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Connecting Canadians

Louis Desrochers, '52 LLB, '78 LLD (Honourary), chuckles when he recalls a little experiment in anglophone-francophone bridge building he had going in Jasper in the early 1940s. The fluently bilingual Desrochers would do his classmates' French homework; in return, they would complete his science and math assignments. That was working out well until his mother found out and put a quick stop to it. Not surprisingly, perhaps, that short-lived attempt at spanning the great Canadian cultural divide wasn't mentioned late last fall when the University's Faculté Saint-Jean held a tribute dinner for the 72-year-old Edmontonian who has devoted his life to bringing together Canadians — French-speaking and English — speaking, Easterners and Westerners.

The $125-a-plate dinner, held on 3 November at Edmonton's Shaw Conference Centre, was both a warm tribute to Desrochers and the centrepiece of a fund-raising campaign aimed at establishing a named professorship at the Faculté — the Professorat Louis Desrochers en Études canadiennes. The theme of the evening was "Connecting Canadians," and the dinner itself did that, bringing together some 830 Canadians, including former Quebec Liberal leader Claude Ryan and the Honourable Celine Hervieux-Payette, a member of the Canadian Senate, who represented the federal government. Another featured speaker was a U of A law-school buddy of Desrochers's, former Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, '51 BA, '52 LLB, '86 LLD (Honourary), who was introduced by a classmate of theirs, the Honourable W. Kenneth Moore, '49 BA, '52 LLB, '88 LLD (Honourary), chief justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Alberta.

Even Prime Minister Jean Chrétien took part in the tribute. Speaking from Ottawa via videotape, the prime minister saluted "mon ami Louis Desrochers" for a lifetime spent "bridging the divides of region and language" and "making us aware that our differences are not weaknesses to be feared but strengths to be celebrated."

Claudette Tardif, the dean of Faculté Saint-Jean, worked hard to secure Chrétien's participation. She knew that Chrétien and Desrochers were well acquainted, that before he became prime minister, Chrétien would drop in to the law offices of McQuaig Desrochers to see "my good friend Louis" whenever he was in Edmonton. The hard part for Tardif was getting her message past Chretien's gatekeepers; as soon as he heard Tardif's request, Chrétien was more than happy to oblige. And the result was worth the effort, says the Faculté Saint-Jean dean. "Having the message from the prime minister gave a sense of it being a very special evening," says Tardif.

Faculté Saint-Jean, where all instruction takes place in the French language, has deep roots in Alberta. Originally located in Pincher Creek, Alberta, it was founded by an Oblate priest as a juniorate – a place to instruct junior members preparing for life in his order. Its first classes were held in 1908, the same year the brand-new University of Alberta was opening its doors in borrowed space in a Strathcona high school. In 1911 both the University and the juniorate moved: the University to its riverbank campus; the juniorate to the Faculté's present site at the western reach of Edmonton's Bonnie Doon community, overlooking the Mill Creek ravine. In 1943 the juniorate, by then affiliated with the University of Ottawa, became Collège Saint Jean. In the 1960s ties between the Collège and the nearby University of Alberta began to be solidified. First the Collège's education program and then its arts program became affiliated with the U of A. By the early 1970s, the Collège was fully integrated into the University as Collège universitaire Saint-Jean, and in 1976 the Oblate Fathers sold it to the University. The following year it became Faculté Saint-Jean, a full faculty of the University of Alberta.

Louis Desrochers and Faculté Saint-Jean go back a long way. Desrochers, whose life would become so intimately intertwined with the Faculté, was born in Montreal in 1928. While he was still an infant his father died, and in 1939, at the invitation of a generous uncle, Desrochers and his mother moved west to live in Jasper, Alberta. To obtain schooling in the French language, the young Desrochers attended first the Collège des Jesuites and then Collège Saint-Jean, where he came into contact with educators who strongly believed in the importance of the French language. Desrochers has fond memories of his boarding-school years. He played hockey, took part in various other sports, learned to play the cello, and made some good friends, he says. (For a month in 1942, from the time the Jesuit college closed in November until the term began at Collège Saint-Jean, Desrochers attended high school in Jasper. It was at this time that his aborted experiment in cross-cultural cooperation took place.)

Following the end of the Second World War, Desrochers returned to the East to complete his undergraduate degree at the University of Ottawa. During the two years he spent there studying in the Institute of Philosophy, Desrochers became interested in government. He regularly attended sessions in the House of Commons, and he listened attentively to what the many public servants he encountered had to say. And it was in Ottawa where he met his future wife, Marcelle Boutin, a nurse who had grown up in Compton County in Quebec's eastern townships. Together Louis and Marcelle would raise five children – and all five would go on to graduate from Faculté Saint-Jean.

Returning west following his graduation from Ottawa, the young Desrochers enrolled in law school at the University of Alberta. "I lucked into a great class. We had a lot of fun," recalls Desrochers, who was a member of the student debating team — just as he had been at the University of Ottawa. But at Ottawa he had debated in French, not English.

When he graduated from law school in 1952, Desrochers found an articling position in Edmonton with S.H. McQuaig and was admitted to the Alberta bar the following year – the year that he married Marcelle. At the same time that he was building up his law practice, Desrochers was actively involved in local community affairs. He served as a director of Edmonton's French-language radio station until it became part of the CBC, he helped found Théâtre français d’Edmonton, and he was successively treasurer, vice president, and then president of the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta. He didn't confine himself to francophone associations, though. He was active with the Edmonton Family Service Bureau, of which he is a former president, and he served as vice-chair of the governing board of Misericordia Hospital. Later he would chair the board of trustees of the Grey Nuns Hospital Foundation.

In 1963, based on his extensive community involvement, Desrochers was appointed to the Board of Governors of the University of Alberta. As a Board member, he worked hard to help strengthen ties between the University and Collège Saint-Jean, and in 1970 — the year that Desrochers was elected chancellor of the University — those ties resulted in the college becoming Collège universitaire Saint-Jean. And when Desrochers's tenure as chancellor ended in 1974, the full integration of the Collège into the University as Faculté Saint-Jean was well underway.

Desrochers's role in shaping the Faculté didn't end when he retired as chancellor. Dean Tardif has abundant praise for the "remarkable" job he did in providing liaison with the community as chair of the Faculté's advisory committee, a longtime involvement that ended earlier this year. (He's now the chair emeritus.) Tardif says that when the Faculté envisioned a professorship to draw attention to itself as an emerging centre of excellence in Canadian studies, Desrochers's name was the logical one to attach to it. Not just in recognition of his contributions to the Faculté, she says, but because of the role he has played on the national stage. He has, for instance, been a member of the governing council of the Northwest Territories (an appointment made by Prime Minister John Diefenbaker despite the fact that Desrochers has always been an active supporter of the Liberal Party). He helped found the Institute for Research on Public Policy.

He's served as a member of the Canada Council. He's been a governor of the Glenbow Alberta Foundation. He's participated as a member of the Trilateral Commission (a non governmental group that brings together prominent citizens of North America, the European nations and Japan). And he's served on numerous corporate boards, in particular that of the Bank of Montreal. In all of his many involvements, Desrochers has not only been a champion of French language and culture, says Tardif, he has worked at connecting Canadians.

He has also shown resolute strength of purpose. And at no time has that been more evident then since 1995 when a devastating stroke paralysed the left side of his body. At the time, the prognosis wasn't good. Emotion still smolders in his eyes and voice as Desrochers recalls the pessimism of one of the physicians he encountered. "He said the best — the best — I could hope for was to be able to sit up straight in a wheelchair." That roused his fighting spirit and every bit of resolution he had. I'll show him. Desrochers vowed. And he has. While he still relies on a wheelchair, his recovery has passed all expectations and he is now working hard at taking a few steps on his own.

The resolute manner in which Desrochers has dealt with his adversity is an inspiration to all, says Tardif, who is herself known for her determination. And she is determined to draw attention to the Faculté through the Professorat Louis Desrochers en Études canadiennes, which is designed to enhance what her faculty is already doing. "The study of Canada is already central to our teaching and research in disciplines such as political science, literature, history, sociology, and education," says the Faculté Saint-Jean dean. She envisions the new professorship creating an interdisciplinary synergy among members of the Faculté's teaching staff that will lead to even more stimulating teaching and learning environments and the development of strong research programs.

And she believes the Faculté to be in an ideal position to offer a perspective that is often missed in Canadian studies. Tardif says that generally those involved in pursuing Canadian studies do so from an English-Canadian context, while francophones normally concentrate on Quebec. "There are few institutions that integrate the study of both French and English Canada," she says. "The fact that we can bring together the study of Canada from different perspectives and that we have a faculty here in Alberta that can do that... is important," says Tardif.

The Professorat de Louis Desrochers is now a great deal closer as a result of the tribute dinner. Among the major gifts announced that evening were $200,000 from Power Corporation, $50,000 each from Maclab Enterprises and the francophone secretariat of Alberta community development, and $25,000 from the Bank of Montreal. Shaw Communications donated $150,000 and Mr. and Mrs. Jim Shaw personally contributed a further $50,000. By the end of March the total amount pledged to the new professorship had climbed over the $650,000 mark. That's about two-thirds of the total the Faculté needs to have sufficient endowment income to support a distinguished scholar pursuing topics of fundamental importance to Canada and Canadian unity. In the meantime, while the endowment continues to build, the intention is to use the endowment income to bring visiting professors to the Faculté for shorter periods. "Their area could be economics, history, political science, that sort of thing," says Tardif.

While Tardif knows that raising the remaining third of the endowment for the professorship isn't going to be easy, she is heartened by the tremendous response demonstrated at the tribute dinner. "People felt that this was important. There was a sense that connecting Canadians was important. "People felt good about what it means to be a Canadian."

Perhaps the sentiment of the evening was put best by Claude Ryan, who has known Desrochers for decades. Ryan expressed the hope that the new professorship would contribute to building a nation that would affirm the choice made by citizens of Quebec when they voted to pursue their future as a part of the Canadian nation. Said Ryan: "May the Louis Desrochers Professorship become a living proof that the decisions made in the past few years were well founded. May it help stimulate studies that will help Canadians, on the one hand, better understand what distinguishes them one from another for their mutual enrichment and, on the other hand, what they hold and must continue to hold in common: the interest in the higher good of this country and — I say in all sincerity — in the interest of the contribution of Canada to the advancement of understanding, tolerance, and harmony between people of diverse cultures in the world."

Published Spring/Summer 2000

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