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The “National Historian”

For the week of Monday July 16, 2007

On July 19, 1844, François-Xavier Garneau was appointed Clerk of Québec, a position that provided funding for his ongoing research into the history of Canada. Garneau was born on June 15, 1809, in Québec to working-class parents. In 1823, lacking the money needed to pursue a classical education at the Séminaire de Québec, François-Xavier began working for philanthropist Jean-François Perreault, whose tutoring and extensive library allowed him to continue his education.

François-Xavier Garneau
© Library and Archives Canada/1933-282-1
Although he had an interest in history and poetry, Garneau chose to become a notary and apprenticed under Archibald Campbell, a move that gave him the opportunity to travel throughout the northeastern United States and Upper Canada. In 1831, Garneau arrived in London as secretary to Denis-Benjamin Viger, a member of the House of Assembly sent to make representations to the Colonial Office. Here Garneau learned a great deal about British and Canadian politics.

Garneau was first published in 1831 in France and when he returned to Québec two years later, he began publishing a number of his poems in newspapers. Married in 1835, the financial obligations of establishing a household forced him to work as a notary and cashier. However, the events of 1837 and the proposed union of the two Canadas re-awakened his calling as a historian. He opposed the Act of Union, as he feared for the future of the French-Canadian nation. Lord Durham’s assertion that Canadians were “a people without history and without literature” struck a patriotic nerve.

First volume of Histoire du Canada
© Garneau, François-Xavier, Histoire du Canada depuis sa découverte jusqu'à nos jours, Montréal: Beauchemin & Valois, 1882. University of Ottawa
Garneau obtained a position as a translator at the Legislative Assembly, giving him access to the large Parliamentary library. He published his first historical work on the travels of Jacques Cartier in 1843, followed two years later by the first volume of his Histoire du Canada, Garneau’s masterpiece. This first volume focussed on the origins of New France to 1701. A second volume published in 1846 dealt with the period from 1683 to 1775, and included information about Louisiana and Acadia. The third and final volume covering the years 1775 to 1792 was released in 1849. Garneau extended his historical narration up to 1840 in a second edition published in 1852.

Garneau’s growing fame opened doors for him to new libraries in Quebec and abroad. Armed with this new knowledge, he refined his Histoire du Canada several times. This monumental work ensured him the title of “national historian.” François-Xavier Garneau was designated a National Historic Person in 1937.

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