The Fransaskois are francophones living in Saskatchewan. According to recent Canadian statistics, 1.5 per cent of the population (16,373 inhabitants) have French as their mother tongue and 1.3 per cent of the population (14,440 inhabitants) have French as their first official language (see French language in Canada).
Between 1752 and 1755, Louis de la Corne's crew explored Carrot River Valley (in the central eastern part of present-day Saskatchewan) which was inhabited by members of the Assiniboine, Blackfoot (Siksika) and Cree peoples at the time. They built the Fort Saint-Louis (later renamed Fort à la Corne) at the fork of North Saskatchewan and South Saskatchewan rivers. The post marked the westernmost French fortification in the North West.
Following the surrender of New France to Great Britain, the area became grounds for the fur trade rivalry between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company who were represented by their French Canadian voyageurs. Since 1818, the Catholic Church also sent missionaries such as Alexandre-Antonin Taché and Louis-François Richer Laflèche to serve the Métis population living in the valleys of the Qu’Appelle (see Fort Qu’Appelle) and Churchill rivers. Relationships between the voyageurs and Indigenous women established between 1840 and 1880 gave rise to Métis communities, namely in Île-à-la-Crosse, Hart-Rouge (later named Talle-de-Saules, then Willow Bunch), Saint-Laurent-de-Grandin and Batoche.
The Métis wanted to preserve their semi-nomadic lifestyle, but this hope was silenced when Louis Riel’s second rebellion was defeated in Batoche in 1885. Anglo-Protestants emigrated to the Prairies in large numbers and set in motion an anti-Catholic and anti-French current. The francophone representation in the neighbouring province of Manitoba dropped from an 85 per cent majority in 1870 to 17 per cent in 1885. The Métis villages west of Manitoba, however, were part of the Northwest Territories (NWT), an administration where French and English were recognized as equal languages in the courts and legislative assembly.
Although the NWT initially allowed the funding of separate schools (Catholic), in 1892 they declared English the exclusive language to be used in the legislative assembly, courts and schools, where French language classes would be limited to one hour a day from the third grade.
This climate of intolerance, not to mention the great distances that would separate them from Quebec, discouraged most French Canadians from responding to the clergy’s call to move to the Prairies. Hence, from 1890 onwards, Father Albert-Marie Royer requested that his brothers in Europe recruit French, Jurassien and Walloon farmers. The latter would become the founders of the towns of Gravelbourg (1906) and Ponteix (1908), as well as tens of parishes and schools.
Education in French
Francophones were also present in Prince Albert and in Saskatoon, where they practised liberal professions. In 1905, when Saskatchewan became a province, francophones represented 6 per cent of the population. The arrival of 3 million immigrants in Canada between 1896 and 1911 intensified politicians’ eagerness to accelerate minority assimilation (see Immigration in Canada). The Saskatchewan State restricted the use of French to the first grade in primary school in 1918, then banned it altogether in 1931.
The francophone migrants did not remain passive to these affronts. Raymond Denis, who came from Charente-Maritime in 1904, was one of the founders of the newspaper Le Patriote de l’Ouest (1910) and of the Association catholique franco-canadienne de la Saskatchewan (ACFC, 1912) (see Newspapers in Canada). The term “franco-canadien” was coined because of the diversity within the francophone community. Raymond Denis believed that “while the influence of schools is most powerful, language is the almighty guardian of our religious faith”. He was the driving force behind the Programme provincial de l’enseignement du français (provincial program for French-language education) and Programme de visiteurs des écoles (program for school visits), as well as the Concours provincial de français (provincial French-language examination). The Association des commissaires d’école franco-canadiens (French Canadian education trustees’ association, 1918) acted as a parallel, semi-clandestine ministry for education. Meanwhile, the Collège catholique de Gravelbourg (1918), also called the “Collège Mathieu”, wished to form a local elite.
Between 1940 and 1960, the rural school districts merged, several Catholic colleges closed and the French-Canadian clergy removed itself from these institutions. The Fransaskois thus lost the establishments where they exercised power. However, the federal State later introduced the Official Languages in Education Program, which relieved the provinces of some costs associated to francophone education. In 1971, Saskatchewan allowed primary and secondary programs to be taught in French (see Official Languages Act ).
However, the provincial program for French language education was still incomplete. Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (1982) forced the province to accelerate their efforts. The Mahé case (1990) and the Reference re Public Schools Act in Manitoba (1993) compelled Saskatchewan to offer primary and secondary education in French wherever warranted by the number of right-holders. The province was also responsible for providing management and control mechanisms for Fransaskois parents.
In 1999, the Conseil scolaire fransaskois (CSF) was established by merging eight smaller school boards which had been created in 1995. In 2017-18, CSF oversaw 1,672 students registered in twelve primary and two secondary French-language schools.
In 1988, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Father André Mercure, who had fought for French to be recognized in court, and obliged the Saskatchewan State to adopt a language policy. The Saskatchewan Language Act, enacted the same year, allowed French-language trials only for Fransaskois people, and forced the province to publish its laws in the two official languages. In 2003, the province adopted a policy on French-language services.
In 1999, the Association culturelle franco-canadienne de la Saskatchewan (originally the Association catholique franco-canadienne) became the Assemblée communautaire fransaskoise (ACF), which internally adopted a representative democracy model.
Fransaskois Flag. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
In 1952, two radio stations joined the Patriote de l’Ouest (L’Eau vive as of 1971) on the Fransaskois cultural scene: CFRG in Gravelbourg and CFNS in Saskatoon. Radio-Canada bought these stations in 1973 and launched its French-language television channel three years later.
Founded in 1974, the Conseil culturel fransaskois rallied the francophone cultural centres and spread the term “fransaskois” to replace the outdated “French Canadian” and “Franco-Canadian”. The cultural event “On s’garroche à Batoche” (1978) is still active to this day, under the name “Festival fransaskois”. In 1979, the community created the Fransaskois flag. A yellow background represents the Prairies; a green cross symbolized the boreal forest and the role played by the Church in the colonization; and a red fleur-de-lys stands for Louis Riel’s fight for a government for the Métis and the francophones.
The Fransaskois frenchness has always been multicultural. Thanks to francophone immigration, it still is.
Fransaskois presence is dwindling compared to the provincial population (from 2 percent in 2006 to 1.5 per cent in 2016) and the community faces high rates of assimilation (74 per cent). In 2016, 14,440 Saskatchewan inhabitants stated that French was their mother tongue, and that language was still understood. Of this number, 56 per cent were born in Saskatchewan, 29 per cent moved there from other Canadian provinces and 16 percent immigrated from abroad (57 per cent from Africa, 22 per cent from Europe, 18 per cent from Asia and 6 per cent from the Americas).