Aurore!  The Mystery of the Martyred Child

Fortierville and Quebec at the Turn of the 20th Century

[ Réservoir de l'aqueduc de Fortierville, Inconnu, Album-souvenir 100e anniversaire de la paroisse Sainte-Philomène de Fortierville, 1882-1982  ]by Carolyne Blanchard and Peter Gossage

Fortierville is located on the south shore of the St. Lawrence River, halfway between Trois Rivières and Quebec City. The community, situated at some distance from the river, isn't able to trace its history back as far as the days of New France. Rather, Fortierville was developed beginning in the 1850s, when pioneer settlers from the neighbouring parishes of St. Pierre les Becquets and Déchaillons gradually came to settle there. It was therefore at the time of the settlement of Quebec's interior, when the territory's population began to overflow well beyond the old seigneurial area, that the history of this rural community began.

The hamlet was established as the parish of Sainte Philomène in 1882, and, as of 1886, the new parish was equipped with an imposing stone church--a building that still exists and which played a role in the Aurore Gagnon tragedy. Like other regions being settled at the time, whether in the Saguenay or the Outaouais, the parishioners combined farming with some logging. Historians describe this well-known model as the "agroforestry" system. In the village, small shops developed and, later, the Bernard foundry, which opened its doors in 1908. This was an important employer for the village (for engineers, mechanics, day labourers). Bernard Industries was not only a foundry but also an iron works factory and a woodshop. After settling in Fortierville, Adélard Bernard experienced years of prosperity and contributed to the village's progress. Unfortunately, following a fire in 1923, the factory closed its doors for good in 1924.

Building a parish in the forest was difficult, and all the inhabitants had to work hard to properly house and feed themselves. A number of parishioners decided to turn to other challenges and other opportunities. They therefore left the village to try their luck in the United States, where textile factories promised employment for all family members. The construction of the Quebec City Bridge, which took place intermittently between 1900 and 1917, also drew its share of workers.

The arrival of the railway (1895) and then the telephone (1910) brought new opportunities to the region: trade and communications became easier and more rapid. In 1913, the parishioners saw their parish divided in two. The rural part kept the name of Ste. Philomène, while the village became the municipality of Fortierville. That same year, the village's first cars appeared. They belonged to Oréus Mailhot and Adélard Bernard. The First World War created work in Fortierville. The government offered Bernard Industries a contract to manufacture shell boxes. On the other hand, the end of the war brought a health scourge. Soldiers returning home carried with them a devastating virus: the Spanish flu. This epidemic killed thousands of Quebecers and Canadians and didn't spare the population of Fortierville, where many cases were reported.

Quebec in the twenties underwent major changes and transformations on the economic, social and cultural levels. Factory production continually increased, thanks, among other things, to the widespread use of electricity, which led to a great need for labour in cities. The population in rural areas therefore migrated toward the urban centres. This was a turning point in the distribution of the province's population because, for the first time, the majority of the population lived in the cities. Despite this urban migration, modernisation spread slowly and the living conditions of workers remained difficult. In this context, where work was demanding, dangerous and without security, trade unions became more and more present and their power among employees increased.

Although this mass urbanisation and industrialisation was influenced by the United States, the lay and religious elite hoped to preserve French-Canadian values and traditions. This desire led, on the linguistic level, to struggles against policies that tried to restrict the use of French (Regulation 17 on Ontario schools); on the moral level, to the introduction of legislation governing the use of alcohol (prohibition); and, on the social level, to the refusal to grant women the right to vote. The idea of the possible separation of Quebec from the Canadian Confederation was even expressed by none other than J. N. Francoeur!

From the outside, Fortierville might therefore have appeared to be a quiet village, slightly frozen in time, with its church, its small shops and its many farmhouses populated by parishioners who were as hardworking as they were devout. In reality, it was a community born of the major transformations of the 19th century and which, in 1920, was experiencing in its own way those of the 20th century. The questioning of so-called “traditional” values and the modernisation of the economy, communications, and mores were major trends everywhere in North America at the time. These were changes to which the people of Fortierville would have to adapt.

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Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History