At the time
this article was written Ross Gordon was a database Librarian with the Library
of Parliament.. He was working on a PhD
thesis on the History of the Library of Parliament.
The Library of Parliament is one of the
country’s great intellectual resources. For many years it was Canada’s
National Library. Since the mid 1960s it has been a centre of information
and research dedicated to providing Members of Parliament with the tools they
need to perform their duties. Despite its importance to the public life
of Canada little has been written about the history of the institution or the
individuals who lead it. This article looks at the life of Felix Desrochers who
served as General Librarian from 1933 -1956.
For many years the Library of
Parliament had a system of dual Librarians or “duelling Librarians” depending
upon how one viewed this structure. As shown in the accompanying table there
was always an English and a French Librarian. One was the Parliamentary
Librarian, the other the General Librarian.
This arrangement lasted for nearly sixty
years and served two purposes. One was to keep the English-French balance in
place. This was especially important in the early days of the
Parliamentary Library which had been born out of the combined collections of
Lower and Upper Canada and had spent time located in Montreal, Toronto, Quebec
and Kingston. But the second reason was as important, Canada did not have
a National Library and the Library of Parliament was in many ways seen as the de
facto National Library. The existence of a dual library system was a
political response to competing needs, as is often seen in Canadian history.
Félix Desrocher was a beneficiary of this odd system.
The Appointment of Félix Desrochers
How does one get appointed to high office?
This is often a mystery that we simply cannot answer. We can wonder, we
can speculate, but we cannot know for sure what happened. With Félix
Desrochers, we not only know how he got the job, I believe that he wanted us to
know. He was not in the least shy about this and he even left us a file
labelled: Desrochers, Félix-Library of Parliament – Appointment (campaign
for this position).1
In late 1931 he began a fight for the job of
General Librarian that would use up all of the political capital he had built
up over 25 years of service to the Conservative Party of Canada. He wrote
letters to influential friends and politicians, beginning with Prime Minister
R.B. Bennett, seeking help in landing the best Librarian job in Canada open to
a French Canadian.
The General Librarian of Parliament, Joseph
de la Broquerie Taché had announced his impending retirement. In the world of
dual librarianships, based upon linguistic characteristics and geography as
much as on actual experience, Félix, a lawyer by training, saw this as an
opportunity to move up in the world.
Parliamentary and General Librarians Since Confederation
Library of Parliament Act was given Royal assent April 14, 1871. Staff
consisted of one librarian and one assistant librarian as well as two clerks
and two messengers. On May 6, 1885, a resolution was passed in the House of
Commons that “the officers and servants of the Library of Parliament should
consist of two officers, one to be called the General Librarian, the other
the Parliamentary Librarian, and to hold a joint commission as “Librarians of
Parliament” and to have equal powers…” This was amended in 1955. The
Parliamentary Librarian was given “the control and management of the Library”
while the position of General Librarian was changed to that of Associate
Parliamentary Librarian who would “perform the duties and functions of
Parliamentary Librarian during his absences, illness or during a vacancy in
the office of Parliamentary Librarian
1854 – 1884
Became Parliamentary Librarian after Confederation.
Martin Joseph Griffith
From 1880-1885 he was Assistant Librarian and then in 1885 became the
First General Librarian
Martin S. Burrell
Joseph de la Broquerie
Francis A. Hardy
Appointed Assistant Librarian in 1936 and Parliamentary Librarian in 1944.
After Burrell’s death, the government left his position open. Desrochers
performed both functions, from 1938 until 1944.
1960 – 1994
There was another reason to make a move: his
position as the Civic Librarian of Montreal, under Mayor Houde’s
administration, had come to an end when changes in the administration, from
‘bleu’ to ‘rouge’, caused him to be demoted to assistant librarian. He
was politically on the outside now in Montreal.
After being tipped off by his friend Taché
about the imminent opening, Félix sent an updated resume to Prime Minister
Bennett, listing every political campaign he had been in or otherwise helped to
organise from 1908 to 1930. In all he had taken part in some 35
municipal, provincial and federal electoral battles and felt that he had more
than paid his dues to the Conservative Party. He had even organised the
convention of 1929 that had nominated Camile Houde as leader of the provincial
party. In this rather long letter of December 21, 1931, (typed on the
official stationary of the Library of the City of Montreal), he noted that:
You can realise through the reading of this summary, I
believe, that I have done more than my share for our party. And kindly
note that I have fought all these campaigns from beginning to the end, and in
most cases without any remuneration. I may say like Flambeau, in Rostand’s L’Aiglon,
I fought for glory and …prunes.
After describing his work in the Montreal
library where he was a “man of action” he got to the point:
I have never requested anything for myself personally from
my friends in Ottawa, this is the first time that I do it. I trust that
in the past I have done enough for the party to command recognition and hope
that now the party should do its share for me, and more specially when the
occasion offers itself to an act of recognition for past services in nominating
one of our own who naturally possesses, while being a lawyer and a librarian,
all the required qualifications for the position of Parliamentary Librarian…..I
submit that it is only a promotion that I do request. I could have, like
several other defeated candidates in the past, let my personal ambitions reach
higher and solicit a position of Judge or Senator or Commissioner, but I have
confined myself to apply for a position more in line with my own competency and
qualification. I wish I could have kept on fighting the political
campaigns, but I could not do it any more, having spent therein the best of my
He wrote as well to the three French Canadian
ministers Sauvé, Duranleau and Dupré, almost identical letters, and made a
final point to all of them: “I know and I think enough of you to believe that
you shall do your utmost to reward one who has sacrificed the best twenty five
years of his life to the interest of the party…and whose competency as a
Librarian cannot be disputed.” He had been a librarian for less than three
years at that point.
Prime Minister Bennett wrote back confirming
that Félix was on the right track by going straight to the Ministers from his
province. Félix did not stop there, he wrote to the Secretary of State of
Canada, C.H. Cahan on January 13th, 1932. In almost an
identical copy of the first letter, he pressed his case. On January 14th
he wrote two letters, one in English to Sir George Perley that is the same as
the others, including the quotation on fighting ‘for Glory and prunes’.
The other in French was sent to P.E. Blondin, Speaker of the Senate.
He was more direct, more than in the English letter:
I understand the importance of timing and that is why I am
writing to you now. At our last discussion I understood that you were
favourably disposed towards Séraphin Marion of Ottawa, a very intelligent and
well educated young man…
But this time he added something that the
English letters lacked. He alluded to the conscription crisis in Quebec
in 1917 when his identification with the federal government made him unpopular.
He was to mention this again in other letters, but never in those that he
wrote in English. The divide between those who understood such a
sacrifice and those who would not was clear. He told M Blondin in no
uncertain terms that he had earned the right to his reward, for service to the
party, above and beyond the call of duty, over a 25 year period, and that young
Marion (Séraphin) had not put in his time.
In any campaign for such high office there may be jealous rivals and
brutal infighting and this battle started to become dirty.
The first sign of trouble for Félix arrived
in the form of an article published on January 7, 1932 in Le Canada
which asked whether Aegidius Fauteux or Desrochers was better qualified to
succeed Mr. Taché
Félix found it very offensive. His inside
track on the job had slipped away very publicly. He wrote to the retiring
and ailing M. Taché who by then was in the hospital, to complain that someone
was up to something. His campaign was close to running aground as there
were other prominent French Canadian candidates being publicly discussed and
pushing themselves forward including : Ernest Bilodeau, Louvigny de Montigny,
J.L.K Laflamme as well as Séraphin Marion, and Aegedius Fauteux. Not only were
they moving in on his job, some of them had a great deal of experience as
Librarians. How was he to compete with these men? To the ailing Taché he
once more drove home this point: Félix did not just want this job, he was owed
this job by the Conservative party which had taken the very best years of his
Other MPs were approached, indeed every
Conservative French Canadian member who could put in a word received a short
letter. To some, such as Speaker Blondin he was relentless. Having
received no response to his first letter he sent another with a copy of the
first, re-typed, tacked on to it. He also wrote to Postmaster General
Arthur Sauvé retelling the tale of his brave campaign of 1916 when he ran for
office in the county of St-Hyacinthe.
By May 1932 things still looked bad for
Félix. He had written to the Minister of Mines in the Ontario Government,
something of a stretch it would seem but his connections in Quebec and Ottawa
were not paying off as he had hoped. The letter began in this way: “My dear
Minister, Mr. J. de L. Taché, Joint Librarian of the Parliamentary Library, is dead.
His position is now vacant."
Charles McCrea was told his forlorn tale and
how he had fought for “Glory and…prunes". A month later McCrea promised
that he would write a letter to Bennett but he cautioned that: “I
should say to you frankly, however, that in writing such a letter, while I know
that the powers at Ottawa appreciate me, this is a matter within the Province
of Quebec and the influence must come through the parties to whom you have
written, namely Messrs. Sauve, Duranleau and Dupré.”
Others were enlisted in the battle, Félix
Desrochers had not worked in 35 political campaigns for nothing.
Minister Sauvé was approached by a party organiser named G.N.
Pichet who reminded him, again, that Félix had fought a great battle for St Hyacinth
in 1916 and had lost by only 250 votes in a Liberal stronghold. In
1923 he was the strongest supporter of Dr. Beaudoin who won in St.-Jacques.
In the campaign of 1927 Félix had fought like a lion, making three
speeches a day and on certain Sundays, up to five! When he entered
municipal campaigns in 1928 and 1930 in Lafontaine, he knew he would lose, but
fought for the party anyway.
That Félix kept copies of this
correspondence shows how close he was to the campaign. In some cases he may
have actually written these ‘testimonials’ sent by friends and admirers.
They often do not have signatures on them, showing that he has the carbon
copy of the original in his files.
In April 1932 Félix Desrochers wrote to
another Quebec MP, Sam Gobeil to push his cause. But now he was getting
angry. ‘Where is my payback for service?’ he demanded. Gobeil’s response
was short and concise. There was no news, except that another candidate had
entered the race: Dr. Paquette.
It continued, with letters to Minister
Duranleau in May 1932, in which he made it clear that he did not just fight on
behalf of the Conservative Party during the very unhappy years of the War, and
afterwards, but had been persecuted by the Club de Réforme which continues
attempting to destroy him politically and publicly. While he was at it,
he reminded the Minister that Aegedius Fauteux was more likely a Rouge
(Liberal) than a Bleu (Conservative.) Félix was feeling the heat of
a municipal enquiry that, he said, sought to ruin him and he had to get out of
The next day, writing to the Honourable
Judge Louis Cousineau in Aylmer he asked the Judge to see Bennett and Meighen
that week to discuss the problems he was facing in the press. There was a
negative publicity campaign being waged against him in Montreal by his
political enemies who hoped to push him out of the Library there. But while he
was at it, Félix mentionned in passing that he noticed the salary of a deputy
minister was now $8,000 an “isn’t it about time the Librarian of Parliament got
Another article by Olivar Asselin in Le
Canada supporting Aegidius Fauteux for the position was published and this
set off a flurry of letters by Desrochers asking his supporters if they
were now taking their patronage orders from a ‘Rouge’ like Asselin. To
several of them he noted that while Fauteux was called a ‘Bleu’, he is the kind
of ‘Bleu’ beloved by Liberals, more of a ‘tender rose colour’ that likes to see
the Conservatives stay defeated in Quebec, as they have been for 35 years.
Desrochers suggested a way that the Joint
Committee of the Library could get him in on a quick vote. As for Fauteux
he could have Félix’s job in Montreal. That should make everyone happy.
This was a new tactic and Félix ran with it. In letters to sympathetic
Ministers he outlined his painful humiliation in the daily press in Montreal,
which had already declared him finished as a municipal librarian. On top
of this, the Montreal Gazette reported that an assembly of librarians in
Quebec had chosen Aegedius Fauteux to replace M. Desrochers at the Municipal
library while Félix was still holding on to the job.
All through June letters of support were
obtained from both English and French friends including: Abbé Etienne
Blanchard, Murray Hayes, Bishop J.A. Desmarais, M. le Chanoine Émile
Chartier, Vice-recteur of l’Université de Montréal and so on.
But, the wheels of government turned very
slowly. Nothing happened that summer. Prime Minister Bennett had promised
a decision before leaving for Europe in September. The job had seemed to be
his, the Governor General in Council had approved his nomination but
there was a strange silence throughout autumn until the reason came out.
Félix Desrochers had been accused of having a dark secret in his past
and it was brought to light at a most inopportune time.
He was accused of having incited a conscript
to not report for duty in the First World War. The accusation was that he
had provided a forged pass, to a conscript and that he, Félix Desrochers, had been
arrested in September 1918 and brought before the courts.
In a long and passionate defence, both typed
and written out longhand and kept in his file, he gave R. B. Bennett his
version of the tale. He had been framed, in a conspiracy set out by his political
enemies with whom he had been battling for years.
The election campaigns in Quebec were often
rough, but the one in 1916 was among the worst. Illegitimate means were
prevalent in his fight against M. Bouchard, who was now Speaker of the Provincial
House. Having beaten Desrochers by only 240 votes, Bouchard the Liberal
was furious and vengeful. The conscription crisis, which arrived soon after put
Félix in a very bad position. He had to fight his way physically
out of some close scrapes. The feeling against the Borden government was high
in the province. They went even higher when Félix accepted the position,
in 1918, of military representative before the courts. That was when the
vengeful Bouchard and “other liberals at the Reform Club, conspired to brand me
as a criminal in the opinion of the public.” For this purpose he secured
the co-operation of the late Mr. Hibbard, Mr. Louis Gosselin, and Mr. Victor B.
a sworn enemy of olden days since the time he was liberal leader in the Mock Parliament
where I was leading the Conservative members”.
All these facts were corroborated by sworn
statements. After his arrest, without warrant, Félix had been put into
solitary confinement on a military base where he was questioned and
“intimidated”. A war was on and the law was very severe about helping young men
avoid conscription. It was an extremely damaging, and politically
effective, charge to make against him. After eight months he was
acquitted. But his enemies forced another trial, in the District of
St-Hyacinthe, Bouchard’s riding. This time he was charged with
‘conspiracy’ as well but was acquitted once more.
For two years his name had been smeared in
the press yet he emerged with dignity intact and when he was appointed
Municipal Librarian in 1930 no one had stood against him. The fact that
he had so many letters of reference from eminent men, including those of high
office in the church also showed, he felt, that he had been unjustly charged.
Félix Desrochers had not just proved his
loyalty to the party, he had suffered for it and came out a stronger man. A
last flurry of letters was sent in January and February on his behalf and one
last long plaintive letter was sent to the Prime Minister on February 8th,
1933. He was beside himself at the apparently new concern by Bennett that
someone in such position as General Librarian of the Library of Parliament
demonstrate some ‘literary qualifications’ before they were appointed.
After all Félix Desrochers had been through, over a year of fighting off
rivals and slander and eight months of unemployment, he was plainly angry with
the Prime Minister. Bennett’s response, on February 14th, 1933 was
Dear Mr. Desrochers,
I have received your letter and as you have been notified of
your appointment I do not suppose there is any necessity for my writing further
in the matter.
The campaign had not just been aggressive
and difficult. It highlighted one of the peculiar aspects of the dual
nature of the library. The only candidates considered for this position were
Francophones with friends who had connections to the Conservative party.
English Canadian politicians for the most part kept out of the fray. It
was an odd method to use to find the best candidate to fill such a position but
it was by no means unusual for the times.
Desrochers as General Librarian
In these days of political correctness let
us not belittle Félix Desrochers for the patently political way he went about
obtaining his position. Nevertheless one can legitimately ask the
question, “What was so interesting about Félix Desrochers, Librarian?”
Like many Librarians before him he published
almost nothing. A bibliographic search will yield all of two titles, one of
them a report to the Joint Committee on the Parliamentary Library. The other
was a short article on the need for a National Library in Canada.
But while his public record is so slight he
did something rather amazing. He left all of his papers with the Library
of Parliament rather than taking them home or throwing them out. In the
Library of Parliament archives there are very few records left by previous
Parliamentary librarians, or library staff, but there is this vast collection
left by M. Desrochers.
The fact that he left his files with the library should justify him
being remembered as a hero to librarians everywhere. He can give us something
we need, a history.
Much of his work, as he states in his notes,
was taken up in straightening out the infrastructure of the Library of
Parliament. He oversaw the cataloguing project that finally made it
possible to locate a book in the 600,000-volume collection that had been placed
haphazardly about the old building. He got a new heating and lighting
system put into place and upgraded the fire safety standards. It may be
said, and I believe that he would agree, that because of his work there was
still a collection available to be portioned off for the new National Library
after the fire of 1952.
Let us look into some of his files. He kept
carbon copies of almost all of his correspondence, which gives us an excellent
insight into his work and the life of a General Librarian for the three
decades. He also kept the mundane: his income tax files, personnel
records, mortgage, records of obituaries and marriages of various people. There
are files of genealogy, families, relatives, some well known, some not.
But there are other files: Calixa Lavallée; Bibliothèque nationale
cttee; Luttes de l’église pour la Justice social; Dollard des Ormeaux;
Franco Americains; Le Blaspheme; Attitude du Chrétien devant la presse-cinéma-
radio; Jeanne d’arc; etc An official uniform of a deputy minister,
worn by his predessesor M. Taché, complete with sword and a receipt for the $40
that Félix Desrochers paid for it was also discovered amongst his files.
Yet he left no message, that I can discover, asking the Library to do
anything with these memories. His trust was implicit. We would take care of his
Desrochers in his office in the Parliamentary Library
I have only begun to dig into the boxes that
he left behind and though I have found many files of utterly useless material there
are also works that he was too modest to publish but not modest enough to
He wrote a manuscript on the life of Calixa
Lavallée, composer of O Canada. From his time as a lecturer at the
University of Ottawa, he left a manuscript of over 300 pages on the History
of the Book. There are papers that discuss the Library of Parliament
in English and French, undated and unpublished. None of it is annotated
and much of it appears to have sprung from his head, written directly onto his
typewriter and then altered by pencil afterwards. He was not just well
educated but a man of great learning and wide interests, though as an academic
he tended to sloppiness. No bibliographies indicate how he came up with
so much information on a given subject. But the writing is clear and his
facts appear to have been researched. For example, from his lectures to
library students, we find him discussing every aspect of the organization and
maintenance of libraries.
On what it was to be a librarian in his day:
It is not many years since the popular mind
pictured the librarian as an elderly man of severe and scholarly aspect with
scanty gray hair, bent form and head thrust forward from the habit of peering
through his spectacle along rows of books in search of some coveted volume.
…always to have led a studious and ascetic life…To-day thank God, this is
not the specimen of a modern librarian…the librarian must be a scholar and a
gentleman: more than that, he must be a good business man.
On keeping a clean library:
The best conditions of cleaning should prevail in toilet
facilities, including approaches to toilet, urinals, bowls. Throwing
matches or paper in urinals should be prohibited as well as throwing paper on
the floors. Clogging or overflowing of the toilet bowls should be
attended to immediately….Drinking water should be safe and hygienic.
Individual paper cups should be supplied or bubble fountains secured.
In public buildings, to drink out of a glass used in common is far from
Along with Collection development he
discussed buying insurance for libraries, fire prevention, good lighting and
creating a decent ambience in a library. In one section on how to hire
janitors, he included the admonition: “One element of health is general cheerfulness”
and noted that the janitor himself should be an example of cheerfulness and
cleanliness on his own person.
A satisfactory caretaker, generally speaking, is a rara
avis. It is difficult to find one who does not develop some radical
defect, fondness for beer, laziness, or something worse-within twelve months of
On the health of Librarians:
It is important to recognise that the library makes heavy
demands upon the vitality of its workers; the rapid adjustment to varied
clientele seeking information over a wide range of questions, the confusion,
frequent bad air and lighting, hurried and irregular lunches and suppers all
take their toll in vital forces…librarians are victims of their own
zeal…perhaps we are also prone to recruit into librarianship persons of
sensitive nervous systems…it is not a happy thing to watch young people losing
vigour and spontaneous enthusiasm while engaged in a service that requires just
those qualities for effective relations with the public and which should bring
such happiness…It may be that the present standard of forty to forty-four hours
a week are excessive.
A man ahead of his time he recommended the
appointment of a Social Director to provide stimulating activities to the staff
and he also recommended long vacations to all staff.
We find songs, and prayers and essays,
speeches, tributes, lecture notes, he must have spent every waking moment
writing when he was not working.
His files on French Canadian Nationalism, on
Catholicism, on fighting against Blasphemy are enough for another article.
He was front and centre in the battle waged in Quebec against the
loosening of the church’s hold on culture and against the onslaught of English
and American culture. Lionel Groulx was involved in the exact same
battles, in the same organisations, even on the same radio waves. But the
differences were great. Lionel Groulx had a clear political agenda and a
great need to influence young people, to create a following that would retain
the distinctive aspect of an old style French Canadian Catholic society.
Groulx spoke of a metaphorical Laurentia, a separate country of
the true French Canadian and he made sure that everything he wrote or said was
published somewhere. Félix, on the other hand, was a political fighter
who fought his battles in the trenches, tirelessly writing letters, making
speeches and travelling throughout Quebec and the US to sit at the tables of
those who would preserve French Canadian culture, language and the Catholicism
that he loved. He was what we now call a Quebec federalist but he would
have found that to be a curious term.
He did not expect to be followed, he did not
expect to be published. But by leaving all of his files to the Library,
he did expect to be remembered.
1. Unless otherwise
indicated all references refer to documents in the Desrochers Papers
held by the Library of Parliament.