Ontario’s diverse Francophone community

Ontario has the largest number of Francophones outside Quebec, somewhere between 500,000 and 600,000, depending on whether mother tongue or first official language spoken is used as the criterion to estimate their numbers. They represent approximately 4% of the province’s total population.

Francophone settlement occurred in waves. The first settlers were inhabitants of New France who moved into what is now Ontario from 1610 to 1760, to trade with Indigenous people and evangelize them. They laid the foundations for the cities of Kingston, Windsor and Toronto. However, Ontario was primarily settled by thousands of Anglophones who arrived from the United States in the 1780s, followed by a flood of British immigrants in the 19th century.

Many French Canadians from Quebec also emigrated to Ontario to work in agriculture or in mines and forests. A number of them helped develop the Canadian federal state in Ottawa, after 1867. More recently, Francophones from all over the world have chosen Toronto and Ottawa as places to live.

Ontario’s Francophone community is multi-faceted and expresses itself in several ways: literature, song, education, commerce, community organizing, and government services. Francophones are making an invaluable contribution to Ontario’s vitality and multicultural character.

The first French to set foot in Ontario

In 1615, French explorer Samuel de Champlain, the founder of Quebec and New France, traveled to the country of his allies, the Huron-Wendat, who lived in what is now central Ontario. Relations between the French and the Huron-Wendat were harmonious and complementary. Unfortunately, the Jesuit missionaries were determined to convert the Huron-Wendat to the Catholic faith, and their fervour resulted in a collective tragedy. In 1650, the settlement of Huronia was destroyed and its inhabitants were dispersed by their traditional enemies, the Iroquois.

Fifty years later, the historical partnership between the French and the Indigenous nations was consolidated when, in 1701, the Great Peace of Montreal was signed by New France and dozens of Indigenous nations, including several living on the territory that would later become Ontario. This treaty led to the foundation of the city of Detroit, of which Windsor is today the Canadian extension.

Of the 10,000 Francophones who still live in the Windsor region, a number are descendants of the original French pioneers. The ancestors of the rest were farmers who came from Quebec in the middle of the 19th century.

The agricultural colonization of Eastern Ontario

The largest influx of Francophones into Ontario occurred in the second half of the 19th century. The provincial authorities wanted to increase settlement and develop agriculture, and at the same time Quebec, which had been settled for a long time, had a burgeoning population. Many French Canadians thus took advantage of the favourable conditions that Ontario put in place in 1868, one year after the creation of Canada, of which Ontario was a founding province.

Supported by the Catholic Bishop of Ottawa and Quebec clergy, Quebecers crossed the Ottawa River and settled near their place of origin, in Northeastern Ontario, where the land was suitable for dairy farming. In 1911, there were 42,000 French Canadians concentrated in the counties of Prescott and Russel, where they represented 64% of the regional population. They also had manufacturing jobs in the city of Cornwall, a little farther south, where they were again in the majority.

Today, the largest concentrations of Franco-Ontarians are still in the counties of Prescott-Russel, for example in Casselman, Hawkesbury or Saint-Albert, where the French flavour of life is reminiscent of Quebec.

Ottawa, the capital of French Ontario

A little farther west, in the Bytown region, the forestry industry began to attract French-Canadian lumberjacks at the start of the 19th century. Later, between 1826 and 1832, construction of the Rideau Canal provided work for other immigrants from Quebec. By 1848, there were enough Francophones in Bytown to justify the creation of a bilingual college. When little Bytown became Ottawa, the capital of Canada, this college was transformed into a bilingual university, the University of Ottawa. Many Francophones attended this institution, which became a flagship of higher education in French Canada.

In addition, the Francophone members of Parliament in Ottawa brought with them political and administrative staff. Almost all these employees came from Quebec. Along with the workers who were drawn by the economic growth of the capital, Francophones made up a third of Ottawa’s population by the beginning of the 20th century. They were then the majority in Ottawa’s Lower Town and in Eastview, which was renamed Vanier.

It was precisely in Vanier that, in 1926, the French Canadian nationalist elite founded the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, a secret society whose mission was to promote the interests of French Canadians and to intensify their presence in Canadian institutions, where they were in the minority. The Ordre de Jacques-Cartier also aimed to “bilingualize” the federal government through the hiring of French-Canadian public servants. It extended its influence throughout Canada, and in particular favoured the creation of Richelieu Clubs. The Ordre disbanded in 1965.

Today, the approximately 125,000 Francophones who live in the City of Ottawa come from a great diversity of backgrounds. The majority are French Canadians, but many have come to Canada through international immigration. In all, they represent more than 14% of the population.

Sudbury and Northeastern Ontario

In the 19th century, a number of French Canadians traveled up the Ottawa River in a northwesterly direction. They worked in forestry or agriculture, at Mattawa, for example, where they were in the majority. In 1883, a railway reached Sudbury. Another railway penetrated even farther into the north between 1907 and 1914. Many Francophones used these two railways to settle in regions of Northeastern Ontario.

At Sturgeon Falls (today West Nipissing), on the shores of Lake Nipissing, or at Verner, Noëlville and Saint-Charles, the first colonists were recruited by colonizing priests in the United States, where French Canadians had emigrated. They arrived in the late 19th century to exploit the forest and to engage in agriculture. Other inhabitants of Quebec soon joined them.

The region of Sudbury also attracted French Canadians for the same reasons: land and the forest. However, when the largest nickel deposit in Canada was discovered in Sudbury, many of these men became miners. In 1911, 35% of Sudbury’s population was Francophone. Not far away, in Ontario’s near north, some twenty parishes were bilingual or French. French Canadians were in the majority in some villages. The extension of the railway to the northwest made possible the creation of the towns of Timmins, Kapuskasing and Hearst, where Francophones were even more numerous. Today, 90% of Hearst’s 5,000 inhabitants are Francophones.

In 1913, the Jesuits founded the Collège du Sacré-Cœur in Sudbury, which almost immediately became entirely Francophone. In 1957, it became the University of Sudbury. Today, it is affiliated with Laurentian University, which is bilingual. Its graduates sparked significant growth in awareness of culture and identity in the 1970s. This was a movement that transformed the French Canadians of Ontario into Franco-Ontarians. This new identity found expression through the creation of Prise de parole (a publishing house), the Théâtre du Nouvel-Ontario, the Coopérative des artistes du Nouvel-Ontario and the Franco-Ontarian flag. With the opening of Collège Boréal in 1995, Sudbury continues to be an important educational and cultural hub of French Ontario.

Other Franco-Ontarian communities

There are a number of other Francophone communities scattered throughout Ontario. In Huronia, the ancient land of the Huron-Wendat, on the shores of Georgian Bay, 3,000 Francophones live in the triangle formed by Penetanguishene, Lafontaine and Perkinsfield. Some of their ancestors were involved in the fur trade and settled there from 1828 on. Farmers from Quebec later joined them. This well-organized community has schools, a radio station, a newspaper and a community centre, and holds an annual musical event, the Festival du loup.

In the Niagara peninsula, the manufacturing industry in Welland attracted French-Canadian families at the start of the 20th century. Hosts of the Franco-Ontarian games in 1997, the 5,000 Franco-Ontarians of this city enjoy the benefits of French-language government services, schools and call centres that provide them with bilingual jobs.

The thousands of Francophones who live in Thunder Bay or Sault Ste. Marie represent less than 5 % of the population of these two communities. In these medium-sized towns, the linguistic balance of power, combined with the predominance of English in families where one of the spouses is Anglophone, increases the frequency with which Francophones transition to English. In general, there are few Francophone institutions in Southern Ontario, where the majority of the population lives.

Toronto, multicultural metropolis

Of the 5.5 million individuals who live in the Greater Toronto Area, 1.1 % (or 63,000 people) have French as a mother tongue. A number of these people are Franco-Ontarians or Quebecers, but the majority come from outside Canada—the Caribbean, Europe or Africa. In this urban melting pot where some minority languages are more extensively spoken than French—in particular Mandarin, Italian and Spanish—English is predominant as the common language.

Although the Francophone community of Toronto is very vibrant, with its media, its schools, its many organizations and its varied cultural activities, it is less influential than the Francophone communities in Eastern and Northeastern Ontario, which are more nationalist.

Education issues

In the 19th century, a good public education system was put in place early, both in French and in English. This system was maintained when Canada was created. However, the situation became more strained from 1880 to 1890 with the rise of British imperialism. Some groups urged the provincial government to impose instruction in English only in elementary schools, and to limit teaching in French to contexts where such instruction was necessary. In 1911, the Francophone community made up 8% of Ontario’s population, a proportion that was perceived as threatening, and a number of Anglophones openly expressed their opposition to any form of instruction in French, a language that some described as “foreign” and “backward”.

From 1912 on, Regulation 17 prohibited instruction in French beyond Grade 2. Francophones were generally opposed to this prohibition. Some regarded it as an infringement of the pact concluded in 1867 between French and English Canadians, who were supposed to have the same rights in Canada. In Ottawa, students demonstrated in the street, and the teaching of French was maintained even though it was now illegal. The issue was brought before Quebec’s Legislative Assembly, the Canadian Parliament and the Vatican in 1916. Finally, Regulation 17 was rescinded in 1927 to put an end to the crisis.

In French-language public schools, instruction nonetheless became bilingual at the end of elementary school, and there were fewer bilingual public secondary schools than unilingual English-language schools, a situation that was conducive to the loss of French. Exclusively French-language schools were all private, so that many Franco-Ontarians who could not pay the costs of private schools did not attend secondary school. It was only in 1968 that the Ontario government agreed to fund French-language public secondary schools free of charge, which the school boards of a number of communities nonetheless refused to build.

Citizens then began to fight to obtain free French-language public schools. Courses were boycotted, a Ministerial Commission was created, parallel schools were opened, and lawsuits were instituted. Finally, some French-language public schools were opened. It was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, incorporated into the Canadian Constitution in 1982, that enabled decisive gains to be achieved in the law courts. In 1998, Francophones finally obtained governance of 12 school boards that grouped together all their elementary and secondary schools.

The future of French Ontario

A complete system of French-language schools accommodating 100,000 students at the elementary and secondary levels is now in place. Post-secondary education is also available in Ottawa, Sudbury and Toronto. Some bilingual universities round out the picture of French-language education in Ontario, in particular the University of Ottawa, which attracts 13,000 students to its programs offered in French.

Thanks to immigration, which has been particularly strong for a number of years, Ontario’s Francophone community is growing. Professionals, intellectuals, researchers, artists and creators contribute to the great vitality of this community. At the same time, the migration of Franco-Ontarians towards the English language continues to be high overall. In the province that has the largest population in the country, the challenge for this diversified and scattered community is to stem the exodus from the regions with a Francophone majority and to increase Francophone immigration to rekindle the network of institutions and Franco-Ontarian civil society.