Georges Bugnet  1879 - 1981

Georges Bugnet - A life well lived

By Bernadette Vangool

Many of us are familiar with the ‘Thérèse Bugnet’ rose, but few of us know much if anything about its breeder. Through research for an upcoming rose presentation, I had the pleasure of being sidetracked into the life of plant breeder and writer, Georges Bugnet.

Bugnet was born in Chalon-sur Saône, France. He began school in Mâcon where he was said to be a poor student, slow to learn to read and write. This was later found to be due to his nearsightedness. At the age of eleven he read a paper by Emile Petitot about the life of Western Canadian Indigenous Peoples, awakening a dream to become a missionary.

His mother urged him to study for the priesthood and Georges entered the Seminary in Dijon. Not sure about his calling, he eventually switched to the University of Dijon where he studied literature. At age nineteen, he entered the military, which allowed him to continue studying rather than actually serving in the army.

While at University he became active in the Young Catholic Association and organized youth groups. He also served as editor of the university newspaper.

In 1903 he quit university and traveled to Germany, financing his travels by teaching French and Latin. He returned to Dijon in 1904 and married Julia Ley, whom he had met shortly after leaving the Seminary. He worked for a weekly newspaper in Annency for a time, but in December of that year the couple left for Canada with the dream of making a fortune and then returning to France.

Their first son Charles was born in February 1905 in St Boniface. The family stayed in Manitoba, where Georges worked for a local farmer until mid-August, when they moved to St Albert, Alberta. On October 25th Georges took possession of his homestead in Rich Valley about 145 km north of Edmonton. Charles and Julia joined him there the following March.

Over the next eighteen years Georges and Julia welcomed nine more children, among them a second son named Paul, who died in a fire related accident around 14 months of age. They also adopted a granddaughter, Rita. During this time Georges studied hardy plant material and corresponded extensively with botanical gardens around the world. He introduced the golden-bell clematis Clematis tangutica from seeds of a Chinese clematis received from St, Petersburg. A few years later he introduced Pinus ponderosa and two varieties of the edible honeysuckle (Lonicera edulis), now called haskaps or honeyberry, which he named 'Georges Bugnet' and 'Julia Bugnet'.

Community minded, Georges served on the Rich Valley Board of Education for many years. He was also a founding member of l'Association Canadienne-Francaises de l'Alberta. As time progressed he spent more time on writing, producing two novels 'Le lys de sang' (1922) and 'Nipsya' (1924) under the pseudonym of Henri Doutrement. His most famous novel 'La Foret' (The Forest) (1935), published under his own name, was translated into English by David Carpenter of Saskatoon, and in many ways mirrors the hardship the Bugnet family encountered in their early years on the land. From 1924 to 1928 he was the editor and lead writer for a weekly newspaper 'L'Union'. Between 1928 and 1946 his essays, short stories and poetry appeared in literary magazines in France as well as in Quebec, Manitoba and Alberta. He was also a regular contributor to 'Le Canada Francais'.

During that same period he developed fruit trees, naming an apple 'Paul Bugnet' after his son and a plum 'Claude Bugnet' after his father. He also worked with lilacs and had a special interest in roses, whom he named after women in the family. His famous 'Thérèse Bugnet' named after his sister is still sought after today.

Georges sold part of the homestead in 1947, and in 1954 he retired with Julia to Legal Alberta. Julia passed away in 1970 at age 88.

In 1966, the Plantation Bugnet was designated a provincial historic site. More recently, a website is being developed devoted to Georges Bugnet and his homestead.

He received many awards in his later years, including an Honorary Doctorate from the University of Alberta, bestowed upon him at Legal (1978) and in 1972 a Certificate of Achievement in Horticulture and Literature from the Government of Alberta.

Georges Bugnet died in St Albert in 1981, six weeks shy of his 102nd year.

Much appreciation to the University of St Boniface 'Cahiers Franco-Canadiens de l'Ouest' for much of this information.