How French Canadians and indigenous women saved B.C.

Photo courtesy of Jean Barman

Photo courtesy of Jean Barman

Jean Barman, professor emeritus at UBC’s department of educational studies, will be sharing stories from her recent book to shed light on the oft-neglected history of the French Canadians and indigenous women living and working in pre-colonial British Columbia.

She will be discussing and reading excerpts from her recent book, French Canadians, Furs and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest, to the Vancouver Historical Society at the Museum of Vancouver on Nov. 27. She hopes her talk and book will help restore the historical importance of French Canadians in B.C.

“French Canadians have been almost completely ignored in histories of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest. I was complicit, having ignored French Canadians in a general history I wrote of British Columbia,The West Beyond the West, and one day decided I needed to know more,” says Barman.

The pioneering spirit

From the 1790s to the 1840s, the French language was the lingua franca, the primary non-indigenous working language, in British Columbia. Although the early fur trades were led by a handful of Scots and Englishmen, the majority of workers were French Canadians primarily from Quebec. Some workers came and went, but many stayed in B.C. and started families with indigenous women whose descendants took the best of their dual formative heritages and struck off on their own.

“Some daughters led quite remarkable lives all on their own, as with Sophie Morigeau who, after a brief marriage to a French Canadian employee in the fur trade, decided she wanted more and became her own woman as a trader and storekeeper across the Kootenays. She was recently recognized by having a school in Fernie named in her honour,” Barman says.

The discovery of gold along the Thompson River, the subsequent Fraser Canyon Gold Rush and the creation of the Colony of British Columbia in the 1850s brought in many prospectors from the United States and around the world, which ended French’s role as the primary working language in public life. Persons who knew French continued to speak it privately at home and passed it on to their descendants, some of whom are a part of today’s B.C. Nevertheless, according to the 2011 Census, less than two per cent of the province’s population speaks French as their first language.

“Although French is taught either as an immersion program or as a subject in schools around British Columbia, there are not many everyday opportunities to speak French,” Barman says.

The French legacy in British Columbia

According to Barman, French Canadians left a lasting legacy in B.C. in several important ways.

Jean Barman, author of French Canadians, Furs and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest. | Photo by Laura Sawchuk

Jean Barman, author of French Canadians, Furs and Indigenous Women in the Making of the Pacific Northwest. | Photo by Laura Sawchuk

They maintained the overland crossings that sustained the fur trade and facilitated commerce with British companies and interests. Those who stayed and lived in B.C. with indigenous women, with whom they had families, worked productively together to establish prosperous agricultural settlements; and, through their descendants acting as informal intermediaries, made relations with future newcomers and indigenous people less confrontational. Perhaps most importantly, they helped keep B.C. out of the United States.

“But for the French Canadians, British Columbia would today almost certainly be wholly American,” says Barman. “It was their labour keeping the fur trade profitable that alone prevented Britain from giving into American demands [while negotiating the Oregon Treaty] in 1846. Had it done so, the Province of British Columbia would not exist and Canada would have no Pacific shoreline.”

By retelling the everyday stories of the French Canadians and indigenous women from the 1790s to the present day, Barman’s recent book adds new interconnected perspectives to the commonly taught narrative of the English speakers in charge of B.C.’s fur trade economy.

“British Columbia has a rich and diverse cultural heritage that we want to recognize in all of its varieties and complexities. It is important for all of us to recognize that the French language is an important part of our common legacy as British Columbians and Canadians,” Barman says.

Jean Barman’s talk on Nov. 27 at the Museum of Vancouver is free and open to the public.
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3 thoughts on “How French Canadians and indigenous women saved B.C.

  1. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — November 22, 2014 | Genealogy à la carte

  2. During a visit to Vancouver a few years ago, I visited a museum in Gas town and I would summarise the origins of B.C. as below in Wikipedia. Not a single word concerning the French presence in that area or Juan José Pérez Hernández, the Spanish sailor in 1774!

    “In the spring of 1778 Captain James Cook, R.N., became the first known European to set foot on what is now British Columbia.

    After Cook, Vancouver was the greatest British explorer and cartographer to sail the Pacific.”

    During the same visit, I travelled the Lewis and Clark Expedition trails in the
    western USA. The evidence of this French Canadian presence can be found in the numerous names of French origin in that part of the USA, including Malheur
    Lake and the Malheur River, the Grande Ronde and Deschutes rivers, and the city of La Grande.

    Also, it was indicated that the success of this expedition is in large part du to the participation of Sacagawea, guide and shoshone translator and Toussaint
    Charbonneau, her husband and French-Canadian trapper.

  3. the term “French Canadian ” is basically a derivative of LE CANADIEN *
    … A People in their own right .. that served as a BRIDGE to the
    Immigration underway in the early part of the the CONTACT PERIOD… that
    saw , eventually the FUR TRADE take on such an important Role in the
    SETTLEMENTS that followed… and YES…, LE CANADIEN* .. of French
    Origins… , as with the AMERICAN of English Origins.. will somehow
    impact on the ABORIGINAL Human Settlements that preceded them for
    thousands and thousands of Years…!!! ( and needs to be acknowledged
    as a PEOPLE. , in their own right !!!! )… they were the CHILDREN of
    would explain away the resilience of their particular Mother Language in
    a Sea of other Languages ..,namely the English / American language that
    has proliferated around the Global Village of today. !!!!

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