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Francophone education in Alberta: a brief outline

The first years

In 1862, Father Lacombe and Brother Scollen established a school in Fort Edmonton, the first to operate on a regular basis West of Manitoba. The school taught English, French, catechism and the method of serving Mass. In 1859, the Grey Nuns opened a school at Lac Sainte-Anne and another one at the Lac La Biche Mission three years later. These first schools mark the beginning of French Catholic Education in Alberta.

Following the purchase of Rupert’s Land in 1868, Canada enacted the Rupert’s Land Act which unfortunately did not include any provisions for official bilingualism and this in spite of the fact that, at that time, the majority of the non-aboriginal inhabitants of the Territories were Francophones. Although the North-West Territories Act of 1875 did not officially recognize the presence of the Territories’ French-speaking group, it provided for the establishment of a system of separate Protestant and Roman Catholic schools to be funded by local rate-payers. This fact is not unrelated to Francophone Education since French might well have been the predominant language of instruction given the number of French-speaking Roman Catholics inhabitants in the Northwest at the time.

In 1892, Ordinance No.22 section 83 established English as the official language of instruction in the Territories. This was modified in 1896 and again in 1901 to permit the teaching of a French primary course. But with time, the Franco-Albertan community successfully lobbied for a more clearly defined and practical interpretation of Section 184 of the School Ordinance which dealt with the teaching of the French primary course. There were several exceptions to the principle of English-language instruction one of which was the right to use explanations in French when students did not understand. They may well have resulted in a generalized use of the French language in many schools, a practice which was frowned upon by the Government. And so in 1915, the Legislative Assembly reacted by unanimously adopting a motion stating:

That this House place itself on record as being opposed to Bilingualism in any form in the School system of Alberta, and in favor of the English language being the only language permitted to be used as the medium of instruction in the schools of Alberta, subject to the provisions of any law now in force in the province in that effect.

The small number of private institutions that offered instruction in French was a second exception. These institutions included Collège Saint-Jean established in 1908, the Collège des Jésuites opened in 1913 and l’Académie Assomption established in 1926.

…l’AIBA and l’AEBA

As of 1926, the ACFA concerned itself mainly with the political aspect of the struggle waged to maintain French language education rights in Alberta. The more pedagogical aspect of French language education was taken over by an organization known as the Association des instituteurs bilingues de l’Alberta (AIBA) created as a branch of the ACFA shortly after its own creation in 1926. The AIBA will be replaced in 1946 by l’Association des éducateurs bilingues de l’Alberta (AEBA). Both the AIBA’s and the AEBA’s main function was to help maintain the proper teaching of French by ensuring the use of appropriate pedagogical material, the development of appropriate program of studies, the organization of teacher preparation courses and professional development activities as well as the creation of a variety of cultural activities including the very popular Festivals de la chanson française.

One of the major tasks of the AIBA and of the AEBA was the organization of the concours de français. Many older Francophones remember having had to write the provincial exam. They especially remember the fact that in August of every year, the name and the mark received by every student who had written the exam were published in the francophone newspaper La Survivance. The origins of the Concours de français can be traced back to 1918 and le Cercle Jeanne d’Arc. As of 1933, Maurice Lavallée accepted the responsibility of organizing the province-wide exam, a position he held for many years. In 1963, the AEBA was replaced by the Conseil français, a specialist Council of the ATA. A few years later, in 1965, Philip Lamoureux was named the Department of Education’s first French language coordinator whose office took over many of the responsibilities that had been previously carried out by the AEBA.

In 1933, with the help and support of the AEBA, the ACFA organized summer courses for the province’s French teachers. Three years later the ACFA was happy to announce that it had convinced the University of Alberta to include a course on the teaching of French in its list of summer courses. Unfortunately the course will be cancelled a few years later because of a lack of enrollment. As of 1946, the AEBA became responsible for all of the activities related to the professional development of Alberta’s French teachers.

…the creation of the ACBA

A school board was empowered to give instruction in any language other than English as long as the parents were willing and able to pay a special rate and this instruction did not interfere with the required program. However any board that decided to offer instruction in French had to adopt an official resolution to that effect and that resolution had to be submitted to the Department of Education. The Franco-Albertan community therefore felt the need to keep the school trustees informed of the importance of ensuring francophone education in their respective regions. In 1935, the Association des commissaires d’écoles de langue française de l’Alberta (ACBA) was established with this goal in mind. The first president was J.-O Pilon and in 1941 the association counted 200 members.

…The royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism

In 1963, the federal Government appointed the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism to inquire into and report upon the existing state of bilingualism and biculturalism in Canada and to recommend what steps should be taken to develop the Canadian Confederation on the basis of an equal partnership between the two founding races, taking into account the contribution made by the other ethnic groups to the cultural enrichment of Canada.

Published in 1968, Book II of the Commission’s final report dealt exclusively with Education and recommended that parents be able to select the official language of their choice for the education of their children. It also urged that minority language schooling be provided by the provinces. Many of these recommendations will serve as the basis of the minority education rights that will later be included in Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of rights and Freedoms published in 1982. The Commission’s recommendation will also become one of the prime motivating forces behind the development of immersion programs everywhere in Canada.

…changing the Alberta School Act

In 1968 the Alberta School Act was amended to permit French-language instruction in grades 3 through 12 for up to 50% of the school day. A further revision adopted in 1971 permitted instruction in any language. A third change brought about in 1976 allowed the use of French for up to 80% of the school day.

Unfortunately, the Government of Alberta did not deem it necessary to offer separate courses in French for the Anglophone and the Francophone school clienteles. In spite of the fact that there were approximately 6 0000 Francophone students who are studying French at the time, the Alberta Government believed that admission to French language programs should be done regardless of mother-tongue. According to the Government, many boards needed to rely on large numbers of student whose mother-tongue was other than French in establishing classes where French was used as the language of instruction. This decision however contravened the recommendations presented by the Royal Commission in 1968.

Franco-Albertans would have to wait until 1982 and the rights included in Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to access homogenous francophone education. And so from 1968 to 1982, an ever-growing number of young Albertans will study “en français” in the Province’s 27 “écoles bilingues” all of which will slowly become immersion schools.

…Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms

It will quickly become evident that the immersion school setting was not suitable for young Franco-Albertan students not only because of the level of French but mostly because of the fact that the immersion school constituted an English cultural setting which in the long term inevitably led to a loss of identity and ultimately to assimilation. The situation will change in 1982 with the adoption of the Canadian Charter of rights and Freedom and Section 23 of the Charter which gives parents of the linguistic minority the right to have his children receive school instruction in French (in English in Quebec) and the right to manage and control the educational institutions attended by their children. But the establishment of homogeneous Francophone schools will not be an easy task. Most provincial governments will choose to ignore the Charter rights and in order to have their rights implemented, Francophone communities across Canada will need to challenge their respective governments by bringing their case before the courts.

Provincial and national associations of francophone parents

New organizations will be created in order to help parents in their struggle against recalcitrant school boards and unwilling governments. In 1986, in Alberta, Yvon Mahé, the head of the ACFA’s Bureau d’éducation, will create the Fédération des parents francophones de l’Alberta (FPFA). That same year, the Commission nationale des parents francophones will be created in order to regroup the many parent committees that are being established across Canada. The Commission nationale will ask the Secrétaire d’État and the Conseil des ministres de l’Éducation to organize a joint study on the legislative and administrative measures that should be put in place to insure the applications of the rights included in Section 23 of the Charter. That same year, the ACFA and the Canadian parents for French Association will join forces to prepare an information brochure entitled “L’Éducation française, Deux clientèles. The documents had been prepared in the hope of explaining the differences between homogenous Francophone schools and immersion programs

…the results

The struggles that were being waged all over the province of Alberta in order to ensure the establishment of homogenous francophone schools gave positive results. The first homogeneous francophone school was called l’École Georges and Julia Bugnet. After having been turned down by the Edmonton Public School Board and the Edmonton Catholic School Board the Bugnet group opened a privately funded non-confessional elementary school in Edmonton in 1983. In May of the same year, however, another group of parents formed an ad hoc Committee under the presidency of Claudette Roy in order to establish a publicly funded Catholic homogenous Francophone school. The group will be successful and École Maurice-Lavalléé will open in 1984 under the jurisdiction of the Edmonton Separate School Board. Calgary’s École Saint-Antoine will open the same year. In the following years several other francophone schools will be established : l’École Héritage (1988), l’École Notre-Dame (1989), l’École du Sommet (1990), l’École Citadelle (1990), l’École Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc (1991), l’École Voyageur, l’École Père-Lacombe (1992), l’École Beauséjour, le Pavillon Lavérendrye (1994) etc..

In 1989 the homogenous francophone program was extended to the secondary level when l’École Maurice-Lavallée will finally become a K to 12 school. It was a large but costly victory for the Franco-Albertan community whose protests before the Edmonton Separate School Board ended in a sit-in in March 1988.

…the Alberta School Act and the 1988 Language Education Policy for Alberta

In 1988, six years after the publication of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Province of Alberta will finally agree to recognize the distinction between minority and immersion schools by including the Section 23 rights in Section 5 of the Alberta School Act. However the Province has chosen to include only the rights dealing with instruction and to ignore the rights concerning management and control. It has also decided not to indicate how the Section 23 rights to instruction in a homogeneous francophone setting are to be implemented.

The same year, the Government published a document entitled “The Language Education Policy for Alberta” whose purpose according to the Government was to set a clear direction for future actions in several areas concerning language policy including the rights of francophone Albertans who qualify under Section 23 of the Charter to have their children educated in French. The document stated that the government of Alberta had identified five areas in the province where the number of francophone children was sufficient to warrant the provision of French language programs. However the province believed that School Boards are ultimately responsible for determining the number of Francophones children in their jurisdiction and those living in surrounding areas, for consulting with the parents involved and for making appropriate decisions about whether a program or school should be established.

… the Supreme Court decision in the Mahé/Bugnet case

In 1983, the Mahé/Bugnet group of parents brought the Government of Alberta to court. The Mahé case will ultimately be heard by the Supreme Court of Canada who will render its decision in March 1990. According to the Supreme Court, Section 23 of the Charter was designed to correct on a national scale the progressive erosion of minority official language groups and to give effect to the concept of the equal partnership of the two official language groups in the context of education. The Supreme Court also ruled that where numbers warrant, Section 23 of the Canadian Charter gives parents of the linguistic minority a right to manage and control educational institutions attended by their children.

The French Language Working Group

Following the 1990 Supreme Court decision, the Minister of Education the Hon. Jim Dinning will establish the French Language Working Group whose mandate was to prepare recommendations for legislation in regards to the governance of Francophone schools and programs in Alberta. The Group will submit a unanimous final report in May of 1991. The report recommended that the School Act be amended to allow the Minister of Education to establish Authorities and Coordinating Councils for the governance of Francophone education. In April 1992, Premier Getty indicated to the Franco-Albertan community leaders that he was willing to support the inclusion of a section dealing with management and control of the francophone homogenous schools in the Alberta School Act. What may seem to have been a generous gesture on the part of the Premier was in fact a belated response to the whole question of Francophone rights as included in Section 23 of the 1982 Charter of Rights. In fact, the province of Alberta will have waited 10 years before implementing the constitutional rights of the francophone parents of Alberta.

The Alberta School Amendment Act of 1993 will finally include all of the provisions needed to ensure the implementation of the Section 23 Charter right of French-speaking parents in regards to minority language instruction and governance.


The history of Francophone education in Alberta extends over more than a century and is filled with numerous struggles many of which result in a loss of rights. But there have been victories as well and some of them have often been won against seemingly overwhelming odds. Through their courage and persistence the Franco-Albertans have not only ensured the rights of their children to study in their mother tongue, they have also opened the doors for young Anglophones to study in Canada’s other official language. It is an accomplishment of which they can be proud.

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