Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Of the role of French Canadians in the Great Plains two things are certain. Their impact was significant but their legacy is tenuous. Despite some toponymical traces, historical memory of them is disappearing.

The French Canadians were among the first Europeans to contact the First Nations of the Plains, initiating commercial activity and contributing to early understanding of the geography of the region. In the seventeenth century, French Canadian men, seeking adventure, wealth, and freedom from the restraints of colonial society in the valley of the St. Lawrence, headed west, reaching the Great Plains by the early eighteenth century. In times of French and British predominance, the availability of this choice irritated European administrators and visitors, who resented the French Canadians' clear spirit of independence.

The territorial interest and trading activity of France in North America changed significantly at the end of the War of Spanish Succession. By the Treaty of Utrecht (1713), the French withdrew from Newfoundland and most of Acadia and acknowledged English control of the Hudson's Bay watershed. Threatened by the strategic losses in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and hemmed in by the Thirteen Colonies and the English on Hudson's Bay, French explorers and traders diverted their activity to the Western Plains.

The travels and trade of the La Vérendryes exemplify this new orientation. Born in Trois Rivières in 1695, Pierre Gaultier de Varennes, the Sieur de la Vérendrye soldiered in France, then returned to Canada. In 1726 he engaged in the fur trade north of Lake Superior. In the 1730s and 1740s he and his sons traveled farther west, reaching the lower Saskatchewan River and Missouri River, in present-day North Dakota. In 1742 his sons Louis-Joseph and François crossed the Plains, probably reaching present-day Wyoming and certainly returning by way of present-day South Dakota.

As French coureurs de bois, then voyageurs after the British conquest of Canada, French Canadians were the proletariat in the fur trade economy. They worked as canoemen, transporting European goods west and pelts east, and labored as guides, interpreters, porters, traders, negotiators, and intermediaries between the Native peoples and Europeans. The expeditions of Peter Pond, Alexander Mackenzie, Lewis and Clark, and John Charles Frémont, among others, depended upon French Canadians' muscle power, as well as their invaluable practical understanding of the climate and environments of the region and the languages and cultures of the Plains peoples.

One notable French Canadian impact was the creation of the Métis, a unique syncretic and Indigenous Plains people who were the offspring of French traders and Native women. The Metis, who combined Christian and Native spirituality and spoke a mix of Ojibwa, Cree, and French languages, lived, traveled, and traded mostly in the Canadian Plains. They were displaced by the disappearance of the buffalo and the development of the agricultural frontier in the late nineteenth century. Resisting such change, their greatest leader, Louis Riel, praised as a visionary or excoriated as a traitor, might better be seen as the personification of this cultural synthesis. Riel was executed at Regina on November 16, 1885, only days after the driving of the last spike of Canada's first transcontinental railroad. The contribution of Riel and his people remains a source of deep controversy.

French Canadians never perceived the Great Plains primarily as a place of settlement and always preferred regions closer to home. Quebec did experience important internal and external migration of population between 1850 and 1930, and some French Canadians moved west to the Prairie Provinces. Most, however, chose the comfort of contiguity, either in Montreal or regions such as the Laurentians, the Saguenay River, and the Gaspé Peninsula. Beyond Quebec thousands went to the industrializing towns of New England or the lumbering regions of Ontario.

Some directed movement to the Prairie Provinces was sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church and individual clergymen, partly to attract French Canadians away from the lure of a multireligious and unilingual United States. While even today scattered French Canadian agricultural settlements exist in the provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta, their rate of assimilation to the prevailing English-speaking culture is the highest of any of the French-speaking minorities in Canada.

Assimilation of French speakers in Canada outside Quebec is a serious concern, and it is especially critical in the west. The Francomanitobain, Fransaskois, and Franco-albertain minorities continue to make heroic efforts to preserve their French language and culture. While the absolute number of French speakers in Canada, not including Quebec, is increasing slightly, their proportion to the even faster growing English-speaking majority is in decline. In the mid.twentieth century, they comprised 7.25 percent of the total population, while by 1996 they were only 4.5 percent. With smaller numbers and a more dispersed population in the Canadian West, the pressure of assimilation there is even greater. One measure is the percentage of those who attend French-speaking schools. Despite the constitutional rea.rmation of their right to education in French and the creation of education divisions and construction of more schools since the 1980s, as of 1996 in the Prairies only about 16 percent of those who had the right to do so actually attended such schools. In Manitoba, where their population is more concentrated, about 4,500 students, or slightly less than 30 percent of the school-age Frenchspeaking minority, are taught in their own language. Farther west, these percentages decline dramatically to 12 percent in Saskatchewan and less than 8 percent in Alberta.

Historical literature on the French Canadians in the Great Plains is uneven. Despite some admirable academic studies of specific aspects, mostly focusing on Canada, to date a comprehensive synthesis of their experience in the Great Plains region does not exist. Material written in French in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was mostly mythological, stressing heroic explorers and saintly churchmen. Now frequently written by local enthusiasts, contemporary material in that language is often anecdotal and genealogical in approach, as well as antiquarian and nostalgic in value. Substantial historical writing of the Plains in English, both in the United States and Canada, often refers only slightly to French Canadians. Lack of familiarity with the language of that minority hampers western historians' access to the French-speaking part of the history of the Plains. Given the danger of the assimilation of the French Canadians in the Great Plains and the present condition of current scholarship, one may well wonder if such a history will ever be written.


Stephen Kenny University of Regina

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