The Métis Francophone community of Saskatchewan

Before European fur traders arrived in what is now Saskatchewan, many Indigenous nations roamed around this territory. They were the Chippewyan, the Cree, the Assiniboine, the Saulteaux, the Blood Tribe and the Blackfoot, all looking for berries, fish and small and large game, in particular bison, which they hunted for food. French traders, and then English traders, started to settle the territory in the middle of the 18th century. The Francophone voyageurs, in particular, developed such close relationships with Indigenous women that they produced the Métis people, who were to form a significant part of the Francophone population of what is now Saskatchewan.

Following the discovery of the agricultural potential of the Prairies and the marginalization of the Indigenous peoples and the Métis, Canada sought to radically transform this region by adopting an intensive immigration policy. At the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of immigrants from various backgrounds settled in the territory. Among them were many thousand Francophones from Europe, Quebec and the United States. The Catholic clergy who recruited them made an effort to group them together to protect their language and culture, for they were a minority in a region where English came to predominate as the common language.

Today, the Fransaskois number slightly more than 17,000 individuals and represent 1.7% of Saskatchewan’s population. This small but dynamic and highly organized community is notable for the diversity of its origins.

European pioneers

The La Vérendryes, father and son, and the French who followed in their tracks between 1734 and 1759 were the first to make significant inroads in the Canadian Prairies. From Lake Superior, they set out for the west with their Indigenous guides, reached the Red River and Lake Winnipeg in 1738, and continued their explorations farther to the west.

In 1740, Louis-Joseph Gaultier de La Vérendrye built a fort on the Saskatchewan River, northwest of Lake Winnipeg. Some 10 years later, Chevalier La Corne built the first establishment on the territory of what is now Saskatchewan, farther to the west on the same river, most probably in the Prince Albert region. For the very first time, he sowed wheat on the Canadian Prairies. The French almost certainly continued their explorations to the west and apparently constructed a fort in sight of the Rocky Mountains, Fort La Biche, on the La Biche (Red Deer) River, although there are no documents to prove it.

Anthony Henday, an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company, carried out the first well documented voyage across what are now the provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, as far as the region of Edmonton, in 1754. Concerning the French, whom he came across in their forts on the Saskatchewan River, he wrote: “The French speak several [Indigenous] languages perfectly. They have the advantage over us in all things; and if they had tobacco from Brazil . . ., they would steal all our trade.” This closeness of the French to Indigenous peoples explains in a large part the emergence of the Métis, who were to play an important role in the history of the Canadian Prairies. This also supports the hypothesis that the French were already travelling in the territory of present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta.

Development of the fur trade in Saskatchewan

In the 1770s, the impact of the profound changes occurring in New France was felt as far as the Prairies. The British Conquest brought ambitious entrepreneurs to Montreal, where they discovered a network of experienced voyageurs who were familiar with the water routes, customs and languages of the Indigenous peoples. The British took advantage of their expertise to revive the fur trade.

At the same time, the Hudson’s Bay Company, based in London, finally left the shores of Hudson Bay, where it had been content to wait for the Indigenous peoples for a century. The company constructed its first fort on the territory of what is now Saskatchewan in 1774, on the Saskatchewan River. The fort, known as Cumberland House, was located a little to the east of the French fort La Corne, where the traders of Montreal returned to use it as a base for increasing the number of explorations.

In 1776, Thomas Frobisher founded a trading post at Île-à-la-Crosse, farther to the northwest, within the hydrographic network of the Churchill River. Other merchants from Montreal joined him there, in particular Peter Pond, who reached the Athabasca River and Lake Athabasca in 1778, in what is now Alberta. The following year, the principal British traders of Montreal got together to found the powerful North West Company, the majority of whose employees were Francophones, to the extent that Indigenous names for places in Saskatchewan also acquired French names. In 1787, Fort Espérance was built on the Qu’Appelle River, in Southern Saskatchewan, perhaps in the same place where a fort from the New France period had stood. In 1793, Alexander Mackenzie, with his French-Canadian, Métis and Indigenous crews, reached the Pacific Ocean. By 1810, the North West Company had explored and mapped immense regions of the Prairies. The Hudson’s Bay Company, as a major rival of the North West Company, built a series of forts in the same regions. Tension between the two companies increased.

From 1781 onward, the increased presence of Canadians of European origin in the Prairies resulted in severe epidemics that decimated Indigenous populations, who were physically unable to fight the new diseases introduced into America. These populations declined rapidly by half, by two thirds, by three quarters, and so on. During this time, vast quantities of alcohol were proffered to convince Indigenous hunters to deal with the Hudson’s Bay Company instead of its rival.

Merger and decline of the fur trade

In 1821, the violent competition between these two companies—some men were killed in armed confrontations—led their leaders to carry out a merger. Only the Hudson’s Bay Company continued to exist. From that point on, transportation by canoe between Montreal and the West fell drastically, because merchandise and furs now moved through Hudson’s Bay. Thanks to their partly Occidental genetic makeup, the Métis, most of whom were Francophones, were better able to fend off epidemics than the Indigenous peoples and thus swelled in numbers. Although they lived primarily in what is now Manitoba, they travelled throughout the Prairies to hunt bison and engage in trading. Although the trade in beaver pelts was in decline, the trade in bison hides began to expand. The Métis also transported pemmican (a mixture of fat, bison meat and dried fruit) and various other types of merchandise over long distances with their horse-drawn Red River carts.

In 1857 and 1858, two scientific expeditions determined that vast regions of the Prairies—in particular Saskatchewan—were suitable for agriculture. In the spirit of the founding fathers of Canada, farmers needed to settle this vast region in order to develop the country. Two years after the creation of Canada, in 1867, the government purchased the territory privately owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company, which covered the entire northwest of what is now Canada (four provinces and two territories). The government then negotiated the dispossession of the lands that the Indigenous peoples had inhabited for centuries, in exchange for financial compensation and promises of assistance. In 1872, the government adopted an ambitious immigration policy, and in 1873, it created the North-West Mounted Police to maintain order in this territory, which was still fairly disorganized.

Settlement of European origin and Indian reserves

This major development project excluded the Indigenous peoples and the Métis, whose problems began on the banks of the Red River (now Winnipeg) in the 1870s. The Métis were opposed at that time to the loss of property rights on the lands they had occupied for two or three generations. Although the Métis had acquired some rights and Louis Riel’s provisional government had entered Canadian Confederation in 1870, armed forces sent by Ottawa chased away the Métis for having judged and executed a White man. Then, speculation and discrimination led to the departure of approximately 1,000 Métis families for what is now Saskatchewan.

The Canadian government paid no heed to the claims of the Métis and granted them no right of property over the new lands they were occupying along the South Saskatchewan River, in what is now Saskatchewan, nor did it grant them the agricultural assistance they were asking for to compensate for the disappearance of the bison herds. In 1885, led by Gabriel Dumont and Louis Riel, the Métis revolted against the Canadian army that came to put an end to their claims by force. The defeat of the Métis at Batoche only made matters worse. This time, Louis Riel was hanged for high treason. The Métis subsequently became even more impoverished and lost other rights, to such an extent that many of them renounced their identity to blend in with the flood of immigrants that was then settling the Prairies.

As for Indigenous peoples, the government put them in reserves and in 1876 passed the Indian Act, which reduced them to the status of wards of the British Crown. The objective was to extinguish their cultures.

In 1885, 32,097 individuals lived in present-day Saskatchewan. Half of them were of British origin and 44% were Indigenous. Twenty-six years later, in 1911, 492,432 individuals inhabited Saskatchewan. Half of them were still of British origin, but Indigenous people now represented only 2.4% of the population. The Francophones were also marginalized by the flood of immigrants of every nationality who invaded the Prairies.

The Church and Francophone immigrants

Today, a very small number of Francophones from Saskatchewan are descendants of the French pioneers who lived there at the time of the fur trade. Furthermore, practically all the Francophone Métis from that period now speak English. Most of today’s Fransaskois are children of immigrants from Quebec, other regions of Canada, the United States, France, Belgium and Switzerland who settled in Saskatchewan at the turn of the 20th century.

After 1872, any immigrant could obtain 650 square meters of land in the Prairies for the sum of $10. Bishop Taché of Saint-Boniface, Winnipeg, took on the mission of settling this region with Catholic Francophones, without however enfeebling the Francophone bastion of Quebec. Priests were therefore sent as recruiters to France, Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg, as well as a number of American states to which many French Canadians had emigrated.

To ensure the Francophones did not drown in the sea of British, German, Ukrainian, Polish, Italian and other immigrants, the clergy grouped them into rural parishes such as Gravelbourg, Prud’homme, Ponteix, Saint-Brieux and Val-Marie, where many of them took up wheat farming. Others joined existing Francophone Métis missions. Some also chose to settle in the emerging cities of Regina, Saskatoon or Prince Albert, to engage in commerce or practice a profession or trade. The Catholic clergy is the principal cement that binds all these Francophone communities together.

English, the common language

In 1905, when Saskatchewan and Alberta became provinces, the Prime Minister of Canada, Wilfrid Laurier, a Francophone Quebecer, was convinced to eliminate provisions that protected the rights of French Catholics, so that English would become the official and common language of Saskatchewan. Education in French then became a crucial issue for the community, which succeeded in finding a way to discreetly get around the provisions restricting instruction in French to Grade 1 of elementary school, then to one hour per day in subsequent years. In 1931, the men and women of religious orders who formed the majority of the Francophone teaching staff were even forbidden to wear their habits in class, and Grade 1 studies were reduced to one hour of instruction in French per day. Only Mathieu de Gravelbourg, a classical college, which had been preparing boys for higher education or the priesthood since 1919, was officially recognized by the provincial government in 1942.

Fortunately, significant progress has been made since 1968. Bilingual public schools began to appear again under pressure from Francophone parents. Ten years later, a network of French-language schools developed, of which Francophones obtained governance in 1988. A Francophone provincial school division comprising a dozen Fransaskois schools was created in 2007, complemented by postsecondary education provided by the Francophone Cité Universitaire of the University of Regina. The situation was finally favourable for the flourishing of French in Saskatchewan.

The place of Francophones in a balanced contemporary society

Today, the dynamism of the Fransaskois community is supported by various organizations that are active in several sectors: education, the arts, social services and community life. The recent institutional emancipation of the inhabitants of Saskatchewan whose mother tongue is French augurs well for this small community of 17,500, which must tackle the challenge of an aging population, a particularly acute problem in this province. In this area, Francophone international immigration is a source of hope.

Francophones enjoy much greater recognition in Saskatchewan today and better means to ensure their own development, like the Métis and Indigenous peoples who have recovered some rights and a certain dignity in a country that has certainly been multicultural for a long time, but is now more open to all differences.