Marie Arzélie Éva Circé-Côté, journalist, writer and librarian (born 31 January 1871 in Montréal, QC; died 4 May 1949 in Montréal, QC). A poet and playwright, Éva Circé-Côté was the city of Montréal’s first librarian as well as the curator of the prestigious Philéas Gagnon collection. Throughout her career as a journalist, she wrote over 1,800 pieces for about a dozen newspapers under several pseudonyms. A progressive, secular free thinker, she fought for compulsory education and the status of women.
Early Years and Education
Éva Circé was the fifth child of Julie-Ézilda Décarie and Narcisse Circé. Three of her brothers and sisters were already deceased at the time of her birth. Her father worked as a conductor for the Grand Trunk Railway, then became the owner of a men’s clothing store with his partner Jos Dumouchel. The Circé family lived on Bonaventure Street (today Saint-Jacques Street West) before moving in 1884 to Notre-Dame Street, in the neighbourhood of Saint-Antoine, right next to the family store.
Éva grew up in a warm, close-knit family. When she was 13, her parents enrolled her in secondary studies at the Pensionnat Villa Anna, run by the Sisters of St. Anne in Lachine. In 1888, she won the bronze medal for literature awarded by Lady and Lord Stanley, then the Governor General of Canada. She excelled particularly in French, as well as in music. She also took singing and piano lessons. It was her passion for poetry, however, that brought her into Montréal’s literary scene in 1900, when she joined the staff of Les Debats, a weekly anti-imperialist newspaper that opposed Canada’s involvement in the South African War (commonly known as the Boer War). During her collaboration at the newspaper with Louvigny de Montigny, she published roughly 60 texts under the pseudonyms Columbine and Musette. In 1902, she co-founded the literary journal L’Étincelle, which was published only for a few months, with Charles Gill and Arsène Bessette.
Journalist, Playwright and Librarian
In April 1903, Éva Circé, under the alias Colombine, published her first collection of texts through Déom Frères; it was titled Bleu, Blanc, Rouge in reference to the French flag and the Republic that she loved. That same year, her play Hindelang et De Lorimier was staged at the Théâtre National Français, in Montréal. Throughout her life, she was fascinated by the rebellions of 1837–38.
In 1903, she also became a librarian at the Montréal Technical Library. It was the first public library created by the Special Commission of the Library of Montréal to give workers access to books on their trades and professions. Initially, the library was located in the Monument-National thanks to an agreement with the Montréal Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, which owned the building. Since the library was secular, it soon became a source of contention between the Bishop of Montréal, Mgr Bruchési, and the Commission. The Bishop did not want the library to purchase banned books, which did not suit Éva Circé (see Censorship).
In 1904, in a contest, she received a prize from the Théâtre National Français for her play Le fumeur endiablé, which told story of a good Canadian who decided give up smoking his pipe for Lent. This play, also written under the name Colombine, was performed again in 1922 on the initiative of the Société des auteurs canadiens.
On 19 April 1905, at the age of 34, Éva married Pierre-Salomon Côté, a 29-year-old physician committed to treating the poor, in a quiet ceremony at Saint-Jean-Baptiste Church in Montréal. Like Éva, Pierre-Salomon was a free thinker with secular ideas. Nicknamed the doctor of the poor, he was also connected with Montréal’s Freemasons. Early in their marriage, they lived with Éva’s parents on Rachel Street, where Pierre had a practice specializing in nervous disorders. Ève, their only child, was born a year later.
A Socially Committed Free Thinker
In 1908, Éva, who was very involved in the cause of girls’ education, decided to found a secular high school for girls with her fellow journalist Georgina Bélanger Gill (who wrote under the name Gaétane de Montreuil). Built at 286 Saint-Denis Street, it was inspired by American and French pedagogy and offered classes in stenography, commerce and science. However, the school was only open for two years. Mgr Bruchési, who originally opposed opening a classical college for women, used all his influence to undermine the secular establishment by finally giving the sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame permission to found their own Ladies’ College. It opened its doors on 12 October 1908 (see Marie Gérin-Lajoie, née Lacoste).
On 22 December 1909, four years after Éva and Pierre-Salomon Côté married, he died of intestinal tuberculosis. He was cremated at Mount Royal Cemetery, and his civic funeral, without any religious service, caused a scandal in the Montréal press. Circé-Côté’s name was sullied, and she had to defend herself by writing two letters to newspapers to justify her husband’s decisions.
In 1910, after having written for a number of newspapers including L’Avenir, Le Monde illustré, L’Avenir du Nord and Le Nationaliste, Éva worked for 12 years with Le Pays, a newspaper founded by Godfroy Langlois. She wrote over 793 columns under various names: Jean Nay, Paul S. Bédard, Fantasio and Arthur Maheu. Her writing dealt with a variety of subjects, including infant mortality, women’s education and right to vote, compulsory education and public health. She did not hesitate to speak out against social inequality, unsanitary living conditions, political incompetence and municipal corruption. Contrary to the ideas and values of the time, she advocated for tolerance towards prostitution and was against the death penalty.
Circé-Côté was also the curator of the prestigious Philéas Gagnon collection: 10,000 rare and antiquarian Canadian books acquired by the city of Montréal in 1910 (see Antiquarian Books). Alongside her job as a librarian, she also began working in 1916 with the newspaper Le Monde ouvrier, founded by the trade unionist Gustave Francq of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada. She wrote for the newspaper under the name Julien Saint-Michel until 1942, defending exploited workers by denouncing their working conditions (see Working Class History — Québec).
In 1917, Éva Circé-Côté was thrilled by the opening of a new library on Sherbrooke Street, across from La Fontaine Park. She worked there until 1932, when the Library Commission forced her into retirement. Over these years, she wrote two other plays: Maisonneuve,performed at His Majesty’s Theatre in 1921, and L’Anglomanie, which won an award from L’action française in 1922. That same year, she was involved in founding the Canadian Authors Association and became the first vice president of its French section. In 1924, she published her final work, an essay on Louis-Joseph Papineau.
After retiring from the library, Éva Circé-Côté gave talks on the radio and became a spokesperson for Filles natives du Canada, a nationalist organization that was the female French counterpart of the Native Sons of Canada. Having remained anonymous throughout her career to keep her job at the library, she lived out her days in disillusionment and bitterness for never having been recognized as a journalist, despite having written over 1,760 columns, 20 reviews and 30 stories over the course of her life. She died at her home on 4 May 1949. Her funeral took place at Saint-Jean United Church, and she was interred at Montréal Memorial Park, a secular cemetery in Saint-Laurent.
Theatre and Poetry
Bleu, Blanc, Rouge: Poésie, paysages, causeries (1903)
Hindelang et De Lorimier (historical drama, 5 acts, 1903)
Le fumeur endiablé (comedy, 1 act, 1904)
Maisonneuve (historical drama, 4 acts, 1921)
L’Anglomanie (comedy, 3 acts, 1922)
Papineau: Son influence sur la pensée canadienne: Essai de psychologie historique (1924; republished in 2002)