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A French-Canadian Romantic

This story was initially published in 2007

On May 31, 1908, Louis Fréchette died in Montréal at the age of 68. Born on November 16, 1839, in Pointe-Lévis, Quebec, Fréchette pursued careers as a journalist, lawyer and politician, but his ultimate desire was to be recognized for his talents as a poet and playwright.

Louis Frechétte
Louis Frechétte
© Library and Archives Canada / C-002065
After completing his classical studies, he began a career in law. At the same time, he embarked on a career as a journalist and, in 1862, wrote his first play, Félix Poutré, which tells the story of a patriot feigning insanity to escape the gallows. Born just after the Rebellions of 1837-38, Fréchette shared the political and social views of the time. He became involved in politics, following in the footsteps of his idol, French writer Victor Hugo. He was a sworn opponent of Canadian Confederation, which took place in 1867. In protest, he went into exile in 1867 to Chicago, where he wrote his best-known poem, La Voix d’un exilé (1867-69). He chose a romantic style for his writings at a time when classicism was thriving.

Fréchette returned to Quebec in 1871, at which time he entered politics for the federal Liberal Party. He was elected as the Member of Parliament for Lévis in 1874, but sat for only four years. During his term in office, he published a second collection of poems, Pêle‑mêle : fantaisies et souvenirs poétiques, copies of which he sent to a number of prominent French figures. He then submitted two collections to the Académie française. In 1880, he received the Montyon prize, awarded for the first time to a non‑French author. His critics charged that he was awarded the prize for his republican ideas, rather than his talent.

The poem La mort, mon dernier sonnet, signed by Fréchette
The poem, La mort, mon dernier sonnet, signed by Fréchette
© Library and Archives Canada / MG29-D40
He attempted to continue his journalism career, but then opted to go once more into exile with his family in 1887 to Paris, where he wrote La Légende d’un peuple, which recounted the history of Quebec. That same year, health problems forced him to return to Canada. His liberal, republican and secular ideas made him a target for critics. In spite of it all, he continued to write and publish, in addition to receiving four honorary doctorates from Canadian universities. Louis Fréchette was also a founding member of the Royal Society of Canada, to which he was elected chair in 1900.

For his long literary and public career, marked by controversy but also great honours, Louis Fréchette was designated a National Historic Person in 1937. He remains one of the greatest French-Canadian poets of the 19th century.

May is Asian Heritage Month. To view other stories associated with Asian Canadian history, please visit: The Promise, Taking a Stand, The Komagata Maru Incident, Commemorating Chinese Railroad Workers, Fishy Business, Toward a Better Future and A Harmony of Cultures in the This Week in History Archives.
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