A bit of history

History of the francophonie within Manitoba

Immerse yourself in the history of manitoba’s territory with the first nations and francophones of the canadian province of manitoba. Manitoba joined confederation in 1870, and its capital, winnipeg, was incorporated soon after in 1873.

Discover a part of the story by visiting the various facts that are present below:

Hudson Bay

The presence of the French-speaking community in Manitoba, your new place of residence – permanent or temporary – dates back to the 18th century, to the time of the “voyageurs”, that is to say the fur trappers and “runner of the woods“. Indeed, before the founding of Canada as we know it today, the Prairies (which include present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) were owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC). The HBC sold furs to Europeans from the hides of the buffalo that roamed the plains in huge herds. This is how the first white men – mostly French-speaking – voyageurs arrived on the Prairies.


With the help of the Aboriginal people (today called Indians or First Nations), HBC employees left Montreal in huge York boats, using the river system of the future Canada to reach the mouth of the Red and Assiniboine rivers, i.e. The Forks. Once there, the voyageurs traded with the Natives for furs. The length of their stay varied, but on the whole, these hardy men often wintered in the West and, thanks to the hospitality and companionship of the Aboriginal tribes, entered into “country-style” marriages, which led to the creation of the Metis Nation.


A Metis is most often the offspring of an Aboriginal woman and a French-Canadian traveler from Lower Canada (now Quebec) or a HBC employee of Scottish origin whose children were referred to as Half Breeds (the name will disappear to make way for the name Metis, without the acute accent). These children, sometimes referred to as Bois-Brulés, believed that they owned, through their kinship, the vast lands around the Forks.

In 1812, Lord Selkirk, an English lord and major shareholder of the HBC, decided to found the Red River Colony at The Forks itself. He sent for Scotsmen by boat from England who were starving in their native country because of the disastrous climatic conditions. For six years, these men, women and children tried to survive in a hostile and unfamiliar climate and created what looked like a village surrounded by land and farms in the European style. The seat of authority for the HBC was Fort Garry, the remains of which can still be seen on Main Street in Winnipeg, near the Norwood Bridge.


Initially, cohabitation between the Metis and the HBC was sometimes difficult, to the point that there was a deadly confrontation at the Battle of the Grenouillère (also known as the Battle of Seven Oaks). It was then that a traveler from the colony, Jean-Baptiste Lagimodière, rode to Quebec City in Lower Canada to meet with the archbishop and asked him to send Catholic priests to Red River to calm the social tensions.


A few months later, in July 1818, the future Bishop Norbert Provencher got off his canoe from York, accompanied by two other priests. This is how Saint-Boniface was born and became the first French-speaking Catholic parish in Western Canada. Bishop Provencher gave the Catholic community a classical college, a cathedral and brought in Catholic nuns to establish social, hospital and school services. The Red River Settlement was placed under the authority of the Council of Assiniboia, which acted on behalf of the HBC until 1869: it was an unelected government but had a court and a police force.


When canadian confederation was founded 50 years later, canada acquired the vast lands of the hbc, but did not consult the local metis people of the small red river settlement. The metis refused to join canada and their leader, the young metis louis riel, lead a strong resistance, which enabled him to set up a provisional government. The list of rights lead by this government called for constitutional guarantees for the approximately 12,000 residents of the colony. After negotiations in ottawa, canada’s new capital, the federal government agreed to meet these demands. Thus, the province’s constitution was negotiated for manitoba’s entry into the canadian confederation.


Riel and his government obtained a so-called denominational (catholic and protestant) but fee-paying and voluntary school system, a legal system that recognized french and english as the two official languages in the courts and the legislature, and 1,400,000 acres of land for the children of the metis in the colony. He could not obtain amnesty for the death of thomas scott, a canadian surveyor who had opposed riel and was shot for insubordination. This lack of amnesty would cause the metis leader serious trouble for the rest of his life.


On july 12, 1870, the red river colony became the province of manitoba, the 5th in canada. It was called the “postage stamp province” because of its small size. However, it was immediately open to the settlement of english-speaking settlers, most often from ontario or the united states, who were given land to settle on a homestead, a place of settlement, which they had to make profitable. French canadians from quebec came in smaller numbers, and very quickly english-speaking people formed the linguistic majority in manitoba, jeopardizing the constitutional rights of french-speaking people enshrined in the manitoba act (1870). The extent and speed of the settlement of english-speaking settlers would greatly affect the development of the francophone and metis community in manitoba.

In fact, very often, the land reserved for metis children was given mainly to settlers from ontario, and the metis gradually realized that they would not be able to settle on their ancestral lands because of the federal government. They decided to take over the distribution of these lands. The vast majority of the metis travelled to the neighbouring northwest territories (now saskatchewan and alberta), where they attempted to settle. Unfortunately, the canadian government did not listen to their requests for settlement assistance, so they appealed to louis riel, hoping for a victory similar to that of 1870 in manitoba. It was to be a failure.


In fact, the founder of manitoba, after a few years in exil in the united states, first tried to negotiate with the federal government, but in the summer of 1885, he realized that only a rebellion in the nwt could attract the attention of the federal government. Riel failed at batoche and was forced to surrender, having claim in vain land and democratic government on behalf of the indiginous people, metis and settlers of the nwt.


He was judged by federal authorities and hanged in regina on november 16, 1885. Riel is one of the most controversial and tragic historical figures in canadian and manitoba history. His supporters, the metis, are still very much a part of manitoba’s francophone community and are part of the province’s two main language groups. Their constitutional rights are the same as the rights of francophones.


After the broken promises about the ancestral lands, they failed some other constitutional protections. In 1890, the manitoba provincial government abolished the denominational school system. The catholics, who felt most affected by these measures, filed three lawsuits to have these rights restored. Although they won the case, they could not get their denominational schools back because the provincial government refused to obey the courts. Since that time, the manitoba school system has been public and secular. The few religious schools that remain today are fee-paying schools that follow the provincial curriculum.


In 1890, francophones also lost their constitutional linguistic protections that had been in place since 1870: manitoba became a unilingual english province, a province where the provincial government spoke only english to its citizens. This unilingualism was accentuated by the massive immigration policies of the federal government, which wanted to populate the prairie lands with newcomers from the ukraine, russia and poland, among others. These minorities know how to cultivate the land under very difficult conditions.


When these settlers arrived in the west, they gave manitoba a strong multicultural character, as they spoke neither english nor french and held on to their cultural heritage.


They take advantage of a clause in the school act that allows them to teach mainly catechism in their mother tongue, after 3:30 p.m. however, the flip side of this situation, which allows these newcomers to retain their culture and their mother tongue, will cause them serious problems integrating into the english-speaking majority. Because they do not speak english as they should, they are unable to enter positions of leadership or prevent manitoba from prospering economically.

This is why, in 1916, the manitoba government of t.c. norris reacted by imposing english as the only language of instruction in manitoba, as well as compulsory education. From then on, all languages other than english had to disappear from the school system. The francophones were shocked by this prohibition to teach in their mother tongue when they had helped found manitoba and canada: they decided not to obey this new school law.


They formed an organization to defend the french language, the association d’éducation des canadiens français du manitoba (aecfm), a resistance organization that would, for almost 50 years, help schools with french-speaking children to teach their mother tongue in secret. When the school inspector arrived in the village, the students hid their books and pretended to learn their school subjects in english.


This situation of “resistance” lasted 52 years and greatly affected the francophone community of manitoba, whose children learned that the french language was something to be hidden or spoken only in school, at home or in church. The isolation of the villages, the fact that the telephone, the radio, the television, the road system and even the electricity were very rudimentary until the 1950’s allowed the francophones to maintain their language and their culture without giving in to assimilation.


In 1967, on the occasion of canada’s first centennial, manitoba premier duff roblin allowed, with bill 59, 50% of the time to be taught in french, which was considered clearly insufficient, but still an improvement over what had existed since 1916.


The situation changed when, after many years of conservative rule, a new party, the new democratic party of manitoba, came to power under the leadership of ed schreyer. This party greatly changed the government’s attitude towards francophones. In fact, in the wake of canada’s centennial year, which saw the federal government adopt the official languages act (french and english) in 1968, manitoba adopted a policy of openness towards its french-speaking minority.


 schreyer had the franco-manitoban cultural centre (provencher boulevard in st. Boniface) built – with the help of ottawa – in recognition of the historical position of franco-manitobans in the province. He implemented the new school act # 113 which provided for the teaching of french 100% of the time, except for english courses. Again with the help of ottawa, the provincial government opened the institut pédagogique, which became the faculty of education (now the university of st. Boniface), to train the people who would henceforth teach in french in manitoba schools

The law 113 was initially welcomed by francophones who were eager for legitimacy in the education of their children. However, this law contains a clause that obliges parents to overcome a major obstacle every year: they must ask permission from the school boards for their children to continue their education in french. The process is exhausting, divides communities and creates serious conflicts with school boards that are not all led by francophones. For its part, the provincial government refuses to intervene in these conflicts, which it says are local.


Once again, francophones organized themselves to claim their rights. To do so, they turned to the société franco-manitobaine (sfm) which, in 1968, had replaced the association d’éducation des canadiens français du manitoba and which, unlike its predecessors, had access to subsidies to animate the population and encourage it to assume its civic and community responsibilities. This is how some citizens distinguish themselves in order to claim the abolished and therefore forgotten rights.




In 1976, the lack of bilingualism in the provincial government greatly irritated a métis businessman from saint-boniface, georges forest, who received a unilingual english ticket. He decided to try to have the legislative bilingualism abolished in 1890 re-established by using this ticket to go all the way to the supreme court of canada, where he won his case: the government did not have the right to abolish the constitutional linguistic protections for francophones. Manitoba once again became bilingual in the courts and in the legislative assembly.


However, the supreme court does not say how to implement this decision and whether or not manitoba’s laws, written and approved in english since 1890, are illegal. And if they are, is everything that has been approved so far, whether in business or in civil society, legal or not? A young lawyer, roger bilodeau, decided to test these fundamental questions about the provincial government’s relationship with its citizens.


To prevent manitoba from falling into legal disarray with hundreds of potentially illegal laws, the provincial government is attempting to negotiate accommodations that would allow francophones to obtain long-abolished and new rights, particularly in communications and in-person services. However, these efforts so angered the conservative opposition that serious incidents broke out. The opposition refused to sit in the assembly, public protests were organized, a municipal referendum on bilingual rights was held in winnipeg and the rural municipalities, and, closer to francophones, some buildings in st. Boniface were graffitied with “no more french! “and the offices of the sfm were burned down in january 1983.

The government stopped all attempts to expand bilingual services and bilodeau went to the supreme court of canada: he obtained a mixed victory: the government did not have the right to pass laws in english only, but it was not obliged to provide services in french as a result of these laws.


 what has become known as the “language crisis” is having an impact on the francophone community. The tensions, which were high for several months, caused a part of the francophone community to distance itself from the objectives of the sfm and its political demands for services in french, where francophones were grouped together. One of the reasons for this distancing is that these francophones work in english-speaking environments where they are often questioned and sometimes harassed by their colleagues. They choose to keep their francophone identity a secret.


However, bilodeau’s semi-victory would, after a while, give the francophone community of manitoba a springboard for growth. In addition, the federal government adopted a new constitution that would have positive repercussions for all francophone minorities in canada and, of course, in manitoba


In 1982, the canadian government of pierre elliot trudeau adopted the canadian charter of rights and freedoms, which set out the fundamental rights of canadians, indians and métis. For francophones, the government included in section 23 the fundamental right of francophone parents, educated in canada, to enrol their children in schools that taught only in french. In manitoba, this section 23 is welcome because it eliminates the need for parents to seek permission from school boards to obtain french language instruction for their children.


Moreover, this new constitutional right allows the community of francophone parents in manitoba (and other francophone minorities in the country) to think in terms of a school division that is entirely reflective of their culture and mother tongue. This is an extremely important victory for these parents who, since the 1970s, have been seeking from the provincial government either a network of french schools or a so-called “homogeneous” school division, i.e. a school division controlled solely by francophones

The advent of section 23 in the Canadian Charter did not immediately give them satisfaction, however. In fact, they had to wait 12 years and an appearance before the Supreme Court of Canada to finally win their case in 1994. The Division scolaire franco-manitobaine (DSFM) opened its doors in 1994 with 20 schools.


Today, there are 24 of them, covering the entire province of Manitoba.