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A Woman of Valour


Series Editor: Janice Dickin

Our Lives aims at both student and general readership.

Today’s students, living in a world of blogs, understand that there is much to be learned from the everyday lives of everyday people. Our Lives seeks to make available previously unheard voices from the past and present. Social history in general contests the construction of history as the story of elites and the act of making available the lives of everyday people, as seen by themselves, subverts even further the contentions of social historiography.

At the same time, Our Lives aims to make available books that are good reads. General readers are guaranteed quality, provided with introductions that they can use to contextualize material and are given a glimpse of other works they might want to look at. It is not usual for university presses to provide this type of primary material. Athabasca University considers provision of this sort of material as important to its role as Canada’s Open University.


A Very Capable Life: The Autobiography of Zarah Petri by John Leigh Walters

Letters from the Lost: A Memoir of Discovery by Helen Waldstein Wilkes

A Woman of Valour: The Biography of Marie-Louise Bouchard Labelle by Claire Trépanier

A Woman of Valour


by Claire Trépanier

translated from the French
by Louise Mantha

À Marie=Louise.

C’est le temps d’en parler.





Family Trees

Family of Georgianne Tremblay and her two spouses

Family of Marie-Louise Bouchard Labelle and Joseph Ray


From Les Escoumins to Hanmer (1891–1906)

Marie-Louise Bouchard

Marie-Louise Labelle

Arrival in Hanmer

Life of Hanmer’s First Settlers

Marie-Louise’s Education

Primary School

Tough Love

And What of the Future?

Spiritual Life in the Hamlet

The New Arrival (1858–1906)

Father Joseph A. Roy

The Francophone Catholic Clergy in the Canadian West

Wolseley, Saskatchewan

Vernon, British Columbia

Hanmer, Ontario (August 1906)

First Meeting with Marie-Louise

The Turning Point (1906–1916)

Regular Meetings with Marie-Louise

Presbytery Maid?

Against All Comers


Impact of Their Departure

Chapter FOUR
Family Life (1916–1928)

New Identities


Rideau Park (May 1917)

Life as a Couple

Daily Life

Intellectual Life

Spiritual Life

First Return to Hanmer (November 1920)

Birth of Lorne


Gertrude’s First Communion

Facing Facts


The Big Decision (1928)

Widowwith Three Children (1928–1935)


Unexpected Visits

Living Day to Day

Free to Explore Life

Napoléon’s Visit

The Crash, 24 October 1929

Family Ties


Impact of Joseph’s Departure

Religion after Joseph’s Departure

The French–English Question

Life During the Great Depression

Bank Street (1930–1932) and Sunnyside Street (1932–1933)

Stanley Avenue (1933–1935)

Social Life

Convalescent Home


Living from Hand to Mouth (1935–1944)

James Street (1935–1936)

Lisgar Street (1936–1937)

Nepean Street (1937–1939)

Rideau Street, Corner of Chapel (1939)

Slater Street (1940)

Central Avenue (1941)

Acquaintance Changes (1942–1944)

Nanny (1944–1965)


Sewing and Knitting

In the Kitchen

“Breaking Camp”


Jake and the Kid


Back to Ottawa (1957–1965)



The Countess of Ségur

A Busy Room (1962–1965)

The Secret

Return to Her Roots (1960–1964)

Graduation (1960)

The Two Gossips

Inner Peace

The Trip to the Yukon

Old Age, Humour and Tenderness (1965–1970)

A Time to Relax

Always Keeping the Secret

Reminiscences of Long Ago

The Bloomers

The Braid


Living in Peace (1970–1973)


A Time to Enjoy Life


A Time to Die




Appendix One: Arrival in Hanmer

Appendix Two: House in Hanmer

Appendix Three: Landowner

Appendix Four: Amour Immaculé / Immaculate Love

Family Documents

List of People Interviewed

List of People Who Helped Me in My Research

Abbreviated Chronology






The story I am about to tell here is that of one of those women who lived an “ordinary” life, that is, a life that would not be included in the official history of the country nor cause a stir in the community, at least not on the surface.

However, when we start questioning people who have lived a so-called ordinary life, one sometimes discovers stories that are far from ordinary. The story of Marie-Louise Bouchard Labelle is such a one. To live an illegitimate love with a priest thirty-three years older than oneself, survive the Great Depression of the early twentieth century as a single parent, and launch into business barely knowing how to read or write, does not correspond with the images that one normally associates with an ordinary life. In her ongoing struggle to survive and to raise her three children, Marie-Louise showed ingenuity, determination, generosity and joie de vivre. Her story is that of an ordinary life of great interest.


Many challenges confronted me as I embarked on the adventure of writing this biography. First of all, it was the story of a deceased woman that I had never known. Furthermore, since she was practically illiterate, she did not leave behind significant written documents such as a diary or a sustained correspondence with someone. Finally, she had promised her loved one to never speak of their life together, with the result that she took to her grave the details of their love story, leaving a great part of her life in the dark. To learn about her story, I interviewed her children, her grandchildren and other family members. Many sketches of Marie-Louise’s personality emerged through these interviews, each person having known her at different periods in her life. Since they are the ones who told me her story, I have chosen to let them speak for themselves. Their words can describe better than mine the mentality of the day, the local humour and the richness of Marie-Louise’s relationships with people in her environment.


The original French version of this book contained quotes in English because its story stems from a bilingual reality. Marie-Louise was born in the Province of Quebec, therefore in a French-speaking milieu. She lived in a small francophone enclave in northern Ontario where, in the late nineteenth century, economic development was mostly the purview of anglophone masters. Although the father of Marie-Louise’s children was a French Canadian with a true French name, through the whimsies of destiny her children were raised with an English name. The interviews I conducted with Marie-Louise’s immediate and extended family took place sometimes in French, sometimes in English, and sometimes in both languages.

In the original version of the book, I chose to keep in English the parts of the interviews conducted in English so as not to lose the local colour of the language and of the emotions expressed by the interviewees. Another reason motivated me as well: the reality of our country. It is said repeatedly that “two solitudes” are living parallel lives in this country. However, the reality is that francophones and anglophones brush up against each other daily. They work together, exchange ideas, maintain friendships and often enjoy leisure activities with one another. Intercultural marriages are multiplying. In respecting the language of my interviewees, the original version of the book reflected that reality, that is to say, the bilingual character of one nation where, in its diversity, people can create love bonds that transcend all linguistic barriers.

Claire Trépanier

Ottawa, February 2008

Editor’s notes regarding translations:

Unless otherwise noted, all translation of the text, quotes, appendixes and notes is by Louise Mantha.

Direct quotes that are set in italics in this book are translated from the French. Direct quotes not in italics indicate text that was in English in the original French version of the book, C’est le temps d’en parler.


I wish to thank Gertrude Mantha, Marie-Louise’s daughter, who was my dear companion, my principal source of information and my constant support. Her confidence in me kept me motivated throughout the entire project. I will be eternally grateful to Louise Mantha who, in suggesting one evening in January 2004 that I write her grandmother’s story, stimulated me to pursue a lifelong dream, that of writing a biography. And Louise, thank you for accepting to translate this book into English and for investing in this task not only your language skills but also all the emotions this story stirred in your heart.

I thank all those who accepted to be interviewed for their sincerity, their open-mindedness and for the interesting stories they told me. I am enormously in debt to those who assisted me in my research and whose names appear in an appendix. A special thank you to Lynn Keating in Wolseley, Saskatchewan for having rummaged in the archives of the little Saint Anne’s church to find the photo of Father Roy, and having given me the name of a Canadian priest on secondment to the Vatican: precious information for me. Thanks also to Sister Ria Gerritsen, then archivist in the Regina archdiocese, who found Father Roy’s correspondence with his Bishop, Monsignor Langevin, and allowed me to photocopy it. To all the members of Marie-Louise’s family, I express my sincere gratitude for having leant me photographs. The latter allow readers to put faces to the names and enrich the biography.

Sincere thanks as well to Carol Quimper who, from London England, edited my manuscript word by word and line by line to ensure the quality of the grammar, and who worked weekends so as to give it back to me sooner. Carol, your husband must clench his teeth when my name is mentioned! Many thanks to Solange Deschênes, reviewer, and to Juliette Champagne, who both gave me useful suggestions for improving the text.

I am especially grateful to Dr. Frits Pannekoek, President of Athabasca University (AU), to Mr. Walter Hildebrandt, Director of the Athabasca University Press (AUP), and to Dr. Janice Dickin, editor of the Press’ memoir series, who all expressed interest in my manuscript and encouraged me to submit it to AUP’s editorial committee for review. My heartfelt thanks go to Renata Brunner Jass, Senior Editor, who edited the English version of this book, and to Tiffany Foster and Linda Kadis for the production and promotion of the book.

Finally, I could not have completed this project without the unconditional support from my guardian angel of a husband, Peter Homulos, who established some contacts for me, built the itinerary of our vacation across Canada around my research, and who more than once gently brought me back to the task when the discipline of writing every day got too onerous and I was tempted to stray for an afternoon. Thank you for your love, generous, intuitive and constant. I love you.

Claire Trépanier

Ottawa, February 2008


When my daughter, Louise, came to me three years ago with the idea that her friend Claire might be interested in writing a story about my mother, I felt strange and frightened. Everything in my early family life had been a secret for so long that I felt it was more than I could handle to accept to do the project. But the story of what my mother had gone through and everything she did to survive should be told.

In doing her research and interviewing me, Claire was so patient and understanding. Now that the book is finished, I feel relieved: after all these years, the things that were bottled up are now out in the open. It has taken a load off my mind, and I feel a sense of release. So much has gone on with the Catholic Church that has disturbed people’s lives … it is time to come out in the open. Talking about my story will maybe bring the same sense of relief to other people who are in the same boat.

I hope that all who read this book will see what an extraordinary woman my mother was. With very little, she did her utmost to ensure her children’s survival and happiness. I appreciate all her efforts and I still love her very much.

In writing this book, Claire Trépanier helped me better understand my past. I am extremely relieved, and I owe her more than I can say.

Gertrude Mantha

August 2007

Family of Georgianne Tremblay and her two spouses


Family of Marie=Louise Bouchard Labelle and Joseph Ray




Marie-Louise Bouchard Labelle, an unmarried 25-year-old woman living in her parents’ home in Hanmer, Ontario, discovers that she is pregnant by a 58-year-old priest from Cache Bay. She is fraught with questions. Who can she turn to? Should she confide this terrible secret to her parents? Will they renounce her forever? Will they become the shame of Hanmer? And what will her lover say? The decision she came to after what seemed an eternity of deliberations will forever alter the course of her life.

1891 TO 1906
From Les Escoumins to Hanmer


My mother was born in a place called Escoumins and it is at the mouth of the Saguenay River, way up, way past Québec city. Anyhow, she was born there and her father was a Bouchard, Théophile Bouchard, and her mother was Georgina Tremblay. Tremblay originated from Lac-Saint-Jean.1

I am interviewing Mrs. Gertrude Mantha, the daughter of Marie-Louise Bouchard Labelle. She is 87 years old and, as I write these words, the sole survivor of Marie-Louise’s three children. It is not without reluctance that Gertrude has allowed me to write her mother’s story. In a recorded text that she gave to me, she started off by saying:

I question whether or not I am doing the right thing because my mother kept her secret right to the end of her life at age 82 and so I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t talk about all that … anyway, I suppose we could do this with … without using names.2

She is afraid to stir up stories that could make some people lose face or could hurt the pride of others. She doesn’t want to offend anyone but, at the same time, she thinks it is important that her children know their grandmother’s story and that her grandchildren know that of their great-grandmother. Gertrude is a gentle woman, with a well-honed sense of humour. She speaks to me sometimes in English and sometimes in French as she recounts her memories.

She shows me her mother Marie-Louise’s baptismal certificate. It indicates that Marie-Louise’s mother was called Georgianne Tremblay. Since the transfer of information was done more orally than by writing in those days, names frequently underwent slight changes throughout the years. So, in her family she was affectionately known as Georgie (Georger in French), even though her baptismal certificate stated Georgianne. On her tombstone, it is written Georgina. When she gave birth to Marie-Louise, in Les Escoumins in the Province of Quebec on 30 September 1891, Georgianne could never have imagined in her wildest dreams that one day this child would defy society and the Catholic Church by choosing a lifestyle considered unacceptable for a woman in the early twentieth century in Canada.

In 1891, the village of Les Escoumins is only a small group of homes bordering a lovely bay on the north shore of the Saint Lawrence River. But it already had a long history. According to archaeological research, native North Americans would have resided here 6,000 years ago. Later, “Basque hunters and fishermen, attracted by the cod and whale stocks, would have stopped here many times from approximately 1550 onwards.”3 It is only in 1825 that a first white settler would have set up a permanent residence as an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Since then, Les Escoumins went on to become the haven of many families with old French-Canadian roots, such as the Tremblays from Lac Saint Jean, Marie-Louise’s family. Thus Marie-Louise first saw the light of day in a community with a profound cultural heritage.

The baptismal registry for Saint-Marcellin Parish indicates that Marie-Louise’s father, Théophile Bouchard, works as a day labourer and is absent for the christening. The forest industry, naval construction, agriculture and fishing constitute the backbone of the regional economy. The document does not indicate in what kind of trade Théophile is engaged but I imagine that, bent over his work on the morning of 1 October 1891, he thinks about his future responsibilities as a breadwinner while Georgianne makes her way to the baptismal font with their baby girl in her arms.

The baptismal registry also testifies that the baby’s uncle, Jean Bouchard, and his wife Catherine Dion, attend the ceremony as godfather and godmother. They will not have the pleasure of seeing their godchild grow up in their community, for Théophile has heard that they are hiring in the mines at Copper Cliff, near Sud-bury, and only a few years after Marie-Louise’s birth, he moves there with his family to try and improve their standard of living.

The Bouchards are not seen as eccentric in immigrating to Ontario. In the nineteenth century, Quebec’s economy undergoes a gradual and profound transformation. The province changes from a rural economy to an industrial one. This metamorphosis causes much unemployment “and at the end of the century, one counts almost100,000 Quebecers who choose to emigrate to other Canadian provinces, mainly to Ontario.”4

But while work in northern Ontario mines ensures a slightly improved income, it involves greater dangers. In 1893, Théophile dies in Copper Cliff, victim of an accident in the open-air foundry where he is working. The Sudbury Journal of 2 November covers the event:

On Friday last, while blasting was going on at the roast beds, a premature discharge took place, one man, Tuffield (lit.) Bouchard, being so terribly injured that he died on Wednesday morning. Both eyes were blown out, and his face and hands completely blackened and shattered. Another, Geo. Tremblay, was also seriously injured, but will recover. Bouchard leaves a wife and family; the other was unmarried.5

Georgianne learns about her husband’s demise from a young man named Napoléon Labelle who works in the same foundry. Georgette Bergeron, Napoléon’s granddaughter, tells me:

In Copper Cliff, apparently my grandfather was “the boss” of Mr. Bouchard, Georgie’s first husband. … And that is how Napoléon first met Georgie, so my mother told us. As the foreman, it was his job to go tell the widow that her husband had died.6

For a young widow with a 2-year-old baby, earning a living in a mining town can be brutal. Georgianne cannot consider staying alone in Copper Cliff. So she decides to move in with her brother, Georges Tremblay, who lives with his wife in Capreol, north of Sudbury. For her sister-in-law, the unexpected arrival in her household of this mother and her baby surely brings about important changes. However, I imagine that she soon comes to appreciate the company of the newcomer and her help with daily chores. Anyway, Georgianne’s stay at her brother’s does not last long.


Marie-Louise Bouchard as a child


Indeed, Napoléon Labelle has not forgotten the pretty widow. He seeks and finds many excuses to go and visit her in Capreol and soon he is courting her. Twenty-eight years old, tall, sturdy with a full moustache, Napoléon is a handsome man. He has plans for the future and, during his visits, he probably shares them with Georgianne. He is thinking of leaving the foundry where he works. He would like to take advantage of the Ontario Government’s offer, which to encourage development in New Ontario is selling land for 50 cents an acre, in return for certain conditions. He would have to clear the land, of course, but after a few years he would be owner of a beautiful farm in a new community. He would finally be master of his financial future instead of depending on the limited salary from the foundry. Would Georgianne be ready to adopt the lifestyle of a pioneer for a few years? She thinks about her daughter’s future. She does not fear hard work and she is anxious to have her own home. Napoléon’s dream appeals to her very much. Thus, Georgianne and Napoléon get married on 13 May 1895 in Saint Anne’s Parish in Sudbury and take up residence in Copper Cliff. Little Marie-Louise, born Bouchard, acquires the surname of her adoptive father and becomes Marie-Louise Labelle.


Right after his wedding, Napoléon and three other settlers go to Hanmer and start clearing their recently acquired wooded lots to turn them into arable land. They return to Copper Cliff to spend the winter. Tales of their hard work must surely spice up conversation during the long winter nights, with optimists predicting the eventual establishment of a whole new community and envious people calculating the possibilities of a failure. The four men do not let themselves be discouraged by the difficulties of the work. For three summers in a row they return to Hanmer to complete the clearing of their lots.

Meanwhile, Georgianne is keeping house in Copper Cliff, slowly introducing Marie-Louise to domestic work. In January 1898, she is pregnant again. Marie-Louise is 7 years old. The notion of having a new baby sister or brother undoubtedly pleases her. It will be a playmate in this world of adults, someone with whom to share her dreams and secrets.

On 29 April 1898, Napoléon and his three companions arrive in Hanmer to settle permanently, thereby giving rise to a small community and establishing a milestone in the history of New Ontario.7 Georgianne and Marie-Louise do not move to Hanmer with Napoléon right away. As Georgianne is pregnant, Napoléon prefers that she stay in Copper Cliff with Marie-Louise until the birth of the baby due in October. He takes advantage of the summer months to build the family homestead and to make necessary provisions to face their first winter in Hanmer. On 15 October 1898, Georgianne gives birth to a girl, Claire-Hilda, who will simply be called Claire in daily life. Marie-Louise is delighted to have a little sister and all her life will maintain a special bond with her.

In December, Napoléon returns to Copper Cliff to fetch Georgianne, Marie-Louise and Claire. Later, DesNeiges Bergeron, Napoléon’s granddaughter, will write in Pionnières de chez nous:

It was in early December, the best time to travel since the roads were frozen…. During the trip, Claire had her first slide in the snow; the carriage overturned but the baby was unharmed.8


The life awaiting the four settlers and their families in Hanmer is not recommended for wimps! “One has to walk four kilometres toget drinking water” and “walk a distance of approximately thirty kilometres round-trip on the path from Hanmer to Copper Cliff”9 to buy basic supplies. Winters are hard and provisions scarce. Shelters for the few farm animals come down to tree trunks tied at the top and fanned out at the bottom. In springtime, the dirt roads are transformed into mud furrows, making transportation difficult. In summertime, flies relentlessly attack both workers and livestock. However, these difficulties do not discourage the pioneers. They have the independence for which they had hoped. They are now masters of their own destiny, masters of all decisions concerning their lands and their community.

The information that I found about the dwelling awaiting Georgianne and her children on their arrival in Hanmer in 1898 differs from one source to another. In the book Pionnières de chez nous it states that the abode was made of logs and had only “three triangular sides.”10 During my interview with Clothilde Bergeron, Georgianne’s granddaughter, I asked her about this curious house:

C.T.: What did a three-sided house look like?

C.B.: Well, they built walls on the north, east and west sides and left open the southern side. During the winter, they would put up panels in the front to stay warm and leave a small space for the door. They built a fire in the doorway to cook their meals. It warmed them up.11

There is consensus between Clothilde and other members of her family that Napoléon and Georgianne did not live in a three-sided house. As they were moving in with two children, one of them just a two month old baby, Napoléon would have built an ordinary logwood house in accordance with building methods of the time. Furthermore, he would have built the furniture.12

If men build the dwelling, it is women who, through long hours of hard work, turn them into homes. Their presence is essential to the family’s survival. Everything must be done: disinfect the wood beds with turpentine, make straw mattresses, sew clothes for the whole family, cook and bake, feed the livestock, cultivate a garden, can preserves, help butcher animals for the winter, and, in season, pick wild berries to make pastry and jams. Add to that the preparation of celebrations such as Christmas and New Year’s and, later on, when a little community has been established in Hanmer, assistance with special occasions such as weddings and christenings. Can we really understand the lives of these women who, through all this work, went through repeated pregnancies, gave birth without medical surveillance, and often took care of their children alone when their husbands had to go away to get supplies in Copper Cliff, sometimes even in Sudbury, on trips that could take several days?


Claire-Hilda (seated) and Marie-Louise Labelle, circa 1899


On her arrival in Hanmer in 1898, Marie-Louise is 7 years old. She does not attend school as the Hanmer School will not be built until 1902. She is old enough to help her mother with the daily chores: wash dishes, peel potatoes, watch over baby Claire, bring in small firewood for the stove, feed the animals and weed the garden. She learns the rudiments of cooking and is gradually initiated into knitting and sewing during the long winter evenings.

Although she lives in a colonization environment, her education is not all that different from that of other young girls her age in cities in Quebec and Ontario. “In the pre-industrial age … the education given to young girls is limited to providing them with practical knowledge that can serve them throughout their life.”13 Since a young girl is expected to live in the bosom of her family, learning to read and write is not considered a great necessity — a hobby at the most. But which young woman could need a hobby in days so filled with domestic chores? So the essential techniques of cooking, sewing, gardening and child care are what is extolled. This concept of a young girl’s education is strongly promoted by the Catholic Church, judging from an article of Father Alfred Emery in the parish bulletin of Paincourt in 1914. He suggests adopting the following principles for the education of young girls:

What we must teach young girls is to have an appropriate self-confidence. We must teach them how to make bread, sew shirts and how to check and balance the accounts of their suppliers. Teach them to wear thick, sensible shoes. Bring them up according to their rank. Show them how to wash and iron clothes and to sew their own dresses. Teach them that in one dollar there are only 100 cents. Teach them to cook all kinds of food. Show them how to darn socks and sew on buttons. Teach them what constitutes good common sense and how to say appropriately yes or no and to not veer from that course. Show them how to wear with dignity a simple Indian dress and give them a good, solid education. Teach them to put more stock in the inner qualities than the riches of would-be suitors. Initiate them thoroughly in the mysteries of the kitchen, the dining room and the living room. Make them understand that when you spend less than you make, the difference becomes savings. Teach them that the more you live above your means the more you are heading to poverty. Don’t forget that their future happiness depends mainly on the advice you will give them. Teach them that one solid and capable labourer is worth more than a dozen dandies in suits.

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