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Economic activities of Francophones of the Edmonton Region

It is difficult to examine the economic activities of the francophones of the Edmonton region as an exclusive group, the city has always been a centre for the outlying communities of the province. On the surface, little can be seen of the economic activities of the French population of the Edmonton region during the 1950s. There were a few professionals such as doctors, lawyers or teachers who offered services in the language, and people came from the regions as well as from within the city to consult them. Economic activity was much the same, but generally when it came to finances or investments, to do business in Alberta, French-Canadians had to become bilingual. This was the case for the many French-Canadians from Edmonton, who much earlier in the century, had made their money as storekeepers or hoteliers, and who later consolidated their funds for investments - Imperial Agencies, Western Timber and Mines, financial enterprises which were established throughout the province.

There were always small family businesses, boarding houses for instance. After World War II, in the pages of the La Survivance we see many advertisements in the service industries. Typical advertisements are for carpet sales, funeral services, electronic stores or tailors, such as La Flèche Brothers or Trudel Furs. Although these small ads suggest modest enterprises, some were anything but. La Flèche Brothers had furnished uniforms for the city of Edmonton and for Edmonton Loyal Regiment in World War I. They also had opened stores in Calgary and Vancouver. The firm still exists, not too long ago Greyhound Bus Drivers were wearing uniforms from these tailors.

However there were exceptions to this rule, some francophones made fortunes here without getting much “official” attention from the Franco-Albertan community. This is case for the young Frenchman, Jean de la Bruyère, who, in 1950, teamed up with his Harvard classmate, Sandy MacTaggart, and who together pinpointed Edmonton as the place to make a fortune in real estate. Establishing themselves here after graduating, under a composite of their names (Maclab) they began their climb to riches. Their firm is mentioned in a Lions Home Bingo advertisement in the April 11,1956 edition of La Survivance where Maclab Homes provides a 3 bedroom house worth $11,500.00 from their new development in the Argyll region of Edmonton for the Lions fundraiser. Until we read of the Maclab Theatre, donated by the firm to the Citadel Theatre in 1978, the presence of this dynamic firm, nor of the French partner, Jean de la Bruyère, does not rate a mention in the French language newspaper. This is not altogether surprising, as the paper belonged to the Oblate missionaries of Mary and the content was essentially religious and parochial, but the winds of change were blowing. In 1967, when the Oblates sold the newspaper (for one dollar) to the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta, it became Le Franco-Albertain. It then began to shift away from Church related news. Another factor was probably, that at the time, the majority of Franco-Albertans were far from being of the “jet set”, as Paris born de la Bruyère was. This was not the only case of the kind.

Economic development was very much on the mind of francophone businessmen of the Edmonton community in the sixties. One bemoaned the lack of initiative on the part of French-Canadian community and the bypassing of opportunities for investment and profit in the city itself. “On est mort, on est mort”, he is quoted as saying, in the August 21, 1963 edition, since potentially viable business ventures constantly were passing them by because of their inexperience, lack of business skills or lack of capital. The membership of the ACFA was conscious of the need to improve the lot of the average Franco-Albertan. A plan to provide health and life insurance to members was put into place with the affiliation of the Desjardins Group of Québec. This also helped to finance the ACFA, which was always hard-pressed to keep itself afloat in those days before funding from the federal government became available following official bilingualism. As well, a series of commissions had been set up by the ACFA in 1960, of which there was the “Commission de la promotion économique”, the results of which were included at the annual congress of 1961. Marcel Chevrette was president of the group, along with Dr. Jean-Paul Bugeaud and Gérard Moquin. Continued education, particularly for young French-Canadians was encouraged. A student loan program was also set up to assist in this goal. A larger view of the “francophonie” was also promoted: by 1965, the constitution of the ACFA was modified to ensure that francophiles, francophones and members of community-at-large could occupy positions within the organisation, and not just members of the clergy or catholic French-Canadians.

A few years later, the implementation of official bilingualism in Canada in 1971 opened doors for Franco-Albertans in the federal domain and contributed to an increase in civil service postings to Edmonton (and across Canada) of bilingual francophones to fill the new needs.

In the financial domain, the first Franco-Albertan credit union was established in Calgary in 1935, after having been the subject of discussion for three years within their local ACFA. Encouraged by the clergy and the ACFA, other French communities in Alberta followed suit. In Edmonton, by 1946, the parishes of Saint-Joachim and Assomption had created their small credit unions, as had the parishes of Saint-Albert and Beaumont. Most of the rural parishes created consumers cooperatives as well, for dry goods, produce and fuel; some also established producer coops, for the sale of livestock, as in the Peace River region, or as in the case of Beaumont, for the sale of eggs. Several Franco-Albertans were also on provincial boards or employed in inspecting cooperatives across the province. Although this cooperative movement slackened somewhat, most of the institutions were eventually amalgamated into larger units. In 1972, the two francophone credit unions of Edmonton united to create the Caisse Francalta, officially opened February 17, 1973. A year later, Caisse Francalta opened a a branch office in Falher, and in 1975, another was being planned for St. Isidore. The Edmonton office was shared with CARDA (Co-opérative d’aménagements régionaux et de développements agricoles), and included the Schola bookstore which had been purchased from the Fides bookstore, which had closed after a bit more than ten years in operation.

The case of CARDA merits dwelling upon. It was established after WWII to try to keep real estate, particularly farmlands within the French parishes throughout Alberta, in the hands of Franco-Albertans or to make them available to newcomers from Québec who were coming out to Alberta to farm at the time. Saint-Isidore is a prime example of this “latecomer” settler community. The booming post-war economy was finally making it possible for farmers to sell property which they had been forced to hold on to since the mid-twenties due to one disaster after another: the glut of wheat on the world market, the Great Depression and then the war. There was now plenty of work in the cities in construction, in the burgeoning oilfields following the Leduc boom in 1949 and in other fields of expertise, and given this situation, farmers across the province were selling and moving to the cities where opportunities were plentiful and higher educational facilities were available for their children. Those who wished to remain on farms had to expand and modernize, more land, greater mechanisation were essential. It was in this situation in which CARDA was created to pool funds. The ACFA approved of this, but did not invest financially in the firm, leaving that to the private sector, the credit unions and the co-operators. CARDA eventually expanded to include not only farmlands but real estate in towns and cities as well. But in 1982, a large investment in Edmonton turned bad, and CARDA was obliged to cease operations. Many Franco-Albertans suffered substantial financial losses at this time and the ACFA was forced to defend its independence in the matter, refusing to bail out CARDA. But the reality was that it simply did not have the financial power itself and was running a deficit most of the time.

By this time, in Edmonton, the nearby towns of Beaumont and Saint-Albert were becoming bedroom communities to the metropolis and many Franco-Albertan farmers in the area turned developer, subdividing parcels of their farms and selling lots. The expansion of the International Airport was also a shot in the arm to the former city market farm community of Beaumont which previously grew vegetables, poultry and berries to sell at the Edmonton City Market.

In 1994, l’Association des gens d’affaires d’Edmonton was created with the aim to regroup individuals involved in business; they met regularly and exchanged business cards. The ACFA was also involved in promoting economic development at this time. Funding was finally obtained for Franco-Albertans in 1998 from the federal government under section 41 of the Official Languages Act to assist in the development of official language minorities in minority situations. Through the auspices of the National Francophone Economic Development Network (Comité national de développement des resources humaines de la francophonie canadienne), the « Chambre économique de l’Alberta » was created with a main office in Edmonton and soon with offices in Peace River, Calgary and St. Paul. Often confused as a « chamber of commerce », after nine years of existence, the name has been changed to « Conseil de développement économique de l’Alberta » (CDÉA) (www.lecdea.ca). The mandate of the organisation is to aid francophones in developing business, acting as advisors and seeking to increase the visibility of Franco-Albertans and the services they offer in the business sector. The CDÉA also represents the francophone community across Alberta and acts as go-between to stimulate business initiative. The tourism industry has been one of their major projects, with Alberta being touted as “l’Autre Belle Province”; a tourist guide is available which lists French communities throughout Alberta, their origins and interest. The guide is also available online through the CDÉA website. With the help of the CDÉA, increased visibility is indeed occurring, and economic development by Francophones in Alberta is a now a reality.

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