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Franco-Alberta Early Settlement


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Group at St. Ann Ranch House

French fur trappers, missionaries and Métis had occupied the prairies since the early 1700s. Active settlement, however, did not begin until the 1890s with the arrival of French-speaking settlers from France, Belgium and Québec. The Roman Catholic Church, intent on establishing a permanent French presence in the West, encouraged settlement in the later part of the 19th century.

Initially, Catholic missionaries in the West actively discouraged immigration. They were motivated by a desire to protect Native and Métis populations from the destructive consequences of contact with European settlers. An influx of English-speaking Protestants into the area, however, had a profound effect on their attitude towards settlement. Church officials concluded their interests would be best served by encouraging French-Speaking Catholics to populate the area. If the region must be settled, they decided, then let it be settled by the French.

Group of French Canadians

While some families made the decision to move to the prairies based on their own explorations, prêtres-colonisateurs, or priest colonization agents, travelled throughout Canada, the United States, France and Belgium in an attempt to recruit settlers. They placed advertisements in French publications, printed pamphlets and letters of testimony from French settlers and sent missionaries to Europe to find immigrants. Historians claim the promise of free, fertile land was enough to draw over 600 French-speaking families to Alberta in little over a decade. The first newcomers settled in the St. Albert area and later migrated to the St. Paul-Bonnyville region.

French Settlers Alec Loiselle and Family

Attracting settlers to Alberta was no easy task. Missionaries faced competition for settlers from Québec, where the clergy aggressively pursued a colonization agenda meant to counteract the exodus of French-speaking immigrants to the United States. Likewise, French communities in Québec were firmly established by the late 1800s and many prospective settlers feared a move to Alberta would mean cultural isolation. Others believed that land in the North West was unsuitable for farming, or were deterred by the sheer distance and the rigid requirements placed on prospective settlers by the Roman Catholic Church. Large families with capital were the preferredcandidates—the missionaries in Alberta did not just want anykind of settlers, they sought those who would succeed.

Despite the best efforts of the Catholic clergy, any hope of numerical equality between the French and English populations was extinguished by the lack of immigration into the area by the French after WWI and a continuous stream of Anglophone settlers.

Sources:
  • Hart, Edward John. Ambition and Reality: The French-Speaking Community of Edmonton 1795-1935. Edmonton: Salon d'histoire de la francophonie albertaine, 1980.
  • Stocco, Denise. French Canadian Colonization in Alberta. Edmonton: Provincial Museum and Archives of Alberta, 1973.
  • Smith, Donald B. "A History of French-speaking Albertans." In Peoples of Alberta, Portraits of Cultural Diversity, eds. Howard and Tamara Palmer, 83-108. Saskatoon: Saskatchewan.


 
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