Immigrants from France were the first Europeans to permanently settle in what is now Canadian territory. The French practised cod fishing in Newfoundland’s fish-rich waters, and the fur trade in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the St. Lawrence Valley with the Indigenous populations, which facilitated settlement in those regions.
The French descendants quickly named themselves Acadians and Canadians, to distinguish themselves from the French from France. They first lived in the Maritime Provinces. They then settled in the St. Lawrence Valley, but quickly spread out in small groups into the Great Lakes region, the Prairies, and all along the Mississippi Valley, down to the Gulf of Mexico. In 1763, the French colonies passed into the hands of the British.
The Francophone communities throughout Canada would preserve their heritage and identity over the next two centuries, often in difficult conditions. In the second half of the 20th century, they made important gains, which today allow them to benefit from favourable conditions in a country where the French language and culture are now considered an asset.
According to the 2016 census, there are over seven million French-mother-tongue Canadians in Canada (21.4% of the population). They are spread throughout all regions, but concentrated in Quebec, where they number over six million and form the province’s majority population (79.1%). These descendants of the French pioneers are considered a founding people.
That is why French is one of Canada’s two official languages.
About Canada’s French Origins
In 1604, the first French immigrants founded permanent settlements in what is now the province of Nova Scotia, and then in what is now Quebec in 1608. Their descendants quickly distinguished themselves from the French from France, who continued to immigrate to those regions. Their cultural and social differences emerged through interactions with the Indigenous peoples, with whom they maintained constant relations, and because they lived in the vast spaces of the North American continent, whose climate and geography differed from those of France. These Acadian and Canadian descendants thus developed a culture that was different from those of the regions of France from which they hailed.
The Acadians practised fishing, maritime and fur trade with the Micmac, Malecite and Abenaki. They mainly used the fertile lands that they conquered on the French Bay, known today as the Bay of Fundy, through a unique soil irrigation technique thanks to dykes and aboiteaux. These major projects shaped their social organization, as the dykes were built through pooled resources and labour, and the meadows that were thus gained on the sea were shared and managed communally.
The Canadians from the St. Lawrence Valley were more mobile. Their main settlements were concentrated in the St. Lawrence Valley, between Quebec City and Montréal, but the extensive fur trade led them to explore vast territories. They did so by forging alliances with numerous Indigenous peoples, including the Montagnais, Algonquin, Abenaki, Huron, Ottawa, Saulteux, Potawatomi, and many others, according to the names the French gave them at the time. Over generations, this activity would lead them to travel across more than half of the North American continent. The Canadians were also the source of many Métis families, as many of them lived in Indigenous territory and wed Indigenous women in “country marriages.”
Alliances with First Nations
Despite occasional rivalries, the alliances forged by the Canadians and Acadians with the First Nations were one of the strengths of the French peoples of North America, who were much fewer in number than the British populations who settled along the American coast, between Massachusetts and Georgia. Those partnerships, which lasted for more than a century and a half, characterized the French presence on the continent, compared with the British and the Spanish, who, being more focussed on land use and development, had more distant, indeed hostile, relations with the Indigenous peoples.
The British Regime
Rivalries between the French and British for control of the North American continent ramped up during the Seven Years’ War (1756 to 1763), and resulted in the British Conquest of French America. Starting in 1755, Acadia, which had been under English jurisdiction since 1713, but remained French, was the scene of a collective tragedy. To eliminate all resistance, the British deported over 11,000 of the 14,000 Acadians. And from 1758 to 1760, the British conquered all of New France, home to over 55,000 Canadians. Those two events long cut off ties between the Francophones of New France (including Acadia) and France. From then on they lived in British territory, under the authority of the United Kingdom, which then governed thirteen colonies on the Atlantic coast, giving it dominance over the entire North American continent.
In Acadia, the British immediately took over the fertile lands that the Acadians had created through their aboiteau system. Because the British needed them to maintain that unique system and no longer feared the small contingent of Acadians that had remained or returned from exile, the Acadians were once again permitted to settle in the Maritime Provinces in 1764, but in small dispersed groups. The Canadians, who still formed a strong majority in the St. Lawrence Valley, were quickly authorized by the British to use the French language and to practise the Catholic religion, in order to maintain peace in the new colony.
The aftermath of the British Conquest was not unduly harsh for the Canadians, certainly much less so than for the Acadians, because of their large numbers and the vast territory they occupied. The British made concessions to the Canadians to facilitate the change of allegiance in their new colony. However, they did not abandon the idea of ultimately assimilating those two Francophone, Catholic populations into the English language and Protestant religion. Faced with that threat, the two communities joined forces and resisted as best they could.
The Acadians, dispersed and reduced in numbers, slowly reorganized. Spread out in the colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, which were quickly populated by the British, they took some time to recover the momentum that would bring them a certain prosperity starting in the 1880s. During that time, the Canadians from Lower Canada (present-day Quebec), who from that time on were called French-Canadians, to distinguish themselves from the Anglophones who lived in that colony and in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), had the advantage of having remained on their lands and having conserved a portion of their goods. Large in numbers, they could exert pressure that was sometimes effective, maintain greater social cohesion, and preserve certain institutions, such as French schools, of which the Acadians were largely deprived. However, the urban and Anglophone elite rapidly dominated the new colonies’ economic, social and political life, and the French-Canadians and Acadians found themselves in a situation of inferiority and poverty.
The Affirmation of Francophone Communities
French-Canadians’ future prospects improved in the 1840s and 1850s, following a demographic, economic and political crisis that culminated in the Lower Canada Rebellion in 1837–1838. That armed uprising of French-Canadian patriots, easily repressed by British troops, caused the Catholic Church to develop rapidly and take charge of French-Canadian society. In a short period of time, that institution became a powerful engine of development and emancipation for the French-Canadians and Acadians. Starting in the mid-19th century, the Church developed the education, health care, heritage and identity of French-speaking Catholics. Together with secular society, it vigorously promoted the “French-Canadian Culture,” as it was called at the time.
The Catholic Church accompanied the French-speaking populations who were moving west, to work in the fur trade, logging, and agriculture. It looked after the moral education of all its flock, the French-Canadians and the Métis, and stimulated their devotion to the French language. The clergy led, organized and sustained communities in the current provinces of Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia, and the Northwest Territories, and gave them an institutional strength that they could not have otherwise had.
Another important step in the preservation of French-Canadian culture came with Confederation in 1867, which recognized the provinces’ legislative powers over education, health, culture, and natural resources, while bringing them under the authority of a federal government. In the province of Quebec, Francophones became the majority in a democratic parliament with executive and legislative powers for the first time. Over time, those powers became very beneficial to them. The situation was less favourable for the other Francophone minority communities in the other provinces. They had to rely on the Church, which organized, structured, mobilized, and became a quasi-state within the state. It compensated in part for the absence of true political power by joining forces with secular community organizations, such as the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society and the Société L’Assomption en Acadie.
On the Prairies, the Church also promoted the settlement of new territories acquired by Canada through the recruitment of Francophones in Quebec and, to a lesser extent, in France, Belgium, and Switzerland, and among French-Canadians who had emigrated to the United States to become factory workers. It convinced some of them to return to Canada to farm. Those Francophones reorganized into small communities, among the thousands of immigrants of various nationalities who populated the Prairies, especially from 1890 to 1930.
The Turning Point of the 1960s
Starting in the 1960s, Quebec became drastically secularized. The Government of Quebec replaced the Church and took charge of the development of Quebec society, which was predominantly French-speaking, through a strong and versatile public administration that promoted culture, language, the economy, and Francophones’ values. In New Brunswick, the large Acadian minority, which represented one third of the provincial population, enjoyed a similar momentum when an Acadian premier came to power, ushering in a lasting transformation in the relationship between the province’s Acadians and Anglophones. Elsewhere in Canada, a similar identity and community awakening occurred some years later.
In the 1970s, a nationalist movement gained momentum in Quebec. Intellectuals and politicians proposed to repatriate all powers to Quebec, by establishing an independent country, to better serve the interests of Quebec’s Francophone majority. That project was ultimately unsuccessful, but created turmoil throughout Canada, for both Anglophones and Francophones. The latter reacted by redefining their identity, from French-Canadians to Franco-Ontarians, Franco-Manitobans, or Fransaskois. They also sought to acquire more power and autonomy if Quebecers separated from Canada. That political upheaval drove communities to develop projects and strategies to secure their future.
Contemporary French Canada
Under the French Regime, the British Regime and after Confederation in 1867, Francophones have always settled throughout Canada. They have held and still hold jobs in all sectors: agriculture, logging and mining, fisheries, transportation, trade and industry, services, education, research and innovation. They make significant contributions to political life by electing representatives to their provincial governments and to the federal government, and they actively participate in all artistic disciplines. Francophones are an integral part of Canadian society.
In the North American continent’s sea of English and Spanish speakers, it is always a challenge to promote the French language and culture. In Canada, with the highest number of Francophones and where their contemporary achievements and historical legacy are significant, they rise to that challenge in all provinces by proudly preserving and developing their cultural heritage, while respecting the Anglophone majority and the other ethno-linguistic communities that enrich Canada.
With a majority at the provincial level, Quebec continues its efforts to protect and promote the French language and culture. Since the 1980s, thanks to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms entrenched in the Canadian Constitution, Francophone minority communities have had their language rights and their French-language education rights recognized, which have developed everywhere. French immersion schools welcome tens of thousands of students and encourage better understanding between the English-speaking majority and French-speaking minorities. Knowledge about the French language is progressing throughout the country. The cultural vitality of Quebecers, Acadians and other Canadian Francophones has never been greater. Enhanced recognition of the French language contributes to more harmonious relations between Francophone and Anglophone communities and encourages Francophone immigration to Canada. Francophone immigrants from Europe, Africa, and the Caribbean help to strengthen and revitalize traditional communities.
Sustained efforts are nevertheless necessary to ensure the future of the Canadian Francophonie. In some regions, assimilation into the English-speaking community is rampant. The demographic decline in many communities is cause for serious concern. International Francophone immigration, which partly offsets a low birth rate in Francophone communities, is also a challenge for integration. In addition, digital media, mainly English-speaking, are revolutionizing communications and sweeping the planet, and pose another major challenge for the Canadian Francophonie. Canada’s Francophone communities are front and centre in the rapid transformations jolting the contemporary world and requiring constant adjustments.
Come and discover these diverse, dynamic and welcoming Francophone communities. They will surprise you.