The Forgotten Francophonie Canadienne

A few months ago a reader commented on one of our posts, noting that we had incorrectly called Quebec the “sole bastion of French speakers in North America.” That description was one Quebecois preferred to create (or at least, emphasize) to enhance their own French-speaking identity within the boundaries of their province. In fact, there is a wide spread of French-speaking or French-descended communities across the continent. The division between la francophonie canadienne and les Québecois was not inevitable. The rise of Quebec neo-nationalism turned the province away from its French-speaking brethren as they focused on what they believed to be the best hope for the survival of French culture in North America: themselves.

French Canadians emerged after the Conquest by Great Britain in 1759 as a tight-knit community that produced their own set of cultural and intellectual works reinforcing a unique identity. After the failed rebellions of 1837-38, the British Governor General Lord Durham had dismissed the Canadiens of Lower Canada as “a people with no history, and no literature.” Determined to prove Durham wrong, François-Xavier Garneau wrote one of the first histories of his people. Garneau's three-volume Histoire du Canada (1845-48) emphasized the endurance of French Canadian language, laws, and religion. Garneau was followed by other French Canadian historians who echoed his theme of survival, though sometimes with a more positive view of the clerical contribution to French Canadian history, or the British one. Essential to all of it was the theme of survivance – survival – and resisting the assimilation of their culture into the English-speaking communities that surrounded them.

Unfortunately, most of the Canadiens of Lower Canada were still focused on their own struggles. They heard little of the Acadiens to the east in New Brunswick, or the Métis and Franco-Ontarians to the west. More likely they would know of Franco-American communities in New England – as many as 500,000 French Canadians moved south between 1851 and 1901. The demographic shift further underlined the need for their culture's survivance. Only in the years after the Confederation of Canadian colonies in 1867 did the citizens of Lower Canada, now the province of Quebec, begin to fully appreciate the struggles of other French-speaking communities. In The French-Canadian Idea of Confederation, Arthur Silver writes about the crises over language and religious rights of French Canadian minorities in English-dominated provinces that became rallying calls for Quebec. Confederation had originally been sold to Quebec as a way to increase their provincial autonomy, but the protection of the province's English minority from the French majority was reluctantly accepted in exchange for protection of French minorities in Ontario (Manitoba had not yet joined). The power of Quebec's alien English Protestant minority was soon apparent as the provincial government passed the 1869 Act to amend the Law respecting Education in this Province which preserved English speakers' education rights and Anglophones celebrated their differences in public spaces.

In contrast, French minorities were given few luxuries outside of Quebec. Two years after Confederation, tensions between the Francophone Métis and newly arrived Anglophone Protestants led to the Red River Rebellion in modern day Manitoba. Under the leadership of the most truculent Father of Confederation, Louis Riel, Manitoba eventually became a province in its own right but not without creating serious divisions between French and English Canadians across the new Dominion. Riel was exiled and left Canada while still being elected to the House of Commons and sneaking in to sign the guest book. The restriction of French education rights in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island during the 1870s emphasized the unfair position of Quebec's majority towards their own linguistic minority. Riel's return and execution after the failure of the Northwest Rebellion in 1885 further belied the differences between the two linguistic groups. As the future Liberal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier proclaimed to a crowd in Montreal, “had I been born on the banks of the Saskatchewan, I would myself have shouldered a musket to fight against the neglect of governments and the shameless greed of speculators.” Québecois suspected that if Riel had not been French Canadian, he would not have been hanged. His madness and treason weren't the real threat to Ottawa. Many reasoned (incorrectly) that it was Riel's advocacy for the freedom of French Canadian Catholicism in the West that was his true crime.

Ensuing debates over the education rights in Ontario and Manitoba (which by the 1890s had become predominantly English-speaking) as well as in the new Northwest provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, further solidified a pan-Canadian French Catholic identity. By the 20th century, its most vocal advocate, Henri Bourassa, asserted his views on the national stage. Bourassa advocated for a bilingual, bicultural Canadian nation that favoured neither French or English heritage. Instead, Canada would be an equal fusion of both. Confederation, he argued, implicitly contained the promise of equality within it and the ongoing crises over minority rights had broken that promise. His vision of Canada included all French-speaking peoples, though its centre was undeniably the province they called their own. Unfortunately, the traumatic events of the First World War culminated in the imposition of conscription on Canada's French minority – and other minorities – to fight and die in battles of little importance to them. For many it proved that if the English Canadian majority wanted something, they would take it regardless of French Canada.

Riots in Quebec City and across the province in 1918 revealed how closely Canada came to fracturing. Though nowhere near as devastating (or momentous) as the 1916 Easter Rising in Ireland and surely not as calamitous as the Russian Revolution in 1917, the fear of such a disastrous outcome nonetheless spurred calls for moderation from Bourassa and provoked the dispatch of armed soldiers from Ottawa. After the war, Quebecois turned inwards and under the guidance of Abbé Lionel Groulx a new provincial nationalism took root.

It was not an immediate development though. The links between Quebec and the rest of French Canada remained strong as they sought to resist assimilation together. The Second Congress on the French Language in Canada in 1937 (the first having taken place a quarter century before in 1912) demonstrates the enduring longevity of a pan-Canadian identity. They were committed to seeing “the rights of the French language acknowledged throughout Canada” and conserving the rights of French speaking minorities to education in their own language be acknowledged and respected in all of North America. As Marcel Martel writes in Le Deuil d'un Pays Imaginé, there had to be solidarity between French Canadians and their leaders expressed through national organizations and a common national doctrine. The result was the creation of the Comité permanent de la survivance française en Amérique, the Permanent Committee for the Survival of the French Language in North America. Over the next two decades, the Committee pushed for greater cohesion and protection of French speakers in the continent.  The Committee, alongside other projects and organizations, kept the links between Quebec and the rest of French Canadian alive.

All of that changed during the 1960s, as the budding neo-nationalism of Quebec flourished after the watershed Quiet Revolution that modernized the province. It was a complex process that transformed a primarily Catholic society into a secular one, with many now advocating for independence and separation from Canada. The nationalist project spearheaded by the Parti Québecois and Réné Levesque rejected those French speakers who lived outside the province.  Nationalists had to clearly define the geographic boundaries of the modern Quebecois national identity or risk weakening its powerful rallying cry.  So, as Martel puts it, at best the Francophones outside of Quebec became expatriates, and at worst, stateless (though Martel uses the much nicer French term, des apatrides). These new nationalists favoured a different strategy for survivance focused only on Quebec autonomy, and not at all on the disparate French Canadian (or Franco-American) communities.

In the decades since, Quebecois and Canadians alike have largely conflated Quebec with French Canada, or at least with better known historic locations for French Canadians. So you likely have heard of the thriving communities of Acadians in the Maritimes, perhaps the Franco-Ontarians of the eastern townships (but probably not of Northern Ontario or Windsor and Chatham in Essex-Kent county), maybe Franco-Manitobans (but not across the rest of the Prairies and in British Columbia). Maps show the spread of French Canadians in 2013:


Or Franco-Americans (not necessarily French speakers, but French descended):

The numbers might come as a surprise. According to the 2006 Census, there are 6.4 million native French speakers in Quebec, 578,000 in Ontario, and 236,100 in New Brunswick. Next comes British Columbia with 70,000, Alberta with almost 67,000 and Manitoba with 44,000. All told there are 7.5 million across the country. French quarters and newspapers in cities like Winnipeg, Edmonton and Vancouver remain vibrant, if limited in size. The CBC Radio Program, C'est la Vie, with Bernard St-Laurent airs weekly and explores French Canadian life and culture. Quebec's inward nationalism may have forgotten about these communities, but they have continued to remember their identity and French culture.