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Ernest Lapointe, French-Canadian Rights Advocate

For the week of Monday November 21, 2011

On November 26, 1941, Ernest Lapointe died of pancreatic cancer. For 37 years, this intelligent and eloquent federal politician, Canadian minister from 1921 to 1930 and from 1935 to 1941, advocated causes close to his heart, in particular the rights of French-Canadians and national sovereignty policy.

Lapointe was born in Saint-Éloi on October 6, 1876, and grew up in this same rural area of Quebec. He studied law at Laval University and then opened his own practice in Fraserville (Rivière-du-Loup) in 1898. It was at that time that he started attending political meetings. He won his first election at the age of 27, as a Liberal in the federal riding of Kamouraska. When Wilfrid Laurier was head of the opposition, Lapointe became his lieutenant for part of the province of Quebec. In 1912, Laurier chose him to handle the debate on Ontario’s adoption of Regulation 17. The thrust of this Regulation was to abolish French schools, and this was an issue of immense concern to French-speaking communities.

Ernest Lapointe
© J. Russell & Sons / Library and Archives Canada / C-019104

During the First World War, when Prime Minister Borden’s Conservatives were in power, the Liberals under Laurier, including Ernest Lapointe, opposed conscription, which was the mandatory drafting of men into the army. The issue divided the country: a majority of French-Canadians opposed it, preferring voluntary enlistment, while a large number of Anglophones favoured conscription.

In 1921, Mackenzie King succeeded Laurier as Liberal leader. As an influential advisor to King, Ernest Lapointe was briefly Minister of Marine and Fisheries, then served for a long time as Minister of Justice and Attorney General. He pushed for greater Canadian autonomy from the United Kingdom and, in 1923, he signed the first treaty without a British co-signatory. Three years later, Lapointe led the Canadian delegation in the negotiations that led to the enactment, in 1931, of the Statute of Westminster, which recognized Canada’s independence. He also upheld the rights of the provinces and opposed Bennett’s proposed New Deal in 1935, as he deemed this to be federal government interference in areas of provincial jurisdiction.

Ernest Lapointe’s funeral cortege, with W.L. Mackenzie King leading the mourners
© Library and Archives Canada / C-013235 / 1941

In the Second World War, the conscription question resurfaced, and it was the King government’s turn to deal with it. Fearing a new division of the country on the issue, Ernest Lapointe threatened to resign if Mackenzie King imposed conscription. This pressure tactic delayed conscription, and Lapointe died in 1941 before it was imposed in 1944.

Throughout his career, Ernest Lapointe preached tolerance between Canada’s two official language communities, demanded more bilingual services in government and recruitment of Francophones to the Public Service, and devoted particular attention to those questions that divided the country. Because of his great political contribution, Ernest Lapointe has been designated as a person of national historical significance.

To learn more about William Lyon Mackenzie King and conscription, read A King is born! and The “Lyon” and the End of the British Empire.

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