AUGUST 5, 1828 - DECEMBER 14, 1897
Joseph-Octave Arsenault was born on a farm in Cascumpec, Prince Edward Island on August 5, 1828. Of Acadian origin, Joseph and his family were influential figures among this French-speaking minority on the Island. At the age of four, the family moved to La Roche, and Joseph received a first-rate education from the best Acadian school teacher of his day, Mr. Gaudet. Inspired by his teacher and mentor, Joseph began a career teaching school in 1847 when he was nineteen years old. In 1852 he attended the Central Academy in Charlottetown and received his first-class teaching certificate. Proud of his Acadian heritage and keenly aware of the disadvantages Francophones faced in an English-dominated school system, Joseph became disillusioned with his ability to influence the situation as a teacher. Using the money he had saved up, he decided to go into business.
In 1865 Joseph opened a general store in Abrams village, and then another in 1874. At the general store he sold and bartered for farm produce. His business also allowed him to return to the land, and he took up agriculture on his property and was known throughout the Island as a model farmer who practiced up-to-date methods and technologies. In the 1870s, Joseph bought a fishery and expanded into that line of business. At first his fishery focused on mackerel, but shifted to lobsters as they became more profitable. He then opened a packing plant which achieved great success, and Joseph’s canned lobsters won him a number of international awards.
Alongside his career in business, Joseph Arsenault was also an extremely influential political figure in Prince Edward Island. With the arrival of Canadian Confederation in 1867, Joseph ran and was elected to the Prince Edward Island House of Assembly, a seat he would hold for most of the rest of his life. At first, Arsenault campaigned fiercely against P.E.I. joining confederation. A reform-minded Liberal, Joseph believed that Islanders were more capable of governing themselves. However his political views changed 1870 like many other Acadian Liberals. Outraged by the refusal of the Liberal government of P.E.I. to fund Roman Catholic schools, Joseph became a Conservative. As a Tory, Joseph switched his views on confederation and supported the Island’s entrance into the Dominion of Canada in 1873. The question of separate schools was a crucial one for the Acadian community. In addition to providing an education in line with Catholic precepts, separate schools were also seen as a crucial means of preserving their French language and heritage.
As a politician, Joseph Arsenault was a fervent crusader Acadian national rights. As a member of the board of education, he was instrumental in achieving higher pay for French-speaking teachers and introducing French-language readers for school children. He was also a key organizer of the convention which chose the Acadian flag and anthem, still in use to this day. He sought to return his people to the traditional farming lifestyles that had been accustomed to. With this goal in mind, Joseph was an active member of a colonization society which removed Acadians from the overpopulated parishes of P.E.I. to unoccupied land in New Brunswick and Quebec.
Throughout his long and successful career, Joseph-Octave Arsenault earned the respect and admiration of Anglophone and Francophone Islanders alike. His achievements were recognized in 1895 when he was made a Senator of Prince Edward Island; the first Acadian to hold this position. Sadly, he passed away two years later on December 14, 1897. Upon his death, a prominent Acadian newspaper proclaimed that he “restored the worth of the French name in the Island province.”