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French and French Canadian explorers, fur traders, and voyageurs began traveling to the western prairies in the middle of the 18th century. It is a little known fact to most Albertans, but the first European language to ever be spoken in the region that is now known as Alberta was, indeed, French. As these explorers and pioneers of the fur-trade era began to settle in the west, they were followed by Americans and British fur traders. Many worked for the Hudson's Bay Company or the Northwest Company as fur traders or factors and, as such, were required to settle in the region. Many took wives from the local First Nations bands. The Francophones had forged amicable relationships between themselves and the local tribal populations. It was through those close ties that the emergence of an entirely new culture was born - the Métis. Today family names such as Breland, Vandal, Desjarlais, Cardinal, Delorme, Dumont, Beaulieu and Deschamps remain very visible throughout the province.1 Since the early arrival of Francophones in the west, Alberta's history has been shaped by the contributions, socially and culturally, by this very unique group of people. The Francophone population in Alberta has made a  strong effort to maintain their culture and find a place in Albertan society for the French language. 

As the fur trade spread throughout western Canada, missionaries also began to move into the region to administer to the First Nations peoples and, particularly to the Metis. In the 1840s French-speaking Roman Catholic missionaries made their way west and set up several missions throughout the province, including successful missions at Fort Edmonton, St. Albert, Morinville, Lac La Biche, Grouard and Lac Sainte Anne. These Francophone Catholic missionaries, particularly Father Lacombe, developed such close ties with the First Nations peoples that they were called on by the federal government to help ease the tensions and, in many cases serve as translators and advocates for the First Nations peoples, during the treaty talks which began towards the end of the 19th century.

During the early 1870s many French-speaking farmers began to arrive in the west, settling just east of Fort Edmonton at what became known as the Lamoureux settlement. By the late 1870s, the French-speaking population had become quite significant in the territories, as Alberta was known at that time, and in 1875 the federal government passed the Northwest Territories Act which recognized this presence and allowed for the use of French in the legislative council and the courts and granted rights to the Roman Catholic church to establish schools in which French was the language of instruction. 

The 1880s saw the arrival of large numbers of English speaking settlers to the west. Soon the numbers of English residents began to outnumber the Francophone population in the region and tensions between the two groups flared at times, primarily over politics and language. It was this environment which fueled Francophone protests, and later, even the Riel Rebellion. As Anglophones fought to have English made the official language of assemblies, courts and schools, the Francophones  banded together  to resist the elimination of their language and relations between the two groups have suffered ever since.

During the years leading up to World War I, the French-speaking community in Alberta worked hard to ensure their language and culture remained intact within the province. Roman Catholic priests such as Father Lacombe and L'Abbe Morin recruited thousands of francophone settlers and moved them into the province. While some came from Quebec, the majority were brought in from the United States to settlements at places such as Saint Paul, Fahler, Lac La Biche and Bonneville. In 1905, the anglophone presence in the newly formed province of Alberta was so great that a stipulation that French instruction be limited to one hour per day of instruction in the primary grades was included in the bills which gave Alberta and Saskatchewan their provincehood. Despite the labours of the Francophone community to increase their presence in Alberta, by 1916 out of a population of 500,000 only 25, 000 were Francophone.

Following World War I, the province saw an influx of immigrants from France and Belgium as a few soldiers and their families arrived on the prairies to start life anew. These new immigrants tended to establish homes for themselves in southern Alberta at places such as Trochu and north of Stettler at Tinchebray and Notre Dame de Savoie. With moves to anglicize the Roman Catholic Church and the settlement of thousands of families from Europe and the United States from the turn of the century, strength and cohesion of the Francophone community in Alberta was greatly weakened. Their efforts on all fronts to unite the community and gain the recognition of the Anglo governments and community throughout Canada had been dealt hefty blows during the war due to the Conscription Crisis which had caused tremendous tensions in Anglo-French relations across the country. For the next several decades the French community worked hard to  rebuild itself, through the creation of self-financed schools that provided Francophone instruction, the creation of the Association des Educateurs Bilingues de l'Alberta (AEBA) which prepared special French language programmes, and helped organize extra-curricular events in French for school children including plays, Christmas concerts and speaking contests. The development of the Oblate and Jesuit Colleges was also important as they helped to train up and educate a new franco-Albertan elite which provided a more articulate voice for the community.

Group of French CanadiansThrough the 1960s and 70s there was increasing awareness and action taken to include French-speaking Albertans in all aspects of society, specifically in terms of  educational opportunity.  As the number of schools with instruction in French increased, so did the range of grade levels. Alberta schools once offering French instruction in primary grades now offer French instruction to Grade 12.  

French Canadians With the economy doing well, during the 1970s and 1980s, there were many French speaking Ontarians, Quebecois who moved to Alberta. This increased population has also sparked new interest in the language and the culture. These positive developments are again offset by some residual difficulties. With the increasing numbers of French speaking people in Alberta has come increasing diversity among them. The many different diverse French speaking Albertans, both new and old, are moving large urban centers, such as Edmonton. Before this movement, the seclusion of a small rural community fostered the cultural awareness and identity, this is waning in a large city. But with numbers increasing, and the developments in the media and in education, there is still a celebration of French culture and language in Alberta.

1Howard and Tamara Palmer, Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon, SK: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985., p.86.
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