Alliance française in Canada

Since 1902, the Alliance Française has offered high-level French classes in Canada and developed cultural programming to boost the cultural influence of France and the Francophonie throughout the world. While it once had twenty committees scattered across Canada, today there remain nine, located in large cities outside Quebec. Each year, the Alliance Française receives 12,000 students in Canada and close to half a million worldwide. Its funding comes mainly from enrolment income from the classes it offers. The Alliance Française de Toronto is the largest in the country, with five branches established in the region.

Alliance Française of Toronto (Spadina Centre)
Roberto Rosenman Concert at AF of Toronto, 2016. (photo by Marin74440 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons)

Origin and Objectives

Created in 1883 in the wake of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Alliance Française aimed to “rectify the failure of weapons with the charms of culture.” This “national association for the propagation of the French language in the colonies and abroad” was secular and non-partisan. Founded by Paul Cambon, former diplomat and secretary to Jules Ferry, and the geographer Pierre Foncin, the Alliance Française aspired to use local committees to establish exchanges with other peoples in order to discuss “their mores, their customs, their progress, the good examples they provide us, their children, their schools.”

The founders of the Alliance Française — including writer Jules Verne, scientist Louis Pasteur and director of construction for the Suez and Panama canals Ferdinand de Lesseps, among others — mobilized their networks to form committees. To do so, they uased local recruiting to establish a French and francophile elite capable of teaching French to anyone who was interested while also upholding the ideals of liberty and universality embodied by French culture. While the world’s boundaries were by this time known and the British and German empires growing more powerful, the officers, consuls and ambassadors of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) were responsible for ensuring the formation, continuation and renewal of the Alliance Française’s committees.

Expansion of the Alliance Française

Through the expertise, networks and funding of the MFA, local committees were established in capitals and major cities in Spain, Senegal, Mauritius and Mexico in 1884; in Denmark and Egypt in 1885; and in Austria, Greece, India and Australia in 1886. In Latin America, the desire to limit the influences of Spain and the United States created fertile ground for the Alliance Française. Beginning in 1894, the Alliance Française de Paris offered summer school to thousands of teachers from around the world so that they could improve their knowledge of French, take high-level culture classes (history, politics, French literature) and visit Paris as well as other major historic places. In 1919, the Alliance Française opened the École pratique de langue française on the Boulevard Raspail, close to the Université de Paris.

Within the committees, ideas were shared by academics, civil servants and diplomats between local groups and the official French diplomatic corps. These high-profile individuals often began their careers with the Alliance Française: they taught French, established libraries and organized cultural activities locally. The establishment of a teaching program for Europe and North America (1901) and loans granted by the French government for distributing French books (1910) turned hundreds of the Alliance Française’s committees into powerful weapons for spreading an idealized French culture and supporting France’s cultural economy — through assistance for educational institutions, the dissemination of ideas, and visits from artists and authors. Enjoying greater independence than the Alliance Française’s Paris headquarters while still remaining in line with French foreign policy, the committees cost the MFA little, as 70 per cent of their funding came from their local activities.

This flexibility was key to the success of this modern cultural diplomacy, according to historian François Chaubet, because it allowed those involved to adapt to a variety of local situations. Furthermore, the Alliance Française filled a void by allowing France’s 600,000 expatriates to come together and express their culture. The Alliance compiled inventories of French books in the libraries of the cities where it operated. In addition, it improved teacher training, promoted France in countries where it had little presence, and generated enthusiasm for an ideal, pacifist and universalist vision of France. This initiative, which motivated French expatriate elites in the colonies and gave artists and thinkers in metropolitan France the chance to be promoted abroad, softened the most rigid aspects of French foreign policy.

Beginnings of the Alliance Française in North America

Between 1850 and 1920, some 20,000 French clergy members, professionals, business people, farmers and prospectors immigrated to Canada (see French Immigration in Canada). While establishing official diplomatic ties was a slow process — France opened its first consulate in Quebec City in 1859 and its embassy in Ottawa in 1928 — teachers and business people became involved in the Alliance Française’s activities starting in the late 19th century (see also Diplomatic and Consular Representations). In 1902, the Federation of Alliances Françaises USA was founded in Washington and worked to coordinate tours, distribute books, and promote the exchange of cultural tools and the enrolment of students in French universities. Also in 1902, the first committee meetings were held in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg and Dawson City. In connection with the foundation of newspapers and associations advocating French language education in Western Canada, a number of French immigrants helped the Alliance Française spread by forming committees in Halifax in 1903; in Quebec City, Vancouver and Victoria in 1904; and in Ottawa in 1905.

In Ottawa, an appreciation for all things French and the desire to develop foreign relations — and later an identity — that were distinctly Canadian, based on a particular notion of national duality, seemed to appeal to various prominent figures tied to the Liberal Party. The future Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and Franco-Ontarian senator Napoléon-Antoine Belcourt were among the founders of the Alliance Française d’Ottawa. In Toronto and Winnipeg, university professors from France formed committees; in Vancouver, it was a French teacher at the Granville School, Marie-Louise Kern, who founded the committee.

Activities of the First Alliances Françaises in Canada

As occurred elsewhere in the world, the committees established libraries, organized literary and social activities, and offered French classes. The meetings took on a certain prestige, as evidenced by the names of the well-known guests and speakers reported in newspapers, many of whom were French professors, authors and diplomats but rarely French Canadians. In addition to basic support from the MFA and assistance with the distribution of French books, the Alliance Française d’Ottawa received a grant from the Prime Minister’s Office in 1911. Because they had no space of their own for the first few decades, the Alliances Françaises held their meetings at places such as the Institut canadien-français d’Ottawa and the University of Toronto.

Alliance Française of Toronto (Spadina Centre)
(photo by Marin74440 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons)

Existing historical documents contain few details on the efforts of the Alliances Françaises during the first half of the 20th century. It is known that in Toronto, during the First World War, the Alliance Française held French classes for Canadian officers leaving for the French front and that elsewhere the committees were officially registered as provincial corporations. Though the Great Depression, the closure of borders to immigration and the occupation of France during the Second World War hampered the growth of the Alliances Françaises, they nevertheless remained stable thanks to their volunteers, sponsors and numerous members (see also Immigration Policy in Canada). In 1931, the Alliance Française d’Ottawa had 833 members.

Resurgence after the Second World War

After the war, the reconstruction and return to prosperity allowed the French government to invest once more in cultural diplomacy, notably by opening Instituts Français wholly funded by the MFA. In Canada, new committees of the Alliance Française emerged, notably in Calgary and Edmonton (both in 1947); this was a result of the resumption of French immigration and post-war enthusiasm, combined with renewed interest in France and the presence of honorary consuls. In 1951, the Alliances Françaises of Canada met in Ottawa and formed a federation, headquartered first in Ottawa, then in Montreal as of 1968, to coordinate their development. New Alliances Françaises sprang up in Regina (1964) and Saskatoon (1981), and later in Sherbrooke, Rivière-du-Loup and other communities. The support of 106,000 French expatriates (1972) in Canada contributed to the increase in members and grants and allowed the Alliance Française to construct buildings and acquire real estate. With these acquisitions, the Alliance Française had more space at its disposal for teaching and its various other activities.

The Alliance Française and Official Bilingualism

In 1969, the passing of the Official Languages Act committed the federal government to funding French teaching and entrenched bilingualism into the Canadian identity, two factors that boosted enrolment in the Alliance Française’s French classes.

In Vancouver, the organization launched classes for judges in British Columbia who wanted to sit on federal courts. In 1971, no less than 365 of the Alliance Française’s 490 students in North Vancouver were children, indicating an interest in French immersion. Funding from the Secretary of State for culture in minority communities led the Alliance Française to adopt a mission to share French culture with Anglophones and to create the Petit théâtre du Pacifique (1978).

In Ottawa, membership of the Alliance Française decreased, from 250 in 1952 to 118 in 1979, but its teaching mission grew. In 1969, it founded a school in the hopes of becoming a major service provider for the federal government, which needed to become more bilingual. The number of students grew from 170 to 1,239 between 1971 and 1988, but the Alliance Française d’Ottawa was not alone in a city that boasted thirty accredited language schools. In the 1990s, the Liberal government’s cuts reduced enrolment by 34 per cent. In 1998, classes offered to the public service accounted for less than 8 per cent of the school’s business. Consequently, the Alliance Française turned to Ottawa businesses whose managers sought to provide services in both official languages; these clients represented 34 per cent of classes offered.

In Toronto, the Alliance Française’s eligibility for funding from the Secretary of State led it to open a language school in the early 1970s and later to develop its cultural programming. The Alliance Française established Toronto’s first francophone Montessori school (1987). It acquired buildings, including a Victorian house for its offices (1986), and it opened a library (1998) as well as branches in Mississauga (1991), North York (1991) and Markham (2010).

The General Delegation in Canada and the Fondation Alliance Française

In France, the Alliance Française observed that its accomplishments were being largely overlooked, which prompted President François Mitterrand to invest in the network. In 1984, France’s MFA appointed a general delegate to the Alliances Françaises of Canada. Like the Federation before it (which was dissolved in 1992), the General Delegation distributed books to the various Alliances Françaises, provided subscriptions to the newspaper Le Monde and the educational journal Reflet, and coordinated speaking tours and exhibitions. The funding that it received from the French government grew from 140,000 francs to 220,000 francs (approximately $32,000 to $51,000) between 1990 and 1996, but stagnated during Jacques Chirac’s presidency (1995–2007). However, the continued desire to support the Alliances Françaises worldwide, to provide them with additional income and to standardize the network (which had remained decentralized until that point) led to the creation of the Fondation Alliance Française in 2007, under which the General Delegations of the Alliances Françaises worked from then on.

Closure of Several Alliances Françaises in Canada

The budgetary cutbacks of the Canadian, French and provincial governments, combined with the waning importance of some Alliances Françaises, diminishing engagement from volunteers, competing language schools and an overload of francophone cultural offerings, resulted in the closure of Alliances Françaises in Quebec and Saskatchewan. Created in connection with the 1999 Sommet de la Francophonie, the Alliance Française de Moncton is the only recent addition to the network.

The Alliance Française in Canada Today

In 2018, the nine Alliances Françaises of Canada run multimedia libraries, films, concerts, book clubs, wine tastings and interactive events. Forced to contend with marketing, professionalization and growth as though they were small businesses, the Alliances Françaises now bring in 80 per cent to 90 per cent of their income from classes taught. They promote Franco-French education services provided by French or Maghreb teachers; this training complies with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). For students who consider Canadian language schools or immersion schools to be unsatisfactory, the Alliance Française offers sound instruction to improve their chances of being promoted or accepted into a francophone university (see Second Language Instruction). They also prepare their clients for international diplomas (DELF, DALF, DAEFLE), Canadian immigration tests (TEF) and Quebec immigration tests (TEF, TCF, TCFQ, TEFaQ). From Vancouver (where the majority of students are children of Asian origin) to Ottawa (mostly public servants), the Alliances Françaises each have their own characteristics, and the number of learners varies greatly from one to the next: 150 in Moncton, 850 in Halifax, 1,000 in Calgary and 6,500 in Toronto.

Alliance Française Edmonton

The Alliance Française and the Future of French

Throughout the world, the number of Alliances Françaises has fallen from 1,050 in 2004 to 822 in 2016. The number of learners has held steady at approximately 500,000 per year, but Canada accounts for only a small portion of the network, with just 12,403 learners in 2016. In a world where English has become the lingua franca, the Alliance Française works to ensure French remains one of the world’s major languages.


Further Reading

External Links