Marie-Clara Dorimène Desjardins (née Roy), co-founder of the Caisses populaires Desjardins (born 17 September 1858 in Sorel, QC; died 14 June 1932 in Lévis, QC).

Family, Education and Marriage

Dorimène Roy came from a modest family in Sorel, Québec. She was the daughter of steamboat captain Joseph Roy and Rosalie Mailhot. About the age of two, Dorimène was entrusted to her aunt, Louise Mailhot Clarisse, who lived in Lévis (on the south shore of Québec City) with her husband Jean-Baptiste Thériault. A wealthy couple, they provided Dorimène with an education of which she could only have dreamed, given her parents’ means. She studied at the Convent of the Sœurs de la Charité de Lévis (then called Notre-Dame-de-Toutes-Grâces) for 10 years.

On 2 September 1879, she married Alphonse Desjardins (1854–1920), a journalist at Le Canadien, a daily newspaper in Québec. The couple moved to Lévis and had ten children. In 1892, Alphonse obtained a position as a French reporter in Canada's Parliament. Therefore for six months a year, Alphonse Desjardins travelled to Ottawa, while his family remained in Lévis. For many years, Dorimène cared for her children and the home alone, in addition to managing the family budget.

Founding of the Caisses populaires Desjardins

After he attended a debate on loan sharks in the House of Commons, Alphonse became interested in the organizational shortcomings of credit, which obliged small borrowers to turn to loan sharks. In order to find a solution, he visited many libraries and began to correspond with various authors who had studied the practice of cooperative credit in Europe. After three years studying the issue, Desjardins founded the Caisse populaire de Lévis on 6 December 1900, a credit and savings union with variable capital and limited liability. It was the first successful institution of its kind in North America.

The Caisses populaire de Lévis opened on 23 January 1901 in the Desjardins' home. However, Alphonse Desjardins had to return to his job in the federal capital. The directors of the Caisse took over, but soon realized that they had limited time to devote to daily management of the Caisse. In 1903, as no one had volunteered to replace Desjardins as manager, Dorimène offered to take on the task.

Manager of the Caisse Populaire de Lévis

From 1903 to 1906, Dorimène Desjardins was full-time manager of the Caisse populaire de Lévis (in addition to taking care of ten children — the youngest was one year old). The official title, however, was her husband’s. Dorimène was authorized to sign checks under $500, to make and receive deposits and grant (under the direction of acting manager, Theophilus Carrier) loans to Caisse customers. For these services, the board paid Dorimène a nominal $50 per year.

After 1906, Dorimène continued her appointment with the cooperative group. She assisted her husband with correspondence and accounting, thereby playing a leading role in the foundation of more than 140 branches in Québec,Ontario and the United States. In 1915, Alphonse felt the first symptoms of renal failure. He retired in 1917 and committed himself to a federation project that would bring together all of the Caisses. Dorimène therefore became her husband's indispensable right arm (he was by then weakened by the disease). In 1918 and 1919, she contributed to a special committee studying the issue of federation.

Federation of the Caisses populaires

Following Alphonse’s death on 31 October 1920, Dorimène upheld her late husband’s vision for the Caisses and retained a moral authority over their senior managers. Managers did not hesitate to ask for her insight into various issues. In 1920, she played an active role in founding l’Union régionale des caisses populaires Desjardins (Regional union of Caisses populaires) in Québec City. In 1923, she was appointed vice-patron of the board and became an honorary member. Her role, previously discreet, finally came to light.

When Dorimène Desjardins died on 14 June 1932, the Caisses organized a large funeral in Lévis. An article in the Action catholique on that day mentioned that her departure was a "loss for French Canada" as "she had certainly been one of the more knowledgeable women on the economic issue from a social point of view." Le Quotidien added: "Without her, admittedly, the Caisses populaires Desjardins would probably not exist."

Belated Recognition

Recognized by her contemporaries, Dorimène Desjardins’ contribution to the Caisses group was nevertheless forgotten for several decades. The Caisses themselves would, for a long time, focus on Alphonse Desjardins as the group's emblematic figure.

Dorimène's recognition is relatively recent. It is the result of research conducted in the early 1990s by amateur and professional historians. The female contribution to the Desjardins Group was particularly evident in the fact that several branches of the Caisses were based in private homes and were managed by women.

Since then, Dorimène Desjardins has been officially recognized as a co-founder of the Desjardins Group. During the festivities surrounding the centenary of the Caisses populaires, the image of Dorimène alongside Alphonse was widely used. Today, a park in Sorel-Tracy bears her name and a monument in Lévis was erected in memory of the Desjardins. In 2008, she became the first laywoman to be honoured on Parliament Hill in Québec City.

On 8 March 2012, Pauline Green, president of the International Cooperative Alliance, highlighted Dorimène Desjardins exceptional contribution to the advancement of the status of women and her dissemination of the cooperative ideal. A few months later, on 5 October 2012, the Canadian government announced the appointment of Dorimène Desjardins as Person of National Historic Significance, more than 40 years after her husband.