Napoléon Aubin (baptized Aimé-Nicolas), editor, journalist, printer, poet, scientist, conductor and composer (born 9 November 1812 in Chêne-Bougeries, suburb of Geneva, Switzerland; died 12 June 1890 in Montréal, Québec).
Napoléon Aubin (baptized Aimé-Nicolas), editor, journalist, printer, poet, scientist, conductor and composer (born 9 November 1812 in Chêne-Bougeries, suburb of Geneva, Switzerland; died 12 June 1890 in Montréal, Québec). Born in Switzerland, Napoléon Aubin spent the greater part of his life in Lower Canada. A man of many talents, he was the founder and editor of some of the most significant newspapers in the colony, the founder of a theatre company, and he even made a name for himself in the world of science as a lecturer and with his famed “appareil à gaz Aubin.”
Early Life and Early Career
Born on 9 November 1812 in Switzerland, Napoléon Aubin’s childhood and upbringing remain a mystery to historians and scholars. Though we know that he arrived in New York City in 1829, little is known about why he left his native Switzerland. In an article to La Minerve (1834), Aubin did mention that he was disenchanted by the political climate in Europe. While in New York City, Aubin took his first foray into journalism when he sent 11 articles, under the pseudonym of “observateur étranger,” to La Minerve, in which he discussed the political situation in Lower Canada. A proud supporter of the Enlightenment and what it stood for, he applauded the Patriotes and the publication of the “Ninety-Two Resolutions.”
His interests clearly north of the border, he soon settled in Canada: first in Montréal in January 1835 and then in Québec City in October 1835. Aubin was very busy in the years prior to the rebellions, contributing articles, poems and short stories to L’Ami du Peuple and La Minerve. He even started his very own newspaper, Le Telegraph. This short-lived newspaper (March 1837 to June 1837) focused on another of Aubin’s interests: fiction and literature. In it, Aubin published poetry, drama, and literary masterpieces. Particularly, he published the third chapter of L’influence d’un livre, by Philippe Aubert de Gaspé Jr., the colony’s very first novel, in full. On the eve of the rebellions, Aubin was considered a moderate man and opposed all extremes, French or English. He opposed the party’s radicalization and heavily criticized Patriote leaders who were bringing the colony down the very dangerous path to rebellion.
The Rebellions to the Union of the Canadas
His most important newspaper was Le Fantasque. It appeared at an opportune time: a few months prior to the 1837 Lower Canada Rebellion and the suspension of the formal political process with the establishment of the Special Council. Le Fantasque’s style was unique in Lower Canada, where satire, the genre that inspired it, was uncommon. Aubin often created fake discussions and debates and invented letters to the editor and remarks from politicians to comment on current events. These fictional conversations were, however, based on reality. At a time when newspaper editors feared suppression, Aubin’s style allowed him more freedom when critiquing local authorities. Along with Étienne Parent’s Le Canadien, Le Fantasque was one of the few French-language newspapers that survived the entirety of the Special Council.
Using wit, satire and a sharp tongue, Aubin defended French Canadian interests during this period. Though he heavily mocked the council’s ordinances, poor work ethic, and what he perceived to be despotic practices and anti–French Canadian bias, the bill to unite the Canadas — voted for by the Special Council — was one of his most constant sources of mockery and criticism. In March 1840, Aubin produced a fictional letter pretending to be Charles Poulett Thomson — the governor who submitted the bill to council and whom Aubin called “Poulet” (Chicken) Thomson — and sarcastically explained what the people of Upper Canada would gain from it. With the destruction of French Canada, Upper Canadians were promised gold bridges, gold canals and gold railways. Every Upper Canadian was also promised a public office and, more importantly, they were promised that, from now on, partridges would fall from the sky fully cooked and roasted for all to enjoy. Once union was adopted, however, Aubin dropped the satire and mournfully wrote: “[à] propo [sic] nous annonçons qu'il se tiendra, l'un de ces quatres matins, à notre bureau, une grandissime assemblée dans le but de dire bonjour et bonsoir à notre langue, nos usages, et noslois.”
Following the union of 1841 (see also Province of Canada), Aubin continued to publish Le Fantasque (until 1849) and founded several other newspapers, including Le Standard, the People’s Magazine and Workingman’s Guardian (the colony’s first working-class newspaper) and Le Canadien Indépendant. He even served as editor of Le Canadien (1847–1849). However, his projects were more varied during this period.
In 1840, Aubin worked with W. H. Rowan, a printer, and published his own romance, Le dépit amoureux, and two waltzes by Charles Sauvageau. Aubin also printed Notions élémentaires de musique (1844) by Sauvageau, whose sister he married in 1841. Aubin even founded a theatrical company, Les Amateurs typographes. With the Société des amateurs canadiens, he presented Rousseau's Le devin du village at the Sewell Theatre on 26 May 1846. According to Nazaire LeVasseur, he prepared the parts for soloists, chorus and orchestra, and conducted the performance.
A man of many talents, Aubin also gave a series of popular lectures on chemistry and physics. He even taught chemistry at the School of Medicine in Québec City and published two popular science books: La chimie agricole mis à la portée de tout le monde (1847) and Cours de chimie (1850). Back in the United States in the 1850s and early 1860s, Aubin used his knowledge of science to refine the gas-lighting process (“l’appareil à gaz Aubin”); his device was used to light up cities across America and Europe. Returning to Montréal in 1866, he was named gas inspector in 1875 and travelled across the country as an adviser in city lighting. Finally, from 1875 until his death in 1890, he served as honorary consul of Switzerland.
A version of this entry originally appeared in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada.
Napoléon Aubin, Contes et récits (2002).
Micheline Cambron, "D’un usage politique de la science: la prose de Napoléon Aubin," Voix et Images 19, 3 (1994).
Maxime Dagenais, "Defending French Canada: Le Fantasque, Censorship and the Special Council of Lower Canada, 1838 and 1841," Canadian Journal of Media Studies 12, 1 (2013).
L.-M. Darveau, Nos Hommes de lettres (1873).
Serge Gagnon, "Aubin, Napoléon," Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.
Nazaire LeVasseur, "Musique et musiciens à Québec," La Musique 1 (1919).
Daniel Perron, "Émergence d’une littérature nationale: Napoléon Aubin," Cap-aux-Diamants 65 (2001).
Jean-Paul Tremblay, À la recherche de Napoléon Aubin (1969).
Lucie Villeneuve, Le « Journal-Fiction » Le Fantasque de Napoléon Aubin (1837-45) : Formes théâtrales et romanesques dans le discours journalistique (PhD Dissertation, UQAM, 2008).