conferences at London and Geneva, author of treaties with foreign powers, and the right hand of the Prime Minister in Parliament, wore his honors worthily. No man who had risen from low to high estate ever took his triumphs with less insolence or vanity.
In 1925, when Mackenzie King fell at the head of his all but beaten army but still managed to retain the Government, Lapointe assumed the leadership of the House. It was a task of desperate difficulty. Before him were the serried ranks of Conservatism led by the militant and brilliant Arthur Meighen. On his flank were the guerrilla warriors of the U.F.A. Behind him was a party weakened in morale by a narrow escape from disaster.
It was during those days that Lapointe revealed himself a master of tactics and compromise. Laurier in his heyday never showed himself more skilful in avoiding shoals, in reconciling low tariff Liberals from the West with protectionists from the East; and Laurier was never more successful in beguiling the radicals from the plains. When, a few months later, the Liberal vessel struck the rocks, it was not Lapointe who was on the bridge.
Today, with a quarter of a century of parliamentary life behind him, Lapointe’s reputation stands secure as jurist, orator and statesman. No man has been less given to petty and partizan extremes. A Liberal of the English school, speaking the accents of Fox and Gladstone and Bright, he has a capacity for compromise when all that is desired cannot be attained, and none of the rigidity of first principles which accompanies the enthusiasm of the Gallic temperament. If during the past eight years Mr. King has succeeded in holding the balance between Western radicalism and Quebec conservatism, much of the credit is due to this moderate Frenchman.
It is not that he lacks courage. He has never modified his actions for fear of personal disadvantage, or in any way acted for personal gain; and there have been times when he stood out against opinion in his province. In the teeth of Premier Taschereau, and running counter to the Quebec press, he has opposed the idea that the British North America Act stands as the law of the Medes and Persians; that under no circumstances must it be changed. On that issue, a perilous one for any French-Canadian politician to handle, he has spoken fearlessly both in Ottawa and Quebec.
“He Never Forgets his Friends”
AS ORATOR and debater, few surpass him in the House. Of the five speakers who dominated Parliament during the past twenty years, two were French-Canadians — Laurier and Lemieux. Lapointe has never had Laurier’s charm and graceful diction, and he has never achieved the purple patches that make vivid the eloquence of Lemieux. Yet, given a first class occasion, he is a speaker of persuasion and power. Vehement and passionate at times, no man in the House can be more coldly calculating in his use of sarcasm and irony, and few resort more to incisive logic to refute and demolish a foe.
Personally, all politics aside, he is the most lovable and companionable of men. Mercurial in temperament, he can pass swiftly from fiery resentment into a mood of forgiveness, and he possesses in rare degree a fine genius for friendship. “Lapointe,” said a political opponent, “may forget his promises; he never forgets his friends.” Illustrative of this, and destructive of the theory that there are few loyalties in politics, was the appointment of H. G. Carroll as Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec. Lapointe, as Premier King’s right hand in Quebec, controlled the filling of that office, and when the day came for him to exercise his right, his mind went back to those far days in Kamouraska when Carroll was his benefactor and friend. The man who had put him into Parliament he now placed in the highest post in the gift of his province.
Physically, Ernest Lapointe is perhaps the most gigantic man in politics in the British Empire. Standing six feet three inches in his stockings, with massive shoulders and head, and with an ample though not unbecoming girth, he is a veritable giant towering above his colleagues and gives an impression of great power. Tom King, the well-known correspondent given to wistful fancies, used to insist that in his youth Sir Wilfrid Laurier’s ambition was to become a pugilist. Whether any such idea ever passed through the head of Mr. Lapointe in his early Kamouraska days is not known; but if so, then there is no doubt that he had many of the qualifications essential to such a career.
They sometimes speak of Lapointe leaving Parliament for the Supreme Court of Canada. If that day comes—and long may it be delayed—then a bright light will be extinguished in politics, and, as Burke once said of a famous Lord Chancellor, a “great conscience recruited to justice.”