In focus

Joseph-Balsora Turgeon

Joseph-Balsora Turgeon is the first Francophone mayor of Ottawa in 1853-1854. Born in Terrebonne around 1810, Joseph-Balsora (or Balzora, Balsara, Balzura) Turgeon arrives in Bytown in 1836 – other sources speak of 1841 – to work in the lumber industry, then in the blacksmith trade. He is elected councillor at City Hall for the first time in 1848, and appointed first magistrate (justice of the peace).

The following year, Turgeon is plunged into the conflict between Reformists and Conservatives over the visit to Bytown of Lord Elgin, Governor General of Canada and ally of the reformists.  When the town’s mayor, a Conservative, refuses to call a meeting to organize the visit, two Reform councillors from Lowertown, Charles Sparrow and Joseph-Balsora Turgeon, take the lead. This initiative provokes a violent confrontation between the two camps, which remains engraved in memory as “Stony Monday.”

Turgeon then leaves the council, but returns in 1851. Two years later, he is selected as mayor from among the elected councillors. It is under his mandate that the Bytown becomes equipped with pumps to fight fires. But he is remembered more for wanting to change the status of Bytown from a town to a city, a position he feels better reflects its dynamic population and economy, and for seeking to change Bytown’s name. His appeal to the Ontario legislature bears fruit the following year.

A dominant figure in the Franco-Ontarian community of the time, Joseph-Balsora Turgeon is also credited with establishing a separate school system in Ottawa. It should be remembered that it is the responsibility of the municipal council to set up such schools in response to citizen requests, to determine their jurisdictions and to ensure that commissioners are elected. But Turgeon soon witnesses the injustices suffered by Francophones in the Bytown common school board, created a few years earlier, and he takes measures to remedy the situation. Working with another Lowertown councillor, Henry J. Friel, a Catholic of Irish descent, they set up separate schools intended to meet the needs of Ottawa Francophones. The foundation of the Institut canadien-français d’Ottawa, a rallying point for the dynamic driving forces of Ottawa’s Francophone community, is also attributed to Joseph-Balsora Turgeon.