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Alberta's Francophone Heritage
Background, People, Culture, Heritage Community Foundation, Albertasource and Alberta Lottery Fund

 

Francophone Edukit

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Colonizing Priests
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Métis Communities

Colonizing Priests

Immigration
(Quebec and New England)

First Settlements

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The great wave of immigration towards the Canadian Prairies began during the mid-19th century with migration by expansionists from Ontario. However, it was during 1880 to 1890, with the completion of the trans-Canada railway, that immigrants began to arrive in great numbers. The Canadian government set up a huge promotional campaign for the "Last, Best, West" worldwide, but did not hide the fact that the immigrants being sought would assimilate into the British mindset and become English speakers. In a move which was quite controversial at the time, Minister of the Interior, Clifford Sifton of Wilfred Laurier’s Liberal government, sought out immigrants from Northern European and Slavic countries. Sifton defended his choice by explaining that people from these countries are the sort of stock to be able to cope with the cold Canadian winters and the hard work of developing farms on the prairies, "men in sheepskin coats," he called them. Immigrants from the southern parts of Europe were not considered desirable and were categorized as indolent, and worse.

Upon seeing the excellent lands being made available in Western Canada, the Catholic religious leaders thought that French-Canadians should be encouraged to settle on the Prairies.1 At the time, huge numbers of settlers from Quebec were heading south to the American factories and the rapid growth in Quebec’s urban centres created crowded tenements and unhealthy situations.

The clergy in Quebec and Ontario strongly promoted life in rural areas, farming being considered the best of ways for French Canadians to live. The ideal rural vision was expressed from Quebec all the way to Rocky Mountains by the staunch promoter of rural settlements generally known as the "curé Labelle," of a "rosary of French Canadian parishes." On the Prairies, the clergy couldn’t have agreed more, and francophone businessmen and a large number of young professionals including doctors, lawyers and skilled tradesmen moved west seeking a better future.


The Métis, Father Lacombe, and the first French Oblates.

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In Alberta, similar to elsewhere on the Prairies, the clergy got involved in settlement promotion. The bishops of the West, Taché, Grandin and their respective successors, Adélard Langevin and Émile Legal saw drawing Catholic French-Canadians to the area as a good way to consolidate the French-speaking Métis population. The problem was that the clergy of Quebec was trying to encourage settlement in the uplands of their own province, and had no wish to reduce their settler population by encouraging them to leave, especially as many were already departing for factories in New England. As a result, the recruiters for the western homesteads (a good number of whom were priests) visited the American mill towns and large centers of the United States as well as recruiting across the Atlantic in Belgium and France.

Albert Lacombe was posted to the Diocese of Saint-Boniface by Bishop Taché in 1874, and actively promoted settlement in Manitoba, going to the United States and Eastern Canada to recruit settlers. When he returned to the Diocese of St. Albert in 1882, Lacombe remained involved in settlement and played a key role in the establishment of Saint-Paul-des-Métis, which became the site of a French Canadian settlement when the Métis colony failed.

Other religious people followed Lacombe’s example. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, dom Paul Benoît of the chanoines réguliers de l’Immaculée-Conception, Jean Gaire, Louis-Pierre Gravel established a number of francophone communities (Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, St. Claude, St. Malo, Ponteix, St. Brieux, and Gravelbourg, among others) that attracted settlers from France, Belgium, and Alsace-Lorraine (then in German territory). Jean Gaire recruited many settlers from Brittany to Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

In Alberta, of the colonizing-priests, the most well-known names are of Jean-Baptiste Morin, François Bonny, and Albéric Ouellette. Morin, of the Clercs de Saint-Viateur was the founder of Morinville and Beaumont. Bonny, a former missionary in Africa, was posted to St. Vincent in 1907 and later established a mission at Moose Lake. He was also the person after which Bonnyville was named.2 Albéric Ouellette was an agent for settlement to the West before becoming parish priest at Immaculée Conception in Edmonton. He established a parish at Lac La Biche and regularly visited St.Vincent parish. A few years later, he promoted settlement in the southern Alberta where he established several parishes such as Ouelletteville and Morin. During the dry years of the 1930s, the settlers and their families (many who were French Canadian) were evacuated from the region in railcars and encouraged to settle in northeastern Alberta or the Peace River region. Ouellette was also the parish priest of Falher in the early 1920s.

Other members of the clergy, the fathers of Sainte-Marie de Tinchebray (in Normandy)— 12 priests who emigrated from France following the establishment of public schools— settled in the Red Deer and Stettler regions, where they established several communities.

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