From humble beginnings, Grande Prairie grew to be a
close-knit community in Alberta’s beautiful Peace River Country.
Located 460 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, Grande Prairie was
founded along what was hoped to be a railway route. Regardless
of early plans, the community had a long wait before the
tracking reached them.
In the late 18th century explorers, surveyors, and traders,
including Alexander Mackenzie (1793), were carried by the Peace
River through one of Canada’s final frontiers, an area of dense
forest and freezing winters. By 1881, a Scottish Hudson’s Bay
Company (HBC) employee, Thomas Kerr, established an HBC trading
post near Cutbank Lake.
While Grande Prairie carries a French name, its establishment
was carried out by settlers and missionaries from several
backgrounds. While Father Émile Grouard is often credited with
coining the term "la grande prairie," it was likely to have been
called that by French-speaking voyageurs that often used the
term for any large open plain.
Grande Prairie enjoyed increased traffic during the Klondike
Gold Rush, and after Alberta became a province in 1905, there
was a flood of immigrants. By 1909, promotional material was in
the hands of real estate developers who bought land and divided
it into town lots that became the settlement of Grande Prairie.
The railroad arrived in 1916. Banks and businesses
established themselves in the community alongside the North-West
Mounted Police (NWMP) barracks and the Montrose School (Grande
Prairie’s school division came to be in 1911). By 1919, Grande
Prairie had achieved town status and was the largest community
north of Edmonton. The budding community became an attractive
region for many French immigrants.
Grande Prairie’s role in the Second World War is defined by
it being a key stop along the air route to Alaska and Russia.
The barnstorming era made popular by community fairs led to the
creation of a crude airstrip in the early 1920s and the
foundation of an airport under Western Canada Airlines in 1927.
Today Grande Prairie is a city of just over 40,000 people.
The French-speaking community is small but evident; there is a
French-speaking public school École Nouvelle Fontière, with an
enrolment of just under 80 students; and French immersion
programs are offered at several other schools.
MacGregor, James G. Grande Prairie. Grande Prairie
Book Committee. Grande Prairie, AB. 1983.