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Literary career

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Bugnet Biography

Georges Charles Jules Bugnet was born at Chalon-sur-Saône, (Saône-et-Loire) in the old province of Bourgogne in France, a wine producing region. He was descended from a family of small farmers from the Jura valley, near Switzerland, and his father, Claude François (1848-1937), spent most of his professional life as a wine merchant. His mother, Joséphine Marie-Anne-Élisabeth Sibut-Plourde (1859-1952), was issued from a middle-class family from Amiens in northern France. There were several moves for the Bugnet family: Chalon-sur-Saône, Beaune, Mâcon, Dijon, and a return, eventually, to Mâcon. The common feature was the Saône river, although Dijon is not on the Saône, it is within its hydrographic basin, and in two letters written in 1908 by Georges and his sister Thérèse from his homestead to their parents in France, the heading is La Saône d’Amérique, showing their sense of belonging to that river and its region- their sense of home, Mâcon, and Chalon-sur-Saône, are by Saône, Beaune and Dijon are in its basin. The Saône river is considered to be one of the four most important rivers of France.

Georges was the eldest of four siblings. Of his two brothers, Maurice, born in 1881, entered the Jesuit order in 1907, but with the outbreak of World War I, joined his regiment; he was wounded and died following the battle of Commercy, France, October 21, 1914. He was never ordained to the priesthood. Charles, born in 1884, came to Canada in 1908 with his sister Thérèse, where they lived with Georges and Julia for some time. Charles took a homestead nearby, but he returned to France in 1914 to join his regiment. Wounded in combat, he remained in service as a driver until the end of the war. He was married and returned to Alberta with his wife, where two of their children were born, Maurice and baby Pierre, who died in Edmonton in 1922 before he was yet a year old; a daughter was born to them after their return to France in 1923.  Georges’ two sisters were Marie, who died in infancy, and Thérèse, born in 1892. She came to Canada in 1908 with their mother and brother Charles, but returned to France in 1914, to enter a Carmel convent, where she remained for the rest of her life. She died in 1961; the Thérèse Bugnet rose is named after her.

Georges first attended a public school, and later that of the Frères des Écoles Chrétiennes at a time of great religious strife concerning schools in France, with the separation of the Church and State, and the creation of free public schools. His family was profoundly Catholic, and through all his days, Georges remained attached to his faith. Beginning in 1891, he attended the Oblate Collège de Saint-François-de-Sales at Mâcon, for four years, all the while living at home. When he began the classical program at about twelve years of age, he became fascinated with the Oblate missionary, Émile Petitot who wrote about the indigenous peoples of the Canadian North-West. Dreaming of becoming a missionary in Canada’s Far North, his mother did her utmost to make his childhood dream a reality, although as Georges matured, he became much less enthused about the idea of becoming a priest; still the Canadian North-West remained of great attraction to him.

After the family’s move to Dijon, he continued his studies as a boarder at the Petit Séminaire de Plombières, and where, by 1896, he had completed the first years of a Bachelor of Arts degree. His mother continued to push him towards the priesthood, and by that fall, he entered the Grand Séminaire de Dijon.  Come winter, Georges was already wanting out and left the seminary, but it was too late to enter another academic program; his mother insisted he stay at home, continue to wear his cassock, pursue a reading program, which she chose.  Bugnet remembered this period as a huge empty hole in his life. At his mother’s urging, he did try once more the seminary life, which was again abandoned. His father finally intervened and helped him enrol at the university at Dijon, which entitled him to only one year of obligatory military service. After this, he returned to the university for two and a half years of fruitful study. He aspired to teach and was planning to complete at Master’s degree, but these were the Dreyfus Affair years, the political climate at that time was very bleak for Catholics and advancement in academics held little future; eventually he dropped his plan. He was living near the university and in order to supplement his meagre resources, he became a tutor of Latin in his spare time. This was how he met Julia Ley, as he started teaching her brother in the evenings, and a courtship developed, of which his ever-controlling mother was unaware.

His Bachelor of Arts complete, in 1903, he went to Germany for several months to study the language and teach French in return. David Carpenter, who translated Bugnet’s novel,  La Forêt, to English, interviewed Bugnet at length and on one occasion the old man related how he had spent an entire night drinking beer and wine with a French buddy and some German friends at a beer hall, getting completely smashed, and waking the next day with a hangover. His drinking pals had told him he would take him to get a kaztjammer, and asking what that meant, they had told him he would find out – turned out it was a hangover, which he had in spades the next morning. The short period of time that Bugnet spent in Germany reveals a great deal about his way of seeing things. At the time, in France, there was a great deal of nationalistic feeling against Germany after the loss of the departments of Alsace and Lorraine in the 1870 Franco-Prussian war, and the public schools of the day were very strongly flogging this, but this antagonistic feeling against the Germans was also prevalent in the Catholic private schools as well, so Bugnet’s youthful interest in Germany was rather unusual; perhaps comprised of some youthful rebellion against the establishment, but also his openness towards other cultures.

His foray into Germany only lasted a few months as he returned to Paris later in 1903, where he enrolled at the Sorbonne, still aiming to complete his Master’s degree. However, his attendance turned out to be sporadic, as he was very involved with Catholic youth organizations and was working as a journalist for La Croix, which was then an important Catholic weekly. The next year, he landed the editor-in-chief position with La croix de la Haute-Savoie at Annecy (Haute-Savoie), near the Swiss and Italian borders.  Georges transferred his credits to the university at Lyon, but never followed up.

As he now had a stable and well-paying job, he married his sweetheart, Julia Ley, on April 26. He was 25 years old; Julia was 21. His parents did not attend the wedding and had attempted to stop them from marrying, but as Georges and Julia were both of age, the letter from his parents’ solicitor, mentioned in the record of the civil ceremony, had no effect. Georges’ brother, Maurice, attended, as did Julia’s father, her uncle and a good friend of Georges’, all of whom signed the official record. The religious ceremony was held the next day. The young couple lived at Annecy until the end of December of that year; Julia remembered this as a particularly happy time for them both.

We do not have a great deal of information on Julia Ley at this time. According to the archival document from the Département de la Côte d’Or of the registration of her birth (June 24, 1882) and of her marriage to Georges, her name was Julie Jeanne Ley, but she signed as Julia. For the civil marriage her parents are named, her father, Antoine Thiébaud Ley, was a painter, but earlier on her birth registration, he was then a plasterer and 33 years old. Her mother, Marguerite Marie Thomas was 31 when Julia was born and the couple had married October 1, 1879. At the date of Julia’s marriage April 29, 1904, Julia’s mother is listed as deceased, since December 16, 1882. However, Jean Papen, in his biography of Bugnet, states that Julia was staying at home to take care of her ailing mother, but does not go into any more detail. Another unanswered question has to do with her brothers. Georges met Julia through her brother who he was tutoring in Latin, but his name is not mentioned anywhere, and according to a letter written by Charles (son of Georges) in 1917, three uncles were killed in WWI and another wounded. This was a huge loss for a family, and many families whose sons were recruited for combat suffered the same fate. We have not searched the military records for their names, as Ley is quite common in that region of France, it would be necessary to search the birth records page by page between 1879 to 1890 or so, and for the time being, their names remain unknown.

After the turn of the twentieth century, there was much propaganda about the advantages of settling in western Canada across Europe, and in France as well. Bugnet, as a newspaperman, was well aware of it. He was particularly familiar with the recruiting efforts of Abbé Jean Gaire, a priest from Alsace who had made it his mission to lead French families to the Canadian prairies. The Canadian publicity campaign was in full swing in France, with posters and flyers available at railway stations, at churches, everywhere, proclaiming fine land available for next to nothing and huge profits to be made. As Bugnet began encountering some editorial conflicts with the director of his paper who was trying to impose his extreme right-wing views, he to compromise his editorial independence, and seized upon the Canadian immigration as a solution. Like so many others who immigrated to western Canada, the young couple hoped that through homesteading, they would quickly amass a small fortune and return to their homeland, where they could live on their accumulated riches, Bugnet could then focus on becoming a great novelist. Bugnet had always wanted to travel, and Canada had long been a country he wished to see, so here was their chance.

The Bugnets arrived at the Port of St. John, New Brunswick on January 5th, 1905 and continued on by train to Montreal where even at the Canadian Pacific Windsor Station, Georges could not find anyone who spoke French. At that time, Georges possessed only a smattering of English. They continued on to St. Boniface where George initially found work with the Grey Nuns, and lodging with the Beron family. Their first child, Charles, was born on February 17th. By April, they moved to Letellier, where Georges went to work for a local farmer, hoping to gain experience in that field. Earning 15$ a month, including lodging for himself, his wife and infant, and knowing nothing about farming or of that particular economy, he soon found out that the usual wage for a farm hand was 30$ a month and when they left later that summer, he was unable to collect all that was owed him. At first, he sought a homestead in Manitoba, but the land office there advised him to look to Alberta, so in August the little family headed west, arriving in Edmonton, Bugnet mentions, right about the time that the province was officially created on September 1, 1905. He found work in St. Albert with a local farmer.

As with so many homesteaders before him, he wished to establish himself near where a railroad would be built. This was a practical move, as such proximity permitted an access to market. Some lucky homesteaders  managed to set themselves up exactly where a rail line would pass, or even where the station would be built, and had reaped a fine profit from this. However, the great majority of homesteaders found that instead of buying them out, the rail companies would simply bypass them, forcing them to pull up stakes and move nearer to the railway, particularly in the case of merchants.

There is no doubt that on his arrival in Edmonton, he met with members of the French community, of which there were quite a few who had just arrived from France, and like him, were seeking to make it big. There was much talk of a railroad to Dunvegan on the Peace River, and Bugnet reckoned that he should find a place not too far from the French community and near such a rail line, so in the fall of 1905, he set out on foot to the area in today’s Lac Ste Anne County, near Lac la Nonne and Lac des Îles (now lac Majeau) to scout out his homestead. There was a trail which passed through the Prairie-aux-Oignons (or “Onion Prairie” due to the Nodding onion which was found there in profusion) and where Bugnet figured that the rail line to the Peace river would cross. (See Map, from West of Fifth, also 1906 map from the Edmonton Bulletin). It never did; an easier route was chosen to cross the nearby Pembina River.

On October 10th, 1905, Bugnet registered the North East quarter, Section 28, Township 56, Range 3, West of the Fifth Meridian (NE-28-56-3-W5) as his homestead on Onion Prairie, which was renamed Rich Valley in 1909.  As the following winter was very mild, Bugnet began clearing the area to build his first residence in January, a simple log cabin, generally called a “shack”, which Bugnet called “le chantier, a term he picked up from Octave Majeau with whom he stayed during those early days. A forest fire had come through Onion Prairie sometime before, and Bugnet mentioned that when he came out with his wife in the spring of 1906, there were black stumps all over and that it seemed to them a most depressing sight. So isolated were they, it was several months before they discovered they had other neighbours a couple of miles to the south-east. Bugnet had five dollars in his pocket to start off and a horse.

Bugnet received a lot of help from Octave and his wife Amélie; she served as midwife to many women in the area, including Julia Bugnet, as their second child, Paul, was delivered on September 14, 1906, at the Majeau home.  For homesteaders, there is no doubt that a man starting out alone needed help from his neighbours as much as possible, and generally homesteaders would exchange work time with each other. In La Forêt and in his 1934 play, La Défaite, this sort of cooperation often occurs, and it is obvious that the Roy couple are based on these helpful neighbours.

By December, 1906, Bugnet was already active locally, as he was a member of the Mounted Militia of St. Albert, a volunteer group composed of 22 men from the District of St. Albert, the vestiges of the militia that was created in 1885, during the North-West Rebellion, now under the command of Captain Blois Thibeaudeau.

The first summer the Bugnet couple spent on the homestead, it is said that they lived in a teepee, but it is more likely it was in a tent, as such a tent came into use again in 1908 on the homestead, when Georges’ mother, brother Charles and sister Thérèse joined them. Thérèse describes the tent to her father who had remained in France to settle his affairs. The Bourgouin couple of the novel La Forêt live in such a tent when they start out. Still, it seems the Bugnet couple managed to build their first cabin during their first summer, as by 1907, Bugnet was already planning a bigger house, a model barn, more fencing and was cutting down some tamaracks nearby for this, but the bigger house may have taken much longer than hoped. Their first dwelling was a cabin four metres wide by five, with a wooden floor and homemade furniture.

As an intellectual, Bugnet’s view was that it was better to get to work and get things done, rather than spend his time wishing things were different. For a man who had studied Greek and Latin, who had studied for the priesthood and who during his years at school and university had read the great classics of the French and Greek literature, plus who been extremely active and militant in the Catholic church in France, he dove right in to the work of the homesteader. There is no doubt that this lifestyle was very difficult on his wife, Julia, and family members say that if she could have left, she would have, but she was married to a man she loved, she had an infant, and was soon to have another; they had little financial resources and it was not possible. Like so many other homesteader couples, the best they could do was “to pull in harness” and make the best of the situation.

In 1906, Bugnet contacted Alex Michelet, editor of the newly created Courrier de l’Ouest, a weekly published in Edmonton, read by the Franco-Albertan community and elsewhere on the Prairies, and offered his services. This would add to his limited finances so he could subscribe to newspapers and magazines that would keep him informed of goings on in the world as he was used to. Michelet was also from Mâcon, where Bugnet had lived with his parents. Although it is possible that he did begin contributing articles regularly, if he did, they are not signed, although the next year, we see traces of his pen.  

In May 1907, the column, “Nouvelles de Partout”, signed G.B., provided local news from Lac La Nonne; at first concerning the inconvenient move of the local post office to the northern edge of Alexander Reserve, then the mention of the arrival of settlers of American, Swedish, English and German origins, but few of the “French race” (our italics). There were several sawmills busy nearby, the possibility of a brewery setting up by the lake, although he felt a creamery would do well, as there were large herds of cattle in the area. On a personal note, he wrote that a Frenchman was establishing a nursery, where he would be growing from seed, choosing the hardiest and then grafting the best, in this way producing hardier trees and fruit shrubs which could be depended upon. He does not name this Frenchman, but this is obviously himself, which is the first time that is mentioned his plan to develop hardy plants. The rest of the column discusses the mass arrival of French-Canadian settlers north of St-Paul-des-Métis, going into more detail about the activity in that area, as the title is, after all, “News from Everywhere”.  

He had given a sign of life in an earlier column, in March, where he is mentioned as “G.B.” in the column, “Le Coin Féminin”, by Magali Michelet, sister of the editor. The weekly column consisted of a short open text by Magali, some fashion information, recipes, poems, and letters from her readers, all written under pseudonyms.  A few months later, Magali has renamed him the “Vieux Jeune” (Old Young Guy), she  states that he is a collaborator whose articles are always appreciated, and in his contribution that week, which he signs as being from Lac La Nonne, concerns the superiority of men over women, presented in a humorous and provoking fashion, which in the succeeding issues bring comments from mostly female readers (which could well have been letters he wrote, as he did mention that he did this.)  His introductory paragraph notes that as he has been spending much of his time plowing and harrowing, he will just quickly throw in a few ideas to prove his point. We can understand from this statement, that he is very busy at his homestead, doing his utmost to prepare his soil for seeding, this being published during the month of May.

In March and April of 1907, he contributed two articles for the “Pour les Cultivateurs” page, very lively pieces indeed, the like of which, unfortunately, we never see again. The first one is a witty discussion on the health advantages of vegetables, since at that time potatoes and salt pork were the basic diet of homesteaders, of which one could get very weary. He muses at length on the benefits of various vegetables, to finally admit that he is consulting five different seed catalogues, and is looking forward to placing his second order of seeds so as to have a very complete garden the coming summer. He signed the article with his name.  In the second article, on April 11th, he thoroughly discusses carrots and the amazing results he had in growing them the previous summer using three different techniques on freshly broken land.  As in the vegetable article, he expounds on the health advantages of carrots for humans and livestock and both articles are well researched and entertaining. It is unfortunate that Michelet did not continue to employ him in this vein, as both texts are lively and interesting even for today’s reader. Particularly impressive is his comment about seeding his carrots on freshly broken land, as farmers today practice “no-till” farming, a particularly economic and ecologically sound method which permits the carbon and nitrogen fixed in the soil to remain there for the roots to latch on to. Right from the beginning of his arrival on his homestead, Bugnet had a plan in mind and that he set out to bring it to fruition through scientific methods as soon as possible.

In the June 13th issue, of le Courrier de l’Ouest, there is a short news article, probably by Bugnet, about the visit of two missionaries, stationed on the nearby Alexander Reserve near Rivière-qui-Barre, to Lac La Nonne on the Sunday, and they celebrated mass at the home of Octave Majeau. Fr. Joseph Portier presented the homily in Cree, and Fr. Gustave Simonin gave a few words in French.  Georges Bugnet sang for the service. As devout Catholics, attending church services was really important to Georges and Julia. It is not mentioned if Julia attended, she may have stayed home with the two-year-old Charles and baby Paul. They did have a horse when they first settled in the spring of 1906, but in a letter to his mother in February 1908, Bugnet tells of his long walk on snowy roads to St. Albert and Edmonton and back to get supplies- 35 miles each way, and there is no mention of using a horse.

Although we have checked for more early contributions to the Courrier de l’Ouest from Bugnet, as mentioned earlier, if they do exist, they are not easily identifiable, as they are not signed. There are however two notable items:  another mention of  logging activities during the winter of 1907-1908 in the Lac La Nonne area, and of the particularly huge logs being taken out of there, an article probably contributed by Bugnet, and following this, on the same page, the publication of his recently received soil analysis from Ottawa, showing the good quality of the soil in the valley and on the hills of his property, which chemist Frank T. Shutt, stated was very rich soil, high in humous and mineral content.

The second item is his poem “Le Coyote”, with a Latin citation to introduce it- something Bugnet was very fond of throwing in when he could. After all, he spoke it as well as Greek, got along in German, and soon became proficient in English. As for “Le Coyote”, the version he published in 1938 is slightly longer, having added two stanzas, the first specifying that the coyote ate some strychnine, the second mentioning Man’s search for Divine meaning and losing hope. In all, a bit depressing and anthropomorphic.

According to Jean Papen, who corresponded with the aged Bugnet while doing his research for his doctoral dissertation and met with him on several occasions for long conversations and, from what we can understand from the articles about him in the Edmonton Bulletin, between 1917 and 1923, Bugnet’s efforts to grow hardy plants started with his acquiring plants from the experimental farms from Morden, Manitoba, and Indian Head, Saskatchewan, but he soon discovered not everything was hardy at his homestead. In his autobiography, Bugnet mentions that they did start a small nursery early on, and did make a small revenue from it and that they did not persist in their efforts, but that was surely into the thirties, not before, as according to the articles in the Edmonton Bulletin between 1918 and 1923, he is very keen on getting the word out about his success with his project of achieving hardy plants.  

If he had an excellent vegetable garden, it was with stone fruits and apples that he had the most difficulty with early on, losing many of them to frosts and to the hares and porcupines. The winter of 1906-1907 was very hard, with deep snows, and the next year, the rabbits chewed everything to the ground.

Nothing daunted, and having experienced that the first selected plot was exposed to a monthly frost, they built a new log shack on the southeast side of a low hill, the top of which was plowed, and they erected a fence of chicken wire stretched tight, with one barb wire on top, and another half way up. Since that, no rabbit, chicken, pig, calf or anything had any chance to come and help themselves inside.

To protect the new garden, a wind-break of the quick growing Siberian Old-man (Abrotanum Tobolsklanum) and Manitoba Maple was planted on the west side. Later on, were added: On the north side, a hedge of Siberian crab apple; on the south hedges of Pembina (high bush cranberry) and Hazel nut on the east, Saskatoons, black cherry and red cherry. For this purpose, the wild black cherry, if trimmed properly, is by far the best. (Edmonton Bulletin, 28-02-1918)

He may have planted some native hazelnuts, of which he knew of two kinds, and the native clematis, which he said the two grew well together and would make a good hedge.

Then a lawn was sown, facing the house. Around the lawn were kept, or added, the best of the wild native shrubs of Northern Alberta, such as hawthorn, buffalo berry, western mountain ash, which is found in Rich Valley; canoe birch, jack pine, balsam fir, white spruce, etc. all of which can hold their own if properly cared for, against almost any imported stock.

The fruit trees which had survived the onslaught of the rabbits, were transplanted in the spring of 1910 to the garden in rows, going north and south, 25 feet apart; the trees 12 feet apart in rows. Of these trees, the Siberian Crabs started first, four years ago, to give an abundance of small apples, excellent for jelly. Between the trees were planted some currants, red Dutch, and white grapes, and six varieties of raspberries, a sure crop every year; some Compass cherries, of which the fruit is caught regularly by Jack Frost long before maturity, and some Sand cherries, which are loaded every fall with large fruits, some of them nearly as good as the average old country cherry. (Ibid)

After trying out the material available in western Canada and finding it inadequate, at a time when other horticulturists and botanists were working on improving cereals, particularly wheat, resistant to frosts and rust, Bugnet did a lot of studying, borrowing books from the University of Alberta through their circulating library that was available at Rich Valley. He figured there must be hardy plants in regions of the world with a more difficult climate than in this region of northern Alberta. This is how the tale becomes fabulous: beginning in 1910, he sent fifty letters across the globe, each one posted with a three-cent stamp and addressed to:

[…] Mr. Vilmorin, Paris, France, to W. T. Macoun, Ottawa, to Dr. Sargent, of the Arnold Arboretum, Boston, Mass., U.S, to the Royal Gardens of Kew, England; to the Botanical Gardens of Lausanne, Switzerland, and before the Bolsheviki were there, to the Imperial Gardens of Petrograd, asking everywhere for seeds of flowers, trees and shrubs ripening in the very far north, or at the highest altitudes in the mountains. And from everywhere came a generous response, so generous that they had more than they could properly handle. They at once sowed in rows, just as is done with onions or carrots, the shortest-lived seeds, and kept on sowing year after year the toughest of the tribe. The newly born seedlings were cultivated for a year or two, the plan being to give them a fair start, and after that, catch as catch can the survival of the fittest. (Edmonton Bulletin, 28-02-1918)

It took a few years for their efforts to show, to sort out the hardiest of the toughest plants, but by 1917, the letters of his children to “Uncle Tom’s Corner” in the Edmonton Bulletin, tell of two-foot-high apple trees. And it was quite a hodgepodge of variety, as mentioned in the February 1918 article about Bugnet’s efforts:  

[…]Japanese cherry (Prunus Grayana), Siberian Almond (Amygdalus Sibirica), Siberian Birch (Betula Ermani). Rose flowered Siberian Locus (Halinisdendron Argenteum), Golden Clematis (Clematis Tangutica), Siberian Broom (Cytisus Clongatus Sibiricus), the only one really hardy in the west and a few rare Honeysuckles (Lonicera Coerulea, Kamtschatica, Dependcus) and Lilacs (Syringa Amurensis, Villosa, Emodi Rosea) and Roses, among which a double dark red Manchourian very sweet scented, and some European Mountain Ash, and the hardy coral fruited Elder (Sambucus Raemosa) which leafs out eight or ten days before any of our native trees and grows in the rocks on the top of the Alps, and some larches, pines and firs from Northern Siberia.

There were also perennial flowers, of which some can still be found at the Bugnet Plantation: masses of Siberian Dog tooth violets, actually a lily, (Erythronium sibericum), some very tall and spindly blue delphiniums, a profusion of native white violets, a lone elderberry bush originally from the Alps; others may show up as the Plantation is cleared of caragana. The sheer number of exotic plants he tried makes us reflect when we look at Siberian Irises, so common in our gardens today, and wonder if that was another one of his « exotics »? In their letters published in Uncle Tom’s Corner of the Edmonton Bulletin, the children mention peonies, lilacs, plums, currants, cherries, strawberries, and rosebushes. Uncle Tom, in a reply, mentions that the clematis he received from them is doing well, so it seems that Bugnet was giving away some plants as a promotion, and he may have encouraged his children to write in, and from the letters, they seem pleased to be doing so and belonging to the newspaper’s club, which the editor mentions had as much as 600 members in  Alberta and beyond.

Bugnet kept on with his farming activity during this time: there is evidence he tried many ways to bring his farm to its potential right from the start. He purchased cattle (eleven head, of which he lost nine to strychnine), had a team of oxen, workhorses, raised hogs, had equipment for a chicken hatchery, later used brood hens, had pigeons and one daughter had a long-haired rabbit. Of course, all this didn’t come immediately, but he worked at it hard. And learning to be a farmer was a job he learned on the way, and it seems, early on, particularly from Octave and Amalie (L’Hirondelle) Majeau, the ancestor of most of the Majeaus in Alberta.

He wrote about the old-timer in the Edmonton Bulletin twice, once for the couple’s golden wedding anniversary and the last time upon the death of Octave. There are also articles in La Survivance. Originally from Québec, Majeau had lived in St. Albert with his wife, and when she found out he had lost her favorite mare in a wager at the local drinking establishment, she insisted they move to Lac La Nonne where they had lived for many years before Bugnet’s arrival. Bugnet was quite fascinated by the couple and seems to have based some of the characters in his novels on them, particularly in La Forêt. Majeau had come out West from Québec around 1860, perhaps earlier, where he had been in Montana and Idaho, – there is a mention of “the first gold rush”, so it may have been before this; he arrived at Fort Edmonton in 1865, and married Amélie L’Hirondelle of Lac Sainte-Anne in 1869. There is no doubt that beyond his books and the government brochures about farming, that Majeau was a mentor to Bugnet. Likewise, Amalie must have been a great comfort for Julia, acting as midwife for several of her babies. There were not very many francophones in the Rich Lake Valley, and Majeau and his wife must have provided Bugnet with an understanding of the old French culture of western Canada. A descendant of voyageurs, Amélie born around 1830, had been taken by her father to St. Boniface to learn her catechism and make her first communion, all the way from Lac Ste-Anne in an ox cart.

In 1908, Georges’ mother, his brother Charles and sister Thérèse arrived and lived with the Bugnet couple. It is likely that Charles took a homestead and began developing it, but we do not have that exact information at this time. What we do know is that Georges’ father joined them three years later. As Maurice had entered the Jesuit order, having no other means of support from their children, the parents wished to remain with their other children. It must have been crowded and as Georges’ mother had been against her son marrying Julia, it was not easy for her to have her mother-in-law living with them. Georges mentions there was friction. Charles left in 1914, as did Thérèse, he returned after the war, and they and the parents returned to France in 1923.

Bugnet worked intensely on his plantings, the Ponderosa pines planted in 1917 were thriving; natives of North America and not considered hardy in the 54th latitude, the seeds had come to him a plantation in Siberia. The seeds from the Scots pines he had received in January 1917 from the Imperial Gardens of Petrograd were planted between 1921 and 1923, by 1932, the provincial foresters of Alberta were collecting all the seeds they could from these fast-growing conifers, so impressed were they by their impressive growth. By then, Bugnet had given up on making his fortune by having a plant nursery, the relative isolation of his farm and the limited means of transportation in the day did not help. He was surely done in by the Great Depression, as he was unable to pay his property taxes in 1933. However, that did not stop him from learning all he could about the ongoing work of amateur horticulturalists and that done at experimental farms. He was growing apricots, plums, cherries and apples, all the time seeking to improve them, which he discussed at length in 1935 in a couple of articles published in an intellectual periodical from Québec, Les Idées, with “Inventons des arbres” ( Lets invent some trees).  In those articles, he points out that he is not promoting a commercial operation, that he is just doing this because of his personal interest, but he also emphasizes that these new hybrids should carry the name of their inventor.

He had been working for quite some time on breeding roses and creating hybrids. With his roses, he began with the wild Alberta roses crossing them with more fragile and far less hardy tea roses that had to be overwintered indoors. In 1941, Bugnet wrote in the American Rose Annual, about his experience breeding local wild rose, Rosa blanda (R. macounii) on R. rugosa kamchatica, after which a seedling was mated with a red Siberan wild rose, R. amblyotis, seedlings of this were used on R. rugosa flore-plena, which gave flowers with 18 to 20 petals, in pink or light red.  Olsen contests this lineage a bit. (Paul G. Olsen, The Roses of Georges Bugnet”, N.R.C., 28: 7, 15, 2000). See accompanying article

Bugnet never did copyright his roses, and when the Thérèse Bugnet rose was registered by Percy Wright in 1947, he asked permission from their creator, who agreed and said that he did not want to make any money on this rose which he had named after his sister. It is likely that he did not have the necessary finances to register it in the first place, it seems it was an expensive process, and Bugnet certainly did not have any money. Still his legacy lives on, in the dozen or so hardy roses he worked patiently on for so many years to develop, of which only two are available commercially, the rest must be acquired from rose fanciers, and sometimes from family members.

Autobiographical Commencement Speech

by Georges Bugnet

Wings written for school newspaper for the Graduating Class 1945

Provided, I suppose, that you pray: “Thy will be done”, and try to listen often enough, and respond sincerely, to your conscience, life, like a Christmas tree, becomes fully ablaze and loaded with marvels of all shapes and colors. Mine is no exception: Had any gypsy, when I was twenty-one and elector, truly told my future, I would have laughed in her face. It would have sounded too unbelievable.

Claude Bugnet, my father, came out of a long line of small farmers in the country, not far from the Swiss border, but chose to live in cities selling, for large firms, over half of France, good Burgundy wine. Here, I may remark that the drunkards are rare in lands where wine is taken at meals. He was still following his trade when 88 years old, finally resigning, and dying at 89.

Amiens, in Picardy was the birthplace of my mother. She came from middle class people. As far as I know she is still living. The last and only news we received from France since 1940 assured that she was in good health. That letter was mailed at Toulon just before the Germans occupied it.

Coming to personal adventures, my first look on our speck of dust whirling into space among the stars, which we call our earth and find quite large, was in a town, Châlon-sur-Saone, in Burgundy, where, according to those lengthy French birth certificates, I was born in February 1879. I was educated mostly, I believe, at home: my parents giving good example of truly human life, that is holding moral values above material ones, adding also the spiritual substance because they were Christians, of the Catholic faith. As for instruction, I attended between the ages of 4 and 20 a round half-dozen schools and colleges, besides tasting, at 20, a year of military service. Then, I entered the University of Dijon where, having obtained a B.A. degree I wanted to have it raised to a M.A. For some years I kept at it, transferring my course to the Sorbonne in Paris and finally to the University of Lyons. At that time my ambition was to become a University professor. 

Another ambition was within me and this one was not thwarted. In early 1904, after three years of courtship, and having won at last a solid and well paid position as chief editor of a newspaper, I married, thus becoming a “we”.

Soon after, wonderful tidings reached us. According to literature officially published by the government of Canada, the north westerly parts of America were the new Eden awaiting humanity. There were authentic facts, figures and photographs. They seemed to prove conclusively that with ordinary luck one could make around $25,000 in five or at most ten years, and with good luck, up to $50,000. Well; once those $25,000 were caught and brought back to France it meant 100,000 francs. During some months we debated the pro and con, finally deciding to have a try at it.

The dawn of 1905 beamed on us at Saint=Boniface, Manitoba and how cold it was! Then we discovered a first flaw in what we had thought were carefully prepared plans. The Dominion government did not forget to stress, in the pamphlets sent to France, the fact that Canada is a bilingual country where French as well as English is an official language; also that large numbers of French-speaking Canadians were established in the West. We soon found out that French was not at all official on most farms in Manitoba.  We thought we had better go to a French-speaking landowner in order to acquire that practical knowledge of agriculture of which we were woefully ignorant.  So we went to Letellier, on a 500-acre farm.

Here comes an amusing memory.  One day, a six-months-old calf having escaped in the pastures, I grabbed a rope and started in pursuit, to the great enjoyment of my wife. It was a kind of marathon race, full speed, at perhaps 30 miles an hour, until the calf, quite exhausted—and so was I—allowed me to pass the rope over its head. Then I heard the voice of the farmer calling “leave the calf alone!” I could hardly believe my ears. But he was really standing down there and repeating the same command. Next, I saw him enter the barn and come out leading the mother cow which at once let out a great bellowing. The calf left me to join her, while I, feeling perfectly foolish, and sweating all over, meekly followed.

Early next fall, hearing that Alberta was neither so cold in winter nor so hot in summer, we took another jump, landing at St. Albert, past Edmonton. People were talking about the Peace River country. A railroad line should go there someday. We looked over a map.

Utterly unacquainted with the ways of railroad building in the West, we guiltlessly took for granted that as they do in Europe, even to piercing holes through mountains, they were bound to follow the straightest line. Consequently, I went in search of a good quarter of land located on, or near, that expected railway and not too far from French-speaking people. After days of roaming I reached a beautifully wild region, know to Indians as “Onion Prairie”, discovered in it the piece of land we had dreamed of and coming back sixty-five miles to Edmonton, had it entered at the Land Office on the 10th of October, 1905—We are still on it.

Thus, we came to be the first settlers in the most westerly part of that township—56-3-w.5. Apparently, there was not any other homestead between us and the Pacific Ocean.  Having blazed the trail from Lac La Nonne, that is from the north-east, we never knew, for months, that some miles to the southeast were other pioneers, the Carlins and the Persons.

You may perhaps picture us: A young man of twenty-six , his still younger wife holding a little baby, and almost crying at the forbidding sight, the challenge of the dead keepers of the soil: tall black stumps everywhere dotting the land; and the worldly possessions of the invaders consisting of a few kitchen goods, a pony, and five one-dollar bills. Perhaps I should mention that counted as kitchen goods was a .22 rifle and that game was then plentiful, mostly rabbits.

However, hope was beckoning.  It did last for some five years; not the hope of going back to France with $25,000, but we looked forward to live, once the hard and feverish pioneer work completed, the life of well-to-do Canadian farmers. Starting with oxen, after five or six winters, we began to perceive that the Dominion Government must have been quite an optimist to represent homesteading in Western Canada as a get-rich-quick proposition. President W.A.R.Kerr, of the University of Alberta, did not put it so mildly. In his review of my last novel which portrays the unsung disaster of some of the brave and yet vanquished heroes of those days, he calls that immigration literature ”fantastic puffery”.

On our place, wheat—Club or Red Fife—was usually caught by frost. We tried to improve our situation, got a $500 loan and bought eleven head of young cattle. We promptly lost nine of them. A drunken trapper had spilled salted strychnine balls all over the southwest corner of our quarter. Still we kept on clearing and breaking the soil. (Oh, that powerful oxen team!)  But, finding that after all, life is even better than a good living, we chose to draw from our land pleasure rather than profit. As a good crop, and steady, children came, up to nine of them. To make enough to raise them was all we asked for, and they grew most healthy, bigger than ourselves and well-behaved.  They are now scattered all over Canada, and even “somewhere in England.”   (note written in copy… (son- John in Canadian Forces WWll )

Seeing that success did not come from what we had counted upon but glided in rather oddly, and wearing an unforeseen garb, this present pattern of the story may be cut short. It can be displayed, much the same or better, by many pioneers of those days. If four out of five newcomers were unable to stand the grind and turned back, hardier ones replaced them. The district was soon well settled, mostly at first by Swedish immigrants.  Instead of eight, we had only three miles to a new post office for which Mr. E. Carlin picked the name of Rich Valley. Homesteads were fenced, roads were built, the main one going south to meet, at Gunn, the new railroad skirting the shore of historic and picturesque Lac Ste. Anne (first school in Alberta,1862, mission school of course.) Around 1910, we built our own public school—and not a bit of French taught in it. Our first teacher was Mr. Webb, now of Goldthorpe.

The French element quite swamped, and English being the only language publicly employed, we had to learn it, here and there from our neighbors, who, in 1916, judged me proficient enough to be planted on the school board, where they have since kept me, seemingly until death will grub me out. Much later, in 1936, with the formation of large educational units, the representatives of Belvedere and Lac La Nonne school districts chose me (Rich Valley delegate) as one of the four candidates for subdivision two of Lac Ste. Anne School Division. Thrown into this new field, I found myself elected by the ratepayers of 16 districts and steadily re-elected in 1938, 40, 42 and 44.

As the first collaborators were: G. Tomlinson, J. Morrison, (both also still on the board), D. Munro (died last year) and R. Berry.  We chose as secretary F.W. Wiggins (still at it). Newer members: Sullivan, McLeod, Oppert-Hauser.  Successive superintendents: Hollingshead, Aikenhead, McDonald, and McKay.

The reader, no doubt, has perceived the “I” used instead of the “We”. It cannot be helped, because the following adventure singled me out for a very different sort of pioneering.

Many settlers do remember the big winter at the end of the second decade of this century. While not as tough as that of 1906-07 it was, mainly on account of the deep snows, sufficiently bad to impede most of the customary winter work. Being small farmers, our elder children always willing to help, the necessary chores were quickly done. For the first time in 15 years a great deal of leisure imposed itself upon me. Part of it was employed in the evenings, as usual, in teaching French.  I tried to add Latin and Greek to the programme but a complete lack of enthusiasm caused me to withdraw that. Here, I must explain that having developed, from the age of 10 until 26, an increasing taste for the languages and thoughts of Greek, Latin, German and French masters (and even though I forgot a great deal of these languages) ancient and modern ideas remained an ever-growing source of intellectual life. To which, recently, the literatures of Canada, of England, of the United States, had mixed new ferments.

Then, all at once, at past 40, an extraordinary and violent, fit seized me.

When my family, during that winter, began to see me filling, without previous plans, somewhat like a lunatic, sheet after sheet of writing paper with a story that had to build itself as it went, they must have wondered; “Is it madness coming upon him?  No doubt it was a kind of frenzy. Eating was irksome, sleeping seemed a waste of time. Hard work? Yes, but how deep an inner delight, yet not always unmixed with nerve racking pangs. It lasted three months, until the middle of April, when seeding work had to be attended to. Luckily the story was finished.

Near the middle of the year, news reached me of a national contest, open to Canadian writers of the French language for the best novel. Excellence in writing needs intense application. During the next winter I retouched, polished, and re-polished my text and finally sent the carefully pencil-copied manuscript to Montreal. Weeks later, it was announced that this novel had won the highest praise but—not the money.  Yearly, the Quebec government awards cash prizes to writers, English and French, but, as it was with the returns from farming, my financial star always remains so baleful and adverse, that even today, when my name appears in books, reviews, newspapers, usually wearing the tag: “our” great writer, etc., it is still perfectly useless for me to apply for any of those awards. The reason given is that moneys coming from Quebec taxpayers have to stay with them.

Please understand that this is not a purely personal grievance. As far as I know, not one our best Canadian authors can, as an author, make a living within Canada, still less with French Canada alone. Thus, on writing also, I cared for pleasure and not for profits.

The second of my novels, Nipsya—and all grade VI pupils from Winnipeg to Vancouver know this—was translated into English by Constance Davies Woodrow. That edition was published in December 1929, both in New York and Montreal. Its largest sale during four months earned me a royalty of $1,360 and as much to the translator. But, early in 1930, the great depression wave rolled over the publishers. They went bankrupt. Yet they were able to pay ten cents on the dollar and I duly received $136.00. And equal sum was paid to Mrs. C. Davies Woodrow. An amusing side was that all other works by far better authors—one was by George Bernard Shaw—had much smaller amounts to their credit. Undaunted, Mrs. Davies-Woodrow undertook the translation of other books of mine but, when still quite young, death struck at her, and Canada lost a great poet.

Since then I have not tried to get in touch with another translator. They will come as soon as our country will outgrow its inferiority complex, its colonial spirit, it habit of importing its reading and thinking from outside, and begin to assume an adult, national sense, able to discern, as do older nations, that the richest, highest, most everlasting yield is enclosed in its own intellectual attainments, and above all in arts and letters—that is a part of moral spiritual, reapings in which, however, no nation appears keenly interested.

Even if this literary harvest did not aim at quantity, yet you, dear reader, may want to know how a farmer could also be a writer. The truth is, first, that I wrote only during the winter months, and next that as soon as our boys wanted to have their own try at the land, we let them go at it. Besides, due to budding fame, I was asked, in 1924, to take over the editorship of the French weekly published at Edmonton and I stayed on the job, four days a week, until 1929, strained eyesight forced me to resign. Therefore, although still having my home on the farm, I was not really farming anymore. Too often was I told that it would be foolish to try again and compete with thousands of better farmers, when able to grow a rarer crop very badly needed in our country.

As for the real value of that Rich Valley grown crop—half a dozen volumes: one of poetry, two of essays, three novels, and a number of shorter writing—even if all the critics, today have rated it, some as “good”, most as “excellent”, “exceptionally fine”, and a few as “unequalled”, all of which is not necessarily accurate, we must not forget that only the future can safely decide. Not unlikely, in some two hundred or three hundred years the best of the great writers of today will be held as pioneers; our great grandsons will probably be taught that we were those quaint old voices who first attempted to speak not merely in English, or French, but in Canadian.

Meanwhile, destiny had also picked on me as a pathfinder to blaze another trail, and of course I looked upon it, at first, for a source of profit.

In common with many people we had a taste for flowers, trees and shrubs. Our Experimental Farms were extolling this kind of improvement for homesteads. They gave a list of what they thought hardy. To Brandon and Indian-Head, the nearest in those days, we went for young plants, cuttings, western ripened seeds, and started a small nursery. The trouble was that my financial star was watching upon this too. We made a bit of money out of it, yet after some years we thought we had better let that nursery grow wild. So here again, leaving jaded profit behind, I went on breaking the trail, urged by pleasure, a never-failing companion.

It had not taken a long experience to discover that what was hardy at Indian-Head was not always so in Rich Valley and, for a while, I was tempted to believe it had been a mistake to have chosen land in the lowest part of the vale, where frost would blacken nice looking Manitoba plumbs before they were ripe. Then the idea came to me that Indian-Head, after all, had not the harshest climate on earth. Borrowing books from the University of Alberta I began a study of plant geography. The upshot was that by spending perhaps fifty three-cent stamps, I received year after year thousands of seeds coming from the toughest parts of the world. Most of them did not furnish satisfactory progeny, but some have proved very valuable. Yet, this was only ground work. From discovering plants, I entered into forging them. (And here please take note that I have nothing at all to sell.)

Really, I feel convinced that my calling is and always was, to work for the benefit of my fellow citizens and not to both about private gain save, of course, the constant happiness abundantly found in the handling of a beloved task. There is always inside of me a lurking fear that if I tried to turn my deeds into money something unpleasant would happen. On the other hand, as long as wealth comes in fame and in fun, it can apparently stream in endlessly. There is also another advantage in this kind of labor. As a rule, people grow old, lifeless, because they meet with a disheartening prospect. ‘What is now worth doing when the best we can do is done?” Fortunately, were I to live as old as Sir Wm. Mulock, I could yet say: “The best I can do is still to be done.”

This needs explaining. Many people, somehow, do confuse grafting with what is commonly called cross-breeding. In grafting you simply glue on an existing tree a bit of another tree, which was also precedingly existing. Thus, you do not at all bring a new plant into the world. Graffage (graftage)is very useful in my work. It has interesting sprouts. Visitors always sharpen their sight when beholding a branch of hawthorn loaded with red fruits growing out of the flank of a saskatoon.

Now, to “cross” is to mate the female part of a flower-stigma pistil-ovary with the male port pollen of the bloom of a similar, and yet different plant. Out of this mating, the ovary of the female may form a seed. Out of this seed a child may grow, an entirely new plant, partly taking after its mother, partly after its father and, which, until then, nature had never seen.

To further illustrate this kind of art we will use a comparison. Suppose that someone wanted to build up a breed of horses especially fit to withstand our western Canadian climate. He may start with a mare, selected among the small, but tough and wiry, Indian “cayuses” and have her bred to a stallion of a larger size. Quite likely, at say, four years, their offspring would not be of sufficient weight. But, preserving through three or four generations, some twelve years or more—a horse of fairly good quality might be obtained.

Slow work? —yet with trees and shrubs, the progress here requires a longer time.

In this invention of new plants for the Canadian North, making particular use of Luther Burbank’s and N.E. Hansen’s hybrids, most of my cross-breeding has selected, as first molds, the sturdiest specimens of stone-fruits: plums and cherries. To a lesser extent, apples, roses, ornamental and forestry trees are also included.

When satisfied that an Alberta-made novelty has proved its worth under rather rough treatment on my place, it is sent out for testing in various parts of the West. Reports, so far, have been always good. In an article published some years ago, in a volume edited by the American Rose Society, I pointed out that “my idea is not so much to add new varieties to the gardens of the city-dwellers as to produce tough stuff for my fellow farmers who have no time to coddle tender plants.”  That is why my grounds look like a wild and surrounded by tall exotic pines.  No youngster has any business here who cannot vie with native vegetation. Hence, the success, elsewhere, of those that made good under such harsh and long honing.  Hence also my belief that they will be able to hold their own again Nature and bring to future generations not only pleasure but also—especially some forestry trees—a very great income. Another expected result, of no small importance, is that once farmers know that they can easily have those tough and useful friends which make a real home, and once they set them around, then the incessant shifting and jumping, which is the bone of our western agriculture, will largely cease. When moving to seemingly greener pastures, a farmer can take away with him anything he wants, but not​ well-established trees.

To enter into the detail of this industry would require many pages. The short space left must bring a conclusion.

It is now fairly clear why we were sent here, and to say, as pioneer farmers, we had enough to live on and raise a large family. The numerous grandchildren, seemingly all bright enough, are still growing more numerous. We can hope that a bumper crop of children may also be of high grade. Had we remained in France, this yield, almost certainly, would have been much smaller. And had our farming turned really successful, there could not have been much time left for anything else. 

As a Canadian writer, only by long living and lone thinking in the heart of our strong and magnificent Canadian nature could I discover unbeaten paths and picture them in books which English and French consider as “genuine products of the Canadian soil.”

As a plant breeder, I thought, at first, our location not at all suitable, yet, out of the very failure in those first attempts to grow “hardy” plants, arose the discovery that we had been led to a most carefully selected spot to manufacture special stuff, possibly the hardiest in the world.

In these times of terrible wars, when the human insects are making such a mess of the dwelling place, I feel glad to see the rest of the universe still moving in majestic and beneficent order, and I wonder if there is, here below, a better “job” for a small human microbe than that of endeavoring to obtain for the benefit of his fellow men, a few new favors, a few clean gifts, through patient co-operation with that mysteriously and immensely creative partner, which some call God, and some others Nature, meaning, after all, the same thing, the same unfathomable entity, the powerful, and shy, Lender of Life.

Georges Bugnet 

Heritage photos

Literary career


Bugnet, Georges. Forêt. Montréal: Les Éditions XYZ, 1993
Bugnet, Georges. The Forest. Translated by David Carpenter. Montreal: Harvest House, 1976.

Botanical Work

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