Le Droit

27 March 1913

English-speaking Ottawa residents got their first English-language newspaper when Ottawa was still called Bytown, not long after the Rideau Canal was completed. The Bytown Independent and Farmer’s Advocate, owned and edited by James Johnson, opened for business in February 1836. It was renamed the Bytown Gazette a short time later by Alexander Christie who purchased the newspaper from Johnson. The newspaper folded in 1845 leaving The Packet, launched in 1844 by William Harris, as the dominant English newspaper. The Packet was renamed the Ottawa Citizen in 1851 and has remained the main English newspaper in the capital to this day.

French-speaking Ottawa citizens had to wait until 1856 for their first French-language newspaper, Le Progrès. It was a weekly paper which covered politics, literature and business news. It bitterly opposed the idea of U.S. annexation of Upper Canada that found support among many English Canadians at that time. In 1861, it published an editorial arguing that union with the Northern States, which had just entered a civil war with the Confederacy, would ruin the country and would destroy in whole or in part our language [French], our religion [Catholicism] and our nationality [Canadian].  Sadly, the newspaper did not endure. Another newspaper by the same name reappeared in 1877 with offices at 200 Sparks Street. Delivered free of charge, it had a circulation of 2,000. However, it failed within a year. A number of other French-language, Ottawa-based, papers came and quickly went, such as Le Soleil and Le Féderal. A monthly 64-page magazine initially called Le Foyer Domestique appeared in 1876. Written by Catholic writers, its office was on Sparks Street. For a short while, it became a 12-page weekly before returning to a monthly format as L’Album des Familles in 1880. Its focus was primarily religion, philosophy, literature and poetry rather than news.

Le Courrier d’Ottawa, initially a bilingual newspaper, commenced publication in 1870. A few months later, English was phased out and the paper changed its name to Le Courrier d’Outaouais after a debate in the paper about the appropriateness of using “Ottawa” in its name since the word was not French. The newspaper, which was for a time printed at 12 Wellington Street, closed in 1876. Its largest circulation was apparently only 600 copies.

Le Canada, owned and published by Ludger-Denis Duvernay, appeared in late 1865 with Elzéar Gérin as its first editor.  This paper was published on York Street three times a week. Conservative in its politics, Le Canada stopped publishing four years later though it later re-emerged in 1879 out of another short-lived newspaper called La Gazette d’Ottawa. The latter’s printers were Messieurs Louis Bélanger & Cie who operated from quarters at 445 Sussex Street at the corner of Sussex and Murray Streets. The paper later moved to 524 Sussex Street. The editor of the second version of Le Canada was Joseph Tassé, a Conservative member of Parliament and later senator who had been a journalist for the first Le Canada. The newspaper became a daily and remained in business until 1896.

Le Temps, whose offices were located at 552 Sussex, commenced publication in November 1893 under the editorship of Mr Oscar McDonnell. Its politics varied, sometimes conservative, sometimes liberal. It stopped publication in 1916.

With the demise of Le Temps, Ottawa’s residents were left with one French-language newspaper. This paper, Le Droit, which was started by a group of eminent Ottawa clergy and prominent local businessmen and politicians in 1913, flourished despite initial pessimistic expectations.

The mock-up of the newspaper, dated 15 January 1913.

The first public indications of the publication of a new Ottawa French-language newspaper occurred in mid January 1913 with the release of a mock-up of the Le Droit. The name can be translated into English as the Law, the Right, the Straight, or even the Upright. That initial, four-page edition didn’t contain much news other than report on the newspaper itself. There was a lot of blank space with headings and descriptions to indicate what the future content of these columns would be. The edition was more akin to a prospectus, announcing to the general public its intentions, its political affiliation or lack thereof, the cost of a subscription, and other important corporate details. Its office was identified as being on Dalhousie Street in Lower Town. But by the time the first official issue was published two months later, it was 88 York Street. The paper’s telephone number was Rideau 1448.

The backers of the newspaper had received a federal charter of incorporation, with an initial capitalization of $100,000, divided into $100 shares, payable in $25 installments, callable by the newspaper’s directors. A “good portion” of this amount had already been subscribed and the newspaper hoped that the balance of funds would come in over the next few days.

The paper was owned by a syndicate of 169 prominent French-Canadian businessmen and Roman Catholic priests called Le Syndicat D’Oeuvres Sociales, Limitée. Prominent members included Alfred Goulet, a political and businessman from Clarence, Ontario, A. T. Charron and F.A. Labelle, a Hull-based notary. The newspaper’s president was Onésime Guibord of Clarence Creek, Ontario. Guibord had been a member of the provincial legislature for Russell Township. Rev. Père Élie Jeannotte, an Oblate of Mary Immaculate from Ottawa, was vice-president. Le Droit’s editor-in-chief was J.A. Caron, formerly of Rhode Island. Prior to the release of the mock-up of the newspaper, the shareholders met and elected a board of fifteen directors. Napoléon Antoine Belcourt, a Liberal Senator and head of l’Association canadienne-française d’éducation d’Ontario, was their legal adviser.

Shareholders in the new paper were not very hopeful of Le Droit’s future success. An article in the mock-up suggested that circumstances at that time were not favourable for staring a new newspaper, and that it needed the help of all of its friends if it were to succeed.

The purpose of the newspaper was to fight for the rights of French-Canadians in Ontario. In 1913, French-Canadians in Ontario found their language rights under threat by the passage of Regulation 17 the previous year by the Conservative Ontario Government of Sir James Whitney. The regulation restricted the use of French as the language of instruction in Ontario’s schools to only the first two grades. Thereafter, English was the language of instruction even to francophone children. The fight for language rights was led by Senator Belcourt, French-Canadian clergy, and the Ottawa Separate School Board. This conflict was to culminate three years later in “The Battle of the Hatpins” in which francophone mothers in Ottawa fought and ultimately succeeded in ensuring French remained the language of instruction for their children. Le Droit was to play a vocal supportive role in that coming fight.

In the January 1913 mock-up of the newspaper, there was a French translation of Regulation 17 as well as a reprint of an editorial on the subject that had appeared in the Montreal newspaper Le Devoir in September 1912 following the release of the Regulation. Le Droit argued that the best weapon in the fight for linguistic rights was the publication of a daily newspaper which was before all and above all in the service of the Catholic faith, French language, and equal rights for all. It also sought “British Fair Play,” saying that French-Canadians simply wanted fair play on the burning questions of the day, such as the schools’ issue.

The newspaper’s “prospectus” announced that it would independent of all political parties and factions, unlike Ottawa’s English newspapers.  The newspaper also indicated that it would not focus on scandals or on sensational news but would give relevant, useful information. The newspaper saw a pedagogical role for itself. This was true even when it came to the coverage of sports, where it promised to take a “scientific point of view” in order to improve the health of French-Canadian youth. The paper also indicated that while it would take advertisements in order to raise revenue, it would not accept advertisements for alcohol, the theatre or other things that it could not recommend to people. It furthermore promised to limit ads on the front page to only one column.

Le Droit said it would cover current news in Ottawa and Hull, and would follow with interest the work of French-Canadians in all municipal organizations in Ontario and North-West Quebec. It stressed that it would look for useful news, not the sensational, and would report on the lessons to be drawn from the events it covered. The paper would also follow closely political news coming out of Queen’s Park in Toronto. Its particular focus would be on schools and the right of parents to give their children the education they judged to be the best. The paper said that it would have correspondents through Ontario and North-West Quebec. Its weekly Saturday edition would focus on more distant centres like Témiscamingue and Western Ontario.

The cost of the daily newspaper delivered each evening to the home was one cent. A yearly subscription cost $3.00 in Canada and the United States, $6.00 for other countries. The weekly edition, which was delivered on Saturdays, cost $1.00 per year in Canada, $1.50 in the United States, and $2.00 elsewhere.

The first real issue of Le Droit appeared on 27 March 1913, roughly two months after the mock-up addition was circulated. The afternoon before the official launch, Monsignor J.O. Routhier, the vicar-general of the Diocese of Ottawa, blessed the newspaper in a special ceremony in front of the paper’s staff and shareholders.

True to its word that it would focus on French-language education, front and centre of the first edition was an article on Ontario school boards. Beside the article was another called “Our Newspaper” which said that they were pleased to present to the general public a new newspaper that will devote itself to the interest of the French language and French schools in this part of the country. The paper didn’t see itself as “the Saviour of the People.” Instead, the paper said it would be humble, and that it didn’t have a monopoly on good ideas, and even less on good actions.

It must have been very hectic in getting the first edition to bed. Le Droit’s management apologized that their service was imperfect that first day. They hoped that readers would understand and wouldn’t be too upset with the gaps that are inevitable in the launch of such an enterprise.

Advertisers in Le Droit that first day included both large and small French-owned companies and professionals with business in Ottawa. Le Sauvegarde Insurance Company, the only French-Canadian insurance company operating in Ontario, had a sizeable advertisement. It must have helped that Senator Belcourt was on the insurance company’s board of directors. J.A. Larocque, the big Ottawa department store located on Dalhousie Street, advertised its Japanese silks, robes, and corsets for all sizes. La Cie Chatillion, a furniture company on Rideau Street, announced its grand sale of stoves, beds, furniture, carpets, mattresses, bedsprings, and other household items. Showing the universal language of business and a keenness to attract francophone customers, many English-Canadian companies took out big, French-language ads that first day, including The Metropolitan Store, the Tally-Ho Pure Water Company, the Ottawa Printing Company and the Federal Typewriting Company.

Le Droit received the support of its friends and prospered. After more than 100 years of service to Ottawa’s francophone community, the newspaper remains an advocate for French rights in Ontario, and is Ottawa’s only French-language daily. It is currently owned by Martin Cauchon through his holding company Groupe Capitales Médias.

Sources:

Audet, F.J. 1896. Historique des Journeaux d’Ottawa, A. Bureau & Frères.

Le Courrier d’Ottawa, 1861. “L’Annexation de 1850 Vit – Elle Encore? ” 24 April. http://crccf.uottawa.ca/passeport/II/D/1/IID1a04-1-2.html.

Dictionary of Canadian Biography, 2020. Joseph Tassé, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/tasse_joseph_12E.html.

Le Droit, various issues.

The French-Canadian Genealogist, 2020. Clarence Creek, https://www.tfcg.ca/history-of-clarence-creek.

Ottawa Citizen, 1913. “New French Daily,” 27 March.

Ottawa Journal, 1913. “New French Paper,” 27 March.

Répertoire du patrimoine cultural du Québec, 2013. Duvernay, Ludger-Denis, http://www.patrimoine-culturel.gouv.qc.ca/rpcq/detail.do?methode=consulter&id=24067&type=pge#.X6r-FWhKg2x.

Ross, A.H.D. 1927. Ottawa Past and Present, The Musson Book Company Limited, Toronto.

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