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Immigration and Immigration Policy

The arrival of francophones in the North-West Territories at the end of the 19th century can be classed in two distinct periods: before and after 1890.

Before 1890: the arrival of adventurers from Québec

The historian Hart writes about the French-Canadians who came from Québec and who arrived before 1890 as “part of a floating group of individuals (…) which travelled (…) in Western Canada looking for something that could satisfy their taste for adventure and their hope to make money (…) This movement was in no way organized.”1 Often, these adventurers would work as labourers for the Canadian Pacific Railways. These people would settle in Edmonton and many would become members of Edmonton’s Francophone elite.

After 1890: Father Jean-Baptiste Morin and the colonization project

After 1890, the presence of Francophones was the result of the tireless work of Father Jean-Baptiste Morin who channelled francophone immigration for almost 10 years in order to establish parishes in and around Edmonton.2 Father Morin was considered the “first colonizing missionary who seriously colonized in Alberta as the official agent named by the federal government.”3 Born in Québec in 1852, Jean-Baptiste Morin was ordained in 1884. In 1890, he was persuaded by Mgr Grandin “to work in his diocese as a colonizing missionary to “hunt down pioneers”4 from the East and from the United States.”5

The first contingent of pioneers arrived in April 1891 and consisted of 56 people, of which 39 were adults.6 Between 1891 and 1897, Father Morin had helped organize the immigration of more than 530 families — representing 2,256 individuals.7 During the last two years (1898-1899), Morin helped organize the immigration of 223 individuals, divided across 90 families8 for a total of nearly 2,500 individuals from 620 families. Despite superhuman efforts, it was far from living up to the expectations of maintaining an important francophone presence in the region.

Ever since being nominated to his post, Father Morin had worked without respite:

Father Morin subjected himself to gruelling work in order to redirect to the North-West region some of the many families that left for the United States. He would dedicate part of the year to speaking to his American compatriots at conferences to make Western Canada known to them and to repatriate all those who wanted to come. After a series of conferences, he would come back to his Montréal office (…) to pursue his work: abundant correspondence, numerous articles to newspapers (…) continuous welcome for those who wanted information about the West.9.

Franchophones who arrived with Father Morin after 1890 came mostly from Québec; a large contingent of these came from New-England factories and American Mid-West plains. To coin Frédéric Villeneuve who had written an article in his newspaper when Father Morin died, “he had extracted most of them from the American octopus.”10

The Federal government’s immigration policy

This era of intense immigration saw the arrival of many pioneers from foreign countries. The Edmonton francophones who, ten years earlier, represented nearly 15% of its population saw their numbers considerably diminish with the arrival of these foreign pioneers.

Often, L’Ouest Canadien would criticize Sifton’s immigration policy, claiming he “spent lots of money to get Europeans (whereas) so little was done to repatriate our own to Canada.”11

Although many immigrants from Eastern Europe were Catholic (Galician from Rabbit Hill were Greek Catholic), the newspaper, in its article “Il nous faut des colons: où les prendre? (We need pioneers: where to take them?)”12 comments on the “reasons that force the government to head the colonization efforts towards English-speaking or almost barbaric countries” (speaking about Russia’s Galicians). The newspaper concluded by writing that “immigration agents should go to the United States to get our own.”

Far from the town!

Father Morin did not hide his intentions to have families colonize the region around Edmonton. For him, it was clear: the town (especially the American one) was dangerous, with its businesses, taverns, stores, and hotels where it was easy to spend money. He said he was “against youth who would leave for factories of the American Union (…) and who would lose their language, their nationality, and their faith.”13 For Father Morin, the city was equivalent to temptations and material wealth and dominated by “the Other” — the English-speaking majority.

In fact, the role of French-Canadians in America, according to an article in L’Ouest Canadien “was to fight against the invasion of materialism” because French-Canada was “the only nation which had a soul (…) the United States (being) a nation without cohesion.”14 In their book “Canada 1896-1921, A Nation Transformed”, authors Robert Craig Brown and Ramsay Cook describe the economic activities as seen through the eyes of French-Canadians:

Many French-Canadian intellectuals argued that business activity was naturally Protestant, materialist, and Anglo-Saxon and should be avoided by a people Catholic in faith, spiritual in temperament, and ethnically French.15

The article “Si jeunesse savait (If youth only knew)” talked of “liberal professions” in the city where “there is a lot of competition” and where people who move in often have to “do something else.”16 Moreover, rural life was described as having “few outside distractions” and the fact of living simply (in the countryside) was considered “noble.”17

Encouraging rural immigration

Given the school situation, it is easier to understand the reasons which incited Father Morin and the colonizing priests after him to want to “isolate” French-speaking pioneers in distinct communities around Edmonton. The objective was clear: “massive francophone immigration would set the record straight and would guarantee their survival. And who knows? The Franco-Catholics could regain the enjoyment of their rights!”18

Encouraging the immigration of these pioneers to Western soil and the organization of French-speaking parishes for the survival of the race had to be done at all costs. In fact, if the French-Canadian race had continued to survive in Québec in the midst of the Anglo-Saxon element for more than 150 years, it was mostly because French-Canadians had lived in the countryside, far from the “English.”

Real wealth

During the Klondike, the word wealth became trendy; it was used ad nauseam to attract pioneers and to describe the soil “the real wealth.” According to Father Morin, the real wealth was the soil and the wealthy was the farmer. Father Morin abhorred these “adventurers” who were many during the Klondike — “adventurers” who would come to Western Canada to risk their luck to become rich quickly but who would leave when business was not going well. To ensure it reached the right candidates, the Catholic Church had to:

Carefully select the candidates for emigration in such a way as to keep the pioneers whose success they would be sure of. By imposing certain conditions upon the immigrants, the Catholic Church reached the desired outcome at the expense of another factor: numbers.19

Everywhere in the newspaper L’Ouest Canadien, the term “wealth” is mentioned. The article “Une mine d’or dans l’Alberta (a gold mine in Alberta)”20 talked about “the fertility of the soil” and the article “Soyons riches (let’s be rich)”21 mentioned the “wealth of the Canadian soil” and the “departure of many French-Canadians for the United States — French-Canadians who should stay to make our country richer instead of making the United States richer.”

The term Klondike is also mentioned many times in the newspaper: "L’Alberta, un vrai Klondyke; il ne lui faut que la population (Alberta, a real Klondike; one only needs population)”;22 another example is the article “Le nord-Ouest: ses merveilles (North-Western Canada and its marvels)”23 (article originally published in English in the Montreal Herald) which mentioned the “beauty and riches of the region (in addition to) mining and agricultural riches in the Edmonton district, which are another Klondike.”

The newspaper even went as far as to publish a letter from Judge Routhier from the Edmonton district about the French-Canadian colonization: “[We need] a strong flow of emigration from our compatriots” (...) which is “advantageous to our race” and which will make Canada a “richer country.”24 Incidentally, this method of doing things — a letter from an important individual representing the Francophonie — was used many times by L’Ouest Canadien to attract pioneers: lawyers, priests or judges, the whole francophone elite is represented!

Once the pioneers are here, they have to stay!

It was one thing to attract pioneers; it was another to keep them because a good number of these French-Canadian pioneers who arrived in Western Canada had “no idea about farm work, having been employed in Québec’s construction yards, in New-England factories, or as journeymen.”25 The worst thing that could happen was for them to go back to Québec or to New England and speak ill of their experiences in Western Canada.

L’Ouest Canadien newspaper started a series of article to inform these “new pioneers” about agricultural techniques: the article “Agriculture”26 provided advice relating to “the number of pigs in a herd, the basement being the best location for keeping potatoes, and ways to water your plants in winter”.

Other articles mentioned that “turnip roots were the best food for sheep”,27 “ways to get rid of turkish worms in herds”,28 “ways to choose a good horse”,29 and the “recipe to get good hay”.30

Summary of Father Morin’s colonization project

In 1899, Father Morin “observed the half-success of his enterprise: his little Western-Canada, as he used to call it, was believed to be sick. He foreshadowed the almost complete invasion by European immigrants”.31

Father Morin left Western Canada, the region which he treasured so much, for good in September 1899 and went back to Québec because he felt “worn out by accumulated tiredness while travelling during the last ten years, by constant worries, and by the apostolic work in difficult circumstances”.32 Father Morin left an indelible mark on the region.

1 Hart, Ambitions et réalités: la communauté francophone d’Edmonton 1795-1935, pp. 20-21.
2 Edmonton, Saint-Albert, Morinville, Fort Saskatchewan, Saint-Pierre, Beaumont, Stony Plain, Rivière-Qui-Barre and Vegreville.
3 Trottier, Journal d’un missionnaire-colonisateur, p. xii.
4 Archives of the Archdiocese of Edmonton, in Trottier, Journal d’un missionnaire-colonisateur, p. xi.
5 Ibid, p. xi.
6 Ibid, p. xvii.
7 L’Ouest Canadien 10.02.98:1.
8 L’Ouest Canadien 22.06.99:1.
9 Trottier, Op. Cit, p. xii-xiii.
10 Les cloches de Saint-Boniface, Vol. XI, #3, 1 February 1912.
11 L’Ouest Canadien 31.03.98:1.
12 L’Ouest Canadien 02.06.98:2.
13 L’Ouest Canadien 03.03.98:2.
14 L’Ouest Canadien 05.05.98:1.
15 Brown et Cook, Op. Cit. p. 131.
16 L’Ouest Canadien 07.04.98:1.
17 L’Ouest Canadien 26.05.98:1.
18 L’Ouest Canadien 30.06.98:2.
19 Ibid. p. 32.
20 L’Ouest Canadien 03.02.98:2.
21 L’Ouest Canadien 10.02.98:4.
22 L’Ouest Canadien 17.02.98:4.
23 L’Ouest Canadien 03.03.98:1.
24 L’Ouest Canadien 24.03.98:3.
25 Denise Stocco, Op. Cit. p. 42.
26 L’Ouest Canadien 03.03.98:4.
27 L’Ouest Canadien 17.03.98:3.
28 L’Ouest Canadien 24.03.98:4.
29 L’Ouest Canadien 31.03.98:4.
30 L’Ouest Canadien 07.04.98:4.
31 Many reasons are given to explain the low numbers of Francophone immigrants to Alberta. The objective of this document is not to explain in detail the reasons behind these statements of fact but rather, to describe the community as it was in 1898 during the publication of the L’Ouest Canadien newspaper. I will nevertheless state four reasons:
  1. The opposition of the Québec clergy, which had begun its own colonization program in the Lac Saint-Jean, Abitibi, Gaspésie regions and which abhorred attempts to “steal” their potential pioneers.
  2. The north-west school matter and the elimination of linguistic and religious rights in 1890;
  3. The conditions imposed by the Catholic clergy, namely the ownership of a capital of between $700 and $800 (see Father Morin’s pamphlet, “La Terre promise aux Canadiens-Français”, p. 22)
  4. Travel distance and costs associated with emigration to western Canada
32 Trottier, Op. Cit. p. xx.

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