The history of Alberta’s French-Canadians is dramatic and heroic. For many, it started as a necessary adventure, a quest for survival in simpler but more difficult times.
An excellent source for the history of francophones in Alberta is D’Année en Année de 1659 à 2000: Une présentation synchronique des événements historiques franco-albertains, by France Levasseur-Ouimet Ph.D
(L’Institut du patrimoine, Faculté Saint-Jean, 2003). I have relied on it in writing this article.
Franco-Albertans (as we are often called) have strong family units and a strong affinity towards the Roman Catholic Church. Our roots are mostly in the province of Québec where religion and family are traditionally very important. Dynamic religious leaders instigated the early migrations of French-Canadians. In 1841, Mgr Provencher, soon to become Bishop of St. Boniface, persuaded Mgr Mazenod, the founder of the Order of the Oblates, to send priests to the
The community’s advancement this past century owes an important debt to religious orders such as les Religieuses de la Charité de Notre-Dame d’Évron (education and nursing), les Soeurs grises (Grey Nuns: education, builders, Misericordia Hospital), the Jesuits (education), and the Oblates (immigration and colonization).
If religion united the community, politics was somewhat of an unofficial national sport for les Canadiens Français. Whether inside or outside of their native Québec, they remained fierce and convincing debaters. And debate they did to defend their rights in Alberta. French-Canadians joined the front lines of political life to exercise their influence at all levels of government. Provincially, francophone politicians participated in the Social Credit Party (Lucien Maynard, minister without portfolio, 1936), within the New Democrats (Léo Piquette, Athabasca-Lac La Biche, 1986), as independents (Lionel Tellier, 1940), and as Liberals (Jean-Léon Côté, Athabasca, 1909, P.E. Lessard, St. Paul, 1913). In 1907, Fleury Perron was elected mayor of St. Albert. That same year, J.H. Picard was defeated by W.A. Griesbach for the mayor’s job in Edmonton. In 1908, a
The enthusiasm Franco-Albertans put into developing their new home and way of life sometimes met with staunch pockets of resistance. Lines were drawn, and it would take over 80 years to forge an understanding with Alberta’s English majority. A 1901 provincial government ruling enforcing English-only in schools gave the tone for things to come.
That this house place itself on record as to being opposed to Bilingualism in any form in the school system of Alberta, and in favour of the English language being the only language permitted to be used as the medium of instruction in
Strong words indeed and the start of an uphill battle. Such comments would repeatedly be heard. Francophones felt their effects in 1915 when teachers were reprimanded for explaining the curriculum in French. In 1925 another ruling stipulated that “during the second year and after the child has learned to read in the mother tongue, the formal teaching of reading in English shall be begun. From Grade 3 on, a period not exceeding one hour each day [author’s emphasis] shall be allotted to the teaching of French.”
It became imperative to create a group that would represent all French-speaking Albertans. L’Association canadienne Française de l’Alberta (ACFA) was born in 1926. Next year it turns 80.
The 1930s and 1940s were important years for French-speaking Albertans, with a budding provincial association, thriving cultural activities, and a newspaper, Le Franco-Albertain. In 1928, francophone performers began to appear regularly on CJCA and CKUA, mostly in concerts and later in radio dramas, some produced by Edmonton’s Cercle Jeanne-d’Arc.
The power of radio was obvious. In 1937, a special interest group backed by the ACFA applied for a broadcast license, without success. Reason stated—no available frequencies. In 1940, French programming was limited to six minutes of broadcasting per day [author’s emphasis] on CBK Watrous ( Saskatchewan). Under joint pressure from Alberta’s, Saskatchewan’s, and Manitoba’s French associations, Radio-Canada incorporated 7.5 hours of French content a week, and negotiations began to obtain broadcast licenses for all three provinces. In 1944, William Fallow, the minister for public works, wrote to the federal government to put a halt to the French community initiatives. A year later, independent MLA Percy Page went a step further, stating that a French radio station would threaten national unity.
CHFA Radio-Edmonton became a reality on November 20, 1949 (in 1974, it was named a Radio-Canada network affiliate). In many ways, CHFA was pivotal. Francophone associations, artists, clergy, and politicians found a voice. It would still be another 45 years, however, before Franco-Albertans would manage their schools. There are now 26 francophone schools in Alberta.
In 1970, Alberta’s first French television station, CBXFT, made its debut. Sixty of its 100 hours of weekly programming were in French. CBXFT’s advent was très àpropos, showcasing a proliferation of noteworthy cultural events, including a 1977 visit to Israel by the Montéchos, a choir directed by Albert La France, and the arrival on the music scene of the first Franco-Albertan pop star, Gabrielle Bugeaud. Her debut record, Positively (1979) contained only one French song Bonsoir. By her second album, Seule à rêver (1987), her name had been changed to Bujold, and three of her songs were on Québec’s Top 20. More than 25 Franco-Albertan albums have been launched since.
In 1982, Francophonie Jeunesse de l’Alberta, a provincial youth group, organized a singer-songwriter contest
in St. Paul. The initiative eventually led to the first Gala albertain de la chanson, organized by CHFA in 1989. ACFA and CHFA sponsored the first interprovincial gala, Chant’Ouest, in 1990, a showcase of western Canada’s francophone singers and songwriters. Both the Gala albertain and Chant’Ouest continue today.
The Centre de développement musical (CDM), founded in 1995,
Since 1997, La Chambre économique de l’Alberta’s support and counsel have been instrumental in developing tourism initiatives as well as other economic and cultural ventures. Also in 1997, two cultural centres were inaugurated: La Cité francophone ( Edmonton) and La Cité des Rocheuses ( Calgary).
And as of 2000, the towns of Legal, Falher, and Beaumont are officially bilingual.
Building on its historical rights and its determination, the Franco-Albertan community’s future seems brighter than ever! For 100, we look darn good!
Ronald Tremblay is active in Alberta’s francophone arts scene as a writer and performer.
Co-host of Radio-Canada's youth show Oniva!, Edmonton born Renelle Fagnan is a multi-talented artis. Member of the semi-professional dance troupe Zéphyr, she was also part of a musical revue at the recent Alberta Scene event in Ottawa.