One of the pioneers of agricultural science in Québec and Canada: Isidore Joseph Amédée Marsan

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Isidore Joseph Amédée Marsan. Anon., “Isidore Joseph Amédée Marsan.” Le Bulletin des agriculteurs, 17 September 1921, cover.

As a member of the species Homo sapiens, or wise man in English, an oxymoron of oxymorons if there is one, my reading friend, you must eat to survive. Agriculture played / plays a crucial role in this survival of humanity which over time became an almost exponential growth in population which threatens the balance, and even perhaps the survival of the Earth’s ecosystem.

I would like to share a few words with you today about one of the pioneers of agricultural science in Québec and Canada.

Isidore Joseph Amédée Marsan, also known as Lapierre, was born into a farming family in Saint-Roch-d’Achigan, now Saint-Roch-de-l’Achigan, a village near L’Assomption, United Canada, in July 1844. According to a biographer / hagiographer, Marsan was interested in agriculture even before reaching adolescence. Indeed, he began to interview elderly farmers in his neighborhood during the years 1857-58.

Would you believe that this brilliant boy shared the halls of the Collège de l’Assomption in L’Assomption with well-known Québec personalities like Henri Charles Wilfrid Laurier, the first francophone Prime Minister of Canada (1896-1911) and a gentleman mentioned in July 2019, November 2020 and May 2021 issues of our blog / bulletin / thingee?

And yes, my reading friend, yours truly also wonders how a farmer managed to pay for the education of one of his sons in a collège classique.

A collège Classique of the 1860s, by the way, was a secondary level educational institution controlled by the roman catholic church attended by the male progeny of Québec’s elites which allowed said progeny to reach university in order to become priests or, more likely, doctors or lawyers. The first all female collège classique opened its doors in 1908. By comparison, the first all male one had opened its doors in 1635, and long live the patriarchy. The long overdue overhaul of Québec’s education system in the 1960s led to the disappearance of the collèges classiques, but back to our story.

Once his classical education was completed and after a very successful articling in the office of a Cour supérieure judge, a brilliant career as a lawyer began for Marsan and… And no, this career in the temple of chicanery did not begin. To the surprise of several of his friends who believed he had completely lost his marbles, Marsan decided to pursue a career in agriculture.

At the request (?) of the management of the Collège de L’Assomption, on the advice of the member of the Assemblée législative of the United Canadas for L’Assomption, the notary Louis Archambeault, Marsan undertook studies at the École d’agriculture de Sainte-Anne-de-la Pocatière, in Sainte-Anne-de-la Pocatière, United Canadas. He attended this first institution of its kind (1859) in the United Canadas / Canada, and one of the first in North America, for a year, that is in 1866-67.

The École d’agriculture de L’Assomption having opened in the fall of 1867, thanks to the efforts of the Collège de L’Assomption and Archambeault, then commissioner / minister of Agriculture and Public Works of Québec (July 1867-September 1874), Marsan snagged the positions of technical director and professor – a very simple snag, these positions having been for all intent and purposes promised to him before he set foot in this institution where he was going to teach for more than 30 years as the one and only professor of agriculture.

Was the École d’agriculture de L’Assomption the second institution of its kind in the United Canadas / Canada, my reading friend? Yes, this is a test. Please answer the question? No, you say? You answered at random, did you not? Well, you were right to answer no. Two other agricultural schools were established in the part of the United Canadas now known as Québec between 1859 and 1867, namely those of Varennes (1860-61) and Sainte-Thérèse (1863-65). Both disappeared due to lack of moolah, much of said moolah coming from the state, and / or lack of students.

Indeed, many United Canadian pater familias did not want to lose the use of the strong arms of one of their oldest sons sitting on a school bench. Worse still, they did not believe it was necessary to wear out one’s pant bottoms on that same bench to plow a field or shovel manure – a disdain for education shared by several pater familias who worked in factories, but I digress.

Some students of agricultural schools also ended up getting really fed up with the condescending looks of students with non-callused hands and clean clothes from the classical colleges of Sainte-Anne-de-la Pocatière, Varennes, Sainte-Thérèse and L’Assomption, located a few stone’s throw away from said schools.

Would you believe that the number of students at the agricultural schools of Sainte-Anne-de-la Pocatière or L’Assomption could be counted on the fingers of 3, 2 or 1 hand(s) during the 1860s and 1870s? But back to our story.

In March 1868, the Chambre d’agriculture du Bas-Canada, an organisation created in 1852 to assist the commissioner of Agriculture and Public Works, granted Marsan a licence allowing him to teach agriculture. This agricultural engineer thus becomes an ex officio member of said chamber. Marsan participated in the activities of the Chambre d’agriculture du Bas-Canada and its successor, the Conseil d’agriculture de Québec, until 1896.

It is worth noting that agriculture was not the only subject Marsan taught at the École d’agriculture de L’Assomption. He indeed taught geometry and arithmetic.

Please note, of course, that Marsan was not the only faculty member of the École d’agriculture de L’Assomption. Nay. There were also professors of English, veterinary art and rural law.

The training offered to adolescents aged 15 and over, primarily the sons of farmers, lasted 2 years. Back home, these young people made use of the knowledge they had acquired and, at least it was hoped, gradually passed this knowledge on to their neighbors.

In 1876, Marsan was given the post of manager of a farm attached to the École d’agriculture de L’Assomption. The government of Québec in its great wisdom did not deem it necessary to pay the salary of such a manager. Marsan held this second post until around October 1895.

The Collège de L’Assomption had begun to acquire agricultural land around 1854. This Ferme du Portage soon became a model farm.

Before I forget, Marsan counted among his many friends none other than the “roi du Nord,” the Québec catholic priest François Xavier Antoine Labelle, a key figure in the history of the Laurentians region, north of the Saint Lawrence River.

Marsan was as well one of the influential figures supporting the creation of a network of experimental farms across Canada, namely

- the Central Experimental Farm, near Ottawa, Ontario, founded in 1886 – where one can find today, in 2021, the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum (Hello, WK!), a sister institution of the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and

- 4 regional experimental farms, founded in 1887-88: Nappan, Nova Scotia, Indian Head, Northwest Territories (Saskatchewan in 2021), Brandon, Manitoba and Agassiz, British Columbia.

Marsan was appointed lecturer in agriculture in 1892. In 1900 he was also granted the (salaried?) post of secretary-rapporteur of the commission of judges of the Ordre du Mérite agricole. In fact, Marsan was obviously one of the judges of this honorary Québec order instituted in 1889 by Premier Honoré Mercier and directly inspired by the Ordre du Mérite agricole instituted in France in July 1883.

By virtue of the functions he cumulated and accumulated over the decades, without much financial benefit it seemed, Marsan visited hundreds of farmers in virtually all regions of the Québec of the time.

And yes, the total area of ​​Québec in 1901, the first year of the 20th century, yes, yes, the first, was considerably less than its area in 2021. Virtually all the territory north of the 53rd parallel, in other words Labrador and the District of Ungava were in fact part of the British colony of Newfoundland or of the Northwest Territories, a Canadian (colonial?) territory. It was in 1912 that the federal government transferred said district to Québec, with the exception of the islands located along the coasts.

In 1927, as you know, one of the highest British courts, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, transferred part of the Labradorian territory of Québec to Newfoundland, which was then a dominion – a decision rejected by every government of Québec since that date, but back to our story.

By virtue of the functions he cumulated and accumulated over the decades, without much financial benefit it seemed, Marsan visited hundreds of farmers in virtually all regions of the Québec of the time. He thus acquired unparalleled knowledge of the soil and agriculture of Québec.

Concerned about the high number of farm schools with limited resources on Québec soil, the government led by the aforementioned Mercier reduced the amounts allocated to the École d’Agriculture de l’Assomption in the late 1880s or early 1890s. Involved in a financial scandal, a far from liberal activity, said government lost power. Its opposition party successors restored the funding the school needed. The return to power of Mercier’s party, who had died in October 1894, was a game changer, however.

Anxious to centralise agricultural education in Sainte-Anne-de-la Pocatière and Oka, Québec, where an eponymous agricultural school had opened in 1893, the government of Québec decreed the closure of the École d’Agriculture de l’Assomption in 1899. Some saw this closure as a political decision.

In 32 years of existence, the École d’Agriculture de l’Assomption had offered courses to approximately 625 students.

Marsan joined the teaching staff of the École d’Agriculture d’Oka around September 1903. Initially a lecturer, he became director of agricultural studies and full professor before taking up the post of scientific director in 1908. Marsan obtained this promotion at the moment the school was affiliated with the Université Laval à Montréal, the Montréal annex of the Université Laval of Québec, Québec, created in 1878 with the blessing of pope Pius IX, born Giovanni Maria Mastai Ferretti, to whom we owe the dogma of papal infallibility (1870). As a result, the École d’Agriculture d’Oka became the Institut agricole d’Oka – a change in status which did not change the poor working conditions of the staff. Anyway, let us move on.

Professor and director Marsan and his colleagues formed the first generation of Québec agronomists.

In 1916, the Université Laval (à Montréal?) awarded Marsan the first doctorate in agricultural sciences in Québec.

Marsan retired in 1921, the year he received the diploma of very great special merit from the Ordre du Mérite agricole.

Recognised for his talents as a teacher and conference speaker, Marsan made extensive use of the knowledge acquired during his numerous trips throughout Québec in his courses and conferences. Anxious to give his students concrete examples of what he taught in the classroom, he took them in the field, both in Oka itself and in the surrounding area.

As sympathetic as he was to science, Marsan nevertheless remained a Homo sapiens of his time. His conception of agriculture and the farmer was quite traditional, for example. He preferred the autarky of farm families to buying products in stores. Marsan also preferred to see his compatriots working in agriculture in the countryside rather than in factories in the city.

Marsan died in April 1924, at the age of 79. According to many, he died poor. Nearly 55 years of dedication did not seem to count for much in Québec (the city) and Québec (the province) at the time. Sorry. Sorry.

See ya later.

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Rénald Fortier