The Francophones of Manitoba, pioneers in Western Canada

In 1738, Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye reached the confluence of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, where the Indigenous nations had been meeting for centuries. He built a first fort on the site of what is now the City of Winnipeg. The close collaboration between the Indigenous peoples and the French gave birth to the Métis people, whose future leader, Louis Riel, had the Province of Manitoba enter Canadian Confederation in 1870.

For over a century, the French and Francophone Métis were the most numerous inhabitants of European origin on the territory of what is now Manitoba. The Catholic Church came into contact with them in 1818 and developed the first health and education services. From 1867 on, the creation of Canada transformed this region. A wave of migration comprising hundreds of thousands of individuals, who were primarily of British origin, swept the Prairies. By the end of the 19th century, Francophones represented less than 10% of the population, and English was decreed to be Manitoba’s only official language.

The Franco-Manitobans nonetheless succeeded in preserving their language and culture. Since the 1970s, their circumstances have improved in a number of ways. Today, there are 45,000 Franco-Manitobans, representing 3.8% of Manitoba’s population. They are primarily concentrated in Winnipeg, where they participate in dynamic social and cultural life. International Francophone immigration is making an increasingly invaluable contribution to the community.

The arrival of the French in the territory of what is now Manitoba

When they arrived in the territory of what is now Manitoba, the French allied themselves with the Assiniboine, the Saulteux and the Cree to engage in the fur trade. These Indigenous peoples had lived in the region for thousands of years. Thanks to them, the French were able to enter existing Indigenous trade routes, and thereby discover the territory. Relations between the two peoples were generally harmonious, as the French were well acquainted with Indigenous customs and were respectful of the interests of their indispensable partners.

From the mid-18th century, a number of Frenchmen, who were more than 2,000 kilometres from New France—in other words, a distance of some six months’ travel by canoe—entered into relationships with Indigenous women, sometimes on a permanent basis. This practice, customary in alliances among Indigenous peoples, was also adopted by the French, and it proved very effective for promoting trade, learning languages and integrating communities. The Métis people, who were to play an important role in the Prairies and become a close ally of the French, started appearing at this time.

Between 1734, when the French reached Lake Winnipeg for the first time, and the end of the French Regime in 1760, they built about ten forts and criss-crossed almost the entire territory of current-day Manitoba. For this reason, when the Scots restarted the fur trade at the beginning of the English Regime, their Francophone employees proved to be key players in this revival of the trade in the West.

The North West Company

In 1779, the first small fur trading businesses based in Montreal banded together to form a large and dominant corporation, the North West Company (NWC). For almost 50 years, French Canadians made up the great majority of the NWC’s employees under contract. They travelled in what is now Manitoba, and some of them lived there for a few years, or even for the rest of their lives, surrounded by their Francophone Métis relatives. These Métis were often described as “free men” because they were, as a rule, not hired under contract by the NWC, nor were they later hired on this basis by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). Nevertheless, they were very closely associated with the NWC and with the French Canadians with whom they shared language, religion and family ties.

The situation of the Francophones, whether French Canadians or Métis, changed with the arrival of several hundred Scottish and Irish colonists in 1812. At that time, Thomas Douglas, Lord Selkirk, the majority shareholder of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), founded the colony of Assiniboia, near the main Métis settlement of the Red River, on the site of what is now the City of Winnipeg. The Anglophone colony, which was closely tied to the HBC, the rival of the NWC, was established on a territory that legally belonged to the HBC. Its presence was to heighten the tensions that already existed between these two big companies, and to provoke increasingly violent confrontations. A particularly notorious confrontation occurred in 1916, the bloody Battle of Seven Oaks.

The confrontation resulted in some twenty victims and was to have a number of consequences. The crisis in the fur trade came to a head in the late 1810s, leading to the merger of the two rival companies in 1821. The HBC then absorbed the NWC. The Battle of Seven Oaks also made the Métis aware that they all shared a common culture and common interests. The arrival of the Anglophones marked the beginning of the decline of the Francophones in this region.

The contribution of the Catholic Church

At that time, the Francophone Métis and French-Canadian community of the Red River was far from prosperous. One of its leaders, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, who arrived in 1806 with his wife, Marie-Anne Gaboury (reported to be the first “white woman” to live on the Red River; this couple is perceived as being the ancestors of the French Canadians of Manitoba), reportedly asked Lord Selkirk, who was passing through the colony of Assiniboia, to bring in some priests to educate the Francophones and put their community in order. Lord Selkirk agreed to help them and promoted the establishment of the first two Francophone Catholic missionaries, who arrived in the Red River colony in 1818.

Lord Selkirk possessed abundant resources and conceded to these religious men a large stretch of land taken from his Red River colony, a territory he had received from the HBC. The missionaries built a first church, which they dedicated to Saint Boniface. They opened schools and brought French Canadian colonists in to develop agriculture. In 1831, the population of the Red River colony consisted of 2,390 people, distributed among 262 Francophone Catholic families and 198 Anglophone Protestant families. The next governor of the HBC, George Simpson, made the Red River his base of operations in the West and continued to support these Catholic missionaries, whom he admired for their exemplary work in spite of their meagre resources.

Consequently, the HBC partly financed the ambitious cathedral that Bishop Provencher was having built to replace the first church. The cathedral was completed in 1839. Five years later, the Grey Nuns of Montreal built a convent for girls. In 1854, the Collège de Saint‑Boniface opened its doors to educate boys. The parish of Saint-Boniface had over 2,000 inhabitants by then. Two thousand other Francophone Catholics lived in the towns of Saint-François-Xavier, Saint-Norbert and Saint-Charles. In proportional terms, the Métis or Indigenous families were very much in the majority, and the Francophones were much more numerous than the Anglophones.

While the members of the Church were devoted to the Métis and the Indigenous peoples around Saint-Boniface and elsewhere in the West, all the way to the Arctic Circle and the Rocky Mountains—the responsibilities of the Bishop of Saint-Boniface extended over an immense territory—they nonetheless pursued a “civilizing” objective, like the council of Assiniboia that the HBC had put in place. These officers of European origin were convinced of the superiority of their culture and wanted to transmit it to the Métis and the Indigenous peoples.

Louis Riel and the Métis resistance

The population of the Red River colony experienced many difficulties. As everywhere else in North America, contact between the White population and the Indigenous peoples led to epidemics caused by diseases imported from Europe which the immune system of the Indigenous peoples was unable to fight. Since a steamship had begun travelling on the Red River and the railway had been developed in the United States, the need for the Métis to transport merchandise in their cattle wagons decreased. In addition, bison were becoming scarce, and the trade in bison hides and in pemmican, dominated by the Métis, suffered from these changes. In addition, droughts and harmful insects were detrimental to agriculture.

Since Canada, created in 1867, acquired the territory of the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1870 without taking into account the populations that lived there, tensions increased between the Indigenous peoples and the Métis on the one hand, and between the government of Canada and the colonists of British origin on the other, for their visions of the new Canadian territory diverged. The Lieutenant-Governor of this new territory, William McDougall, and the teams of surveyors responsible for preparing a cadastral registration of the lands of the Métis—who were not protected by any written right of property—openly expressed their hostility towards the Métis. Feeling that they were threatened, the Métis gathered around Louis Riel. They disrupted the work of the surveyors, then blocked McDougall’s passage to Saint-Norbert, in October 1869. A month later, the Métis seized Fort Garry, which served as the economic and political seat of the colony, and Riel set up a provisional government. In January 1870, he debated the future of the territory with the representative of the federal government, Donald Smith.

The Bishop of Saint-Boniface, Alexandre Taché, saw this crisis coming. To avoid it, he insisted that the Canadian government respect the rights of the Métis. Father Ritchot, the parish priest of Saint-Norbert, also defended the cause of the Métis. He was one of the three delegates sent to Ottawa in 1870 to negotiate a way out of the crisis and to obtain Manitoba’s entry into Confederation. The Canadian government assented to several demands of the Métis and incorporated Manitoba into the Confederation as a bilingual province (French-English). However, the general amnesty claimed by the negotiators of the provisional government was only granted in part; Riel was excluded from it. More serious yet was the public opinion of the Anglophone Protestant colonists of Ontario, who were strongly opposed to the Métis and pressured Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to punish the Métis for having condemned and executed Thomas Scott, an Irish fanatic who had tried to overthrow Riel’s provisional government. Armed forces sent to Saint-Boniface a few months later violently put down the Métis. The Church tried to convince the Métis not to fight back, since in its view they had to trust the promises of the Canadian government.

However, the Macdonald government was not favourably disposed towards the Métis and only fulfilled its promises in part. The Métis fell victim to hostile newcomers and the speculators who coveted their lands. From 1870 until the end of the 1880s, the Métis were to suffer a series of vexatious and sometimes violent actions that penalized and increasingly marginalized them. Riel went into exile in 1870 and was hanged for high treason after taking part in the second Métis resistance at Batoche, in 1885. In spite of the sincere efforts of Bishop Taché and a few other Francophone missionaries in favour of the Métis—to whom they had previously recommended obedience and submission—the Métis were to become the great losers in the creation of Canada, along with the Indigenous peoples.

Francophones become a minority

The circumstances of the French Canadians of Manitoba also deteriorated with the influx of Anglo-Protestant colonists from Ontario and immigrants of British origin. Although French-language Catholic schools were created, as provided in the Manitoba Act, negotiated between the provisional government and the federal government, maintaining a certain demographic balance became an urgent priority. The Société de colonisation du Manitoba was therefore created, with a mission to try to recruit Francophone colonists in Canada and the United States. The results were disappointing. Attempts were subsequently made to attract people from France, Belgium and Switzerland. Only a small number immigrated to Manitoba; consequently, the Francophones soon found themselves in the minority.

In 1890, the government of Manitoba decreed that English was the only official language of the province. Then it abolished the system of public denominational education that had enabled the Catholic minority to receive instruction in French. In 1916, the government completely forbade education in any language other than English.

Maintaining the French language and culture

In 1894, the Métis and the French Canadians created the Association Saint-Jean-Baptiste de Saint-Boniface, which brought together all Catholic Francophones and defended their interests. The Francophone immigrants tended to band together in different villages, the French in Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, and the Belgians in Bruxelles. French Canadians swelled the ranks of the community of Saint-Boniface and founded new villages such as Saint-Malo or Saint-Georges. In total, Francophones represented approximately 7% of Manitoba’s population at the very end of the 19th century. In 1902, the creation of the Société historique de Saint-Boniface attached value to Francophone Catholic heritage. In 1908, the incorporation of the City of Saint-Boniface favoured the maintenance of a strong Francophone community in Winnipeg, the metropolis of the West.

In education, the Association d’éducation des Canadiens français du Manitoba sought to get around the prohibition of 1916. It acted as a kind of parallel ministry of education. Through competitions, bursaries and support for teachers, instruction in French continued to exist in spite of the law against it, whose enforcement was not well supervised. The private classical college of Saint-Boniface also carried on its activities in French. This period of clandestine resistance ended in 1967, when a new statute again allowed teaching in French in the public schools on a half-time basis. Regular progress was made thereafter, and this led to the creation of the Division scolaire franco-manitobaine in 1994. In 2016, the Division had some 5,200 students in 23 schools.

Another major gain was achieved in 1979, when Georges Forest took the cause he had embraced all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. The case concerned a traffic ticket written only in English. The Court declared unconstitutional the 1890 statute that made English the only official language of Manitoba, because it violated the conditions of Manitoba’s accession to the Canadian Constitution in 1870. In the cultural sphere, the vitality of the Franco-Manitobans found expression in various ways: the newspaper La Liberté, founded in 1913; the Cercle Molière theatre, created in 1925; and the private radio station Radio Saint-Boniface, which opened in 1946. Then, from the 1960s on, the development of cultural infrastructures accelerated: a museum, an archives centre, a cultural centre, radio and television stations, art galleries, a festival, Francophone song contests, etc. These gains, and the effervescence of the community, compensated in part for the strong pressures of assimilation to English.

What does the future hold for the Francophones of Manitoba?

Recent developments are encouraging, including the formation of a group of Francophone business people who are banking on bilingualism to stimulate the Manitoban economy. These developments cannot, however, conceal the fact that the proportion of the population whose mother tongue is French has declined by about one percentage point over the last 25 years. This is why efforts are being ramped up to recruit Francophone immigrants, in particular from so-called non-traditional countries, especially on the African continent. These immigrants are already making their contribution to the dynamism of the 45,000 or so Francophones who currently live in Manitoba. They are optimistic about the future, since the status of French has greatly improved, and the number of people who are able to hold a conversation in French is also on the rise. As for the Métis, their rights were recognized in the Constitution of 1982 and by the Province of Manitoba in 2016. A minority of them still speak French, but the majority of Métis are now Anglophone. Since 2008, Manitoba has been celebrating Louis Riel Day, a holiday that commemorates the founder of Manitoba.