Briefcase found in attic holds clues to secret society of francophones

An old briefcase hidden for years in an attic in northwestern New Brunswick could unlock some of the mystery surrounding a former secret society of francophones, according to historians.

Stuffed with documents about the long-disbanded Order of Jacques Cartier and its influential members

This briefcase, kept hidden in an attic, contains documents related to the Order of Jacques Cartier dating from 1953 to 1965. (Nadia Gaudreau/Radio-Canada)

An old briefcase hidden for years in an attic in northwestern New Brunswick could unlock some of the mystery surrounding a former secret society of francophones, according to historians.

The Order of Jacques Cartier, commonly known as La Patente, was founded in 1926 to advance the religious, social and economic interests of French Canadians.

The group was disbanded in 1965 and all related documents were supposed to be destroyed.

But one member couldn't bring himself to do so, and instead locked a stash of paperwork away in the attic of his home in Grand Falls, where they remained until this past November. 

The briefcase, which has been donated to the Centre for Acadian Studies at the University of Moncton, is filled with documents dating from 1953 to 1965, including statutes and regulations, a booklet on initiation, and a list of members.

"We're quite thrilled to finally get to peek on that period of history," said Christine Dupuis, an archivist at the centre.

Christine Dupuis, an archivist at the Centre for Acadian Studies, and documentation technician Francois LeBlanc, who did his thesis on the order, are excited to learn more about the influential group through the documents. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

"I think we have lots of hidden secrets and stories in our attics and archiving is mostly about bringing those secrets out into the light and sharing them with the world."

"So I think for us, for Acadians and for archivists, historians, it's really a great discovery."

Francois LeBlanc, a documentation technician at the centre, is particularly excited about the donated material. His thesis for his masters in history was about the Order de Jacques Cartier in Acadie, with a focus on the Moncton area during the group's last 15 years.

"I thought that I would be putting my thesis in a drawer and forgetting about it, but it's a perfect time to just take it out again and refresh on the whole Ordre de Jacques Cartier."

Former premier among members

LeBlanc said the group was founded in Ottawa and gradually spread across the country, infiltrating influential associations, businesses and politics.

"All they wanted to do was bring the French influence out in the world," he said.

A New Brunswick chapter started in 1933, with members ranging from carpenters and plumbers to "big names." A couple of noteworthy examples included Louis Robichaud, a lawyer who went on to become a politician, premier and senator, and Georges Dumont, a physician turned politician.

All of them were Catholics and meetings were commonly held in church basements, said LeBlanc. Priests and other church officials were automatically granted high status in the order, he said.

"So that's how important the Catholic church was."

Initiation involved blindfold, plank

Some of the many douments related to the secret order, commonly known as La Patente. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

Others had to meet certain criteria.

"You basically had to have a voice in the community you were in and you also had to pay I think it was $12 a year, so it wasn't too bad," said LeBlanc.

But they also had to walk a plank blindfolded to demonstrate their trust in the fellowship, according to an initiation pamphlet among the discovered documents.

"It's really a secret society initiation, like we see in the movies and shows," said Dupuis. "So it's quite interesting to see that something like that happened in our communities."

The Centre for Acadian Studies at l'Université de Moncton recently received a briefcase full of information about a secret francophone society known as l'Ordre de Jacques Cartier, commonly known as "La Patente". Christine Dupuis, archivist at the Centre for Acadian Studies at l'Université de Moncton and Francois LeBlanc, documentation technician at the centre dropped by our studio with white gloves and documents at hand. 13:45

Some of the issues members worked on discreetly behind the scenes included getting bilingual road signs and stamps, and getting more francophones into public office, said LeBlanc.

In Moncton, they were integral to the 1955 Bicentennial Celebration of the Deportation, commemorating the dispersion of the Acadians, and saving the French-language daily newspaper, L'Évangeline.

Magazine article exposed group

But 1963 marked the beginning of the end for the order. An article about the group was published in Maclean's magazine.

"After that it wasn't secret anymore, so they couldn't do what they did before," said LeBlanc.

There was also a dispute between Ottawa and Montreal about where the headquarters should be, he said.

"So in 1965, they just stopped."

The documents will be available for public viewing at the Centre for Acadian Studies, but they must be handled wearing gloves to help preserve them for generations to come. (Vanessa Blanch/CBC)

LeBlanc, 30, and Dupuis, 27, are looking forward to learning more from the documents.

"We heard about stories of our predecessors finding stuff in the walls, in the attics, underneath boards and stuff like that and we never [thought] that it [would] happen to us," he said.

"Something like this, it's amazing."

The documents will also be available for public viewing and reference, said Dupuis, noting the centre is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year and has lots of information to share.

"This is just one little piece of what we have," she said.

With files from Information Morning Moncton