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Saturday, April 19, 2014

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Town welcomes biographer of ex-mayor

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Author Frank Guttman, left, presents a copy of Le Diable du Saint-Hyacinthe to Saint-Hyacinthe Mayor Claude Bernier.

Frank Guttman, a retired physician turned historian, was feted at Saint-Hyacinthe city hall recently on the publication of the French translation of his biography of a rare progressive Quebec politician of the first half of the 20th century, Télesphore-Damien Bouchard.

The book launch was hosted by Mayor Claude Bernier, and NDP Leader Tom Mulcair was among the guests.

Guttman, former head of surgery at the Montreal Children’s Hospital and McGill University professor, self-published The Devil from Saint-Hyacinthe/A Tragic Hero in 2007.

Bouchard (1881-1962), a newspaper publisher, devoted almost a half-century to public life, as an alderman and then mayor of Saint-Hyacinthe and, in provincial politics, as the town’s Liberal deputy, serving in the cabinet in the 1930s and early ’40s.

Saint-Hyacinthe, about 60 kilometres east of Montreal, was a small town, but today has a population of 53,000.

After leaving the legislature, Bouchard was appointed to Canada’s Senate. In between, he was the first president of Hydro-Québec, having long advocated the nationalization of hydro-electric power.

The Devil from Saint-Hyacinthe was the first published biography of Bouchard and long overdue recognition of a man Guttman believes was 60 years ahead of his time because of his outspoken anti-clericalism and opposition to narrow nationalism, including anti-Semitism.

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In retirement, Guttman, who is now over 80, went back to university to pursue an interest in Quebec history, and earned an MA at McGill.

Bouchard also fought for free and compulsory education, women’s suffrage and workers’ rights, and against political corruption, earning ruthless enemies, including Union Nationale strongman Maurice Duplessis.

As early as 1905, Bouchard was defending Jews from the prevalent anti-Semitism in the province and denouncing the pogroms in Russia.

Although Guttman did not personally know Bouchard, he was a colleague of the late Harold Segall, a cardiologist who was doctor to and longtime friend of Bouchard. Segall was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Guttman published The Devil from Saint-Hyacinthe himself through the online iUniverse.

This year, the commercial publisher Editions Hurtubise translated it and published it three months ago as Le Diable de Saint-Hyacinthe: Télesphore-Damien Bouchard, apparently not seeing him quite as tragic as Guttman. The preface is written by former prime minister Jean Chrétien.

Publisher André Gagnon spoke at the launch, and Chrétien sent a message from Regina, regretting he could not be there.

“Many people have asked me how it is that I, a Jew of English mother tongue, thought of writing on the life of Télesphore-Damien Bouchard,” Guttman said at the event. He was impressed with the man early on.

“During my adolescence, I regularly read the newspaper Le Haut Parleur, that T-D [as he was familiarly known] published in that era. His editorials were side-by-side in English and French,” Guttman said at the launch.

But it was not until years later, when he trained and worked at Hôpital Sainte-Justine that Guttman, who grew up in Outremont, had his first direct contact with French-Canadians. Although there were many francophones in that well-to-do city, there was little mingling between the two communities.

“I learned that the image that circulated in the rest of Canada of a narrow-minded Quebec, controlled by a strong and domineering church, was not the whole truth…

“During my time at Sainte-Justine, I met many people open in spirit, open to strangers, like the people who welcomed my grandparents when they arrived from Europe at the end of the 19th century.”

Guttman said he thinks Bouchard should be better known to Quebecers – and all Canadians – today, as “a remarkable man, open minded and representative of an important current in Quebec history.”

He is thrilled that the launch made the front page of the local newspaper Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe.

Guttman believes Bouchard would have been fiercely opposed to the Parti Québécois government’s proposed charter of Quebec values, if he were alive today.

“He always opposed the separatists of his day and defended the rights of strangers, who in his era, were the Jews. He fought against the anti-Semites of his time. He would have defended the immigrants of our day in the same way,” Guttman said.

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