The band played patriotic tunes as a cannon roared a salute. Local dignitaries including the mayor and a former governor had turned out to meet the train, at the head of a large crowd. The scene had many of the trappings of a state visit. The guest was not a head of state – though he, and many in the crowd, had ambitions for him to become one.
On the morning of Monday, August 7, 1893, Honoré Mercier arrived in Lewiston to a hero’s welcome. His visit was the latest in a series of stops he had made in French Canadian communities across New England that summer. Not to be left behind by their countrymen elsewhere, Lewiston’s Franco community pulled out all the stops for the visit of the former Premier of Québec.
Le Messager ran a detailed account of the visit in its August 9 edition. Stepping off the train from Old Orchard Beach at half past nine in the morning, Mercier was formally greeted by a delegation on behalf of Lewiston-Auburn’s French Canadian community, which included the (Yankee) mayor and members of the city council. Other prominent non-Franco citizens were also present, Alonzo Garcelon, a descendant of French Huguenots who had served a tumultuous term as Governor of Maine from 1879 to 1880. Despite an elite English-speaking background, Garcelon had some familiarity with the Franco-American community, including being one of the few Yankee doctors to practice at St Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston.
The official welcome on behalf of the community was read by Doctor Joseph-Amedée Girouard, a prominent member of society, who published poems on progressive and nationalist themes.
From the station, Mercier was taken to the DeWitt Hotel, the city’s oldest and grandest establishment, in a procession of carriages. Having been followed by the crowd of onlookers, the former Premier felt compelled to make another short speech from the hotel’s balcony to satisfy his admirers. According to Le Messager, this address was met with “a splendid demonstration. Loud cheers rang out and for five minutes the admiration of the crowd never ceased.” After a short period of rest, the honored guest began a schedule of meet-and-greets – first with at the Mayor’s office then the Dominican monastery. After the reception with the church fathers, the guests enjoyed the most American of past times — a baseball game.
Finally, at seven-thirty came the big event, a public address at Lewiston City Hall. The venue was significant. Mercier had been officially invited to speak by the mayor and City Council. While French Canadians had not yet come to dominate Lewiston politics as they would for much of the 20th century, their growing numbers made them a potent electoral force. Just before the public event, Mercier had met with delegations from both the Lewiston and Auburn city councils.
The theme of the night’s address was straightforward – Canadian independence. Simple-sounding though this might be, the idea was a radical one at the time. In advocating for a Canadian Republic, independent from Great Britain, Mercier was potentially associating himself with individuals like the Patriotes of 1836 or Louis Riel, whose armed rebellions against the crown had seen them executed for treason. Mercier’s own time as Premier had earned him the fierce enmity of authorities in Ottawa simply for advocating for greater provincial autonomy within the existing federal system. The ex-Premier was careful to couch his push for an independent Republic as a political, not a military, effort, and he spoke of independence for Canada as a whole, not separatism for Québec specifically (though some suspected him of aiming for the latter). Nonetheless, his position was a bold and even dangerous one.
By Le Messager’s account, the Lewiston crowd showed no qualms about the message. The paper itself headed its account of the visit with an image of the Statue of Liberty, and the headline “Vive la Liberté!” Lewiston’s Mayor Chandler called the visitors “our countrymen” and former mayors Daniel McGillicuddy (a Democrat) and Frank Lord (a Republican), who also spoke at the event, promised “not only moral support, but even material support” for an independent Canada, pledges which brought a tear to Mercier’s eyes. P.X. Anger, a local Franco-American attorney (and first Franco-American elected to the city’s board of aldermen in 1887), who presided over the event, introduced the former Premier as “the Canadian Washington” and the “Lion du Jour.”
These sentiments echoed those of Dr Girouard in his opening address earlier that morning:
“Your arrival in our midst has no longer has the significance of an ordinary visit. You are coming in the name of the Fatherland, and it’s why we take it on ourselves as a sacred duty to wish you the most cordial welcome.
“While it’s true that we have reason to be content with the generous hospitality so liberally granted us by the American Republic, it’s also good to know that a shard of our heart is left behind and remains forever attached to the distant Fatherland…
“It is thus easy to understand all the joy which we feel in this moment to see you return in all your grandeur and strength, demanding with the eloquence of your first youth, the emancipation of our dear homeland. We are also putting together our most ardent wishes for the success of this noble task which you have so freely imposed on yourself. And on the occasion, you may be assured that we will offer you all the material and moral support of which we are capable”
The venue was certainly filled with thousands of supporters. Le Messager noted that the audience consisted not only of “Canadiens” but also “Americans” and “Irish” (Mercier accordingly spoke in both French and English). The support of the Irish-American community was significant. Not only was it a contrast to the long-standing inter-ethnic rivalry that pervaded city life and politics, but Mercier himself drew explicit parallels between his cause and that of Irish independence.
The Emerald Isle’s long struggle for freedom from British rule had been roiling throughout the 19th century, but had become especially potent by 1893. In 1886, a first attempt to grant “Home Rule” (political autonomy) had been made in the British House of Commons. Though that effort had failed to pass, Britain’s Liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, was currently pushing through a new Home Rule Bill in 1893. (The Second Home Rule Bill, would pass the Commons in September 1893 but ultimately fail in the House of Lords, leading to Gladstone’s own retirement soon after).
In his Lewiston speech, Mercier cited Gladstone’s support for Irish Home Rule, and suggested that if they could build a popular movement for Canadian independence, that too could receive London’s blessing. Mercier even said he hoped that the 83-year old Gladstone would receive a gravestone that read “liberator of Ireland, liberator of Canada.”
Gladstone aside, Mercier pulled no punches against “les Anglais” and their governance of Canada. Conflating the Anglophone governments in Ottawa and London he noted:
“So where are the treaties signed by England during the capitulation of Canada, and which guaranties to Canadiens their rights, their institutions and their laws? How have these treaties been observed? In abolishing the language and persecuting the religion wherever the Canadiens are in a minority, firstly in New Brunswick, and then in Manitoba.
“If the English were sincere in their promises of liberty, would they be committing today the historic crime of taking the French language away from the French and Catholic minority of Manitoba? These people did not stop, despite our spirit of cooperation and justice; a crime against a people lead to a crime against a religion. Only independence can give true liberty to Canada.”
By contrast, the ex-Premier had only praise for the United States. He compared the US with Canada, saying that while Canada was older, with richer soil, better sea ports and more natural resources, Canadians were poorer and fewer in number because they lacked the liberty of Americans.
If Mercier’s assessment of Canada’s geographic advantages and potential wealth was optimistic, his description of French Canadians’ experience in the United States was even more so:
“What a difference between [the Canadiens in the United States] and the majority of Canadiens of their birthplace! Here there acquire honorable positions through the price of their work and their energy; they are liked and respected in the positions which they occupy and share in the peace of American liberty. In Canada, it’s all the opposite. They do not reach in higher positions except by the strength of their genius and through circumstances, and even though there are in number two and a half million French Canadians, they are often ridiculed, despised, vilified, insulted. Eleven thousand of their compatriots make up the population of Lewiston and Auburn, one million living in free America, and every day, they prove brilliantly what Canadiens can do when nothing stops them taking flight, when their have a clear field.”
Some of this may have been Mercier playing to his audience. He explicitly talked of Franco Americans as making a success of their choices to emigrate, and while he recognized them as “compatriots” he was clear that he did not expect them to return to Canada. This would have been a welcome tone to those in the crowd who were used to politicians north of the border seeing the émigrés as disloyal or somehow inferior to the French Canadians who stayed. Mercier flipped that narrative on its head, saying that he was prepared to refute the claims of those in Canada who “insulted” the emigres. “We do not have, we Canadiens of Canada, to be ashamed of you; you might perhaps be ashamed of us.” In the Franco-Americans, Mercier saw the potential of “the French race” in the Americas when freed from British rule. He praised his audience for keeping the Catholic faith and French language alive.
In its August 11 edition, Le Messager introduced an interview it had conducted with Mercier by saying:
“Our compatriots in Canada who know nothing about us and take the liberty of insulting us, would do well to read this interview and draw a valuable lesson from it.”
However much he might have delighted the crowd, Mercier’s description of Franco-American life in 1893 comes across as naïve with the benefit of hindsight. In his interview, Mercier recounted meeting successful businessmen – but ignored the plight of mill workers living in overcrowded tenements that were magnets for disease and dangerous fire traps. He celebrated the number of Francos he had met who were elected officials, but just weeks after his speech, Maine voters would implement a literacy test to bar Francophones from the polls. In his city hall address, Mercier praised the way Americans had welcomed immigrants, overlooking a growing contemporary nativist movement.
Regardless of shortcomings, the city hall speech, like the rest of Mercier’s visit, was a wild success. Le Messager printed no word of criticism against the Premier and heaped effusive praise on him and his cause.
After the gathering ended in “three rousing cheers,” the guest of honor, his companions and the welcoming committee paid a visit to Lewiston’s Club Musical-Littéraire, and finished off the day with a glass of champagne at the offices of Le Messager. The next morning, the ex-Premier left by train for Montreal, leaving the Lewistonians to bask in the glow of a successful visit:
“In sum, our visitors were enchanted by their reception and we may say with honesty that, as always, Lewiston is still at the forefront. Thanks to Canadiens, thanks to the organizing committee, thanks to our irish comrades, thanks to those who wanted to decorate so well, thank finally to all those who participated in this grand demonstration.
We are proud of the Canadiens of Lewiston and Auburn.”
Whether or not Mercier’s vision for an independent Canadian Republic would have resonated with others as much as it did with Lewiston’s Franco-Americans is an unanswered question. He would not live to become the “Canadian Washington.” He died in October 1894, at the age of just 54. Canadian independence would not be realized until nearly a century later, in 1986. Québec’s independence is, of course, an ongoing debate. For several decades after his death, Mercier was regarded as a godfather of Québec nationalism. Yet in the later part of the 20th century, he became less well regarded, as his brand of nationalism was replaced by the left-wing secular nationalism of the Parti Québécois. Mercier’s commitment to Catholicism as a cornerstone of French Canadian identity puts him sharply at odds with the modern separatist movement.
Ironically, Mercier’s vision of a national identity rooted in faith and traditional values lasted longer in the Little Canadas of places like Lewiston than it did in Canada itself. The grandchildren and great-grandchildren of those who welcomed “the Lion of the Day” to Lewiston in 1893 were still living, working, and praying in French into the latter 20th century, and some of their descendants maintain these traditions to this day. Were Mercier to return today, he might find a warmer welcome in the streets of the Petit Canadas than some parts of his homeland.