From low profile to enthusiasm: French and Francophones in British Columbia

For a long time, the French language and Francophones went unnoticed in British Columbia. French-Canadian and Francophone Métis founding pioneers, who constituted the majority for the first 50 years of European colonization but were not in leadership roles, have been forgotten. Then the gold rush transformed the social fabric of this spectacular territory and made Francophones a minority in 1858. Since joining Canadian Confederation in 1871, British Columbia has proudly displayed its British character.

The contemporary Francophone community in this West Coast province has nevertheless been thriving since the turn of the millennium, with interest in French growing in several ways. French language education has developed rapidly, from preschool to university. French immersion classes are particularly popular. International Francophone immigration is strong. Even the Francophone tourism and economic sectors have the wind in their sails.

It is uplifting to see that one of the smallest French mother-tongue populations in Canada, representing only 1.6% of the province’s population (65,000 people), is enjoying modest but very real growth. It is now seen as an asset, even a strength, for this province known for its many attractions and natural resources.

The first European pioneers to come to British Columbia were mainly Francophone

In 1793, six Francophones were among the first eight Europeans to come to what is now British Columbia. They accompanied explorer Alexander Mackenzie and his lieutenant Alexander Mackay on their famous crossing of the Rocky Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. However, for a long time, history did not see fit to mention the key role of Joseph Landry, Charles Doucette, François Beaulieu, Baptiste Bisson, François Courtois and Jacques Beauchamp, even though these experienced French-Canadian and Métis voyageurs made this exploit possible, as did two Indigenous guides whose names are lost to history. In fact, it was French Canadians like them, and the Métis born of their marriages to Indigenous women, who had the most expertise in canoe travel, forest survival, and relations with Indigenous peoples, making exploration and fur trade expansion in what is now British Columbia possible. These French Canadians and Francophone Métis represented about 80% of the workers of the North West Company, which was the only fur trading company in British Columbia until its merger with the Hudson Bay Company in 1821.

While the many French Canadian and Francophone Métis who accompanied explorer and pioneers like Simon Fraser, David Thompson and Georges Simpson were once forgotten, recent research sheds light on the key role of these talented lieutenants. From this perspective, we now recognize the contribution of hundreds of French Canadians and Francophone Métis when the North West Company was being established in what is now British Columbia in the early 19th century.

Cooperation among French Canadians, Indigenous peoples and Métis

These French-Canadian men entered into “country marriages” with Indigenous women. In so doing, they adopted certain Indigenous values, learned the languages and developed peaceful relations with the Indigenous communities. These skills greatly fostered the fur trade and the progressive establishment of Canadians of European origin in this part of the country.

In 1798, the North West Company built the first trading post in northern British Columbia. In 1806, three forts were active west of the continental divide, on the Pacific side. The following year, David Thompson began his explorations that would lead to the mouth of the Columbia River, which would become the voyageurs’ primary route across the Rockies to the Pacific for 30 years. The construction of some 20 trading posts and the identification of land and water routes linking them continued, before and after the merger with the Hudson Bay Company. Some of these posts become cities, such as forts Victoria, George (Prince George), Hope, Langley, Nelson and Kamloops.

In 1821, when the Hudson Bay Company absorbed the North West Company, the predominance of French-Canadian and Métis workers in the fur trade slowly began to decline. While the company continued to rely on their expertise, because they were accustomed to this difficult territory and the Indigenous nations of British Columbia, it was less favourable towards them. In the 1850s, many of them gave up the fur trade.

The key role of Francophone religious orders

The first missionary in what is now British Columbia was Modeste Demers, a Francophone born in Lower Canada (now Quebec). He arrived at Fort Victoria in 1843, where James Douglas was in command. This small Hudson Bay Company fort would become the capital of the province, and Douglas would become the first governor of the colony of British Columbia in 1858. He married a Francophone Métis woman and spoke French. He supported Demers, who was appointed bishop of this immense territory and had big plans despite the lack of resources. With a few French-Canadian priests, some Sisters of St. Anne from Lower Canada and a few Oblate fathers from France and Belgium, Demers would create the first religious, educational and medical infrastructure in Victoria. Then, with the help of other Francophone congregations, they would extend their activities to other nascent communities like New Westminster and Vancouver, as well as the Okanagan Valley and several Indigenous nations.

One of the best known initiatives was that of Father Charles Pandosy, an Oblate born in Marseilles who founded a mission in the Okanagan Valley in 1860, in what is now Kelowna. He introduced grape and apple cultivation as well as the first horned cattle. A number of French Canadians settled in the area and were among the first farmers and administrators in this valley. They also settled in Vernon, Kamloops and Lumby, in the same region.

Up to the turn of the 20th century, these Francophone religious orders perpetuated the use of the French language in mixed French-Canadian, Métis, Anglophone and Indigenous communities, also using a local language created for the needs of the fur trade: Chinook, which mixes French, Indigenous languages and a few words of English. These missionaries were generally welcomed by the Indigenous peoples, who had a positive experience with relations with Francophones at the time of the fur trade.

The historic transition to the gold rush

Advancement of French Canadians and Métis in the Hudson Bay Company was completely blocked. This is why many of them left the fur trade when gold was discovered in 1849 on what is now the West Coast of the United States. Many more resigned when gold was found right there in British Columbia in 1858.

This gold rush brought 30,000 people in just a few months to Victoria, then to the Fraser Valley and the mountains. The fur trade economy was destabilized, as were relations between Europeans and Indigenous peoples, since the majority of gold miners were Americans who did not get along with Indigenous peoples. Francophones, who had been the majority, suddenly found themselves marginalized in a massively Anglo-Saxon population, even though about 1,000 gold rush migrants were of French origin.

The social and economic fabric of the future British Columbia diversified. Francophones dispersed. They used their knowledge of the territory to engage in transportation. They became farmers. They became lumberjacks. And many of them were involved in the next revolution: the railway that linked the West Coast and interior to the rest of Canada, a country founded in 1867 and that British Columbia joined in 1871 on the condition that the railway be built.

Regions and cities

After the gold rush in 1858, Francophones were a minority in British Columbia. They generally made up less than 5% of the population. In several regions, thanks to the Francophone religious presence that provided a basis for small Francophone communities, French Canadians retained their language and culture for a long time, even though they did become bilingual. They worked in mines and in the lumber industry that developed at the end of the 19th century in response to the Prairie population boom; they also worked in fisheries and agriculture, and in transportation and hospitality. In some areas, such as the Okanagan Valley, they were somewhat more numerous.

A notable exception was in 1909 in the Fraser River Valley, not far from Vancouver, when the Fraser River Lumber Company recruited French-Canadian sawmill workers from Quebec and Ontario to operate their sawmill. These workers immigrated with their families, bringing a total of about 400 people, and Maillardville became a sustainable Francophone enclave, where French Canadians from other parts of the country continued to settle or pass through until the 1970s. It continues to be one of the only majority or high-proportion Francophone communities in the province.

Francophones of Canadian and European origin were more numerous in the two major cities, Victoria and Vancouver. There they had educational and health institutions, and set up a variety of community, cultural, sporting and trade associations. Some Francophone businesspeople enjoyed tremendous success, such as French-Canadian François-Xavier Martin, who became one of the first French consuls to Vancouver in the early 20th century. To support this business community, Crédit foncier franco-canadien opened a branch in downtown Vancouver and built a prestigious building that still stands today. In these cities, however, there was great pressure to assimilate, and many Francophones lost their mother tongue over the years, because it was rare to be able to work in French and the private education system was not very accessible.

The contemporary British Columbia Francophone community

In 1945, with the survival of French in British Columbia under threat, various associations organized the first French-language congress. In so doing, they founded the Fédération canadienne-française de Colombie-Britannique (today the Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique) to give more weight to their claims and actions. This federation would have a beneficial impact on Francophone communities, in particular by fighting for public education in French.

But it was not until 1969 that the provincial government piloted a French immersion program in a school. The first entirely French program was launched in 1977. Then, after a long legal battle that reached the Supreme Court of Canada, the province amended its School Act in 1997. Two years later, a French-language school board would have jurisdiction throughout the province. French-language public education quickly progressed.

A promising future

There was a major change in the perception and status of the French language in British Columbia in the 1980s and 1990s. After being seen as an irritant for several decades, French gradually became a subject of interest. In the 2000s, there has been a real groundswell of enthusiasm for French. The creation of Canadian Parents for French (CPF) in 1997 contributed to this. This organization has strongly promoted the idea of immersion classes to help Anglophones across Canada learn French as a second language. Immersion classes are particularly popular in British Columbia, to the extent that 7% of the population, or about 300,000 people, can now easily have a conversation in French, even though only 1.6% of the population speaks French as their mother tongue.

This enthusiasm resulted in a growing number of people who reported regularly speaking French at home in the 2011 census, double the number reported 30 years earlier. The number of Francophones is also steadily growing at the same pace as the population as a whole, and therefore retaining a stable proportion. This growth in particular stems from international Francophone immigration, which has been very high since 1996, especially from Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, a trend that distinguishes British Columbia from the other Canadian provinces. More than half of Franco-Colombians were born in another province, and nearly 30% were born outside Canada.

Today, the 63,000 French mother-tongue speakers in British Columbia are located primarily in Vancouver and Victoria, where they represent about 2% of the population. Greater Vancouver also has a very lively Francophone cultural life, although a number of other communities organize relatively large-scale events at different times in the year. In short, the British Columbia Francophone community is thriving in a way that hasn’t been seen since the province joined Canada in 1871.