Alberta’s Francophone Mosaic

When Alberta became a province in 1905, Francophones had been using this land for at least 127 years. In fact, they were the first to arrive and had dominated its fur trade since 1778. The history of the European settlers primarily begins in northern Alberta, where the highest-quality and most abundant furs were found. For a long time, the south remained primarily Indigenous land.

As Francophone missionaries settled in those parts and expanded missions there for the Métis and Indigenous peoples during the second half of the 19th century, an increasing influx of European immigrants transformed the land. Among them, several thousand French Canadians and Francophones coming directly from Europe would settle in Alberta.

This vibrant and thriving Francophone community would contribute to the province’s rapid growth. However, as in other parts of Canada, it also suffered as a result of its cultural distinction and would have to fight to preserve its language. It made significant gains in the 1970s, with the result that, today, approximately 70,000 Albertans whose first language is French form a thriving community and enjoy proper educational and community organizations. The French language is also popular among Anglophones, many of whom study at immersion schools.

Fur trade and exploration

In the days of New France, before 1760, French fur traders very likely travelled what later became Alberta. They even erected a fort within sight of the Rocky Mountains, along Red Deer (La Biche) River. Anthony Henday is the first documented European to have set foot on Albertan soil, in 1754, on behalf of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

It was not until the fur trade resumed after New France was ceded to Great Britain in 1763 that permanent trading posts emerged in present-day northern Alberta. A group of about 40 Francophone voyageurs led by Peter Pond was the first to trade at the river and at Athabasca Lake with the Chipewyan Nation in 1778. The North West Company, based in Montreal, would subsequently build numerous forts in Northern and Western Canada and compete fiercely with the London-based Hudson’s Bay Company. In 1795, both companies would set up a trading post “within musket shot” of the other at the present location of the city of Edmonton.

Over the next 25 years, the vast majority of “voyageurs” engaging in the fur trade in what is now Alberta were French Canadians or Francophone Métis. Francophone missionaries began to join them in 1838.

Missionaries and conversion of the West

The Métis and Indigenous peoples living in what is now Alberta in the 19th century so appreciated the missionaries’ balanced position, compared to the fur traders’ greed and abuse, that they asked to be sent these men of God who spoke the French, Métis and Indigenous languages. The first arrived at Fort Edmonton in 1842. Missions proliferated after that, notably at Lac Ste. Anne, Fort Chipewyan, Lac La Biche and St. Albert, and then at the site of the future city of Calgary and in the neighbouring areas as of 1872. Some English Protestant missionaries were also present.

In 1869, two years after Canada’s founding, government authorities started taking over the Hudson’s Bay Company throughout the West. In keeping with Canadian government policy, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the most prominent missionaries in Alberta, embraced the broad objective of converting Métis and Indigenous peoples. They watched helplessly as the disappearance of the buffalo and European colonization devastated the Indigenous and Métis populations. From their viewpoint, the transition to an agricultural economy would enable the Indigenous peoples to integrate among the thousands of European immigrants flocking to the Prairies and to support themselves. A number of women’s religious orders, such as the Grey Nuns, who came primarily from Quebec, assisted the Oblates and opened convents, schools and hospitals simultaneously to serve the French-Canadian, Francophone Métis and Indigenous populations.

Francophone immigrants

Despite the Catholic Church’s recruitment efforts to establish a strong Francophone community in the future province of Alberta, the results remained modest. Just 620 families answered the call between 1880 and 1890. Half of them were from the United States, where these French Canadians had emigrated; the others were from Quebec, other parts of Canada, and Europe. They settled in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as in northern Alberta, in the Lac La Biche and Peace River areas.

In 1892, when Edmonton became a city, most of its 700 residents were Francophones. In 1916, the urban population exploded, but Francophones accounted for only 4.8% of the 53,850 residents, i.e., 2,600 people. This percentage remained unchanged until the mid‑20th century, both in Edmonton and throughout the province. In 1941, there were 50,000 Francophones, concentrated in the same areas as when they arrived.

The Métis population

Many Francophone Métis were involved in Alberta’s fur trade in the mid-19th century. Gradually, the missionaries tried to transition them to farming, as they did with the Indigenous peoples. Father Lacombe, an Oblate born in Quebec, accompanied them on their buffalo hunt for the first time during the 1850s. He bore witness to their successive hardships at the hands of the Canadian government, which sought to marginalize them in both Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1870 and 1885. While advocating due respect for the authorities, Father Lacombe repeatedly pleaded their case and called for greater respect for their rights, particularly concerning their land that was taken from them.

In 1896, after the buffalo had completely disappeared, Lacombe wanted to “make an effort towards redemption in favour of these people.” He proposed to the Prime Minister of Canada that land be set aside where the Métis could come together and farm. The government agreed. Accordingly, about 50 families settled in Saint-Paul-des-Métis, Alberta, where the Oblates built a chapel, school, sawmill and grain mill. Prospects appeared promising. However, pressure to get them to adopt Euro-Canadian customs and values and insufficient financial support led to the venture’s failure in 1909. At that time, Saint-Paul was open to Quebec settlers, who soon made up the majority of the population. This difficult chapter, added to previous ones, strained the close relations between the French Canadians and Métis, who would disperse over the land and would mostly become Anglophones.

Residential schools for Indigenous youth

Despite the positive relations that many missionaries maintained with the Indigenous peoples, whose languages and customs they were very familiar with—particularly Father Lacombe, whom the Cree named “the Noble Soul” and the Blackfoot called “Good Heart”—they increasingly embraced the Canadian government’s commitment to assimilate them. As some Ontario Protestant clerics had long done and the Americans were doing, they proposed that the government fund residential schools: boarding schools where Indigenous children would be separated from their parents and their culture to be raised as Caucasians. This radical solution was implemented in Alberta as of 1883 and applied in many other Canadian provinces for a century. These schools, run by English- and French-speaking Protestant and Catholic religious orders, generated great suffering, a multitude of social problems and few positive results.

Success of the Francophones

Overall, Alberta’s Francophone community fared well in its new environment. Granted, the settlers struggled at first, to the extent that the authorities required that all pioneers bring along one year’s supply of food when they first arrived at their homestead. The first homes were simple, scantily furnished and poorly insulated. The mosquitoes were irksome, and water was sometimes difficult to find. However, the land was rich with game, and the rural areas that the Francophones chose had very fertile soil. The men could also find work in the woods as lumberjacks or at cattle ranches as cowboys. After a few years, most farmers made a good living.

The most enterprising settlers built a grain mill, a hotel or a store. The Francophones had a strong presence in the hospitality and trade sectors. Those who chose Edmonton or Calgary could take advantage of the many business opportunities available in these rapidly growing cities. A significant number of Francophones secured leadership roles in their community as a Chamber of Commerce member or director, city councillor, Member of Parliament, clergyman or school board trustee, as did Joseph-Henri Picard, Stanislas La Rue, the La Flèche brothers, Joseph Beauchamp and Joseph-Homidas Gariépy. Alongside others with a lower profile, they lived in a middle-class Edmonton neighbourhood, near St. Joachim’s Church, at the centre of Franco-Catholic parish life.

European contribution

Credit for the strength and capabilities of the Francophones when Alberta became a province in 1905 is also owed to the presence of wealthy French and Belgian immigrants, who did business in the city, settled on ranches and operated mines. For instance, the Revillon brothers from Paris made inroads in Edmonton’s fur trade. René Lemarchand invested in luxury real estate, and renowned horse breeder Frank Bernard became president of the Alberta Horse Breeders Association. As elsewhere in the Prairies, all Francophone newcomers came together around the Catholic faith and clergy.

Obstacles to the Francophone community’s development

While the standard of life of Albertan Francophones was comparable to that of the Anglophone majority, they had to overcome obstacles jeopardizing their development.

In 1892, the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories, which covered all of the Prairies before the present-day provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and part of Manitoba were created, made English the exclusive language of instruction. The use of French in school was permitted only for the first year and limited to one hour per day in subsequent years. The community offset this restriction through various parallel endeavours such as competitions, newspapers, plays, and the hiring of Francophone teachers and school trustees. In addition, three French-only private schools were opened between 1908 and 1926. Nonetheless, the influence of the Francophone clergy and organizations like the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta, which was founded in 1925, waned in the mid-20th century as Alberta fell on difficult economic times. The Francophones, like the Hutterites and Jews, were used as scapegoats at that time. The launch of a Francophone radio station in 1949 was one of the community support measures that the Francophones successfully carried out during that period.

The situation began improving in 1968, when legislation permitted French-language instruction in elementary schools for half the school day and for even 80% of the day after 1976. However, since a growing number of Anglophones were attending these bilingual schools, which turned into French immersion schools, they actually became an important factor in the assimilation of Francophones into the Anglophone community. The adoption of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 made it possible to rectify this situation. In 1990, through the courts, Franco-Albertans won the right to manage an exclusively Francophone school system, a right that was used five years later. In 2007, 5,000 students were enrolled in this school system, a sure sign of vitality and a source of hope for the community. In addition, the University of Alberta’s Campus Saint-Jean in Edmonton offers a wide range of university and college courses in French.

Franco-Albertans today

In the 2011 census, 1.9% of Alberta’s population indicated French as their first language, that is, slightly fewer than 69,000 people. This population is, however, growing, as many Francophones from other parts of Canada are relocating to Alberta because of its bright economic prospects. Many Francophone immigrants from Europe and increasing numbers from the Middle East and Africa are also choosing to move to Alberta. In addition, this Francophone community’s level of education is higher than the Canadian standard.

The high demand for French immersion schools in Alberta—200 schools were attended by nearly 40,000 students in 2014—also continually improves knowledge of French in this province and increases the use of French within the English-mother-tongue population, particularly among exogamous couples where one spouse is a Francophone. The number and strength of Francophone organizations, which are primarily concentrated in the cities of Edmonton and Calgary, also contribute to the vitality of the Franco-Albertan community.