Born in 1823 to a well-connected and pious French-Canadian family in Lower Canada, Alexandre-Antonin Taché felt called to the priesthood very early in life. While in seminary during the early 1840s, filled with the zeal [End Page 305] inspired by the Ultramontane religious revival promoted by Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal, he dedicated himself to mission work and joined the Oblates. In the summer of 1845 he began missionary work among the Aboriginal and Métis peoples in the Canadian Northwest. In 1851 he was appointed coadjutor for St Boniface and in 1852, when he was just thirty years old, succeeded to the bishopric. In 1871, Rome elevated him to become archbishop and metropolitan for the West, in which position he remained until his death in 1894. Taché's episcopacy spanned the formative years of Manitoba's settlement and the establishment of the Catholic church in that province. As a consequence, he played a major role in the developments and controversies of the time. At the request of the federal government, he negotiated a peace in 1870 to end the Red River Rebellion of 1869, and as a religious leader he played a formative role in securing legislation that established a dual confessional and linguistic system of education, the foundation, he hoped, of a French-speaking and Catholic sister province to Quebec. To this end, he also became involved in provincial politics, promoting politicians who would defend the linguistic and religious rights of the province's French-speaking Catholics together with the Métis' rights to land.
This was to be Taché's lifelong vision for the province, and the realization of this vision was something that was to elude him. Demographics, to be sure, defeated the vision. The Métis dispersed to continue hunting as settlers arrived, and these settlers were English-speaking Protestants, mainly from Ontario. Taché's long-hoped-for migration from the Quebec heartland never materialized. But as Raymond J.A. Huel shows in his definitive biography, Taché was often his own worst enemy. An adept financial administrator, whose expertise in such matters was drawn on by both fellow clergy and laymen, he had little understanding of human nature and was incapable of relating to other people. Not only was Taché emotionally aloof, he was also politically naïve, a fatal flaw in one who hoped to be a social leader. He was, moreover, a natural polemicist, one who could not resist dashing out vitriol, when soothing words might have won the hearts of his readers. It comes as no surprise, then, that Taché managed to alienate significant federal and provincial politicians as well as some of Quebec's foremost bishops, sometimes precisely when he needed their support the most. In declining health towards the end of his career, he led the fight against the Manitoba Schools Act of 1890. This act, passed by the English-speaking Protestant majority, eliminated confessional schools and abolished instruction in French, a betrayal, he believed, of the protections promised in the Manitoba Act of 1870, the federal legislation that established the province. Today, Taché is probably best known for his unsuccessful attempts to win for Louis Riel an amnesty for his role in the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and then later a reprieve from a death sentence for leading the North West Rebellion of 1885. [End Page 306]
Huel's biography of Taché is the product of a lifetime of scholarship, and Huel has the rare gift of drawing his readers in and enabling them to see the world as Taché saw it. This perspective is this study's strength but also its one weak spot. The other players in the western drama - the Métis and the Anglo-Protestant settlers - remain cast as Taché's opponents rather than groups with their own hopes for status and aspirations to collective identity.
Huel's portrait is indeed a sympathetic one, but it is also an honest one which ably captures Taché's flaws. Taché's...