In 1763, by the Treaty of Paris, France officially ceded New France to England, which rapidly instated a civil government and a number of legal institutions based on its own. The office of coroner was established in Canada at the same time as British common law. The origins of the office go back to 1194, when it was created in England at the local government level in order to prevent sheriffs from becoming too powerful and to ensure that the king received all revenue that was his due. Since everything was the king's property in medieval England, the coroner was sent, each time there was a death, to make an inventory of the deceased's property and possessions. The final disposal of the body was also determined by the same representative of the Crown (hence the name "Crowner" or "coroner"). The coroner lost power and importance toward the end of the 13th century, but continued to inquire into violent deaths. From that time on, the detection of crime replaced the collection of revenue.
In Québec, on October 4, 1764, William Conyngham and John Burke were appointed by the governor as coroners and clerks of the peace; the former in Québec City, the latter in Montréal. As a public officer representing the king, the coroner was charged with investigating the circumstances of violent or sudden deaths resulting from unknown or suspicious causes. If a death did not result from natural causes or occurred in suspicious circumstances, the coroner held an inquest and filed a report specifying the causes of death and identifying the persons he believed were criminally responsible for the death. A jury usually composed of 12 honest men without criminal records, who were objective with respect to the inquest and came from the locality where the death occurred or where the body was found, then had to render a verdict, particularly in cases of infanticide, suicide, murder, involuntary or negligent manslaughter or legitimate defence. The jury was governed by a president who, like a judge, provided the jury with legal guidance and received the verdict. The coroner's jury, which was abolished in 1967, was governed by the same rules as juries of the Superior Court.
In the early 1980s, the emergence of new disciplines and technologies relating, in particular, to forensic assessments, spurred the Québec government to revise and modernize the coroner's role. The Act respecting the determination of the causes and circumstances of death (R.S.Q., c. R-0.2) was passed by the National Assembly on December 19, 1983 and came into force on March 3, 1986. As a public officer, the coroner has jurisdiction over any death that occurs in Québec in obscure or violent circumstances, and over the entry into Québec of the body of a person having died outside Québec in such circumstances. Since 1986, however, the coroner has a purely social role aimed at the prevention of deaths, leaving crime detection to the police. More broadly, the coroner's role consists in determining the causes and circumstances of deaths and trying to see how those deaths could have been prevented, protecting the living by formulating recommendations to prevent such deaths from occurring, and informing the public about the medical causes and the circumstances of deaths.
Coroners' records, which are managed by the judicial court staff, were regarded until 1986 as judicial archives and, as such, were completely accessible to the public. Today, "the Chief Coroner has custody of the records of the coroners" filed since 1986 and controls access to them as prescribed by law.
Coroners' inquests from before 1986, the oldest of which dates back to August 14, 1765, were preserved in Québec's various courthouses and have now nearly all been transferred to Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec. Inquests were at first rare and were held mostly in cities, but rapid change began in the 19th century, increasing in pace in the latter half of that century. The risks of accidents related to technological development (trains, automobiles and the mechanization of work) multiplied. At the same time, the coroners' field of endeavour broadened. Beginning in 1880, the coroner had to be notified of deaths that occurred in penitentiaries, prisons, reformatories and houses of correction or detention (43-44, Vict., c. 10, s. 2). In 1922, jailers, wardens, superintendents and persons in charge of such institutions were explicitly required to notify the coroner of deaths and give the details of the circumstances of deaths, and the requirement extended from then on to lunatic asylums (12 Geo. V, c. 67, s. 3479a). So it is not surprising to see that 1,190 of the 1,877 coroners' records written between 1916 and 1944 in the district of Charlevoix are directly related to the Hospice Sainte-Anne in Baie-Saint-Paul.
From the beginning, inquest records have included testimony gathered by the coroner¿testimony by medical practitioners and witnesses is present in many cases¿and the verdict rendered. The start of the 20th century saw the addition of forensic assessment reports, laboratory studies and police reports. Until the mid-19th century, the documents were essentially in English.
Realizing their potential as a source, the historian André Lachance used coroners' inquests as the basis for his study entitled "La vie est si fragile". Étude sur la mort violente dans les Cantons de l'Est 1900-1950. Coroners' inquests do constitute a significant source, because they can be used by historians, anthropologists, sociologists, ethnologists and genealogists to trace the various contexts, attitudes and perceptions surrounding death. They inform us about the medicalization of society, the growth and development of medical expertise, changing public health measures, the role of the state, crime and crime-related violence, the causes of death characteristic of each era, the impact of urbanization, industrialization and new modes of production, and the revolution in transportation and its impact on deaths. In addition to constituting a potentially useful source for anyone interested in the history of the profession of coroner and history in general, coroners' inquests can be used by genealogists to trace deaths, explore the living environment and death of an ancestor, or find information on filiations. In this regard, the testimony and depositions generally found in the records are a particularly rich source of information.
In collaboration with Stéphanie Tésio and Vincent Hardy