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Manitoba History: Commemorating Gabrielle Roy

by Parks Canada
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Number 63, Spring 2010

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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The Roy plaque unveiling ceremony was held at the Fort Garry Hotel on 12 November 2009, preceding La Maison Gabrielle-Roy’s annual gala. Attending were (L-R): Mme. Jacqueline Blay (President, La Maison Gabrielle-Roy), Mme. Annette Saint-Pierre, M. L. Landry (cousin of Gabrielle Roy), Dr. Robert O’Kell (Manitoba member, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada), Mr. Grant Nordman (Councillor for St. Charles, City of Winnipeg), Ms Shelly Glover (MP for Saint-Boniface), Dr. Carol Harvey (Professor Emerita of French, University of Winnipeg), and Ms Julie Dompierre (Executive Secretary, Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada).
Source: Parks Canada

Her mastery of the art of story-telling, her profound humanity, and her limpid prose have assured Gabrielle Roy an enduring place in the literary landscape. She pioneered social realism in Canada with her first novel, Bonheur d’occasion (The Tin Flute in English), which presented a picture of the lives of many urban Quebeckers and launched her remarkable literary career. She was a sensitive chronicler of both her Franco-Manitoban past and the immigrant experience in other works that transcend place to explore universal themes such as family, sorrow and loss, love, freedom and responsibility, the search for self and creative expression.

A daughter of Quebeckers who immigrated to Manitoba late in the 19th century, Gabrielle Roy was born on rue Deschambault in Saint-Boniface. The youngest in a large family, she trained as a teacher and was greatly interested in the theatre. At the age of 28, after teaching for several years, she left for Europe where she studied theatre and published a number of articles. Returning to Canada in 1939, she settled in Montréal and became a freelance journalist. Through this work, she became aware of working-class living conditions, especially in the Saint- Henri neighbourhood, and began her first efforts in the art of the novel.

Gabrielle Roy at age 45.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, Gabrielle Roy Fonds, NL022064, courtesy François Ricard.

Inspired by what she observed of working-class life, Gabrielle Roy published her first novel, Bonheur d’occasion, in 1945, marking a new and original era in French-Canadian literature. The novel was a resounding success, winning instant fame for the author, who received the Governor General’s Literary Award and the French Prix Femina—a first for a Canadian novel. In 1947, the novel appeared in English as The Tin Flute and was selected as a Book of the Month by the Literary Guild of America. It has since been translated into roughly 15 languages and included in the study programs of many schools and universities. Gabrielle Roy married in 1947 and then lived in Europe for three years. In 1952, she moved to Québec City, remaining there until her death. However, she produced the bulk of her literary output at the Petite-Rivière-Saint-François cottage she bought in 1957. She also travelled frequently, both in Canada and abroad.

Following the social realism of Bonheur d’occasion, Gabrielle Roy drew inspiration from many sources, including memories of her family on rue Deschambault and her life as a teacher in Manitoba. Although the tone of much of her work then became more personal and nostalgic, it still had deep universal appeal. The themes closest to her heart—childhood, the search for identity, the immigrant experience and the vast expanses of the land — are found in many of her most successful books, including Rue Deschambault and Ces enfants de ma vie, two novels that again earned her the Governor General’s Literary Award. Gabrielle Roy’s body of work, which won many prizes, including the Prix David in 1971, is unique and outstanding in that it is known, appreciated and studied in both French Canada and English Canada. Her place in Quebec and Canadian literature is incontestable and her innovative contribution to the novel as a genre remains remarkable. Unfortunately, this great novelist was not able to complete her autobiography before her death; two volumes, La détresse et l’enchantement and Le temps qui m’a manqué, were published posthumously.

The Roy family, circa 1913.
Source: Library and Archives Canada, Gabrielle Roy Fonds, NL018615, courtesy François Ricard.

La Maison Gabrielle-Roy

The family home where Gabrielle Roy was born in 1909 and where she lived until 1937 was the heart of a vibrant world of people and events that deeply inspired her writing. This otherwise typical middle-class urban house of the period was a special place to which the author remained attached all her life, and which she described and idealized in several of her works, in particular Street of Riches (Rue Deschambault).

Maison Gabrielle-Roy is located at 375 Deschambault Street in a quiet residential neighbourhood in St. Boniface, Manitoba. The large, vernacular, two-and-a-half-storey wood frame house has an L-shaped plan. The exterior walls, all of which have large openings, have shiplap siding painted yellow to offset the white corner boards, the window trim and the posts on the gallery. The cedar shake roof has a dormer on the south side and a gable with a window on the west side. A large gallery wraps around the south and west sides of the house. There are 12 rooms, and the layout is as it was when the Roy family lived there. On the ground floor are the parlour, Mr. Roy’s office, the dining room, the winter kitchen and summer kitchen; upstairs are the master bedroom, the nursery, three other bedrooms and the bathroom. A staircase at the very back leads to a large room and small bedroom in the attic that were Gabrielle’s favourite places to daydream when she lived in the house.

The Roy home at 375 Deschambault Street in St. Boniface.
Source: Société historique de Saint-Boniface, General Collection, SHSB2679.

Gabrielle Roy’s parents, Léon and Mélina Roy, had the house built in 1905, a few years after Mr. Roy became an immigration officer. Immigrants were flooding into Manitoba at the time, and towns were growing by leaps and bounds. Mélina’s brother, Zénon Landry, oversaw the project. He patterned the house after the house next door, the layout of which was typical of middle-class homes of the day.

The youngest of 11 children, Gabrielle was born in the house in 1909 and lived there until 1937. Her father died in 1929, and her mother was forced to sell the house in 1936, but was able to continue living there for a while with two of her daughters. The house subsequently changed hands four times and underwent many renovations. In 1997, it was purchased by the Corporation de la Maison Gabrielle- Roy so that it could be restored and opened to the public. The house was restored to its 1918 appearance between 2001 and 2003 and opened to the public in 2003.

Gabrielle Roy lived in the house as a child, an adolescent and a young adult – 28 years in all. The house is where she dreamed of what her life would be and where she made the decision to become a writer. Following the resounding success of her first novel, The Tin Flute, which was inspired by Montréal’s working class, Gabrielle Roy drew on her recollections of events and people associated with her house on Deschambault Street to inspire her and fuel her imagination. The house is where she experienced so much of life: family, nature, happiness, worry, bereavement, reflection, soul-searching, loneliness, the city and the many facets of immigration. Her memories gave her inspiration and were the foundation for the characters and themes she developed in her later works, a number of which were widely recognized and won many prestigious awards.

Plaque text

Gabrielle Roy

Dès son premier roman, Bonheur d’occasion (1945), Gabrielle Roy se distingue comme une auteure importante et une pionnière du réalisme social au Québec. Dans les oeuvres suivantes, elle aborde avec sensibilité des thèmes universels tout en décrivant la réalité des immigrants et ses années passées au sein de la communauté franco-manitobaine, s’imposant par son art du récit, sa prose limpide et sa profonde humanité. Elle reste attachée toute sa vie à sa maison natale — une résidence de la classe moyenne, simple et accueillante, bâtie en 1905 — où elle habite jusqu’en 1937. Riche d’un univers de personnes et d’événements marquants, cette maison, désormais un lieu historique, sera souvent décrite et idéalisée dans ses écrits, notamment dans Rue Deschambault (1955).

Gabrielle Roy’s first novel, The Tin Flute (1945), brought her immediate recognition as an important writer and a pioneer of social realism in Quebec. Subsequent works sensitively explored universal themes through descriptions of the immigrant experience and her years in the Franco-Manitoban community, establishing her reputation for masterful storytelling, clear prose, and a profound humanity. All her life, Roy remained attached to this simple, welcoming family home—a typical middle-class residence built in 1905—where she was born and lived until 1937. With its vibrant world of people and events, this house, now a national historic site, was often described and idealized in her writing, especially in Street of Riches (1955).

See also:

Memorable Manitobans: Gabrielle Roy (1909-1983)

Historic Sites of Manitoba: Gabrielle Roy House (375 Deschambault Street, Winnipeg)

Page revised: 13 June 2016

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