A short history of Francophones in B.C.

Francophones across the globe, celebrate International Francophonie Day on March 20. The Francophone presence in British Columbia, and the vitality of Francophone communities has shaped not only Canada’s history, but its cultural and linguistic diversity as well, says Nicolas Kenny, a professor of history at Simon Fraser University (SFU).

“Rallying under a flag that brings together the fleur de lys and the dogwood, [British Columbia’s] official flower, traversed by blue stripes representing sea and mountains, the Francophone community in British Columbia is characterised by the ethnic and social diversity of its members,” he points out.

Early years

The francophone presence can be traced back to the late 18th century, when they first arrived in New Caledonia, as the region was known before becoming British Columbia, with Alexander Mackenzie’s fur trading and exploration voyage to the Pacific coast in 1793. Working for the Montreal-based North West Company, he was the first European to cross North America north of Mexico. Shortly after, the rival Hudson’s Bay Company which had the monopoly on the profitable fur trade in the west extended its posts into present-day British Columbia. Despite the early fur trade being led primarily by English and Scottish businessmen, over half the total number of workers were French-speaking Canadians. French was the lingua franca of the fur trade, and the French language was the most widely spoken language in the West until the late 1850s. But for the Francophones, British Columbia would today almost certainly be wholly American, according to Jean Barman, professor emeritus, department of Educational Studies at the University of British-Columbia ( UBC). Their labour, she says, kept the fur trade profitable and that alone prevented Britain from giving into American demands [while negotiating the Oregon Treaty] in 1846.

The development of the Fraser River Gold Rush in the late 1850s ended the domination of the French language and considerably decreased the proportion of Francophones in the population as gold seekers of many nationalities flocked to British Columbia. The French language, however, did not completely disappear. Francophones continued using their mother tongue and passed the language on from generation to generation. According to Statistics Canada’s findings, as of 2019, French is the mother tongue of over 70 000 British Columbians. More than 300 000 residents of the province speak French in addition to English or another language.

Establishing a community

As the local economy thrived and became more diverse after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, Francophone migrants from central Canada travelled to B.C. to work in forests, mines, and various small farming communities. In addition, French Canadians played a significant role in developing and establishing local sawmills, often due to racial prejudices against Asian workers from owners of Canadian lumber companies. In 1909 the Canadian Western Lumber company recruited 110 Francophone mill workers from Eastern Ontario and Quebec and offered them relatively high salaries, affordable lots, and construction materials. Around 40 families arrived that year with another group joining them a year later. In the brief span of eight months, they formed the nucleus of what soon became Maillardville, a small town nestled on the north bank of the Fraser River in Coquitlam, where they built houses, a French school, and a Catholic church north of the neighbouring community of Fraser Mills, which was at the time the site of the largest sawmill in the British Empire. Named in honour of a French Oblate priest, Father Edmond Maillard, the town became home to the largest Francophone community west of Manitoba.

Currently, Maillardville is predominantly anglophone. According to the 2016 census, 59.5 per cent of its residents are English speakers compared to 1.8 per cent who speak French. But there is no doubt that the cultural and historical heritage is still present. Street names, cultural activities and community associations tell the story of the Francophone community and how they knit together to protest injustices back in 1931.

Linguistic representation

In 1945, The Federation des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique (FFCB) was created to represent British Columbia’s Francophone community. Today, the organisation still carries the community’s best interests.

“The organisation’s goal was to give a collective voice to numerous local associations. It organised a weekly radio broadcast, offered French language classes, and supported musical and theatrical productions,” says Kenny.

The FFCB strongly fought for public francophone schools in British Columbia. While French immersion programs were successful in snagging the interest of many students and families, the programs were designed for English-speaking families who wanted their children to learn French as their second language. On the other hand, the Francophone community rallied for schools in which Francophone students could learn in their mother tongue. In 1978, the official announcement of the Programme cadre de francais (PCF) stated francophone classes would be open to students in anglophone schools. Currently, over 50 000 students are enrolled in French immersion, and the enrolment rate has been steadily increasing over the past decade.

Francophones in Canada today still face many challenges, such as lower funding for francophone schools and difficult access to the French language in areas of health and other federal jurisdictions, as well as more extensive broadcasting from Radio-Canada and other media. Drawing attention to the events that occur within the Francophone community through communication such as newspapers and news outlets are also crucial in representing and recognizing the Francophone Canadians in British Columbia.

To celebrate the International Day of Francophonie across Canada, several events, hosted by Les Rendez-vous de la Francophonie can be streamed through their websites.

For more information visit:

The United Nations site: en.unesco.org/commemorations/francophonieday

Events across Canada: www.rvf.ca

Events in British Columbia: www.rvf.ca/en/communities/british-columbia