The Manitoba Act, which created the province of Manitoba in 1870, was the result of a long political battle waged by the Métis of the Red River Colony to secure recognition of their rights (see Red River Rebellion). Section 23 of this act, regarding use of English and French, was modelled on section 133 of the British North America Act (BNA) guaranteeing the rights of francophones and anglophones in the legislature and the courts. Section 22 of the Manitoba Act established the principle of a denominational, Catholic and Protestant school system — in other words, a system of separate schools, with French schools for Catholics and English schools for Protestants. This principle was confirmed by the passage of the Act to establish a system of education in the province of Manitoba,on 3 May 1871. Because section 93 of the BNA provides for appeals to the federal government to disallow provincial laws affecting denominational-minority education rights, francophone Catholics knew that they would have a means of enforcing these rights if the need arose.

At the time that Manitoba joined Confederation, the numbers of anglophones and francophones in the province were roughly equal. For Catholics, the province was divided into parishes, each of which had its institutions, of which the schools were among the most important. The Protestant and Catholic approaches to education were quite different. In Protestant schools, in deference to the wide variety of Protestant denominations, no religious instruction was given. In Catholic schools, religious values were central to children’s education and were a matter of the parents’ choice.

Demographic and Political Developments in Manitoba, 1870 to 1918

After Manitoba joined Confederation, many French-speaking Métis migrated farther West, leaving more space for English-speaking Protestant settlers from Ontario (see French in the West). In the 1880s and 1890s, the Government of Canada implemented a national immigration policy directed by D’Alton McCarthy, a politician who was notoriously anti-francophone and a staunch advocate of British supremacy. As a result of these developments, francophones became more and more of a minority in Manitoba and more and more assimilated by the anglophone majority, as were members of other linguistic minorities, such as Ukrainians, Poles and Italians, who had immigrated to Canada and settled in Manitoba.

During this period, political life in Manitoba was increasingly dominated by English-speaking Protestants. Francophone representation in the province’s Legislative Assembly diminished along with the francophone proportion of its population.

Manitoba Legislation on Use of French, 1875 to 1890

Some of the legislation passed in Manitoba in the early 1870s strengthened the presence of French in municipal government and in the courts, but bilingualism in government suffered its first blow in 1875, when the use of French in elections was abolished in ridings where anglophones were the majority. In 1876, the Legislative Council of Manitoba — the upper house of the provincial government, which had been seen as a guardian of minority rights — was abolished, to cut expenses.

The provincial government of John Norquay failed in its attempt to eliminate the drafting and publication of provincial legislative documents in French in 1879, but in March 1890, the provincial legislature passed a bill that abolished French as an official language of Manitoba (its title: An Act to Provide that the English Language shall be the Official Language of the Province of Manitoba).

Manitoba Legislation on Schools,1890 to 1916

The Manitoba schools crisis was precipitated by a series of provincial laws passed between 1890 and 1896 and another passed in 1916.

In March 1890, the same month that the Manitoba legislature abolished French as an official language of the province, it passed two bills amending the province’s laws on education: An Act respecting the Department of Education and An Act respecting Public Schools. In passing this legislation, the government of Thomas Greenway was responding to a popular movement demanding the abolition of the province’s dual school system, as many claimed that Catholics were receiving more money from the province than their numbers warranted and that the quality of education in Catholic schools was poor. (These were essentially the same arguments that had been raised in the New Brunswick School Question 20 years earlier.)

The Act respecting the Department of Education eliminated the two sections of the Board of Education so that there would be only one and created a Department of Education. The Act respecting Public Schools eliminated the denominational school districts — the French language remained, but not the Catholic religion. If Catholics, most of whom were francophone, wanted to continue to be educated in their religion, they would now have to fund their own schools, in addition to paying taxes for public schools.

In 1894, the provincial government added to these financial difficulties by prohibiting municipalities from making expenditures to assist schools outside the public system. Because Catholic parents’ ability to pay for their children’s schooling was limited, the ultimate effect of this prohibition was to reduce the number of Catholic schools. The vast majority of these schools maintained their status as Catholic and private, but many were forced to join the public system. For French-speaking Catholics, the issue of religious education became a struggle for identity.

During this same period, a six-year legal and political battle was underway, waged sometimes in Manitoba, sometimes in Ottawa, and sometimes in London. At this time when religion and language were intrinsically interlinked, the Catholic clergy were the primary force behind this movement, led by Mgr Alexandre Antonin Tâché and Mgr Louis-Philippe-Adélard Langevin.

In January 1896, the Conservative federal government of Mackenzie Bowell tabled a bill that would have provided some redress for Manitoba Catholics’ grievances. But the Liberal party under Wilfrid Laurier launched a ferocious campaign to prevent the bill from being passed before the government called the election that was expected to be held in June of that same year. Laurier, considering the Jesuits’ Estates Act in Québec (which had drawn vehement reactions from the Orange Order in Ontario) together with the school questions in New Brunswick and Manitoba, proposed what he called “the sunny way” — achieving a solution through diplomatic negotiations rather than imposing one through legislation. During the federal election campaign, Laurier stated:

If it were in my power, I would try the sunny way. I would approach this man Greenway with the sunny way of patriotism, asking him to be just and to be fair, asking him to be generous to the minority, in order that we may have peace among all the creeds and races which it has pleased God to bring upon this corner of our common country. Do you not believe that there is more to be gained by appealing to the heart and soul of men rather than to compel them to do a thing?

‒ Oscar Skelton, Life and Letters of Sir Wilfrid Laurier (1921)

This period of the Manitoba schools crisis ended on 16 November 1896 with the Terms of Agreement between the Government of Canada and the Government of Manitoba for the Settlement of the School Question, known as the Laurier-Greenway Compromise. This agreement did not reverse the 1890 legislation, but did allow religious instruction in the province’s public schools, under certain conditions, for half an hour at the end of each day. Also under certain conditions, Catholic teachers could be hired in the public schools, and French, like other minority languages, could be taught where numbers warranted.

The next part of the crisis came in March 1916, when, with the Thornton Act, the government of Tobias Crawford Norris repealed the amendments that the Laurier-Greenway Compromise had made to the Public Schools Act to allow bilingual instruction in the province’s public schools. Teaching of any language other than English, and use of any language other than English as a language of instruction, were thus prohibited in these schools. The motivations behind these new restrictions were twofold. First, as an unforeseen consequence of the great wave of immigration in the late 19th century, the number of nationalities represented and languages spoken in Manitoba had increased. The provisions of the Laurier-Greenway Compromise allowing for instruction in minority languages had made the school system less effective as a tool for imposing English as the dominant language in the province. The second rationale was the current poor level of education of the province’s population as a whole, a problem actually attributable not so much to language issues as to the lack of a law making school attendance mandatory (see Children, Education and the Law).

Thus, as of March 1916, French could neither be taught as a language nor used as a language of instruction in Manitoba’s public schools. The new legislation also forced the French-language teachers’ college in St. Boniface to close, so that thenceforth, all new teachers in Manitoba would be trained in English only. It was at this point that Manitoba’s francophones began organized resistance to ensure the survival of French in their province.

Francophone Resistance, 1916 to 1968

The dates 1916 and 1968 mark the founding and the disbanding of the Association d’éducation des Canadiens français du Manitoba (AÉCFM) (Manitoba French-Canadian education association). The AÉCFM, which many authors describe as a parallel, francophone Department of Education, was directed from the shadows by the clergy. The association encouraged francophone teachers to keep teaching French and to keep using French as a language of instruction without letting the authorities find out, even if that meant lying to school inspectors. The AÉCFM also provided financial assistance to help future teachers pay for their studies. From 1923 to 1966, to strengthen pride in the French language in Manitoba, the association also held an annual French contest for students in grades 4 through 12 and published the results in the newspaper La Liberté. The most talented young Franco-Manitobans went on to represent their province at the Canada-wide competition, held in Québec.

The francophone resistance movement was greatly aided by school inspectors who looked the other way while French was being taught in Manitoba’s public schools. And if by chance a school inspector or perhaps an anglophone parent reported a schoolteacher for teaching French, she knew that she could count on the AÉCFM to defend her. At the local level, the school board trustees were responsible for hiring teaching staff. Many small local school boards were controlled by francophones who took advantage of their position to hire teachers most of whom were francophone Catholics, often members of female religious communities with a teaching vocation.

This resistance movement enabled the Franco-Manitoban community to survive until the 1960s, when it began an active struggle to recover its rights, and the last years of the 20th century, when it truly began to flourish. In addition to developments in other areas, these two periods were marked by the gradual return of French to the province’s public education system.

Return of French to the Public Schools and Creation of the Division Scolaire Franco-Manitobaine (Franco-Manitoban School Division), 1947 to present

Around 1947, Manitoba authorized the teaching of French as a foreign language in its secondary schools. In 1955, the Liberal government of Premier Douglas L. Campbell allowed the teaching of French in grades 4 through 6. French was thus gradually regaining its rightful place in Manitoba’s education system.

This process continued with a whole series of government initiatives. In 1959, the Department of Education approved a list of textbooks in French. In 1967, the government of Dufferin Roblin authorized the use of French as the language of instruction for other subjects, for up to half of the school day. In 1970, the Edward Schreyer government made French a language of instruction on an equal footing with English. As a result, in 1973, Manitoba’s first French-immersion school, the École Sacré-Cœur, was founded in Winnipeg by Sister Léonne Dumesnil, In 1975, to support the development of education in French, the Bureau de l’Éducation française was established, and in 1976, the position of Deputy Minister for French Education was created.

In 1993, the Public Schools Amendment (francophone Schools Governance) Act was passed, creating a francophone school division. In 1994, the newly named Division scolaire franco-manitobaine (Franco-Manitoban School Division) took charge of 20 French schools with over 4,000 students. As of 2016, the division managed 24 educational institutions (including one learning centre for adults) with a total of about 5,200 students.

As of 2016, although many francophone demands have yet to be met, in particular with regard to the provincial immersion schools program and the development of the Franco-Manitoban School Division, from the governmental standpoint, French can accurately be said to have recovered its place in Manitoba’s education system.

See also British North America Act, 1867: Document; History of Education; Second-Language Instruction.