The large seigneurial manor house that Louis-Joseph Papineau commissioned and that was built between 1848 and 1850 in Montebello, on the shores of the Ottawa River, was designated a heritage building by Quebec’s Ministère de la Culture et des Communications in 1975. It has been a National Historic Site of Canada since 1986. These designations were awarded for two major reasons. First, Louis-Joseph Papineau was a very important Quebec politician in the 19th century and, second, the manor house is a fine example of the evolution of the homes and lifestyles of seigneurs after the abolishment of the seigneurial system in 1854. Until then, seigneurs were part of the economic, political and intellectual elite of New France and Lower Canada. After the system was abolished, many of them, like Papineau, retained a high social status. Guided tours of Papineau’s fully furnished and decorated manor house focus on the lifestyle of this upper-class family in the second half of the 19th century, after Papineau’s greatest moments as a politician, a subject that is also addressed during the tour.
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The domain and manor house
In 1845, Louis-Joseph Papineau took advantage of the amnesty granted to those held responsible for the Rebellions of 1837–1838 and those who participated in them to return to Canada after seven years’ exile. His political career was no longer as important to him. He devoted a considerable amount of time to his domain, which he inherited from his father in 1817, and his manor house, which he himself designed based on the Loire châteaux he had so admired during his five-years in France. French architect Louis Aubertin finalized the drawings for the large, three-storey wood and stone building inspired by a variety of architectural influences and built from materials found on the domain. The addition of four towers between 1854 and 1856 accentuated the architectural eclecticism of the building. The landscaping around the manor house and the interior decorating were completed in 1860.
Visitors first see the imposing manor house after traversing the hundreds of metres of wooded area and passing the Papineau family’s funeral chapel, built in 1855. Papineau found the ideal location for his manor house, on the promontory formed by Cape Bonsecours, from which his family and their guests could see the Ottawa River. The care given to the furnishings and interior decoration reveals the high standard of living to which the residents of the manor house were accustomed. On the ground floor, where the Papineaus spent their days, there is a spacious living room where they chatted, comfortably ensconced in elegant armchairs, while sipping fine spirits or listening to the piano. The luxurious dining room is connected to the kitchens by a dumbwaiter hidden in a fake piece of furniture so that meals were always served hot. The many family and guest bedrooms are located on the second floor, while the servants worked and lived in the basement. The octogonal tower contained a greenhouse. An impressive spiral staircase connects all the floors in the round tower. The square tower, completely separated from the manor house in order to minimize the risk of fire, contains 3,000 books from the library of the famous politician, who was known to be extremely well-read, so much so that it gave birth to the French expression “ça prend pas la tête à Papineau,” (you don’t need to be as smart as Papineau) when referring to something easy to understand.
Part of the original domain and landscaping still surrounds the manor house, where Louis-Joseph Papineau’s descendants lived until 1929, when they sold the domain, the manor house and its dependencies (except for the chapel) to Harold Marcus Saddlemire, who founded the Seigniory Club Community Association Limited to develop a resort complex including the Château Montebello, built in the style of a log cabin. Parks Canada acquired the manor house and part of the domain in 1993 and designated it a National Historic Site.
Louis-Joseph Papineau: A politician with a legacy
Elected for the first time in 1808, Papineau joined the Parti canadien, which held the majority in the Assembly of Lower Canada (now Quebec). In 1815, he was made Speaker of the Assembly and became leader of the Parti canadien, which demanded democratic reforms to increase the power of French Canadians, who formed the majority in Lower Canada. At the time, all of the power was in the hands of a Governor appointed by the British government, who in turn appointed the members of his Executive Council. This system favoured the Anglophone minority, as well as collusion.
In 1823, Louis-Joseph Papineau and John Nelson, both members of the Parti canadien, travelled to London to challenge the plan to unite Upper and Lower Canada in an attempt to assimilate the French Canadians into the Anglophone majority of the Canadian colonies. The plan was rejected, and the members returned to a hero’s welcome in Lower Canada. Three years later, the Parti canadien changed its name to the Parti patriote to indicate its more vigorous defence of French Canadian interests. On several occasions in the Assembly, Papineau opposed the governor’s requests to use tax revenues without the authorization of the Legislative Assembly, which would have circumvented one of its only effective powers. Papineau’s intention was to increase pressure on the governor to obtain the desired reforms. But his strategy led to a budgetary impasse and strong political tensions.
After the Parti patriote won by a landslide in the 1834 election, its nationalist demands culminated in the drafting of the Ninety-Two Resolutions, a document detailing the measures that the most prominent members of the Parti patriote, led by Papineau, deemed necessary in order to ensure that the Francophone population was granted the powers to which it was entitled. The London Parliament’s wholesale rejection of these resolutions triggered a protest that started out peacefully with the boycotting of manufactured products imported from the United Kingdom, which Papineau encouraged, and ended in an armed conflict with the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837, which Papineau, who still believed he could negotiate a settlement, did not support. Forced into exile in 1837, Louis-Joseph Papineau would henceforth play a more subdued role, but his three decades of political action earned him a prominent place in the political history of Quebec in the 19th century.