Napoleon and the French Canadians

By Serge Joyal



Serge Joyal P.C., who served as Senator for the Division of Kennebec from 1997 to 2020, is a lawyer and expert collector and appraiser. He served as a Liberal M.P. from a Montreal riding for ten years including two as Minister of State in the cabinet of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. This article is adapted from Joyal’s book Le Mythe de Napoléon au Canada français.


THERE ARE MANY Napoleons. Aside from the real person who existed and is revered or despised, anything linked to him is bound to attract avid interest. The last of his bicorne hats, belonging to the personal collection of the late Prince Rainier of Monaco, was sold at auction in 2014 for $1.9 million euros ($US 2.3 million). It was bought not by a French, British, or American collector but by Kim Hong-Kuk, the South Korean chairman of the Harim Group, a food conglomerate.(1)

The bicorne is now displayed in the atrium of its new headquarters in Seoul as a symbol of entrepreneurship and resilience. In 2016-17, the Canadian Museum of History presented an exhibition on Napoleon’s influence on the development of Paris. In 2018, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts organized a spectacular exhibition entitled “Napoleon: Art and Court life in the Imperial Palace” that drew 100,000 visitors. The exhibition later travelled to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and the Kimbell Art Museum in Texas, and will make its way to the Chateau of Fontainebleau, near Paris, in the spring of 2019.

All countries create myths to adumbrate their aspirations and to reflect an image of their national identity. Such was the myth of Napoleon in France and, as we shall see, even in French Canada.

It is not altogether a surprise to find that the Napoleon myth also has a history in French Canada. What is surprising is that it dates right back to his lifetime and, while its nature shifted over time, it did so in ways that reflect the development of Quebec over the course of two centuries. Though he never set foot in North America, Napoleon has remained a lasting and versatile icon.

There are three distinct phases in the story of Napoleon in Quebec. The first coincided with his life. With his arrival on the national scene in France in the 1790s, he was denounced in French Canada as the inevitable product of the evil and destructive French Revolution — vilified as an illegitimate usurper and tyrant who had profited from the overthrow of the King only to claim an Imperial crown for himself while menacing the stability of all Europe. His final defeat was cheered by French Canadians and celebrated as the vindication of the traditional order of society founded on the natural alliance of Church and Crown.

The second myth developed in the middle of the 19th century, as Quebec sought to assert its French identity in the face of English dominance and assimilationist tendencies. The Napoleon of this era was no longer the evil usurper, but the brave romantic hero who fought to oppose arrogant British hegemony. This Napoleon

was praised for supporting rational order and social progress through the creation of a modern civil code. The leaders of Quebec identified themselves with this hero and, like him, struggled to claim their identity and overcome obstacles to their legitimate rights within a Canada that was also striving to establish responsible government.

The third coming of Napoleon in Quebec coincides with the popularization and commercialization of his image in modern times. It is a populist incarnation that simplifies the legend to the point of caricature. The image of the brooding strategist and brilliant campaigner wearing the iconic bicorne is used to sell a range of products. At the same time, it became a staple for caricaturists mocking politicians with authoritarian tendencies or too much faith in their own genius.


"There are three distinct phases in the story of Napoleon in Quebec: the first in life, the second in death, and the third in his long afterlife"


The shattering upheaval of the Revolution in 1789 and the subsequent Reign of Terror stunned the habitants of Quebec who, like their continental cousins, had lived within a social structure framed by Church and Crown.

At the signature of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, when the French territories of Canada fell under British rule, an essential social element that survived was allegiance to a monarch. French Canadians were steadfastly monarchical; they had revered their former sovereign, Louis XV, and now accepted George III as a benevolent authority devoted to the well-being of his people, crowned “By the Grace of God” in a Divine Mission, his person vested with an aura of divine right.

For French Canadians, the Revolution represented the blasphemous overthrow of a revered inheritance from the Ancien Régime. There was then only one course open to them: to oppose the Revolution in every form, and to thank God that they had been spared from its evils. To compound the shock, the new regime in France had declared war on Britain on February 1, 1793. Canada too was at war. The Governor, Lord Dorchester [huzzah! — ed.], was deeply concerned about maintaining the allegiance of French Canadians, fearing that some might take advantage of the war to precipitate a rebellion, following the path taken by the American colonists in 1775-76.

For his part the Catholic Bishop of Quebec, Monsignor Joseph-Octave Plessis, had no such fears, since the Church was firmly opposed to the Revolution and since French Canadians were monarchists. He regularly published instructions in the parishes throughout the Colony strongly denouncing the horrors of revolution.

To support him in this task, Plessis was aided by newly-arrived émigré French priests from London. They were among the thousands who had refused to swear compulsory allegiance to the new French secularist constitution and had found refuge in England. Bishop Plessis had successfully obtained permission from Lord Dorchester to bring fifty of these émigré French priests to Canada to serve in parishes that lacked a permanent priest. For the Bishop, their arrival provided a rich vein of new blood that had been cut off since 1763. In fact, the Governor and the Bishop had a common enemy in revolution and became firm allies. Monsignor Plessis had no hesitation in supporting Britain in its fight against impious France, and immigrant priests shared the same convictions. The Bishop called on the people to remain faithful to the British Crown that had granted religious freedom for its Catholic subjects and allowed them, since 1791, the benefit of an elected Assembly that considered and adopted legislation in their own language.

The political leaders of French Canada were in complete sympathy with Dorchester. Denis Benjamin Viger, an affluent bourgeois from Montreal and an elected member of the Chambre d’Assemblée, published in 1809 a pamphlet in which he denounced Napoleon for imposing his laws on the countries he conquered. By comparison, the British were much wiser, allowing the peoples under their rule to maintain their social customs and legal system. In Quebec, the validity of the old Custom of Paris was recognized in the Quebec Act adopted at Westminster in 1774, and French Canadians were grateful to the authorities for the recognition of their language, religion, and way of life. For Viger, the British were following the example of a benign Julius Caesar, who left undisturbed the habits and ways of the populations he conquered, and so avoided resentment against Roman rule.

Napoleon was accordingly viewed as the inevitable product of the violent disruption of the Revolution. He invaded Italy and disturbed the Pope in his peaceful rule of the Vatican states, plundered Italy’s great art treasures, and imposed onerous duties and taxes. He was the incarnation of everything French Canadians resolutely opposed and despised.

The newspapers of Quebec embarked on a crusade to denounce the great usurper. The Quebec Gazette, and Le Canadien in Montreal, always favourably reported British and allied victories. They also published dozens of songs with novel lyrics adapted to denounce Napoleon, based on folk tunes known to everyone. In this way, the villain myth of Napoleon penetrated deeply into the fabric of Quebec society.




THE ANTI-NAPOLEON campaign reached its climax with the victories of Admiral Horatio Nelson at Aboukir, on the Nile, in 1802 and at Trafalgar in 1805. The latter, in which Nelson was fatally wounded, was announced on New Year’s Eve and received with an enthusiastic proposal to erect a monument in Montreal that stands today. What is more telling is the undoubted support of French Canadian clergy to finance the construction of

the Nelson column. The registry of the names and amounts of all those who subscribed for the monument included the Bishop and the superior of the Sulpician order who gave a substantial sum at par with the richest merchant, John Ogilvy, and double the donation of James McGill, the fur trader. Even priests in remote parishes like Baie du Fèvre subscribed their modest pound. Despite the loyalty of the church authorities, the arrival of James Craig as Governor in 1807 brought political tensions. Craig, who had fought Napoleon in Europe, was suspicious of the French Canadians. He ordered the seizure of Le Canadien’s printing press and clapped its editors in prison. This approach was ill-advised and risked undermining support at a critical time. Napoleon had imposed a continental blockade in an effort to suffocate trade. With the closure of the ports of northern Europe, the blockade proved to be a boon for Canada, which then supplied in high volume the timber for masts essential to maintain and strengthen the British fleet.

Craig was succeeded in 1811 by George Prevost, a skilled administrator and diplomat who spoke French, his appointment a clear attempt to appease French Canadians at a time of growing tension with the United States. The sale of Louisiana to the U.S. in 1803, the home of exiled Acadians, had fed suspicions that Napoleon would do the same with Canada, given the opportunity. In an 1814 exchange with a Welsh officer, Major Vivian, while in exile on the Isle of Elba, Napoleon predicted that Canada would become an American state, and that Britain had nothing to gain from a territory with only lakes, rocks and forests — an echo of Voltaire’s quip about “a few acres of snow.”

The Americans, defeated in 1775 in their attempt to take Quebec City, decided in 1812 to invade Canada while British forces were concentrated in Europe. The French Canadian militia was quickly assembled and dispatched. There was absolutely no hesitation on their part; French Canadians did not want to fall under American rule. Major-General Isaac Brock succeeded in pushing back the invading troops in Ontario, while Lieutenant-Colonel de Salaberry defeated the Americans at Chateauguay in 1813, after fierce fighting on both ends, and aided by numerous Indian warriors. With the defeat of Napoleon following his disastrous Russian campaign, British troops were sent across the Atlantic and fought back in the United States. In French Canada, Napoleon’s downfall was cause for unanimous celebration. At a Te Deum of thanksgiving for victory, Bishop Plessis delivered a forceful speech against the bloody tyrant. Governor Prevost had already announced to Bishop Plessis that his official status as Catholic Bishop of Quebec had been recognized by the authorities in London, thus resolving an issue pending since 1763.

Napoleon was exiled to the south Atlantic island of Saint Helena. But the myth was about to enter a new and quite unexpected phase. What happened next was the birth of a legend that appealed to the imagination of the French Canadians at a time when they needed to fight to affirm their identity, language, and sense of destiny in Canada.

The British, for their part, had vanquished the most powerful man on Earth and wanted the world to know it. The personal coach that Napoleon had abandoned at Waterloo toured England; anyone could sit in it for a few pennies. The weapons, portraits, and many other objects seized by the Allies in the Imperial palaces in Paris were brought to London and displayed in a museum opened in 1816 for the public. An oversize panorama of the Battle of Waterloo was painted and presented as a public attraction. Shown in a rotunda or circular presentation, this panorama even toured Quebec City and Montreal in 1817, allowing the Canadian public to visualize the clashes of the armies that fought at Waterloo.

That spectacle had unintended effects. Far from disappearing from the public mind, the Emperor’s memory took on a new life as a subject of conversation. Napoleon was now discussed no longer as a threat, but as a human phenomenon — the legendary man who had succeeding in imposing his will, and the glory of France, as far as Egypt and across almost all of Europe.

The legend inspired novelists, playwrights, and other conjurors. From his remote island, Napoleon was known to be dictating his memoirs. They could not yet be published. But in France the shrewd and talented writer, Jacob-Frédéric Lullin, thought of mimicking the voice of Napoleon and published the Manuscrit venu de Sainte-Hélène, first in London in 1817, and in Montreal and Quebec in 1818. The deception was almost perfect. The book sold well and became the subject of much public conversation, the effect so realistic that everyone believed the high motives and generous ideals expressed by this “Napoleon.” He appeared genuinely concerned for the freedom of peoples living under tyrannical monarchies and in societies deprived of science and enlightenment. Such detachment from mere personal gain added an element of sympathy for the defeated Emperor.

Napoleon of course later denied being the author of the book — but by then a new legend had circled the world and penetrated the mind of the public. Following Napoleon’s death on May 5, 1821, the real memoirs — the Mémorial, he had dictated to his secretary Las Cases — were published in 1823. It had immense success and immediately inspired plays that brought Napoleon to life on the stage. In 1831, the first text of Napoleon à Sainte-Hélène was written and published in Montreal, and interpreted also in Quebec City by Canadian actors.




THE FIRST FRENCH Canadian to write the history of Canada from a liberal and nationalistic perspective, François Xavier Garneau, had visited France in 1831. His writings about this circulated widely. For Garneau, it was important to discover the man behind the general and the emperor, the object of a new fascination. The Napoleonic Society was founded by man of letters and editor Napoleon Aubin, who had adopted the name. They celebrated the birthday of the Emperor every August 15.

At the same time, the political situation in Lower Canada (Quebec) became tense on the eve of the Rebellion of 1837-38. The political leaders of the day, Louis-Joseph Papineau and Edmund Bailey O’Callaghan found inspiration in Napoleonic military history. The famous sentence: “The Guard dies but does not surrender!” became a rallying cry to mobilize Patriotes on the mini-battlefields of St. Dénis and St. Eustache, and in the many public assemblies where they gathered.

The spirit of Napoleon remained present in the movement to establish Responsible Government in Canada in the 1840s. And curiously, the Prime Minister of United Canada, Sir Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine, was a lookalike of Napoleon. He had a rather strong face, with a lock of hair on the forehead just like Napoleon. The wife of the Governor General, who had seen Napoleon years before at a social function in France, commented that if she did not know that Napoleon was dead, she would have thought it was him! According to columnists of the time, Lafontaine was the perfect clone. Lafontaine knew that people took him for a doppelgänger of Napoleon. Like any good politician he cultivated his appearance, even keeping his right arm in his jacket à la Napoléon.


"The reigns of Napoleon and Napoleon III became in hindsight a golden age for the Catholic religion anywhere the legacy of Napoleon could be mentioned"


The myth developed rapidly when Napoleon III, a nephew of Napoleon, became Emperor in 1850. Napoleon III was lucky: he was elected Emperor, riding the memory of the “Great Napoleon,” when a whole generation of French citizens felt nostalgia for past glories. Napoleon III knew Queen Victoria from his time of exile in England.

The Queen and Prince Albert had a personal fascination with Napoleon. During an official trip to Paris in 1855, Victoria asked to visit the Tomb of the Emperor at Les Invalides, and purchased a painting of “Napoleon at Fontainebleau” by Delaroche as a present for her husband. A ribald folksong was composed by a nun identified writer that associated Napoleon with a whimsical flirtation with Queen Victoria, and surprisingly it survives to this day in rural areas of Quebec, still sung by seniors who remember the comical words.




CLEARLY THE EVIL associations of Napoleon’s name had by now vanished. What was left was an extraordinary man, whose personal and public life were beyond imagination: a self-made man who started with nothing in an obscure place(Corsica) and conquered the world. He was, indeed, the perfect subject for a novel and inspired

the French Canadian writer, Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, to imagine the life of a bold farmer opening new territory for colonization, Jean Rivard (1862), with Napoleonic energy, and finally building a new city, for which he unsurprisingly became the benevolent mayor! The hero was, as one might expect, nicknamed “The Emperor.”

French Canadians even christened their sons and daughters with the names of Napoleon and Josephine or Marie Louise (Napoleon’s second wife), names among the most popular for French Canadian families in the middle of the19th century that remained en vogue for a hundred years. The three daughters of Sir George-Etienne Cartier, the father of Confederation, were baptized Victoria, Josephine and Hortense (a daughter of Josephine from her previous marriage). Cartier himself wore a pin on his tie with a miniature of Napoleon. One could find many members of the ruling class bearing such names: a Premier of Quebec, S. Napoléon Parent; a Bishop of Montreal, Louis-Joseph-Paul-Napoléon Bruchési; a Speaker of the legislative Assembly, J. Napoléon Francoeur; many lawyers and MP’s like Napoléon A. Belcourt; a baseball player, Napoléon Lajoie; a painter, Napoléon Bourassa, and so on; the name was equally popular among ordinary people.

The name Napoleon was given to ships, to streets in many villages, to mountains and rivers; it was also a popular pastime to assemble scrap books with pictures of Napoleon, in his various roles as General, Emperor, husband, or legislator, always wearing his famous grenadier costume. Almanacs, a yearly publication very popular among working class people and sometimes the only book available in modest homes, often included features about Napoleon, whether invented or embellished, from generation to generation.

One event that had lasting impact was the official visit in 1855 of La Capricieuse, a French battleship, the first ship to enter the St. Lawrence on behalf of the French state since 1763. Napoleon III had approved the visit and received authorization from the British. Its purpose was to establish formal consular relations with United Canada and to foster trade and commercial exchanges. French Canadians celebrated the historic landmark, an emotional homecoming for which they felt indebted to Napoleon III.

Napoleon III showed a particular interest in the Acadians. He financially support the foundation of St. Alexis de Matapédia (Quebec) and St.-Paul-de-Kent (New Brunswick), both Acadian villages, and others in Prince Edward Island; and personally funded schools, church bells, and musical instruments at the request of the Acadians, who had been abandoned by the old regime.

In fact, the whole Bonaparte family developed a keen interest in French Canada. Three members of the royal family visited Quebec, each time presiding over large outdoor events, reviewing the guard, addressing celebratory banquets, and contributing to specific initiatives. For instance, Prince Napoleon’s visit in 1861, the year after the Prince of Wales’ official visit, led him to donate the sculpture representing an allegory of war that sits atop the Monument des Braves at Sainte-Foy (Quebec), commemorating Canadian, French, and British soldiers alike who lost their lives in 1760. It was a gesture of reconciliation and thousands attended. The Prince also made a gift of books and prints to the Institut Canadien, whose lectures drew large crowds and whose library was open to the public and contained books prohibited by the Church.

Another member of the Bonaparte family, Lucien Bonaparte Wyse, was keenly interested in the initiatives to colonize the region of Lake Timiskaming and Abitibi in northwestern Quebec. He invested his own money to support the establishment of the Parish of Guigues and its church. Another family member, Prince Roland Bonaparte, visited in 1888, though he was more interested in geological, botanical, and ethnographical subjects. He attended the celebration of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day, June 24, where thousands of French Canadians gathered on Saint Helen’s Island to hear him speak.

One of the most compelling legacies of Napoleon for French Canadians was the Civil Code. The Civil Code of Lower Canada (Quebec) was adopted by the Parliament of the Province of Canada in 1865, following a bill adopted in 1857 creating a codification commission on the initiative of George-Etienne Cartier. Its goal was to update the old Custom of Paris, the system of civil law that had been in force in New France since 1664 and afterwards in Quebec. Two hundred years had passed since that time, and indeed much had changed. The model for this update was found in the original Napoleonic Code, adopted at the initiative of Napoleon himself in 1804.

There was resistance in some quarters (especially from the Church) to this change in the ancient law, particularly in the field of family relationships, for which the Church had special care. However, knowing how much Napoleon was revered by a large majority, Cartier presented the new Code as the utmost legacy of the genius of Napoleon. Public opinion reacted favourably, even though the new Civil Code also contained provisions inspired by the British commercial common law.

For the next hundred years, the Civil Code would remain unchanged, an enduring sociocultural link between Quebec and the Emperor and France. If French Canadians were to survive as an organized civil society, they would owe it to Napoleon himself. The historical link with the Emperor was unique.




THE TRAGIC DEATH in 1879 of the Imperial Prince, the son of Napoleon III, was a cause célèbre in Quebec. The Prince had been serving with a British expedition in southern Africa to pacify tribal groups. Separating himself from the main body to pursue a Zulu brave, the Prince was ambushed and killed, only 23 years old. Public emotion in French Canada reached an extraordinary high, as if this were the end of the Bonaparte name. Newspapers published poems and coverage for months. A public subscription was launched in Quebec to pay for a floral tribute to be sent to Empress Eugenie, the Prince’s mother, then living in England, with a written address on behalf of “the Youth of French Canada.” The floral tribute was presented by a young law student, Dennis Barry. When Barry returned from his mission to England after having met with the Empress, with a stopover in Paris to meet Prince Napoleon, he gave public lectures in Quebec about the trip.

This wide interest in Napoleon and his family among French Canadian youth was in fact cultivated by teachers, particularly in the colleges, who used the life of Napoleon as an inspiration. Many French Canadian authors, poets, novelists and reporters had been inspired by what Napoleon represented.

But in reality, the image of Napoleon now developed in the public mind had been deeply sanitized. Few mentioned that close to one million young soldiers recruited by decree had lost their lives on the battlefields of Europe, the many thousands of wounded, or their broken families. Few spoke of Napoleon’s unfaithfulness to Josephine, or his two sons out of wedlock, and many other romances with actresses, opera singers, and foreign princesses that did not exactly make him a moral example in Victorian times. Napoleon had in fact been elevated to the rank of a superman, offered up as an extraordinary example of achievement, and destined to motivate and inspire a whole society. Politicians quoted him in all kinds of instances. Honoré Mercier, the nationalist Quebec Premier (1887-1891), was always infuriated by the way the British had treated Napoleon aboard HMS Bellerophon in 1815. Napoleon had trusted the British but they did not give him the fair military trial he was entitled to. Sir Wilfrid Laurier knew the history of Napoleon by heart, and was known for quoting him. A caricature by Henri Julien represented Laurier as Napoleon with his bicorne, long grey coat, and sabre, ready to charge. Another Quebec Premier, Félix-Gabriel Marchand (1897-1900) had previously visited Paris and wrote about how Napoleon III had capitalized on his uncle’s legend.




THE ANTI-CLERICAL Third Republic in 1870 replaced the regime of Napoleon III, leading to some unexpected developments. France adopted laws prohibiting the teaching of religion in schools, and ordered the closing of all religious institutions providing social services, to be replaced by a “neutral” (aggressively non-religious — ed.) public system. By 1905, the French had formally proclaimed the “separation” of Church and State — triggering the departure of more than 2,000 members of religious orders from France. These were in turn welcomed in the UK and Canada where they continued their apostolic missions. This effectively ended the Concordat of 1801 that Napoleon had signed with the Pope, reestablishing the freedom of religion in France and the status of the Catholic Church. Catholicism in France had thrived under the Concordat for a hundred years, especially under Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie, a Spanish princess well-known as a devoted Catholic.

After 1905, France became increasingly anticlerical, and for French exiles in Canada, and those whom they influenced, the time of Napoleon and Napoleon III became in hindsight a golden age for the Catholic religion in their former country. That situation renewed the interest and praise for Napoleon in schools, in colleges, in publications, in newspapers, and in all instances where the legacy of Napoleon could be mentioned as benevolent to the Church. Public opinion conveniently forgot that Napoleon had previously shown contempt for Pope Pius VII and kept him prisoner for more than four years, first at Savona (near Genoa) and then at Château de Fontainebleau for nearly two years. The myth was certainly stronger than historical facts.

Even the mother of Napoleon was elevated to the rank of a role model for French Canadian mothers who had to take care of families with an average of ten children or more. These mothers were invited to follow the example of Napoleon’s mother who always remained the pillar of the Bonaparte family, through times of glory and misery in exile, always keeping her sincere religious convictions.

Historian Joseph-Edmond Roy’s study “Napoleon au Canada,” which sought to explain why French Canadians could have been so anti-Napoleonic a century before, was surprising to many. Presented to the Royal Society of Canada in 1911, his conclusions tended to undermine the alliance of Crown and Church, almost as if it had been a fraud, persuading French Canadians to follow their leaders blindly.

The third coming of the Napoleon myth, continuing over the course of the following century, saw the universal popularization of the image, and the emergence of his name as a brand used to sell all kinds of commercial products, rooting Napoleon in our present-day consumer society. His image also became a template for measuring the character of politicians of all stripes.

Theatre programs offered several Napoleon plays to a willing audience, such as “Napoleon” by F. Meynet and G. Didier (1895), “Le Roi de Rome” by E. Pouvillon and A. d’Artois (1898), and the most popular one, “Madame Sans-Gène” by V. Sardou and E. Moreau (1893), a comedy opposing two strong characters: a robust woman from a working-class background who ends up marrying Marshal Lefebvre from Napoleon’s army, and Napoleon himself, face to face. That play was continually performed and became a rite of passage for aspiring actors until the 1950s, broadcast in the first ten years of television at Radio-Canada.

Questions from critics were always the same: did the actor faithfully represent the image? There were so many prints, images and reproductions that people shaped for themselves an imaginary construction of Napoleon, and the actor depicting him had to fit into that psychological and physical mould — the myth always more perfect than the real man. Unique was the phenomenon of the play “L’Aiglon” (The Young Eagle), written by Edmond Rostand in 1900 for Sarah Bernhardt. The play is about the son of Napoleon, in exile at the court of Austria where his mother Marie-Louise was born, and the dream he entertains about his father and the brighter future that he will never know since he would be cut off at a young age. Bernhardt interpreted the androgynous role more than 200 times in her career. On her fifth visit to Montreal in 1911, she staged “L’Aiglon” three times.

“L’Aiglon” was a hit in Quebec and in Montreal in 1902, 1903, 1906, 1907, 1908, 1909, and 1910, and was one of the fifteen most-performed plays during that period. It remained popular in the 1920s and was the subject of dissertations and interpretation by student and amateur troupes and in colleges up to the 1960s, a classic masterpiece whose romanticism had everything to please teenagers. There was even a parallel drawn with the abandonment of Quebec by France in 1763 and its loss of a glorious destiny, just as the “young eagle” himself was lost. Many generations of young French Canadian actresses started their career with that role, always modelling their costumes and gestures on Bernhardt, whose portrayal was pictured in popular postcards familiar to all.

Napoleon served to inspire and feed students’ imagination, as it did that of their teachers, for years to come. From the influential priest-historian Lionel Groulx, who believed that a providential leader would one day manifest himself to lead French Canadians like a Napoleon, to the era of Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Brian Mulroney: each had a marked interest in Napoleon. Trudeau would refer to Napoleon’s strategies when he spoke to MPs and Senators: he would stand up sphinx-like and say, “what would Napoleon have done in these circumstances?” Members of his caucus would hang on his words. Mulroney in his memoirs also talks about his fascination with Napoleon.




THE NAME AND image of Napoleon has been reproduced on a myriad daily products, including tobacco brands such as W.C. McDonald’s “Napoleon honeydew tobacco” in a drum-shaped tin. Pipes in the shape of Napoleon’s head, with bicorne, remained popular. A baseball club was named “Les Napoléon” (Lévis-Quebec). Even mutual funds were sold under the name “l’Ordre des chevaliers Bonaparte,” the Order of Bonaparte’s Knights in Quebec City. Furniture was decorated with Napoleon’s bust or the initial “N,” and prints and statues of all kinds could be found in many homes. Children learned songs at school such as one that began, “Napoleon had 500 soldiers, all marching to the same beat ...”

Some of the most popular silent movies shown in Quebec were about Napoleon. In 1906, the first movie-theatre to open in Montreal offered “La Vie de Napoleon.” In 1909 it was Napoleon met Josephine. In 1914, on the eve of the First World War, three movies about Napoleon were advertised. However, it was Napoleon, the silent masterpiece of 1927 by Abel Gance starring Albert Dieudonné, that drew the largest crowds. It should not be surprising, then, that one of the most recurring comic political caricatures in French Canada was to be represented as Napoleon, with bicorne, grey coat, and sabre. Among the earliest was Sir Wilfrid Laurier in 1916. It continued with many others: Maurice Duplessis, known for his authoritarian stance, in 1939; René Lévesque (in 1961), as a warning to anyone who is called to exercise authority; Mayor Jean Drapeau (1962) who disliked opposition; Trudeau (1972), shown with a large cape and with a horse beside him; Jean Chrétien (2002) in his office; Premier Bernard Landry (2005), Mayor Régis Labeaume of Quebec City (2010), Mayor Denis Coderre of Montreal (2009), even Stephen Harper, thrown by a horse (2010), and finally Pauline Marois (2012), pictured as Josephine crowned by Jean-François Lisée as Napoleon, besides many others such as Lawrence Cannon and Gaétan Barrette, Quebec’s Minister of Health. It’s an uninterrupted tradition of more than a hundred years, and one that requires no explanation, as readers immediately grasp its meaning. It is not really negative: more of an awareness of the temptation of politicians rather than a threat to democracy.

Collectors have assembled all manner of objects, prints, artifacts, and works of art that maintain an interest in the Emperor. Ben Weider, the successful Montreal businessman, devoted his fortune and energy to writing books about the mysterious death of Napoleon, which he concluded was due to arsenic poisoning in his wine at St. Helena. Weider’s books have been translated into 42 languages. They even inspired the scenario of a film by Antoine de Caunes, “Monsieur N.,” in 2002.

In the 1950s, McGill University’s Library curator, Richard Pennington, developed the largest collection of Napoleonic prints based on the donation of the personal collection of Frederick Southam. Contemporary artists continue to paint works such as “La dernière campagne de Napoléon” (1946) by Fernand Leduc, reproduced on a stamp issued in 1998. Producer Yves Simoneau directed a television miniseries in 2002 consisting of four episodes of the life of Napoleon. In 2010, a new play by the young author Stéphane Brulotte, entitled “A Game with the Emperor,” was produced at the Théâtre Jean Duceppe in Montreal, depicting an imaginary plot by a young British officer to poison Napoleon in St. Helena but finally confessing his criminal intent to the Emperor out of admiration for him.




ONE CANNOT KILL Napoleon: he always survives his enemies. He is immortal. Nobody is astonished to find on the shelves of grocery stores in Quebec “Napoleon,” the organic dark-roast coffee marked with the image of the Emperor, right hand in vest; or “Napoleon” cheese from the Blackburn factory in Jonquière, Lac-Saint-Jean, or “Le Bonaparte” cheese from Portneuf, which won first prize from the American Cheese Society in 2009. Products labelled “Napoleon” tend to sell: be they barbecues, air-conditioning units (by a company located in Montreal, Québec, and Barrie), or anything else. The list is surprising. Napoleon’s image can sell almost anything: jeans, watches, television series. Napoleon remains the subject of the largest number of books ever printed after the Bible. For French Canadians, a minority group in an English-speaking continent, Napoleon offers a link with a universal heritage shared with millions of others worldwide, reassuring them in their minority status. The myth of a self-made man who came from an obscure corner of the world to France and conquered the world — in order, the myth says, to promote his vision of an enlightened society for all — remains a powerful inspiration in the psycho-cultural consciousness of French Canadians.

To feel a connection to Napoleon is to live beyond one’s boundaries. He represents something universal that transcends the ages, an idea that successive generations can adapt to their most cherished aspirations, one that reassures French Canadians about their own survival as a distinct people within North America. Napoleon thus remains a unique myth in a society where one would not have otherwise expected to find the Emperor’s visage and memory.


1. “Revealed: The chicken mogul who bought Napoleon’s hat for £1.5 million,” Telegraph, Nov. 18, 2014.


Serge Joyal P.C., who served as Senator for the Division of Kennebec from 1997 to 2020, is a lawyer and expert collector and appraiser. He served as a Liberal M.P. from a Montreal riding for ten years including two as Minister of State in the cabinet of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. This article is adapted from Joyal’s book Le Mythe de Napoléon au Canada français, published by Del Busso of Montreal in 2013.

-- Published in The Dorchester Review 8, No. 2, Autumn-Winter 2018, pp. 15-23.

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