Family ties to Filles de Caleb
By Johanne Adam
When the Quebec TV series Les filles de Caleb based on the novel by Arlette Cousture was broadcast in Quebec in the early 1990s, it became a huge sensation across the province. Among the many faithful program viewers, one was particularly taken by this story, set in the early days of the 20th century.
Marcel Pronovost, who holds a master’s degree in political science (1989) from the University of Ottawa, has deep roots in the Mauricie region, where the series takes place. This Shawinigan native is the ninth generation of Pronovosts from this area.
“I’m a descendant of Mathieu Pronovost, son of Mathieu Rouillard. Rouillard also happens to be an ancestor of the fictional Ovila Pronovost, a well-known character in Les filles de Caleb,” he says.
With a fascination for the past and passion for researching lineage, Pronovost wanted to share the story of his ancestors. He recently published the novel Jeanne Guillet, la veuve Rouillard, a “semi-fiction” rooted in historical fact. It tells the story of the wife of Mathieu Rouillard, a fur trader in New France. This book follows the publication of his 2011 novel in which Rouillard played a starring role, Hearth and Home: The tumultuous life of Mathieu Rouillard and Jeanne Guillet (translation of Feu et Lieu: La vie tumultueuse de Mathieu Rouillard et de Jeanne Guillet).
“My new novel tells the story of Jeanne Guillet and the direction her life takes over the course of about 20 years, from the death of her husband in 1702,” says the author, who gives talks across Canada and the US each year on life in New France.
Jeanne Guillet was from Cap-de-la-Madeleine. Unlike most women in the Mauricie region, she wasn't one of the Filles du roi.
“Women born and bred in the region were very rare back then,” says the author.
Jeanne raised her children on her own while her husband was away on expeditions.
“Many of the traders travelled back and forth to Louisiana to sell their pelts. While they were gone, of course, the women took care of the children and the land.”
Extensive historical research
Marcel Pronovost spent 20 years researching his family history and ancestors before he began publishing his historical novels.
“My books are based on real historical facts. I spent time going over microfilm in the National Archives. Numerous documents are handwritten in old French and were practically impossible to read,” explains Pronovost. “I even had to get help from specialists to decipher the writing in some of them.”
According to the author, the legal records from the period are a gold mine of information.
“Like many traders in New France, Mathieu Rouillard was always in debt and, as a result, had to regularly appear in court. And each of these appearances was carefully documented.”
This is what made it possible for the author to describe the dealings Jeanne Guillet had with her neighbours and the village priest while her husband was in Louisiana. Rouillard owed them hefty sums of money and, in his absence, Jeanne and her sons had to take care of paying back all his debts.
“Today, the Rouillard, Pronovost, Prénoveau and Saint-Cyr families—most of whom are descendants of Guillet and Rouillard—live across Canada and in parts of the US,” says Pronovost.
A scholarship to help create a brighter future
In 2014, Marcel Pronovost created a scholarship that will be awarded for the first time this year. The Marcel Pronovost Scholarship is awarded to an undergraduate student in third or fourth year of an undergraduate program in political science or a graduate student in political science at the University’s Faculty of Social Sciences. The student must also be studying in French and be from Quebec’s Mauricie region.
“My region has suffered a great deal economically with the decline in many of the area’s industries, particularly pulp and paper. We lost many of our jobs and, as a result, not many families have the means to send their children to university. This scholarship is a way for me to help bring new life to the region.”
Marcel Pronovost spent 20 years researching his family history before publishing his historical novels. Photo: Robert Lacombe