When thinking about the influence of French-speaking emigrants on Canada, Manitoba isn’t usually the first place that comes to mind… Yet the province has a rich history, having been settled by the French in the early 1800s. Although the culture was nearly wiped out upon the arrival of English-speaking settlers, in recent years the language and culture has begun to make a comeback.
Many of the original people of Manitoba were the Métis, French-speaking aboriginal people who had learned the language from voyageurs and fur-traders. The Métis were mainly seasonal migrants and as they did not strictly live in Manitoba, they did not feel the restrictive trade laws applied to them. By maintaining their own “government”, they were able to retain much of their culture. When control of the region transferred from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the British government in 1870, the Métis were among those most affected by laws regarding francophones.
The cultural division that began in 1870 was as much about religion as language. The French-speaking Catholics and English-speaking Protestants kept peace in the region by creating separate schools and living side by side, but not integrated. As the Catholic clergy gained power in Quebec, the government of Manitoba retaliated by abolishing French schools and making English the only official language.
Nearby Ontario (Protestant and English-speaking) supported the creation of a “British Manitoba”, but with some compromise for regions of largely French-speaking citizens. Education in the province was somewhat chaotic until 1916, when schooling became compulsory and the bilingual clause was removed.
It actually wasn’t until 1970 that new laws made French education possible for Franco-Manitoban, and in 1994, the Franco-Manitoban School Division was formed, offering a fully French education in elementary and secondary schools throughout the province. The Education and Advanced Learning Division of the Manitoban government is now actively involved in bringing French language and culture to schools.
Back in 1871, the federal government made an effort to stem emigration to the United States by creating a repatriation plan for families wanting to come to Manitoba. Almost 1000 French-speaking families went to Manitoba from Quebec, settling mainly in Winnipeg and St Boniface. With the lack of formal schooling in the language, Quebecois soon became Manitoban French, with a distinct subset of Métis French and the mixed French-Cree language of Michif. Today, Métis, Michif and Métis culture are kept alive by the Manitoba Federation and there is an ongoing effort to provide information about this very influential group of native Manitobans.
To find French culture in Manitoba, visit the Saint Boniface ward of Winnipeg. This was the mother parish for numerous French speakers and the area retains many French influences. Many of the Franco-Manitoban School Divisions are there, including two of the three secondary schools.
Any visit to the area should start with the St Boniface Cathedral-Basilica in the centre of the city. The original 1906 structure was destroyed by fire in 1968, but the old walls of the church were saved and restored. The new cathedral was completed in 1972 behind the façade of the old building. Louis Riel, the Métis rebel leader and founder of Manitoba, is buried there in the churchyard.
The Boulevard Provencher is lined with small boutiques and leads to the Provencher Bridge, which crosses the Red River. The pedestrian portion of the Provencher Bridge is known as the Esplanade Riel, to honour Louis Riel. In the centre of Esplanade Riel, a small French restaurant is a nice spot to take a break and watch the boat traffic.
The Centre Culturel Franco-Manitobain and La Maison des Artistes Visuels Francophones are two galleries that frequently feature the works of French artists. La Maison is housed in the old City Hall building and the adjacent modern sculpture garden is always open. The centre is part of a multi-use facility containing shops and restaurants in addition to the gallery.
Le Musee de St Boniface is the former home of the Grey Nuns, a French-speaking religious order, and is filled with the history of the Metis, francophones and the founding of Manitoba. Much of the history of Louis Riel is documented there as well.
The Université de Saint-Boniface is the only French-language university in western Canada. It was founded by Father Provencher in 1818 as a small school, making it the oldest post-secondary educational institution in western Canada. When French language instruction was prohibited in public schools, this privately-owned college continued French language instruction. The university now offers technical, professional and continuing education programs, all exclusively taught in French.