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On a cold January day in 1916, dozens of francophone parents fought off police who were trying to prevent French-language instruction at the Guigues School in Ottawa. In the infamous Battle of the Hatpins, mothers brandished rolling pins, cast-iron pans and hatpins and refused to allow police on the grounds.
In this episode, executive director of the Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne, Soukaina Boutiyeb, helps us explore the centuries-long fight for francophone rights in Ontario – and the historic battle that marked it.
Narrator: Let’s go back to January 4, 1916. It’s the middle of the First World War and Canadians have been fighting overseas for about a year. Closer to home, another battle is about to take place...
It’s a cold Tuesday in Ottawa, and the city is still coated in the snow that had fallen a few days before. Imagine it crunching under the feet of 120 parents as they march toward their children’s school — a three-storey brick and stone building on Murray Street, just a few minutes east of the frozen shores of the Ottawa River. The air is cold and their breath is visible. Some of the women in the group carry hatpins: long, sharp needle-like things used to secure their hats to their heads. Others are holding makeshift weapons: rolling pins, scissors, cast iron pans... And they’re ready to use them.
In just a few minutes, they’ll arrive at École Guigues, and a few days later, the historic Battle of the Hatpins will begin.
You’re listening to A Place to Belong, a Historica Canada podcast
Soukaina Boutiyeb: I think that this was something that happened naturally. This resistance from Franco-Ontarian women and mothers happened naturally. It was a response to an injustice.
N: That’s Soukaina Boutiyeb, the executive director of the Alliance des femmes de la francophonie canadienne, a national organization dedicated to defending the rights of Francophone and Acadian women across the country. That injustice was a denial of a community’s right to French education, and the Battle of the Hatpins was a turning point in a larger fight for Franco-Ontarian rights. There were many women who participated, but the two at its centre were the Desloges sisters.
SB: We hear about Diane and Béatrice Desloges, heroines of the Franco-Ontarian community, also known as the “Guardians of the Guigues School.”
N: They were born in Ottawa in the 1890s into a Francophone family with a history of resistance. Their grandfather Michel Desloges was a Patriote who fought against the British during the Rebellions of 1837 and 1838.
The sisters lived typical lives for the time. They attended the French-speaking school l’École modèle d’Ottawa, where they received their teaching diplomas. After graduating, they went their separate ways, working at various schools across Ontario.
N: Béatrice and Diane were eventually reunited in September 1915, when they were both hired to teach at École Guigues in Ottawa’s Lower Town district. Built in 1904, Guigues by that time had become the biggest French school in the province. But when the Desloges sisters started working there, they were basically forbidden from teaching students in French.
SB: Regulation 17 is part of the history of francophonie in Ontario, or, should I say, part of the sad history of francophonie in Ontario.
N: It was implemented in 1912 by the Government of Ontario.
SB: C'est un règlement, en fait, qui avait tout simplement pour objectif de restreindre l'enseignement du français dans les écoles en Ontario. In fact, it was simply a regulation which aimed to restrict the teaching of French in Ontario schools.
N: It all started when a commission headed by Ontario’s chief inspector, Francis Walter Merchant, released a report concluding that the quality of English education was inadequate in bilingual schools. It made a few recommendations: improve teacher training and introduce more English-language instruction in a flexible way.
SB: We should still note that during that time, the presence of francophones outside Quebec, in other words in Ontario, was starting to increase in terms of demographic weight. It was already close to ten percent of the population at the time, in 1912, and ten percent starts to take up more space. The Franco-Ontarian community was also, as it always had been, a close-knit, giving community that was proud of its language and proud of its identity.
N: According to some historians, by the late 19th century in Ontario the words “French” and “Catholic” had become synonymous with derogatory terms like “ignorant” and “backward.” The francophone community, or “la francophonie,” were like the English-speaking community in that they benefited from their status as settler-colonizers in Canada, but the community faced some distinct and specific barriers. However, these barriers were different from the experiences of other communities. As we’ll hear in upcoming episodes, for decades, Canadian immigration law discriminated against non-white immigrants, often preventing them from entering the country or from participating fully in Canadian society.
With the perceived threat to the English majority, the government decided to take action. At the time of Confederation in 1867, French/English bilingualism was officially recognized as a founding principle of the country. The idea was that these communities shouldn’t simply coexist, they should complement each other.
But, like many things outlined in the Constitution, just because it’s enshrined in law doesn’t make it so.
SB: The relationship between francophones and anglophones has always been… quite difficult, we should say, at the beginning. So there have been many battles. There have been problems regarding the recognition and respect of each community in the territory. So, the relationship has not always been, I would say, very friendly.
N: The French presence in Ontario stretches back centuries and actually predates the English. But while the French were the first to make contact with the Huron-Wendat in what would become Ontario, it wasn’t until the late 19th and early 20th centuries that an influx of French-speakers began to settle there — mainly in the east and northeast of the province, near what is now Quebec. Farmers from Quebec came in search of fertile land, miners came for the nickel in Sudbury and gold in Timmins, and even more were enticed by Ontario’s forestry industry. School attendance among francophone children increased across the province — though their literacy rates remained below the Canadian standard throughout the 20th century, mainly due to geographic and socioeconomic factors.
Let’s take a moment to describe what we mean by “francophone.” At the time of this exodus from Quebec, it meant someone whose first language was French. But it also described someone with French culture, community, and heritage. The term has evolved as more immigrants have come to call Canada home. It now includes allophones — whose first language is neither French nor English, but who live, work or go to school in French.
N: While francophones remained the linguistic minority in the early 20th century, as Soukaina mentioned earlier, they grew to represent 10 percent of the population in Ontario — a small, but not insignificant number. Which brings us back to Regulation 17.
SB: How would they reduce French-language education without truly asking all schools to forbid teaching French?
N: In 1912, Ontario Premier James Pliny Whitney issued Regulation 17, which restricted teachers from teaching and communicating in French after the first two years of elementary school. A year later, the regulation was amended to further limit French language instruction and use. By the time the Desloges sisters started teaching at Guigues in 1915, French could only be studied for one hour per day. During their first month at Guigues, Béatrice and Diane continued to teach their students in French. That was, after all, the education parents wanted for their children.
SB: And their love for the Ontarian francophonie and for French-language education was visible, and it was at the heart of their… of their purpose and their work at the time.
N: But the authorities had little tolerance for this and made several attempts to intimidate the sisters.
SB: They even went as far as stopping the Desloges sisters’ wages. They wanted to take away their degrees, so that they would no longer be recognized. So, really anything that could be done to stop that education, was done.
N: The experience wasn’t unique to Béatrice and Diane. Despite Regulation 17, many French schools in Ontario continued teaching in their language. These became known as “écoles de la résistance” — or, in English, “resistance schools.”
SB: We should also remember that this was not something specific to Ontario. Similar regulations were applied all over the country. Be it in Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Nova Scotia, similar things were happening. So similar regulations were being applied to decrease and restrict the use of the French language in education.
N: For example, in 1871, New Brunswick passed laws that denied French language instruction in schools — particularly targeting Acadians. Out West, Manitoba’s French-speaking populations formed a slight majority in the late 19th century. Over time, however, the English presence grew, and the provincial government wanted to maintain the new-found dominance of its English population. First, it abolished French as an official language in the province in 1890, and along with it, Catholic schools. 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. Fast forward to 1916: the teaching of any language other than English and use of any language other than English as a language of instruction, was banned outright in Manitoba.
Back in Ontario...
SB: There was resistance, resistance beyond the idea of “You want to restrict our children’s education in French? We will still make sure they can study in French.”
N: And so the government created a new regulation: Regulation 18.
SB: And this Regulation 18, it was really to… It also aimed to threaten that contributions would be cut for schools which resisted and continued to disobey the original Regulation 17. So now, really, on top of restrictions, we were hearing “If you don’t obey, we will go one step further and cut your funding.” And at that point, or so they thought, the schools would have to restrict or eliminate French-language instruction, and assimilation would then take place for that… For these young francophones in school, and then complete assimilation into the anglophone community.
N: It’s impossible to talk about language discrimination and assimilation in this period in Canadian history without talking about the experiences of Indigenous peoples — particularly Indigenous children. Generations of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit grew up without knowing their language as a result of Canada’s residential school system.
We’ll be right back after this short break.
Riley Burns: “I didn’t want to be an Indian. I didn’t know who in the Hell I wanted to be. I wasn’t accepted by the white man and I wasn’t accepted by my own people in my reserve…”
Larry Langille: “I don’t know what I’d have been like if I would not have gone through that system. I know I would have had some kind of an education…”
LL: “I got no education at all. I can’t read or write. In the places I was, they didn’t care…”
Piita Irniq: “The year 1958, whether I knew anything about it at the time or not, was the beginning of the end of my own culture and my own language and of my own Inuit spirtuality…”
Louis Bellrose: They called us savages
Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais: For more than a century Indigenous children across Canada were forced to attend residential schools. More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children were institutionalized. Thousands died, either at residential school or because of their experiences in the system.
RB: “I used to listen to little girls crying next to the wall, hear the little girls crying for their mums. For a whole month when they first get there, that’s all you hear is crying.”
SBD: I’m Shaneen Robinson-Desjarlais, host of Residential Schools, a new three-part podcast series from Historica Canada. Join us as we delve into the history of residential schools, their effects on Survivors, and their continued impact.
Niigaan Sinclair: “...it’s time for Canadians to stand up. This is their challenge as well..”
SRD: Subscribe to Residential Schools on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
N: Because teachers like the Desloges sisters openly resisted Regulation 17, Premier William Hearst appointed a new school board, called the Petite Commission (or small board), to enforce the regulation. For a time, teachers pushed back. When inspectors came to check-in on classrooms, they would get wind and hide French books or stage dramatic walkouts. So the commission went a step further: in October 1915, it barred Béatrice and Diane from school grounds, and hired English-speaking teachers to replace them. When the English replacements arrived, they stood in front of empty classrooms. Many parents had pulled their kids out of school, opting to have Béatrice and Diane educate their children in French wherever they could.
SB: And classes were created… Clandestine classes where students went to places like the basements of churches under construction, so places that were not very safe or sanitary. And especially when we think of the winter cold, in places where there is no heating and no running water. So, the children were not studying in good conditions. And this definitely reinforced the injustice and crisis felt by the francophones on that level, and their own quest for justice and their will to fight and resist this regulation. And I think it’s because they knew that it’s through education that we’d be able to ensure the community’s vitality, for generations to come.
N: Which brings us back to that cold January day in 1916. Fed up with the conditions their children were learning under, and in protest of the dismissal of Béatrice and Diane, parents decided to take back Guigues. In total, a group of 120 parents — 70 mothers and 50 fathers — marched down Murray St. on their way to occupy the school.
SB: There they were, covering and protecting the school, while their students and children were studying in French.
N: They stood guard outside of the school, spilling onto the sidewalk and into the street, so that Béatrice and Diane could teach their children. On the third day of the occupation, 30 Ottawa police officers escorted a government official to Guigues to bar the Desloges sisters from entering and to shut down the school.
SB: The police came to try to enforce this regulation issued by the government. And so, a battle took place. The Desloges sisters were in the front row to fight, to resist, to continue teaching in French. And they blocked those two sisters from entering the school. It was really thanks to the parents that they were able to get in.
N: Francophone mothers brandishing rolling pins, cast-iron pans and those sharp, pointy hatpins, refused to allow police on school grounds. One officer was bitten, another received a black eye, and both the police and the government official were pelted with ice. Amid the chaos, the Desloges sisters were snuck into the school through a side window. They continued to teach as the Battle of the Hatpins raged on.
When the police eventually retreated, the president of the Petite Commission, Arthur Charbonneau, entered the school in a final bid to convince the parents to end their occupation. It was pointless. The parents physically removed Charbonneau from the premises and remained on guard for another six months, until the end of the school year in June. Their resistance inspired student protests throughout Ottawa over the following months in support of The Guardians of Guigues.
N: The Battle and subsequent protests effectively ended enforcement of Regulation 17 in the Ottawa area, and the hatpin became a symbol in the fight for French-language rights across Ontario.
But in a twist for Béatrice and Diane, their work as teachers came to an end only a few years later, in the 1920s — not because they broke regulations and taught in French, but because they each got married, and the law forbade married women from teaching.
SB: Even to this day, we witness the effects of the contributions and impact that the Desloges sisters and the Franco-Ontarian community made back then.
N: In 1963, the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism, AKA the Bi and Bi Commission, was launched in part as a response to the growing unrest among Quebecois. They wanted official protection of their language and culture, and opportunities to participate fully in political and economic decision making. The Bi and Bi Commission is considered one of the most influential commissions in Canadian history and led to changes in French education across the country. Its recommendations were also the foundation for the Official Languages Act of 1969 and the multiculturalism policy of 1971. This paved the way for the Canada we know today: one that embraces multiculturalism within a bilingual framework.
SB: When I think of Canada, I think of the country’s three pillars: we have linguistic duality, we have the Indigenous community in its splendour, and we have multiculturalism.
SB: The opposition to Regulation 17 certainly inspired the Franco-Ontarian community in 1979 and 1980, to fight for a French-language school, which came to be known as the École de la Résistance.
N: By the time the Bi & Bi Commission was underway in the 1960s, 80 percent of residents of Penetanguishene, a town on the southeastern tip of Georgian Bay in Ontario, were francophone. Even so, the town didn’t have a French-language high school.
SB: The only school — or rather the classroom — that stood, was an annex to an English-language school which already existed in accepted learning conditions.
N: In the late 1970s, proposals to build a separate French school were rejected by both the Simcoe County Board of Education and, later, the provincial government’s French-language advisory committee. This led students, parents, and teachers to protest. And in the summer of 1979, they decided to create their own school: l’école secondaire de la Huronie, otherwise known as l’école de la résistance.
SB: So, why call this a school of the resistance? It was the francophone community’s resistance, especially in Penetanguishene, and the fact that it stepped out to battle for its rights, which allowed this school to be created.
N: Once the school was established, Francophone organizers faced strong resistance from members of the anglophone community. The town of Penetanguishene even took the issue to the Supreme Court of Ontario, trying to stop the school from operating. The request was denied. L’école secondaire de la Huronie was initially meant to be a temporary protest, but fifty-five students and teachers remained at the school for seven months.
Their persistence paid off. On the evening of April 23, 1980, Ontario Premier Bill Davis agreed to finance the construction of an independent French-language school in Penetanguishene. Two years later, L’école secondaire Le Caron opened its doors. But the fight wasn’t quite over… In 1986, after a lengthy court battle, the Supreme Court of Ontario ordered the province and the Simcoe school board to offer the same quality of education as the anglophone school.
N: The lasting impacts of Regulation 17 aren’t only felt on an institutional level. In Ontario, some Francophones never learned to write in French. Because of this, many of them sent their children to English-language schools.
SB: We should note that in 2016, Ontario’s premier Kathleen Wynne officially apologized to Franco-Ontarians for the effects of Regulation 17 on their community.
N: The apology came soon after the 400th anniversary of Francophone presence in Ontario. Wynne noted that the Franco-Ontarian community quote: "has shown tremendous courage and tenacity in its long struggle to ensure that Francophone culture is valued as integral to the vibrant and prosperous Ontario we know today.”
SB: This gesture was openly welcomed by the Franco-Ontarian community because, for once, the effects of that Regulation on their collective history were being acknowledged. Of course, it is still brought up because it had a concrete impact on the community.
N: Over a century after The Battle of the Hatpins, the right to a French language education is now protected by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. While access continues to be an issue in some areas, enrollment in French language instructional programs is more popular among parents, and beyond the francophone community, than ever before. What’s more, Ontario’s Francophonie continues to grow and also change — due thanks in large part to immigrants like Soukaina.
SB: Today’s francophonie is plural. It is rich in accents and proud to be. I would also say that this francophonie knows how to come together when needed. History has shown and continues to show that when there is injustice and when our rights are violated, we are the first to step outside and fight for those rights. That said, we also celebrate our community. I think we are a community that really enjoys celebrations.
Narrator: On the next episode of A Place to Belong, we explore the history of Chinese people in Canada, and one Chinese woman’s determination to save Toronto’s Chinatown.
Arlene Chan: What my mother did and what it teaches us to keep Canada as great a country that it is, is that you have to speak up. You have to take a stand, which is what she did. And when I think of what she did in the context of the time period that she was growing up and being not only a woman, not only being Chinese, but also being a Chinese Canadian woman, she achieved a lot.
N: Subscribe to A Place to Belong on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
N: This episode of A Place to Belong was written and produced by Historica Canada. Production support from Andrew Chung and Edit Audio. Post-production by Edit Audio. Thanks to Soukaina Boutiyeb and to our script consultant, historian Marcel Martel. Fact-checking by Sebastian Leck. This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada. Thanks for listening.