Saturday, September 1, 2012

An Acadian’s Stand for Tenants' Rights: The Tale of Joseph Doucette

Poor Doucette…his sooty forge shall never again…resound to the music of the hammer and the anvil. These harmonious sounds will never more…gladden the wife's heart; and the helpless family, within whose circle peace and plenty once reigned, will be cast upon the cold charity of the world.
Charlottetown Herald (January 31, 1866)

The “poor” blacksmith in question was my maternal great-great grandfather, Joseph Doucette (1826-1899). The story of the incident that separated him from his home and hearth was handed down in my family. Thanks to my sister’s research we now have a more complete picture of a man known as Tenant League Joe.

My grandmother was an Acadienne. Her Doucette ancestors had left mainland Acadia circa 1741 to settle the island that they knew as Île Saint-Jean. After Le Grand Dérangement – an atrocity of the Seven Years War known in English as the Deportation of the Acadians the Doucettes returned to the island. The treaty ending the war had ceded the island to Great Britain. It was later renamed Prince Edward Island.

In 1767, four years after the treaty, King George III divided the island into 67 lots, 66 of which were sold by lottery. Most of the buyers had close ties to the Court. The fate of many of the survivors among the Acadians who returned to the island was to find themselves tenant farmers on British lands held by overseas proprietors. The majority of the immigrants who came to the island in the 19th c. from Great Britain and Ireland were also tenant farmers under absentee proprietors.

The system of absentee landlords was flawed since such a proprietor has little stake in the community. The land had been sold under the condition that the landlords met certain obligations regarding development of their properties but in most cases the proprietors did not abide by these terms. Record keeping was poor and the collection of rents was erratic. An 1860 commission, including two of three members hired by the proprietors themselves, found that the record keeping was so poor that it was unreasonable for a landlord to hold any tenant responsible for more than two years rent in arrears.

Pressure to end this leasehold system of land tenure rose throughout the first half of the 19th century. In the 1830s and 1840s attempts were made to influence the proprietors to sell their lands to the tenants at a fair price. Tax schemes, royal commissions, and overseas delegations failed to convince the proprietors to loosen their grip. 

Having failed through these means to end the leasehold system, in 1864 the tenant farmers formed an alliance known as the Tenant League. The Tenant League was multicultural and boasted 11,000 members. The League’s aim was to withhold rent and force the proprietors to sell. Local chapters of the League would negotiate terms of sale with the proprietors in each district. When the authorities came to enforce the collection of rents, the Leaguers would support one another in their resistance. Tin trumpets, sounding from farm to farm, were used to signal the Leaguers to come to each other’s aid.

On July 18, 1865, Deputy Sheriff James Curtis with three bailiffs came to serve writs against two farmers in arrears on their rent. The tin horns sounded and the Tenant Leaguers moved to halt the Deputy’s mission. Curtis and his bailiffs seized a horse, wagon, saddle, and harness belonging to James Proctor, one of the farmers under writ, as surety against payment of rent. After repairing to the Curtisdale Hotel, the Deputy and his men encountered a group of Tenant Leaguers demanding the return of Proctor’s goods.

What followed was an ugly confrontation in which one of the Leaguers, Joseph Doucette, a farmer as well as a blacksmith, attacked Curtis with a fence post, shattering his arm. Proctor’s goods were rescued and the Tenant Leaguers escaped. After further incidents, on August 1st, the island authorities requested that British regulars be sent from Halifax on the mainland to quell what was perceived as an incipient rebellion against Her Majesty Queen Victoria.

Joseph had immediate motives for his actions on behalf of the Tenant League. A warrant had been issued for the arrest of his septuagenarian father, Fabien, for supposedly owing 19 years of back rent. Both men vehemently denied this claim and such a charge flew in the face of the general findings of the 1860 commission.

On August 15, 1865, Sheriff Thomas Dodd and nine armed men were sent with a warrant for the arrest of Joseph Doucette for “riot, assault, and rescue” of the property seized from Proctor. Anticipating arrest, Doucette had men stationed in outbuildings on his property and in his house as well. Expecting the Sheriff’s approach by night, the men outside the main house had fallen asleep when the Sheriff and his force arrived at about five in the morning.

The posse broke down the door of the house after having been refused entry and after Doucette had put his head out the window to blow his signal trumpet. The posse heard the signal repeat in the distance. A pitched battle then occurred between the Doucette family and supporters, and the Sheriff and his men.

The family, including my teenage great-grandfather Felix, took refuge on the second floor with several others. When one of the Sheriff’s men tried to enter the second floor through a window, one of the women cold-cocked him with a pot. Doucette and his men held the stairs with sticks and on more than one occasion repelled the posse’s assault.
Arrest of Joseph Doucette
Halifax Morning Chronicle
August 22, 1865

Deputy Sheriff Curtis then ordered his son to charge the stairs with fixed bayonet. A shot was fired which the lawmen claimed was aimed at no one in particular. However, our family story says that Joseph had a “British ball” in his leg for the rest of his life as well as a cleft in his head where he was struck with a pistol. This armed charge broke the resistance. Doucette was dragged by his hair down the stairs and arrested.

At his trial, the Islander newspaper (January 26, 1866) described Doucette as “a Frenchman, tall and muscular, of middle age, and bearing on his countenance traces of an excitable and turbulent nature.”  In the case of The Queen vs. Joseph Doucette, the accused received a two-year jail term for the assault on the Deputy Sheriff and the resistance at his home, as well as a fine of 20 pounds.

The conviction of Joseph Doucette and two fellow Tenant Leaguers became a cause célèbre. A petition with 5,275 names was gathered and, reportedly through the agitation of his progressive, québécois parish priest, Georges-Antoine Belcourt, Doucette was released on August 1, 1866 and his fine excused.

The family history says that Joseph suffered for the remainder of his days from physical wounds as well as from what we would now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 1875, ten years after the Tenant League Riots, Joseph was deposed by a commission that resolved the land dispute in favor of the tenants.

In his deposition he gave an Acadian’s view of the essence of this struggle: “I have resisted paying rent because I thought it was not due…When the treaty was made, the French were offered to be allowed to remain if they would take the oath [of allegiance to the British Crown]. They did so, but they were not treated right…It was this grievance that made me fight so well in the Tenant League.”

I would like to acknowledge my sister Joan Vermette who did the primary research on our Acadian line and who collected the documents regarding the story of Joseph Doucette. I have also relied on the article “Tenants and Troopers: The Hazel Grove Road, 1865-1868” by Peter McGuigan (The Island Magazine, Fall/Winter 1992, pp 22-28) and the book The Tenant League of Prince Edward Island, 1864-1867 by Ian Ross Robertson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996, cf. esp. 172-5).