Francophones of Newfoundland and Labrador | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Francophones of Newfoundland and Labrador

The francophone presence along the coasts of Newfoundland dates to the 16th century, but francophones did not begin to integrate into the English-speaking life of the island until the first half of the 20th century. In the 1970s, they began establishing their own institutions in the province. Today, about three quarters of the francophones living in Newfoundland and Labrador were born outside the province.

(Gaël Corbineau/wikimedia)

First French Presence

The first people from France came to Newfoundland in 1504. As Roman Catholics, they could eat no meat on 150 days of the year, so fishing — particularly for cod off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland — became a central activity. Most of these men were peasants from Brittany. They came to fish off Newfoundland in order to improve their economic fortunes and acquire land, something that they could never have done back home. The first French colony in Newfoundland was established at Plaisance in 1660.

With the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), France ceded Newfoundland to the United Kingdom but retained fishing rights. The French therefore continued fishing and salting and drying their catch from spring through fall in the northern part of the island. In 1783, the Treaty of Versailles forced these fishers to move to the west coast of the island, which became known as the French Shore. Some families that had lived on the south shore also moved to the west. They were joined in turn by families from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and by Acadians fleeing Nova Scotia during the Great Upheaval. (See also Acadia.)

Several small French-speaking communities thus quietly sprang up along Newfoundland’s west coast. Though the French settlers had no territorial rights, they could still pursue economic activities, which encouraged a steady influx of small numbers of French-speaking settlers.

The Newfoundland authorities had no interest in expelling these settlers from the West Coast, and they eventually did end up acquiring land, though still without officializing their status. These Breton fishermen married French-speaking women from Acadia, Saint-Pierre and Miquelon, as well as Micmac and anglophone women.

Franco-Newfoundlanders in the Early 20th Century

When France gave up its fishing rights in Newfoundland in 1904, there were three isolated francophone communities left on the Port-au-Port Peninsula: Cap-Saint-Georges, La Grand’Terre and L’Anse-à-Canards.

Thanks to their demography and their isolation, these three communities were able to endure on an island that had otherwise become anglophone. Their activities were dictated by the seasons: from May to October, they fished, dried their catch, farmed, and gathered berries. From November to April, they mended their fishing gear and made handicrafts. The women did the household chores, took care of the children and livestock, dried the fish, and did the gathering. Money was scarce, and families were self-sufficient. But the Franco-Newfoundlanders did obtain essential goods such as tea, flour, tobacco, alcohol, sugar and tools by trading them for dried cod with fishers and merchants from Saint-Pierre and Miquelon.

Nicknamed the Old French, these Bretons had a strong influence on community life. Many of them had settled in Newfoundland secretly and therefore said little about their past lives in France. But they left their families a legacy of songs and stories from their homeland, as well as a strong streak of independence, especially in dealings with the clergy and the tax authorities. These French-speaking singers, storytellers and musicians drew on the Breton, Acadian and Celtic repertoires of their communities to brighten the winter evenings. They even tried to solve, “through the indirect influence of humour”, some people’s behaviour problems related, for example, to alcohol or laziness.

The priests were in fact the only ones who exercised a certain degree of authority in the community—a hierarchy that the oldest members of the community did not always accept, because they were free thinkers who preferred to transmit their own values. Besides, families tested by death or disease could count on the support of other members of the community.

The Outside World Intrudes: Materialism and Anglicization

During the Second World War, the United States opened a military base at Stephenville, exposing the Franco-Newfoundlanders to a wealthier culture with a different, materialistic lifestyle. Some Franco-Newfoundlanders who worked on the base embraced this lifestyle, and the higher living standard that they enjoyed changed the local dynamics. All aspects of community life were now judged against the modern, materialist model of society. To get good jobs, people now had to be able to speak English. Some families therefore began to see French as something harmful and adopted English instead, in some cases even changing their family names: Lejeune, Leblanc and Dubois now became Young, White and Woods.

The process of anglicization had in fact begun even earlier, in the 1920s, in the schools and parishes where anglophone priests worked. The use of English only extended during the 1940s. The publication of department-store catalogues and the advent of radio and television opened the path not only to the consumer society, but also to the modern outside world and its influence on community life.

Franco-Newfoundlanders’ growing identification with the outside world increased the number of exogamous (mixed) marriages, contributing greatly to the assimilation of the younger generation. It also increased the stereotypes that anglophones living outside these communities had about them. Pejoratively referred to as “Jacotars,” Franco-Newfoundlanders were looked down on as “bastards who are willing to marry Micmacs,” who “speak bastard English and bastard French” and who “are of inferior social and economic status.” And yet the anglophones who lived in these communities did now share this disdain.

Thus, in the 1940s, the situation for Franco-Newfoundlanders was hard: they could neither return to their traditional communitarian way of life nor fully integrate into the outside model. The traditional model required isolation, whereas the dominant outside model distanced them from their values and their culture, which had already been weakened by the disappearance of the older generation. The Franco-Newfoundlanders did not have the resources that they would have needed to organize themselves as a group. Some thought about making political demands, but feared the community might thereby expose itself to reprisals from the anglophone majority. The competition between these two models “neutralized community life and struck the collective dynamic of social and cultural anomie.”

André Magord reports that J.T. Stoker, an anglophone researcher who came to Newfoundland in 1954, found that the francophone presence in Port-au-Port had essentially ceased to exist. But although the language and culture of the Franco-Newfoundlanders were no longer apparent in the public square or in the presence of anglophones, some francophone communities nevertheless survived.

Three distinct patterns could be observed in these communities. Some families, many the product of mixed marriages, assimilated almost completely, spoke mainly English, and became detached from community life, but still could not become part of the dominant group, which still called them Jacotars because of their accents. Other families, often living on the outskirts of villages, preserved their ethnic identity and way of life, but only in the private sphere. This let them maintain their feeling of belonging and continue their mode of existence, while adopting some of the values and culture of the dominant majority. The third group of families did not renounce their ethnic identity but stayed outside of community life, which deprived them of the feeling of “an experienced belonging” within the community.

Establishment of Rights and Institutions

In 1949, when Newfoundland entered the Canadian Confederation, francophones began to receive help from the federal government. The adoption of federal policies on bilingualism and the arrival of mine workers from Quebec in the 1960s also helped to improve the lives of Franco-Newfoundlanders. (See also Official Languages Act (1969); Language policy in Canada.)

In 1973, thanks to federal government funding for francophone communities outside of Quebec, the Fédération des francophones de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador (FFTNL) was founded. The FFTNL committed itself to promote and defend the rights and interests of the francophone community and to take steps in this direction through “targeted lobbying” and “public coordination.”

In 1975, following the first federal transfers to the provinces to support official languages in education, the first French immersion school program was established in Newfoundland. These classes were attended by Newfoundland children of various origins, including French. But the Newfoundland government still opposed recognizing French as a language of instruction in the province’s schools.

As these things were happening, Franco-Newfoundlanders began to enjoy an increased cultural presence outside of their own community. In the 1970s, violinist and singer Émile Benoit projected a positive image of Franco-Newfoundlanders. Other musicians, such as Félix et Félix, Mélanie Samson and Mark Cormier, made successful careers in Newfoundland and elsewhere in Canada. CBC/Radio-Canada opened a French-language station on the island, and a French-language weekly newspaper, Le Gaboteur, began publication in 1984.

In 1982, section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms became law, guaranteeing access to education in French, where numbers warranted, to the children of parents who had been educated at least partly in French. As a result, in 1984, some first classes began to be taught in French in Newfoundland, in La Grand’Terre. The 1986 census showed 1,117 children in the province who were entitled to French-language instruction. But the Catholic school board dragged its feet, and it was only by taking the board to court that parents obtained two French-language schools: one in La Grand’Terre in 1987, the other in St. John’s in 1990.

The Franco-Newfoundland and Labrador flag was adopted in 1986. The three unequal panels of red, white and blue represent the community’s French origins, while the two yellow sails symbolize the arrival of the Acadians. The tamarack branch on the upper sail is the emblem of Labrador, while the pitcher plant on the lower sail is the floral emblem of Newfoundland. This flag was raised for the first time in front of the Confederation Building in St. John’s in May 1992.

A number of other new francophone institutions were established in Newfoundland and Labrador in the 1980s and 1990s, often thanks to federal funding for francophone minority communities. These institutions included Franco-Jeunes de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador (1988), the Fédération des parents francophones de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador (1989), the Réseau de développement économique et d’employabilité (2000), the Réseau santé en français (2006) and the Réseau culturel francophone de Terre-Neuve-et-Labrador (2007).

The moratorium imposed on cod fishing in 1992 brought economic disaster to the three francophone communities on Newfoundland’s west coast (Cap-Saint-Georges, La Grand’Terre and L’Anse-à-Canards). In 1994, the region obtained funding to create the French Ancestors Route, which connected these communities and thus stimulated tourism.

In 1997, after obtaining federal start-up funds the year before, Newfoundland and Labrador established the provincial francophone school board, the Conseil Scolaire Francophone. In 1998, the province agreed to recognize its francophone minority when it signed an agreement with the federal government to promote official languages. In 2015, the province adopted a policy on services in French.

Contemporary Society

As of 2016, 2,681 residents of Newfoundland and Labrador (1 out of every 200) had French as their mother tongue. Among the members of this group, 22 per cent were born in the province, 58 per cent elsewhere in Canada and 20 per cent abroad. In that same year, there were nearly 360  francophone students attending six French-language public schools and 10,186 students enrolled in French-immersion programs. Of the province’s total population, 5 per cent (25,940 individuals) spoke both English and French. In 2007, the FFTNL participated for the first time in Destination Canada, a program designed to recruit francophone immigrants from Europe. In 2010, the FFTNL created a permanent program to promote francophone immigration.

Half of the francophones in Newfoundland and Labrador live in the province’s capital region, St. John’s, while 39 per cent live on the island’s west coast or in Labrador, and the remainder are scattered elsewhere in the province.

Three francophone festivals are held in the province every August: Une longue Veillée in Cap-Saint-Georges, Une journée dans l’Passé in La Grand’Terre and Un plaisir du vieux temps in L’Anse-à-Canards. The Festival du Vent is held in St. John’s in November. The Jeux d’hiver franco-labradoriens (Franco-Labradorian winter games) are held in Labrador City in March. May 30 is celebrated as Provincial Francophonie Day under a proclamation issued by the provincial government in 1999.

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