Mercier, Honoré (DNB01)

MERCIER, HONORÉ (1840–1894), premier of Quebec, was born on 15 Oct. 1840 at Ste.-Athanase in Lower Canada, where his father had been an early settler. Educated at the Jesuit College, Montreal, he entered the office of Messrs. Laframboise & Papineau and began the study of law in 1860. In 1862 he abandoned law for a time and undertook the editorship of 'Le Courier' to support the Macdonald-Sicotte ministry. He took an active part in founding the parti national of that time, and vigorously opposed confederation. When it seemed inevitable he finished his course in law and was called to the Montreal bar in 1867. Practising first at Ste.-Hyacinthe, and later in Montreal, he attained a fair standing in his profession.

Mercier was elected to the House of Commons in 1872 as opposition member for Rouville in the province of Quebec. He was not a candidate at the following elections, and, being unsuccessful in the campaign of 1878, retired from dominion politics. Thereupon (Sir) Henry Gustave Joly, premier of Quebec, offered the post of solicitor-general to Mercier, who accepted the office and held it till the cabinet resigned in October 1879. Mr. Joly retired from the leadership in 1883, whereupon Mercier became liberal leader in the local house, his constituency being Ste.-Hyacinthe. Seeing that his party could not make head against the ecclesiastical and conservative power, he formed an alliance with the ultramontanes who were then rising into power. He recurred also to his project of a so-called parti national, a party French-Canadian in race and catholic in religion, but open equally to liberals and conservatives. The year 1885 gave him his opportunity, because the north-west rebellion then broke out and the execution of Louis Riel [q. v.] followed. Mercier turned to political account the French-Canadian racial sympathies for the half-breed leader and, forming a combination with (Sir) Charles Alphonse Pelletier, a well-known conservative, swept the constituencies in the elections of 1886, and became premier of the province on 29 Jan. 1887. He continued in that office for five years. Among his useful measures may be ranked the consolidation of the local statutes and the establishment of an agricultural department.

On 21 Oct. 1887 he called a conference of the premiers of the several provinces at Quebec to discuss amendments to the constitution. His endeavours to extend the boundaries of the province to Hudson's Bay were carried to a successful issue after his death in 1896.

His financial measures took a wide range. He failed to convert part of the local debt, which then amounted to the gross sum of $19,500,000, by substituting four in the place of the subscription rate of five per cent, interest. He laid increased taxation on commercial transactions, persons, and corporations, and his measures for the purpose were confirmed. In 1888 he launched in Paris a loan for $3,500,000 at four per cent., and another in 1891 for $4,000,000 at the same rate. He was enthusiastically received in France in April 1891, and was decorated with the legion of honour. Passing thence to Rome, the grand cross of Gregory the Great was bestowed on him for his services to the church. The king of the Belgians made him commander of the order of Leopold I.

While he increased taxation and accumulated debt, his distributions to railways, colonisation purposes, public buildings, and improvements were liberal. But after the elections of 1890, when Mercier was again returned to power by a large majority, a spending fever seems to have taken hold of Mercier and many of his party. Then began what is called 'la danse des millions.' It proceeded apace till the crash came at the end of 1891.

Mercier never enjoyed the confidence of the episcopate and secular clergy. But, overbearing all opposition in the provincial contest, he resolved to attack the conservative party of the dominion, and, entering warmly into the election to the dominion parliament of 1891, made a serious change in the Quebec delegation to Ottawa. In this he necessarily alienated many of his conservative allies. Further, investigations begun in the senate resulted in tracing to Mercier or his agents the sum of $100,000, part of $260,000 which the local house had voted to the Baie des Chaleurs railway. The money, it was alleged, was spent in the late elections. Thereupon the lieutenant-governor issued a royal commission to inquire into the matter (21 Sept. 1891), and evidence was taken which was confirmatory. Mercier sought to ignore the commission and its proceedings, taking his stand on constitutional grounds : that the proper body to investigate the charges was the legislature, not the commission, and that while he possessed the confidence of the house he was entitled to the confidence of the lieutenant-governor. His opponents had used a similar argument, when the lieutenant-governor, Letellier de St. Just, dismissed the conservative administration in 1878. In this instance it was of no avail. The ministry was dismissed, the De Boucherville cabinet was gazetted (December 1891), the house dissolved, and on appeal to the electors Mercier and his following were hopelessly defeated.

In 1892 an indictment was laid against him for conspiring to defraud the province, but the prosecution failed. The result was on the whole beneficial to Mercier, and the trial helped to re-establish him in public credit. He began to take an active part in politics once more, and on 3 April 1893 delivered what is considered to be his best speech, before an immense audience at Sohmer Park, Montreal. It is published under the title of 'L'Avenir du Canada.' Mercier died on 30 Oct. 1894. On 29 May 1866 he married Leopoldine Boivin of Ste.-Hyacinthe, and, after her death, Virginie St.-Denis of the same place on 9 May 1871.

[David's Mes Contemporains, 1878, p. 269; Voyer's Biographies, pp. 3–13; Gemmill's Parlt. Companion, 1883, pp. 241–2; Biband's Le Panthéon Canadien, pp. 192–3; Annual Reg. for 1894, ii. 201; Lareau's Hist. du Droit Can. ii. 346–51; Hodgins's Corr. of Min. of Justice, p. 376; Le Gouvt. Mercier, Les Elect. Prov. 1890, pp. 12–20; Todd's Parl. Govt. in the Brit. Col. pp. 666–79; Tarté's Le Procès Mercier, pp. 3–28, 180–94; McCord's Handbook of Can. Dates, p. 50; N. O. Coté's Political Appointments, p. 198; La Prov. de Québec, 1900, p. 36; L'Hon. Honoré Mercier, sa vie, ses œuvres, sa fin, 1895; Pellaud's Biographie, Discours, &c.; Times, 3 April 1891.]

T. B. B.