The ancient and recent Francophone community of the Northwest Territories

A little over 1,000 Francophones live in the Northwest Territories, primarily in Yellowknife. They represent around 2.7% of the total population. French is one of the 11 official languages of the Northwest Territories, along with English and 9 Indigenous languages. For a century, however, from 1892 to 1984, the French language was marginalized despite its importance for many Métis and Indigenous people. Starting in the 1770s, French-Canadian fur traders and Francophone Métis maintained excellent relations with the Indigenous peoples of this northern region. These two groups mixed freely with the Indigenous peoples, in circles where intermingling of the territory’s inhabitants from different backgrounds was common. Up until the turn of the 20th century, the Francophone Métis were very influential. Today, however, the Northwest Territories’ dynamic Francophone community differs greatly from these ancient roots. The contemporary Francophone inhabitants have European Canadian and international backgrounds.


The Francophone core of Yellowknife, the capital

Like the other inhabitants of the Northwest Territories, the Francophones are concentrated in the main town, the capital Yellowknife, where they make up almost 5% of the population. French-language services and activities are also more developed there than elsewhere in the region. Barely two out of ten Francophones were born in the Territories. Most of them come from Quebec and Acadia, and 10% of them are of foreign origin. Although this Francophone community is mobile, since many of its members only spend a few years in the Northwest Territories, it is dynamic and very well organized.

The hub of French life in Yellowknife is the Maison Laurent-Leroux, named after one of the first French Canadians to settle on the shores of Great Slave Lake, in 1786, where he married an Indigenous woman. This building, also known as the “maison bleue,” houses the offices of the Fédération franco-ténoise, the Association franco-culturelle de Yellowknife (AFCY) and community radio station Radio Taïga.

The AFCY is responsible for promoting and encouraging arts and culture in the Francophone community of Yellowknife, and for fostering its development. It orchestrates varied programming, combining movies, musical performances, plays, lectures, exhibits, workshops and community meals. One of the most popular Francophone events is the annual sugar shack brunch, which takes place during the Snowking’s Winter Festival in March.

Radio Taïga and the weekly L’Aquilon enable the Franco-People of the North to keep abreast of current political, social and cultural events in the Northwest Territories. Yellowknife and Hay River have an education program in French as a first language, at both the elementary and secondary levels. There is also a Francophone daycare centre in Yellowknife.

These services and activities enable the Francophone community to maintain its identity in a multicultural context where the descendants of various Indigenous peoples represent slightly less than half the population. About 20% of them are fluent speakers of Indigenous languages. English, however, is the language of three quarters of the inhabitants of the Northwest Territories.

A hard fight, with its ups and downs

The first Francophone organization was founded in 1978. Its initial objective was to secure the installation of an antenna to capture the French-language broadcasts of Radio-Canada. This antenna aroused the interest of Francophones throughout the Northwest Territories, and they banded together to demand more services. The impact of their efforts, combined with the reforms of the Canadian Constitution in 1982, which provided better protection for the language rights of minority communities, was significant. Francophones were able to have French re-established as an official language of the Northwest Territories. Then, the initiatives of the Association franco-culturelle de Yellowknife and of the Fédération franco-ténoise led to improved French-language services in the fields of health and culture, especially in Yellowknife, but also in Hay River, Fort Smith and Inuvik.

As was the case in other minority Francophone communities, the fight to obtain educational services in French was a priority. In the Northwest Territories, this was a hard struggle. Francophone parents succeeded in having a program of French as a first language set up in 1989, but for the next ten years, this program was dispensed in temporary—and inadequate—premises. Students enrolled in this program were finally able to move into Allain St-Cyr school in Yellowknife in 1999. The school came under the management of a Francophone school board the following year. A new fight then began to ensure that this school and the school in Hay River would be able to offer services—a gymnasium, for example—equivalent to those of the English-language schools, since many Francophone parents assessed the overall quality of the school environment to which they would send their children, not just the language of instruction.

From the fur trade to diamond mines

The French at the time of New France, and then the French Canadians and Francophone Métis who served the British, engaged in the fur trade over the whole territory of what is now Canada from their base in the St. Lawrence Valley. Although Samuel Hearne, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, reached a remote region of what is now the Northwest Territories in 1770 and 1771, his expedition produced no lasting results. The arrival of French-Canadian fur traders in the Great Slave Lake region from 1770 on thus marks the beginning of a long economic, social and cultural history.

Jacques Beaulieu was the first to settle in the region, around 1770. This independent merchant wed an Indigenous woman of the Ojibway nation, and their son François Beaulieu, born in 1771, became chief of the Yellowknives when he reached adulthood. This was the nation in which he grew up. This Francophone Métis became one of the most influential fur traders in the history of the Northwest Territories. He also served as a guide and interpreter. For example, he joined Alexander Mackenzie’s expedition to the Pacific in 1793, along with five other Francophones. Several years later, Oblate missionary Émile Petitot recorded Beaulieu’s version of his encounter with Mackenzie. The explorer apparently asked him: “In your neck of the woods, is there anyone who understands French?” To which Beaulieu replied: “Yes, of course . . . We are all Frenchmen or the sons of Frenchmen.”

Of course, this reply does not apply to all of current-day Northwest Territories. At the time, however, the independent merchant’s network of alliances, which was influential enough to compete with the powerful Hudson’s Bay Company, extended from Great Slave Lake to the border of what is now the Yukon. Like many other Métis and French Canadians who worked for the North West Company, and later for the Hudson’s Bay Company, or who set off on their own to become independent merchants, François Beaulieu maintained very close relations with the Indigenous peoples. That is why, for many generations, the names Beaulieu, Lamoureux, Laferté, Desjarlais, Mandeville, Prud’homme, Giroux, Deschambeault, Sabourin and of other families of Francophone origin were very present in communities of the Northwest Territories, and still are even to this day.

In 1858, Francophone missionaries started to establish themselves in these Francophone Métis communities. Some twenty years later, in accordance with Canadian government policy, they increasingly became oriented towards the assimilation of the Métis and Indigenous peoples, in collaboration with Anglophone Protestant missionaries. With the same ideas in mind, the Canadian government got the Indigenous peoples to sign two treaties ceding their territory, in order to exploit the natural resources in this territory. In the 1930s, bush pilots fostered the discovery of radium, gold, lead and zinc mines. The discoveries brought inhabitants of European origin to the Northwest Territories in ever increasing numbers. This development accelerated during the Second World War, and gradually reversed the proportion of inhabitants who were Indigenous or Métis. At that point, the inhabitants of European origin became the majority.

Since the 1980s, Indigenous peoples, like Francophones, have benefited from amendments to the Canadian Constitution. Today, there is a better balance among the various groups who live in the Northwest Territories, between Indigenous people, Métis, Franco-Canadians and Anglo-Canadians, even though the traditional way of life of the Indigenous peoples has virtually disappeared. The fur trade, although it is still practised, has become a marginal sector of the economy. The development of diamond mines has now replaced it as the economic driving force of the Northwest Territories.