Curé Antoine Labelle (1833-1891)
A prominent figure in Quebec in the second half the 19th century, Antoine Labelle, a Catholic priest, was responsible for the parish of Saint-Jérôme from 1868 to 1891. Referred to as Curé Labelle, he was also known as King of the North because he attempted to curb the emigration of French Canadians to the United States by having them settle in areas of northern Quebec and Ontario, as well as Manitoba. He was the primary figure behind the settlement of the Laurentians, the economic development of the region, and the expansion of its railway network, and he contributed to the founding of some 20 parishes, as well as the settlement of nearly 5,000 non-Indigenous people in the area. He was also recognized for his role as deputy minister of the Department of Agriculture and Colonization for the Government of Quebec from 1888 to 1890. In 1885 and 1889, he went on two government missions to Europe to attract new settlers and stimulate economic trade.
Born in Sainte-Rose (Laval) in Lower Canada, Antoine Labelle became a priest at the age of 23, before reaching the required canonical age of 24. He was assigned a number of parishes over the course of the next 12 years. It was at Saint-Antoine-Abbé where he received his first posting as pastor, in 1859. While at this parish, he began to develop skills as a mediator, and also first became clearly aware of the mass migration of French Canadians to New England that was then taking place. On 15 May 1868, Labelle was appointed pastor of the parish of Saint-Jérôme. He would spend 22 years of his life in service to this community. Thanks to his major influence in the Conservative Party, the spiritual leader of the most populous parish in Terrebonne County was able to set out on an ambitious plan, believing that opening new agricultural land north of the Island of Montréal to settlement could curb the exodus of French Canadians to the United States.
Curé Labelle’s colonization project was consistent with colonial thinking in 19th century Quebec, a time when European settlers were encroaching on Indigenous lands in the St. Lawrence River Valley, and inland regions were targeted for forestry development and settlement. The region coveted by Labelle had been occupied by human populations for nearly 6,000 years, and is part of Anishinabeg territory. Confronted with colonial expansion in the 19th century, the Anishinabe submitted petitions to colonial authorities, requesting the protection of their territory and financial compensation for lands occupied without their consent. In turn, the government reserved lands for the exclusive use of the Anishinabe. This was consistent with the government’s efforts to assimilate and colonize First Nations, in part by forcing them to settle permanently and adopt agriculture. The Anishinabe continued to occupy their traditional territory, carrying out many subsistence activities there, such as hunting and fishing.
Curé Labelle became a legendary figure of late-19th century Quebec in part due to his accomplishments, but also because he has become part of the collective memory. He was portrayed by Claude-Henri Grignon in the French-language television series Les belles histoires des pays d’en haut, and many place names in the toponymy of Quebec honour his memory.