Joseph-Isidore Bédard

[Baptiste] (9 January 1806 - 14 April 1833 / Quebec)

Biography of Joseph-Isidore Bédard

Joseph-Isidore Bédard was a poet, lawyer, and politician; b. 9 Jan. 1806 at Quebec, third son of Pierre-Stanislas Bédard and Luce Lajus; d. unmarried 14 April 1833 in Paris. Joseph-Isidore Bédard began studying at the Séminaire de Nicolet at the age of 10 and was a brilliant student. Up to the time he left in 1824 he went from one triumph to another, particularly in Latin. He was then articled to lawyer Georges-Barthélemi Faribault.

Bédard was interested in poetry inspired by Canadian themes, and on 6 Aug. 1827 he published the first two stanzas of “Sol canadien! Terre chérie!” in the Quebec Gazette under the nom de plume Baptiste. Two years later he brought out a new version of this song in the same newspaper, which introduced it as the Canadians’ first national anthem. Set to music by Théodore-Frédéric Molt, for many years it was more popular with them than any other patriotic song. Bédard’s poetry reveals the influence of his father’s political ideas, and he himself thought it summed up well the feelings of the Canadians of the period, who, though suspected of lacking in loyalty, had respect for the British régime and abhorred the idea of annexation to the United States:

Bédard was called to the bar on 12 Oct. 1829. His diverse talents, jovial and caustic wit, ardent temperament, ease in speaking, and manly, pleasing voice, made him sought after in public meetings. A devoted citizen, he took his place in the swelling ranks of the temperance movement and advised his younger brother, François-Zoël, to “avoid bad company and join the temperance society.”

On 6 Oct. 1830 Bédard was elected to the House of Assembly of Lower Canada for the riding of Saguenay. Young and eager, he was notable in the assembly for his independence of mind. In voting against the expulsions of Robert Christie*, member for Gaspé, he opposed the leaders of the Patriote party, Louis-Joseph Papineau* and Denis-Benjamin Viger*. Later he attacked Thomas Lee, who sat for Lower Town Quebec and who was seeking the support of youthful colleagues for an elective legislative council. “M. Lee has appealed to the young people about it,” Bédard exclaimed, “but he did not express their feelings when he deplored the misfortune that our ancestors did not separate from Great Britain. Our forefathers acted wisely in not accepting the invitation from the United States. This province draws its entire strength from the metropolis.” On several occasions he sat as chairman of the assembly’s committee on grievances. It was probably at this period that he passed on information, in particular a biographical note on his father, to Isidore-Frédéric-Thomas Lebrun, who was preparing the Tableau statistique et politique des deux Canadas for publication.

In 1831 Bédard went to England with Viger, who had just been appointed the House of Assembly’s agent there. They left Montreal on 9 May and reached Liverpool on 13 June. After visiting Ireland, Scotland, and France, Bédard stayed in London with François-Xavier Garneau*, who was then Viger’s secretary. In Paris his time had been taken up with trips, amusements, gambling, theatre, and strolls along the boulevards and in public parks, but in London, in Garneau’s company, he was more circumspect. Like young European liberals of the period 1815–30 he displayed Byronic moods and poses. In moments of loneliness, thoughts of death beset him; he surmounted them by seeking in them the meaning and mystery of life. He lamented the harshness of the human condition with its struggle between wanting and doing. On the other hand he maintained an objective view of reality. An inveterate optimist, capable of staunch friendship, he reached a certain wisdom: enjoy the present in moderation, be thankful for what has been given, open one’s mind to the mystery of the future. In fact he yearned for the day when he would return to serve his country. Towards the end of September 1832, when he was about to come back to Lower Canada, he suddenly suffered a violent lung haemorrhage. On 20 November he informed Papineau, the speaker of the assembly, that he would not be able to attend the session then in progress. His condition worsened and on 14 April 1833, at the age of 27, he died in Paris; he was buried in Montmartre cemetery.

Joseph-Isidore Bédard sought and found his own authentic response to the many questions challenging him as a poet, citizen, member of a legislature, and human being. His thinking endured through “Sol canadien! Terre chérie!” which has been reprinted some 30 times in Canada and was included in a work published at London in 1830. In 1901 Narcisse-Eutrope Dionne wrote a short biography of him, but afterwards he was virtually forgotten. Scholarly works now accord him a modest place. If it were not for his song, he might be remembered only as a romantic bohemian who died at an early age in a foreign country. His thought and poetry, which are still topical, ought to have new light shed on them. As a witness to a sombre period when French Canada was experiencing near desperate conditions culturally, Bédard exemplifies the daring young Canadian who, enamoured of his country and determined to improve its lot, hammered out a personal approach.

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