French Pride on the Prairies
Many Canadians assume western Canada’s French-speaking population is concentrated in St. Boniface, Winnipeg’s French Quarter, where famous author Gabrielle Roy grew up, but in fact there are dozens of francophone communities all across the Prairies.
In Alberta, for instance, Lac-la-Biche, Plamondon, Lafond, Brosseau, St. Albert and several other French-speaking villages are clustered to the north of Edmonton. Léo Piquette, member of the Legislative Assembly for Lac-la-Biche and the first francophone MLA to be elected in 30 years, caused an uproar in 1987 by addressing the legislature in French. Franco-Albertans were deeply impressed by his symbolic gesture.
Near Prince Albert in northern Saskatchewan, another group of villages also have names that clearly reflect francophone their origins – Batoche, Albertville, Prud’homme, Saint-Louis, Victoire, Périgord and lovely Saint-Brieux, founded by Bretons from Saint-Brieuc in France.
But the bulk of western Canada’s francophone communities lie across the south of the Prairies. A string of French-speaking villages stretches for nearly 1,000 kilometres from southern Manitoba to Val Marie, Saskatchewan (home to to famous francophone hockey player Bryan Trottier, now coach of the NHL’s New York Rangers), interspersed with Ukrainian, German, Scandinavian and Mennonite communities.
Travelling through this multi-ethnic mosaic of towns, you can usually orient yourself just by looking at the local church. The Catholic churches have tall, arrow-like spires, while Orthodox churches are topped by round domes that immediately evoke the flatlands of the Ukraine. One of the most beautiful Orthodox churches in western Canada rises in the hamlet of Tolstoï near the U.S. border.
All along the border, on fertile prairie lands cultivated by hard-working farmers, villages like Saint-Joseph, Saint-Jean-Baptiste, La Rochelle, Saint-Alphonse, Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes, Montmartre and Laflèche owe their existence to 19th-century French pioneers.
To halt the spread of American settlement from south of the 49th parallel, Canada made western colonization a priority starting in the late 1800s. Lured by the promise of free or very low-priced homesteads, settlers came here to raise crops or cattle.
But not all the French-speaking arrivals came from Quebec. Many were Franco-Americans of French-Canadian origin who had moved to the United States, but were now actively courted to return to Canada. The priest Philippe-Antoine Bérubé, for instance, was responsible for persuading many French Canadians in the U.S. to relocate to the Prince Albert area.
Quebec, for its part, was experiencing a massive exodus to New England at the time, and the last thing it wanted was to see other people leaving for western Canada. Some Quebecois adventure-seekers, many of them from Témiscouata and the Gaspé, came anyway. But a good number of the colonists were from Brittany, Belgium (hence the village of Bruxelles near Brandon, Man.) and elsewhere in Europe. Father Passaplan, the first parish priest in the village of Montmartre near Regina, was a missionary from Switzerland.
In an era of rampant globalization, the survival of francophone villages in the Prairies is uncertain. But because their disappearance or assimilation would constitute a grave loss to Canada’s rich and diverse heritage, some communities have become proactive on the issue.
Ponteix, Sask., is one such place. Founded in 1906 by descendents of French, Belgian and French-Canadian settlers, Ponteix recently built the Centre Culturel Royer, housing a library, a multipurpose meeting space, a kindergarten and an elementary school, and now sees a bright future ahead. Gravelbourg, where young “Fransaskois” – Saskatchewan francophones – can attend high school at Collège Saint-Mathieu, a private French-language facility founded in 1918, is also optimistic about the future.
But for other Prairie francophones, the best hope of holding on to their heritage lies in the Internet. Especially for the younger, techno-savvy generation, the Internet is an indispensable tool that will help remote communities maintain close ties to the international family of French-speaking countries known as “la francophonie.”
For more information on this or other Canadian destinations, visit the Canadian Tourism Commission’s website at www.voyagecanada.ca.
Photojournalist Gaétan Fontaine specializes in travel destinations and outdoor activities. He is a regular contributor to Géo Plein Air and Vélo Mag magazines. For many years he was the outdoor columnist for the Montreal daily La Presse. He has also written for the magazines Elle Québec and enRoute.
Photo: Tourism Saskatchewan