Ernest Adolphe Côté, MBE, soldier, civil servant and diplomat (born 12 June 1913 in Edmonton, Alberta; died 25 February 2015 in Ottawa, Ontario). Ernest Adolphe Côté, a Franco-Albertan (and adopted Franco-Ontarian), was a prominent member of the Canadian Armed Forces. He played an important role in planning the Normandy Landings, after which he led an illustrious career in the federal public service. He served under five Canadian prime ministers and was a participant in and witness to some of the most important moments in the history of Canadian external relations.
Family and Education
Born into a francophone family in Edmonton, Ernest Adolphe Côté was the son of Jean Léon Côté and Cécile Gagnon. His father was from Les Éboulements in the Charlevoix region of Québec, and moved to Edmonton around 1903 after travelling throughout Western Canada working as a land surveyor for the government. He worked for the commission tasked with determining the borders between Alaska, the Yukon, and British Columbia (see Alaska Boundary Dispute). His name was given to Mount Côté, located at the border between Alberta and British Columbia, and to the municipality Jean Côté, situated northeast of Grande Prairie, Alberta. Jean Léon Côté founded a mining engineering company in 1907 and then embarked on a political career that led him all the way to the Senate.
Cécile Gagnon came from a Québec City family that was heavily involved in arts and culture. Her father was Gustave Gagnon, a music teacher and the organist for the Cathedral-Basilica Notre-Dame de Québec. Her mother, Séphora Hamel, was the niece of the famous painter Théophile Hamel. In 1891, Cécile and a group of other young women from Québec City’s English and French elite founded a concert society called the Ladies’ Morning Musical Club. It became the Club musical de Québec in 1969, and the group celebrated its 125th anniversary in 2016. Cécile got married in 1907 and moved to Edmonton, where she was a founding member and the first president of the Ladies’ Musical Club of Edmonton (now the Edmonton Musical Club).
Ernest Adolphe Côté was the third in a family of five sons. Côté’s father died in September 1924 when Ernest was only 11 years old. While his older brothers had to give up their studies to help their mother support the family, Côté and his younger brothers were able to continue their education. He studied at Edmonton Jesuit College, where he received his classical college education. He finished his studies in 1931 and received a Bachelor of Science from Univeristé Laval, with which the college was affiliated. He then worked as a clerk for the Alberta auditor-general’s department. He was very involved with various local francophone organizations, performed for a francophone radio station and organized the French competition for the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta. While he was still working as a clerk, Côté also became a bilingual announcer for the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (the network that preceded CBC/Radio-Canada), most notably as a host for a nationally broadcast classical music program. He returned to school in 1935 to study law at the University of Alberta, and received his law degree (LL.B.) in 1938. He was admitted to the Law Society of Alberta in 1939.
Military Career and Planning the Normandy Landings
Côté had taken an officer’s training course in university. After the Second World War broke out in 1939, Côté joined the Royal 22e Régiment (R22eR) rather than pursuing a career as a lawyer. He was attached to the regiment as a lieutenant at the end of November and left Québec City for England on 8 December 1939. As an educated and bilingual officer, Côté quickly rose through the ranks. He became a warrant officer of the R22eR in March 1940, and then was transferred as a staff officer to the headquarters of the 7th Corps, which was commanded by General Andrew McNaughton and was responsible for protecting the south coast of England. He was sent to take a staff training course at Minley Manor, near Camberley. In 1941, he was then sent to Sussex to the headquarters of the 1st Canadian Division as a deputy assistant adjutant-general (DAAG), then to the 8th Canadian Infantry Brigade as a major and chief of staff. Much to his surprise, his superiors recommended him for the Order of the British Empire, a rare honour for such a young officer.
In early 1942, Côté was appointed to the position of assistant adjutant general of the First Canadian Army, and the following year assistant adjutant and quartermaster-general (AA&QMG) as a lieutenant-colonel of the 3rd Infantry Division. He was responsible for all of the logistics and provision of supplies for a division of about 15,000 men and reported to the commander regarding the preparation and execution of administrative plans in support of military operations. Côté wrote in his memoirs Réminiscences et Souvenances: “I believe we realized pretty quickly that I would be more useful in an administrative role than being in charge of operations, given my lack of experience in the field.”
Côté spent two years in the 3rd Infantry Division, which was in his opinion the most interesting time of his brief military career, given that the division was preparing for a landing in Europe. In early January 1944, he was among a select few officers who were informed of the date and location of the invasion and was put in charge of planning the logistics for his division in secrecy. By mid-May, the invasion plans had been completed in operational and administrative detail. Côté explained in his memoirs that it was necessary to foresee every eventuality, as if the army were already on French soil: “For example, we had to plan our routes in advance, even where no paths existed; we had to bring road signs with us to indicate which way soldiers should go and to identify reinforcement gathering places and the supply stations for water, gasoline, diesel and ammunition, and we had to locate the premises of the first small field hospitals and finally predetermine the location of a cemetery.”
On D-Day, Côté and the other members of staff of the 3rd Division landed at Bény-sur-Mer four hours after the beginning of the invasion to establish a campaign headquarters. His division played a role in the liberation of Caen, the Battle of the Scheldt and the liberation of the Netherlands. In December 1944, Côté returned to Canada and was promoted to the rank of colonel in January 1945. He continued to serve in Ottawa at the Department of National Defence as vice-adjutant general of the medical and dental corps, the chaplaincy, the paymasters and the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC).
He met Lieutenant Madeleine Frémont while working in Ottawa, and they were married 16 June 1945. Madeleine Frémont was the daughter of Charles Frémont, a lawyer, and Thaïs Lacoste, a women’s rights activist who also came from a politically and socially active family. The couple had four children: Lucie, Benoît, Denyse and Michel.
Federal Civil Servant
After his marriage, Côté decided to leave the army and to apply to the Department of Foreign Affairs. His application was accepted, and he joined the legal department as second secretary. In November 1945, he was part of the Canadian delegation to London to prepare for the first session of the General Assembly of the United Nations. In the summer of 1946, he helped develop the Charter of the World Health Organization, and at the end of 1947 he was appointed secretary-general of the Canadian delegation responsible for planning the second part of the session of the General Assembly of the United Nations, which was held in New York. He resumed his duties as secretary-general of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations at the fall 1948 session of the General Assembly held in Paris. Côté attended with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and General Georges Vanier, the future governor general of Canada.
Although Côté’s numerous missions abroad often took him far from his new family, he was soon rewarded for his service. He moved to London with his wife and children in early 1949. The Department of Foreign Affairs sent him to study geopolitics at the Imperial Defense College, after which he was made the legal advisor and consul for the Canadian High Commission in London, replacing Jules Léger.
He returned to Canada in the summer of 1952 and became the head of the Consular Division. He later became head of the Americas Division, which was responsible for setting policy in collaboration with the United States. In 1955, Lester B. Pearson, then Minister of Foreign Affairs and chief negotiator concerning the waters of Niagara Falls and those of the Columbia River, offered him the position of assistant deputy minister in the national resources sector of Northern Affairs. Over the following years, Côté worked on a migratory bird treaty, the partial restoration of the Fortress of Louisbourg and the development of the Saint Lawrence Seaway.
In 1963, Pearson, now prime minister, offered him the position of deputy minister of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources. From 1965 onwards, Côté also chaired the committee responsible for organizing Canada’s centennial celebrations. In 1968, he was transferred to the Department of Veterans Affairs, and just nine months later, Pierre Elliott Trudeau asked him to replace the deputy solicitor-general. This position was at that time the responsibility of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, security services and prisons and the Parole Board. He was in this position when the October Crisis broke out, and when the War Measures Act was enacted. In 1972, Côté was appointed ambassador to Finland, a position he held until his retirement in December 1975.
Côté was a member of the provincial executive for the Association des communautés francophones d’Ottawa, and he advocated for French secondary schools to be funded with public money. He was an executive member of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society for 22 years, serving as both vice-president and secretary. From 1968 to 1972, he represented Saint Paul University on the board of governors of the University of Ottawa. Following his retirement from the public service, he volunteered with various organizations, including as a board member of the Ottawa Public Library.
Awards and Recognition
Côté was regularly invited to speak about his experience serving in the Canadian Army and working for Foreign Affairs. On the 60th anniversary of D-Day, 6 June 2004, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour by the French government for his role in the liberation of France. On the 70th anniversary of D-Day in 2014, when he was 100 years old, he crossed the Atlantic three times to take part in ceremonies commemorating the Juno Beach Centre, where he was honored.
A few months later, on 18 December 2014, Côté made headlines for being the victim of a home robbery and assault. The 101 year-old veteran was tied up by the intruder, but managed to free himself and alert the City of Ottawa’s police department. He later said in an interview, “Some people think that [if] you’re 101 years of age, you crumble up and wonder, ‘Oh why, what was happening.’ No, I was just mad.”
Thanks to the veteran’s description and a surveillance camera installed at the entrance of his apartment building, the attacker was arrested soon after and charged with robbery and attempted murder. DNA tests later showed that the suspect was also involved in the June 2007 murder of three people in Ottawa, including former judge Alban Caron. Ernest Côté died of natural causes on 25 February 2015, before he could learn the outcome of the trial. His extraordinary display of courage had been hailed by the media in the weeks before his death. He posthumously received a medal of the Order of La Pléiade in April 2015 for his commitment to defending French language rights in Ontario.