Many influential and successful people like to curate an image of being self-made, playing up their arduous journey from the mail room to the CEO’s office. A lot of the time, this kind of legend is just that, a legend.
But every once in a while, you come across a true tale of grit and hard work, someone who started with nothing and not only survived, but thrived.
Jean-Guy Larivière was one such individual.
He passed away peacefully, surrounded by family, at the Pontiac Community Hospital on Nov. 26, 2018, just two weeks after celebrating 69 years of marriage with his wife, Annette (née Gravelle).
Jean-Guy was born in the Francophone county of Prescott, Ont., the son of a farmer (Pierre) and a seamstress (Florestine).
“His dad had a farm there and he farmed, but my dad left home very young, he was about fourteen years-old I believe,” explained Jean-Guy’s son, Denis. “He didn’t come [directly to the Pontiac] but he started working away with his brother Raymond, they went off to the bush.”
In 1947, a teenaged Jean-Guy started work as an apprentice electrician at the Chenaux Dam in Portage du Fort. It didn’t take long for a certain young lady to catch his eye.
“They met at the Shawville Fair and then they didn’t see each other for two weeks,” Denis said. “Then one day, my dad ended up knocking on my mother’s door.”
Annette and Jean-Guy were married in Campbell’s Bay in 1949, the town where they would eventually raise six children.
“He had to borrow $20 from his brother Raymond,” said Denis. “You have to realize, they were just coming out of the depression. There was a small wedding party.”
“All I know is they went to Renfrew and got stopped by the cops because they were tooting the horn,” Denis’ sister Colleen added with a laugh. “They got a fine, so they had no money to buy lunch. So times were pretty tough.”
Jean-Guy put his electrical skills to work at a variety of places over the next decade, from the construction of the Shawville Hospital to the Hilton Mine. He also worked for local electrical contractor Jack O’Neill, who became a close friend.
“[The O’Neill’s] became like a third set of grandparents for the family, very, very close,” Denis said.
With his work ethic, even-keeled attitude and constant smile, Jean-Guy was an easy man to get along with. When he arrived in the Pontiac, he barely spoke any English, but nonetheless counted many Anglophone co-workers from the area as friends.
“When he was working for Jack O’Neill, a lot of farmers in Shawville knew him,” Denis said. “In a lot of these places, power was just coming in. He wired a lot of farmers in Shawville and the area.”
His appetite for work was immense, often taking up several different side-gigs to provide for his young family.
“He worked nights, down in the basement,” Colleen recalled. “He had a workshop and he repaired TVs, back when nobody else was doing it … I remember going down there and sitting on the desk and watching him.”
At a time when television was becoming more popular, Jean-Guy jumped into the business world and founded L&M Electronics with Pat Moorhead in 1962. With locations in Campbell’s Bay and Shawville, the business sold TVs, radios and other tech that was cutting edge for that era, before branching out to larger appliances and furniture.
“I remember going into the store with all these little transistor radios … It was an eye-catching thing at the time,” Colleen said, noting that they were probably one of the first households in the area to watch The Ed Sullivan Show in colour.
“It was like the iPhones today,” Denis added. “There was no such thing as a fax.”
Despite these small luxuries, Jean-Guy ensured that he passed his work ethic onto his children.
“We weren’t very old and we were going out on deliveries with him,” Denis said. “I was maybe 13. That meant that you had to grab the other end of the washer or dryer or sofa and get through the door … My dad’s goal was to show us how to work.”
In addition to his business interests, Jean-Guy also got his start in local politics around this time, serving on Campbell’s Bay council for a term. He played a big role in preparing the town for the Centennial celebrations in ’67 since, at the time, the municipality had no place to host an event of that size.
Jean-Guy spearheaded the purchase of the land – where the ball field, R.A. Hall and boat ramp now reside – from Mr. Asa Smith. Local contractors and citizens pitched in to clear and prepare the property at no cost, and the land was later turned over to the municipality, again at no cost. He also played a role in scheduling the celebration’s many activities.
“That was a big thing, I remember those years,” Colleen said, recalling the Centennial dresses she and her sisters wore to the party.
“There were thousands of people here,” Denis said. “We had the original voyageurs stop here. There were big tents down where the ball parks are [now]. That’s really when that complex started.”
Having proven his mettle on town council and other community groups, in 1970 at only 39 years of age he was nominated as the provincial Liberal candidate for the Pontiac riding.
His opponent, Ray Johnston, was no greenhorn having represented the riding for 22 years in addition to sitting as Minister of Revenue for the Union Nationale government. Jean-Guy ended up thumping the incumbent by more than 1,300 votes, something Denis attributed in part to the reputation he built as a businessman.
As it turned out though, his difficulties were only just beginning.
“The 11 years he was in politics, the one thing that sticks in my mind, and it will stick in my mind till the day I die, was when Pierre Laporte was killed,” Denis said. “My dad had just become a member.”
Terrorists from the Front de libération du Québec (FLQ) kidnapped Laporte, then deputy premier under Robert Bourassa, on Oct. 10, 1970 as part of their violent quest for Quebec sovereignty. He was found strangled in the trunk of a car a week later, after Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau invoked the War Measures Act.
“[Jean-Guy] got in in April, and the crisis was the October crisis, so needless to say, the family was just thrown into all this,” Colleen said, recalling how she and her siblings were escorted to and from school by police.
“He never showed us any anxiety or stress like maybe some people would,” she added. “He didn’t do that. I remember they closed his office down here one time because there was a threat.”
Jean-Guy would go on to serve for two more terms, though his riding would balloon to include Témiscamingue. An article in The Ottawa Journal from 1973 called it the “impossible riding” due to its sprawling size and diverse electorate.
During his tenure, he spearheaded many major projects in the region, from infrastructure to transport and healthcare. He helped to establish Leslie Lake Park, the R.A. facilities in Campbell’s Bay and the seniors’ home in Shawville, among others.
Denis and Colleen remembered the strain that Jean-Guy’s career put on the family, especially their mother.
“We didn’t have communication like today,” she said. “He would leave sometimes Sunday night and sometimes Monday morning, and would come back Friday night … It takes a big toll on your family life.”
“My dad’s last term is when the [Parti Québécois] won the election and I remember people in tears,” Denis said. “The next day, people with money were pulling out of the banks and going to Renfrew with it. They were very, very tough years on my dad. The Pontiac was really caught in the middle of it all.”
After getting out of politics, Jean-Guy invested heavily in his community with a group of other businessmen, helping establish a pharmacy and a grocery store. He also bought and sold numerous properties throughout the region.
Long-time friend and political ally Donald Lavallée remembered Jean-Guy fondly.
“I think the group lasted four or five years,” he said. “We were involved in so many things, too many [to mention]. We were pretty close.”
In his spare time, Jean-Guy enjoyed fishing, singing and listening to the band that his sons formed.
“If we were playing and it was anywhere near, my mom and dad were always there,” Denis said.
“They loved the music and they loved to dance,” Colleen added. “They were always the last ones out on the floor.”
In the 1980s he bought and renovated the John Bryson House in Fort Coulonge, Annette’s dream home, and they lived there for two decades. In 2012, they moved into St. Joseph’s Manor in Campbell’s Bay.
Denis recalled that his father was happiest when surrounded by family, preferably with some singing and dancing. By now, family gatherings required a hall to be able to fit the Larivière clan, which numbered over 50 people.
Having bought property and built a cottage on Litchfield Lake, Jean-Guy divvied up plots of land to his children and grandchildren, in an effort to keep everyone close.
“Litchfield Lake kind of became our family haven,” Colleen said. “I’m building out there now.”
Denis recalled a conversation with his granddaughter at the funeral, where he broke the news that her pépère was now in heaven.
“She’s going to remember her great-grandfather, which is pretty cool I think,” he said. “Some people don’t even get to know their grandparents. So, he was very blessed.”
Denis marveled what an incredible life his father led, from arriving as a penniless teen to representing the county to being the beloved patriarch of a large family.
“He definitely made the Pontiac his home,” he said.
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