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The Vanier Museopark: Preserving and celebrating Ottawa’s Francophone heritage

The Vanier Museopark is the only Francophone museum in Canada’s national capital. Located in the French quarter of the city, it was created by residents and former elected officials of Vanier—a separate city until 2001—who wanted to promote the history of what many have described as a Francophone bastion in Ontario, where the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier secret society was formed to defend the interests of French Canadians. The Vanier Museopark offers physical and online exhibitions on the city’s and province’s Francophones, as well as talks, workshops and interpretative tours so visitors can discover the Francophone history and heritage of the surrounding area. It is also responsible for the activities of the sugar shack inherited from the Society of the Missionaries of Africa, also known as the White Fathers, who owned Richelieu Park and its sugar bush, where the Museopark is located.

 

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The Museopark’s exhibitions and interpretive tours

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White Fathers’ Scholasticate in August 1977, soon before the main building was demolished

In October 2006, the Vanier Museopark opened its first permanent exhibition covering 400 years of history, from the First Nations to today, including the French explorers, the fur trade and the numerous educational institutions established in Vanier by religious communities. This first exhibition was replaced by another, focused more specifically on the history of Vanier since the mid-19th century: the arrival of the first colonists, economic life, politics, the defence of Francophone culture and current changes in the community, which is losing some of its Francophone population and becoming more diverse. Temporary exhibitions also address themes such as Franco-Ontarians past and present, and the Francophone community in Ottawa.

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Papal Zouaves 39th Company, Saint-Charles Parish, at a ceremony in front of the White Fathers’ Scholasticate in Vanier

The Museopark offers four urban tours in which visitors can learn about Vanier’s heritage and its key Francophone historical sites. On the Richelieu Park tour, patrons visit the once swampy land that the White Fathers transformed into a magnificant park. Another tour follows Beechwood Avenue, home to Église Saint-Charles built in 1908, which consolidated the Francophone settlement. It is in this church’s rectory that the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier was formed. Yet another tour explores Montreal Road, built in 1869. Montreal Road was the first road from the Rideau River through the heart of the district, and now leads to the only fully Francophone hospital in Ontario, Hôpital Montfort, which remains open after Franco-Ontarians mobilized to keep it from closing in 1997.

The public talks, CreActivity Club workshops for children and Eastview breakfasts (Vanier used to be known as Eastview) are extremely popular. Once a month, people who grew up in the neighbourhood are invited to share their stories about sports, commerce, taverns, the corruption of a memorable priest or parish rivalries. These conversations are recorded, and this invaluable intangible heritage will be used to create new exhibitions. The Museopark is currently preparing for the future promotion of the past.

The Vanier district: A tenacious Francophone centre

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Montreal Road looking east, with Notre Dame Cemetery and Our Lady of Lourdes church

In 1836, when the first bridge went up across the Rideau River, the mostly Francophone inhabitants of Lower Town (then Bytown), began settling in what would become the Vanier district of Ottawa. In 1887, male and female religious orders began settling there, offering religious, educational and health and social services in French, which would partially make up for the restrictions imposed on the French language in Ontario, in particular Regulation 17 in 1912, which prohibited teaching in French.

In 1926, the creation of the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier secret society was spearheaded by Father François-Xavier Barrette and French Canadian public servants, who wished to ensure the common good of French Canadian Catholics through the creation of a radical elite. The society would spread across Canada from Eastview, which would eventually become Vanier.

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La cabane à sucre dans le Parc Richelieu

In 1969, when Eastview changed its name to Vanier in honour of Georges-Philias Vanier, the first French Canadian Governor-General of Canada, more than 60% of the city’s 20,000 residents were Francophone. The 1971 census put the proportion of Francophones in Vanier at 67%, and the 1991 census, at 55%. In 2001, the last year for which there are official statistics before Vanier merged with Ottawa, 49% of the population spoke French as a first language. Although there has been a decline in the proportion of Francophones, Vanier is still an important Francophone centre in Ottawa and in Ontario. Recent studies indicate that the increasingly mobile Francophone population continues to leave Vanier to settle in other districts. Ottawa has a proportionately larger Francophone population than any major city in Canada outside Quebec and New Brunswick, with 16.6% of its 980,275 inhabitants speaking French as a first language, according to the 2016 census.

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