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Francophone Communities

The Oblate relationship with the Francophone community of the future province of Alberta began with their arrival in the Canadian North-West in 1845. Being a French congregation, during their early years in Canada, the Oblates were mostly francophone and when they arrived in the North-West, they ministered to large numbers of Métis, also French speakers. Father Albert Lacombe’s agricultural settlements at St. Albert and St-Paul-des-Métis are examples of the Oblate attempts among the Métis to encourage and maintain French and Catholic identity in the West.

It is interesting to note that the two Oblates who most strongly advocated French settlement in Western Canada were from Québec: Albert Lacombe and his superior, Bishop Alexandre Taché. Aware of the fine quality of the soil on the Canadian Prairies, and advocating a rural way of life, they felt that French-Canadians should come and settle here. They also felt that the presence of French-Canadians would positively influence the Métis in learning agricultural techniques which would enable them succeed as settlers.

The Bishop of St. Boniface, Mgr. Taché, envisioned a Francophone West, with a “little Quebec” at Red River. By the 1870s, the rising tide of Anglophone Protestant settlers pouring into the Métis colony from Ontario, taking lands which had been abandoned by many Métis, created concern among the Catholic clergy about the survival of the Western Francophone nation. The Bishop of the Diocese of St. Albert, Mgr Vital Grandin, and his successor Mgr Émile Legal, agreed completely with Taché, and promoted French settlement in Alberta. Mgr Grandin published brochures touting the advantages of the West, and he wrote letters to clergy in Quebec about this. Fathers Lacombe and Leduc also did the same. Grandin requested that the Oblates sacrifice some of their time to recruit Francophone settlers from Quebec.

By the 1890s, the Federal Government was actively promoting immigration to Western Canada with policies largely shaped by Minister of the Interior Clifford Sifton, an opponent of bilingualism. These policies resulted in the arrival of vast waves of English speaking settlers from Great Britain and the United States, and various ethnic groups from agrarian regions, largely in Eastern Europe. Francophone business concerns were also involved in the recruiting of settlers and could see the possibilities of French settlements across Canada, a theme dear to the French Catholic clergy as well. They lobbied the Canadian Ministry of the Interior for funds to promote settlement, and were able to mount several campaigns and pay individual recruiters. Although the Oblates were involved in this promotion, many secular priests known as prêtres colonisateurs – colonizing priests, were as well. Among the first of these was Father Lacombe, who promoted settlement to Manitoba on behalf of Bishop Taché, later he worked closely Father Adéodat Thérien in the development of Saint-Paul-des Métis

The Francophone clergymen from Western Canada met with resistance when attempting to recruit settlers from Quebec, as the clergy and the politicians there were trying to encourage settlement themselves in the Lac Saint-Jean and other northern parts of the province. One of the problems with recruiting from Eastern Canada was that Western Canada was so far away and that there were no preferential tariffs to travel West as there were for those coming from abroad. The incentives available to foreigners were not available to Canadians. The cost of going West was not so bad from Ontario, but it more expensive the further East you were. It was cheaper for an immigrant to travel from Hambourg to Calgary than it was from Montreal to Calgary. Missionaries had also gone on many fund raising campaigns in Québec and had emphasized the harsh climatic conditions of Western Canada. There was also plentiful work in the nearby factory towns of New England and working for a wage, near to home, was clearly a much more attractive option. However, the recruiters were more successful in the United States where they promoted settlement in Western Canada to Franco-Americans, the majority of which were originally from Québec, but with a bit of money in their pockets were interested in pursuing a rural lifestyle again, and where they could take advantage of preferential tariffs to bring their livestock, tools, and household effects with them.

Recruiting was also done in France, Belgium. Germany and Switzerland, but France, which was seeking settlers for its own interior and for North Africa, eventually refused access to Canadian agents. Settlers did come from France anyway, as Western Canada was quite well known to them through the Oblate publications, and through word of mouth, from local men and women religious who had gone to the Canadian North-West’s foreign missions. For instance, Oblate Father Alphonse Le Marchand, who was originally from the Le Mans region of France, wrote to his nephew René who was in Paris, suggesting that Edmonton was a good place to be to go into business. And indeed, the nephew did well, taking advantage of Edmonton’s boom years early in the 20th century and built the Le Marchand Mansion in 1909; this luxury residence, modeled on Parisian apartments, still stands today as a witness to his business acumen. Francophone settlers also came from Alsace and Lorraine, which were then German possessions. The passing of a law which separated the Church and the State in France, in 1905, and banned Catholic schools caused not only teaching orders to seek work abroad, but many dissenters of this law who also chose to leave France at this time. Many came to Western Canada to take homesteads. They were welcomed by the Oblates and directed to French communities where they could settle. Many of these were not farmers, and were highly educated; they tended to stay in urban centers and ply their trade or profession.

Bishop Legal also welcomed priests who did not belong to a congregation into his diocese, as the Oblates were supposed to open missions, not tend to parishes. Several of his diocesan priests were prêtres-colonisateurs.  Abbé Jean-Baptiste Ouellette who helped promote settlement in the St-Paul region, as well as the Palliser Triangle, was a diocesan priest. Reverend François Bonny, an American adventurer who had converted to the Catholic faith in Northern Africa and had joined the French Society of Missionaries of Africa (Pères Blancs) came to Western Canada for reasons of health. The town of Bonnyville takes its name from this diocesan priest, who published a number of articles promoting settlement.

The Alberta-Nord settlement, as it was known, covered much of the North-East of the province to the north of the North Saskatchewan River to beyond Lac la Biche and Cold Lake. In North-Eastern Alberta, the settlement of St. Paul was founded as St- Paul-des-Métis by Father Lacombe in 1896, but when the colony was closed and reopened to settlers in 1909, it eventually became an important French centre. Although it was hoped that a French settlement would develop at Vegreville, which was named in honour of the well-known patriarch of the Oblates at the time, and where a few Franco-American settlers, some of which were from Kansas, had taken homesteads, the land in the area was quickly snapped up by Ukrainian settlers. But to the North, Brosseau, Duvernay, Foisey, Lafond, Saint-Edouard, Saint-Vincent, Thérien, Bordenave, Mallaig, Sainte-Lina, Bonnyville, Fort Kent, La Corey, Cold Lake, Grandin, Gourin, Plamondon and Lac La Biche, amongst others, were also settled by Francophones.

In Northern Western Alberta, the Peace River was another area of Francophone settlement. The Peace River region’s most important Francophone settlement was Falher, named after Oblate Father Constant Falher who helped settle the area along with Father Giroux; other settlements include Guy, Marie-Reine, Girouxville, Jean-Côté, Donnelly and McLennan. Saint-Isidore is an exception and dates from the early 1950s.

Perhaps the most important colonizing priest for the Diocese of St. Albert was Abbé Jean-Baptiste Morin, a secular priest originally from Montreal, who worked to bring immigrants from Quebec, but much more from the United States to Alberta. Abbé Morin brought colonists – Franco-Americans were said to compose 80% of the communities in and around the Edmonton region – Morinville, Legal, Saint-Albert, Lamoureux, Fort Saskatchewan, Stony Plain, Winterburn, Beaumont, Villeneuve, Rivière-qui-Barre, amongst others.

Francophones arriving in Alberta also chose to establish themselves in other regions, as not all were interested in homesteading in the area near and to the north of Edmonton. There was quite widespread French settlement in the fertile region from Red Deer to the Saskatchewan border in communities such as Olds, Red Deer, Stettler, Wainwright and Castor. The French secular priest, l’abbé Jean Gaire had a great deal to do with this; he had already brought a great number of settlers to Manitoba and Saskatchewan from France, particularly from Brittany and from Belgium. There were not sufficient Oblate missionaries to cater to these new settlements and Bishop Legal was pleased to direct the French teaching order, the Sainte-Marie Fathers of Tinchebray in Normandy, France, who had come to Trochu in 1904. They stayed for 20 years, helping to develop parishes and visiting coal mining camps from Coal Valley (Lovett) and Nordegg in the foothills of the Rockies and farm communities throughout central Alberta to the Saskatchewan border, before being ordered by their bishop to regroup as congregation and live communally. They moved instead to Tisdale, Saskatchewan. Ranching was also an attraction for the more well-to-do settlers, and many French settlers settled in Big Valley,  Trochu and on ranches West of Calgary.

There were other more ill-fated settlements, such as those in the Palliser Triangle, Gleichen, Ouelletteville, Cluny, and others, where many homesteaders, amongst which were many Francophones, chose to be moved North in box cars with all their belongings during the droughts of the “Dirty Thirties”. In these areas, such as Gleichen and Cluny, Oblate missionaries who were stationed at missions near the large reserves catered to the Catholics, of whom a great many were Francophone, having been recruited there by the Father Ouellette who worked for the Canadian Pacific Railway as a recruiting agent.

Southern Alberta also contained other Francophone settlements. Calgary initially had a high population of French-speaking Métis, Canadian Pacific Railway workers from Quebec and various entrepreneurs and professionals. Fort Calgary was also the location of an Oblate mission, Notre-Dame-des-Prairies at the forks of the Bow and Elbow Rivers, established in 1875, when a mission dwelling was built by Oblate missionary Fr. Léon Doucet. The name was later changed to that of an earlier mission, Notre-Dame-de-la Paix, 40 km upstream on the Bow and established in 1872, after its closure. Although the Francophone population of Calgary was overwhelmed by the influx of Anglophone immigrants in the 1880s, the Mission district, which consisted of two quarter sections homesteaded by Father Lacombe and Father Hippolyte Leduc, became known as Rouleauville, in honour of Chief Justice Charles Rouleau and his brother, Dr. Édouard Rouleau. This was annexed by Calgary in 1907. There were also Francophone settlements in Crowsnest Pass; the French mining company, Western Canadian Collieries Ltd., founded the mining settlements of Lille and Bellevue, which had large numbers of miners from Northern France and Belgium. Likewise in other coal mining communities, such as Nordegg and Coal Valley (Lovett), Frenchmen and Belgians were hired as miners. Oblate missionaries also visited these camps, in what were often very difficult conditions.

The Francophone Catholic population in Alberta soon became a minority group, whose language rights came under assault. During the 1890s, the Council of the Northwest Territories abolished the use of French in the territorial assembly, in courts and in schools. Thereafter, English was to be the only language of instruction in Catholic schools, with the exception of the first few years of primary school, where French could be used only if the children did not know another language. Compromises were reached with the French population in the following years, and in 1926, the curriculum was modified to include some class work in French, a policy which was accepted with other ethnic groups as well.

Francophone settlement in the West ceased with World War One, as did immigration in Canada generally, although it did pick up again after the war. In rural areas, the church and the parish activities were the focal point of small Francophone settlements, as was the case for most ethnic groups. In larger communities and cities, the Oblates continued to promote use of the French language and culture through Church-run or sponsored institutions, organizations and publications. The Oblates played an important role in the development of the French community through the establishment of Juniorate St. Jean, basically a school for boys to train Oblate missionaries; it later became Collège Saint-Jean, catering to Francophones. The Oblates continued to promote organizations and institutions to protect French culture and language, such as the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta (ACFA) and the weekly paper La Survivance.

However, with the Anglicization of Alberta, the Anglicization of the Catholic clergy in Alberta also followed. The Oblates had done a great deal of work in the development of the religious infrastructure in Calgary, and Bishop Legal recruited feminine religious orders to the booming city, but with the nomination of Bishop John McNally to the diocese of Calgary in 1912, the Oblates turned over their work to the secular clergy which was Anglophone. Francophone religious were discouraged from establishing themselves in the city, in favour of Anglophone orders. In the Archdiocese of Edmonton, an Anglophone bishop, Henry John O’Leary, succeeded Mgr Émile Legal when the latter passed away in 1920. O’Leary was bilingual and sought to have French-speaking priests, but had to attract them to his diocese, as the seminary he established was Anglophone only.

After the Second World War, with the growth of the welfare state, privately run church hospitals, orphanages and nursing homes were increasingly turned over to the lay sector. Private schools such as the Collège Saint-Jean for boys, which filled in the breach caused by the closure of the Jesuit College in 1942, and l’Académie de l’Assomption which catered to girls, were less needed as bus transportation became available in rural areas and the lay sector began providing more teachers. The decrease in religious vocations also reduced the numbers of the missionary Oblates and of Francophone Catholic clergy. Increased urbanization saw a falling away from the church as it took a less prominent role in the lives of Alberta’s Francophones.


« Léon Doucet », Carrière, Gaston, Dictionnaire biographique des Oblats de Marie-Immaculée au Canada, Éditons de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1977, t. I.

Kermoal, Nathalie. Alberta’s Francophones. Edmonton: Les Éditions GID, 2005.

Smith, Donald B. “Les francophones de l’Alberta: aperçu historique.” In Nathalie Kermoal, Ed. Variations sur un thème: La Francophonie Albertaine dans tous ses états. Edmonton: Salon d’histoire de la francophonie albertaine, 2003.

Trottier, Soeur Alice. “Les Oblats et La Colonisation en Alberta.” Western Oblates Studies 4/ Études oblates de l’Ouest 4: Actes du quatrième colloque sur l’histoire des Oblats dans l’Ouest et le Nord Canadien, Raymond Huel (rédacteur). Faculté Saint-Jean, Edmonton, 25-26 août/August 1995. Edmonton: Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.

Web Resources

Alberta Online Encyclopedia - http://www.albertasource.ca/

Alberta’s Francophone Heritage - http://www.abheritage.ca/francophone

St. Vincent and St. Paul: Francophone Memory in Alberta - http://www.abheritage.ca/stvincent-stpaul

Francophone Edmonton Online - http://www.abheritage.ca/francoedmonton

When Coal Was King -  Bellevue http://www.coalking.ca/people/boom_bellevue.html; http://www.coalking.ca/people/ghost_lille.html
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