Endangered species

Has history caught up with Franco-Manitoba?

Peter Carlyle-Gordge April 18 1977

Endangered species

Has history caught up with Franco-Manitoba?

Peter Carlyle-Gordge April 18 1977

Endangered species


Has history caught up with Franco-Manitoba?

Peter Carlyle-Gordge

When Jocelyne Soulodre was an elementary school student in St. Boniface, Manitoba, back in the 1950s, a strange game of hide-and-seek used to take place in the classrooms. Her school, Ecole Marion, was staffed mainly by nuns, with an elderly nun as principal. Instruction in French was illegal in Manitoba—a right guaranteed in 1870 but revoked in 1916. “Of course all our lessons were in French because we had an early warning system.” recalls Soulodre, 25, now a reporter for CBC television news in Ottawa. “The principal usually knew when a visit from a school inspector was due. She’d station a nun at the front door to watch for the inspector’s car. As soon as she saw him coming, the nun would warn the principal, who would then go rushing through the school shouting: ‘The inspector’s coming, the inspector's coming!’ By the time the inspector got to her office, she’d be back there smiling and composed.” When he made his rounds, French texts were nowhere to be seen and the studious young Franco-Manitobans were poring over their lessons in English.

It was only in 1970 that the New Democratic Party government of Premier Ed

Schreyer restored the right of FrancoManitobans to be educated in French, and more battles are looming to regain other French rights in the province. Today, some 5% to 6% of Manitoba’s one million residents are francophones, but most believe that their survival is in jeopardy as the surrounding English tide creeps up and threatens to drown them. The election of René Lévesque’s separatist Parti Québécois government in Quebec may have become the principal national issue of the day, but it has also served to deflect attention from the fate of the surviving Frenchspeaking communities outside of that province. St. Boniface and the confused, conflicting and paradoxical responses to the threat of assimilation there are a vivid case in point.

Prominent on the battlefront is one Georges Forest, a St. Boniface insurance executive, whose personal combat began with a five-dollar parking ticket in 1975 that was printed in English only. Since the City of Winnipeg Act states that all bills, notices and statements to the residents of St. Boniface must be in both official languages, he informed city officials that he

would not pay. They ignored him. When he received a second ticket and refused to pay that, he was haled into court, where it was ruled that the parking ticket was a court document, not a municipal one, and that all court proceedings in Manitoba since 1890 could be conducted only in English.

Forest and his lawyer dug into the history books and launched an appeal. The result: County Court Judge Armand Dureault declared that the 1890 law—abolishing the use of French in the legislature, civil service, government publications and provincial courts—was unconstitutional. “We’ve really opened up a can of worms for the province,” says Forest. For its part, the Schreyer government is not going to appeal the law but neither is it allowing French to be used in the courts; Forest plans to take the case before the Manitoba Court of Appeal. Forest has paid a personal price for his lonely battle: he has encountered a backlash from both anglophones and francophones in the form of abusive telephone calls and lost business.

Chiropractor Henri Marcoux likens Forest’s predicament to “being up to your ass in alligators.” A francophone militant, Marcoux is concerned that Ottawa is really doing very little to prevent the eventual disappearance of French minorities outside of Quebec. Robert Painchaud, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Winnipeg, similarly sees Manitoba’s francophones as a community under siege. “It’s a serious problem, our survival,” he says. Playwright Roger Auger, who plans to move to Quebec, believes that the French communities in the west cannot survive much longer. “We get a few things in French, but they won’t survive once Quebec leaves. Our culture here is federally funded and artificial. Once the money goes it will collapse.”

Manitoba’s Francophone community goes back to 1818, when a handful of French-Canadian families moved west from Lower Canada and settled in St. Boniface, in an area then owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company. It was that organization’s agreement 51 years later to transfer the land to Canada that sparked the rebellion led by the young French-speaking Métis, Louis Riel. Fearing the loss of Métis lands and rights and supported by French settlers and English-speaking Métis, he led the Red River Rebellion of 1869 and his provisional government negotiated Manitoba’s entry into Canada in 1870 as the fifth province. At the time, Ottawa guaranteed the new province separate French schools and the equality of the French and English languages.

But by the 1880s, the rapidly swelling influx of settlers had handed political ascendancy to Protestant newcomers from Ontario. In 1889, a small but ominous event occurred: the Manitoba Gazette ceased to be published in French. In 1890, the now disputed act abolishing French as an official language was passed. And in the same year, passage of the Manitoba School Act, abolishing the province’s denominational school system, opened a fierce debate that at one point threatened to tear Confederation apart. Aggrieved Manitoba Catholics—mainly French-speaking—appealed to parliament, claiming that they had been deprived of educational rights guaranteed under the British North America Act. The federal election of 1896 was fought over the issue; Wilfrid Laurier’s Liberals, promising that a compromise could be reached in Manitoba by “sunny ways” and without undue interference from Ottawa, were swept to power. That compromise, an amendment to the Schools Act adopted in the following year, provided in part for bilingual instruction in schools where at least 10 students spoke French or any language other than English. Soon, however, so many other minorities—in particular Ukrainians and Poles—

were demanding bilingual instruction that a violent backlash developed among anglophones. In 1916, despite efforts to create a special place for French-language in-, struction. the Manitoba legislature chose a draconian solution to the issue by abolishing the bilingual system entirely.

Today, Manitoba’s francophone community is centred in St. Boniface, a heavily industrialized, weary looking area beside the Red River, which divides it from anglophone Winnipeg. Though it still has its own hôtel de ville. St. Boniface (population: 47,440) was incorporated into greater Winnipeg in 1971. The Catholic

Church remains a major landholder, but, just as in Quebec, its influence on the community has declined sharply over the past two decades. Anglophone descriptions of St. Boniface are rarely complimentary. The community is associated with the stench of its Canada Packers plant, with rail lines, foundries, paint manufacturers and a generally poverty-stricken appearance. Some middle-class residential areas have sprung up and there is the odd sparkling jewel, such as the St. Boniface Roman Catholic Cathedral. Another imposing edifice, the St. Boniface General Hospital, founded by the Grey Nuns, is noted for its team of heart specialists, con-

sidered among the finest on the continent. The Grey Nuns still play a role in the hospital’s administration, though real control has long since passed from church to state.

The billboards and store signs of St. Boniface are mostly in English. As Jocelyne Soulodre puts it: “You can walk up and down Provencher Boulevard for days now and never hear a word of French.” Why? In part, the Franco-Manitoban malaise has been caused by sheer anglophone numbers, but there is more to it than that— and in the fuller explanation lies a paradox. When Soulodre was at school there was a distinct survivalist spirit. “In the old days,” she says, “there was a sense of community, something to fight for. The story about my principal is amusing but there is a serious point behind it too. There was something to struggle against every day. Now the Franco-Manitobans have education in French. They have their own television and radio stations. They have federal grants to support cultural groups. They have little to fight for, so they fight among themselves.”

Historian Painchaud explains the problem in a different way. “In the past 20 years,” he notes, “we have seen urbanization on a massive scale. Anglophones have moved into St. Boniface and French Canadians have moved into anglophone areas. Anglophones have also been leaving the city and settling in francophone communities, while those in rural francophone areas have been moving into anglophone Winnipeg.” A good example is St. Norbert, not far from St. Boniface. Once almost wholly French, it is now mixed. Painchaud sees

other francophone rural communities such as St. Adolphe, Ste. Agathe and Lorette succumbing to anglophone invasions.

Painchaud also believes that too much federal and provincial money is being poured into training civil servants to be bilingual and that not enough is being given to French minority communities themselves to help them survive the anglophone onslaught. “We did get things out of [former Manitoba] premier Duff Roblin and out of Schreyer, but can it continue, especially if Quebec leaves Confederation? Perhaps if that happens governments will say they’ve done enough for the French outside Quebec.”

That thought, often left unspoken, lies at the back of the minds of many FrancoManitobans. Claudette Lagimodière, a sixth generation French Canadian, was brought up in the small francophone community of Lorette. All her friends at home, she recalls, were French Canadian and she never felt “odd” until she moved to Winnipeg. “Of course the English sea is swamping us all and it’s up to each one of us to preserve our language and culture,” she says. “My nieces and nephews don’t speak a word of French, but I study to keep mine up and to cherish our literature. In the city I’m even nervous sometimes about giving my French surname. If Quebec leaves, I think we in Manitoba will be in exile.”

And yet—and herein lies another paradox—when Lagimodière was growing up in Manitoba, she and her friends tended to think of Quebec as being rather provincial. “No love was lost between us,” she says. “Living in the west we’ve had to integrate more and sometimes I think the Québécois fail to realize that. Recently my brother asked a Québécois what he thought we in Manitoba should do if Quebec separated. The man said: ‘Move to Quebec.’ Naturally my brother asked him if he was crazy. Why should we?”

The fear of Quebec’s seeming hegemony as the ultimate bastion of francophone culture in Canada is a matter of real concern to many Franco-Manitobans. Says Painchaud: “Many anglophones

moan that they don’t want to have French on their cereal boxes, French rammed down their throats. Well, have you considered that many Franco-Manitobans feared a few years ago, when the CBC took over several western stations for the French network,that they might get Quebec French and Quebec culture rammed down theirs? And to some extent it’s happened to us.” Henri Marcoux agrees. “The local programming is good, but too often we get a Quebec slant on national debates. It’s inexcusable that the French national TV news should ignore the problems we’ve been having with education here.”

The question of linguistic education has led to infighting among francophone Manitobans themselves. In the past, many francophone schools provided wholly French instruction. But with the trend to

larger schools and school districts, and a migration of anglophones into traditionally francophone areas, this has in many cases become impractical. Moreover, says playwright Auger, “many francophones have the attitude that being French didn’t help them get ahead in the world, so their children had best become very proficient in English if they’re to get ahead.”

Lucien Loiselle, vice-principal of St. Boniface college, the only completely French high school in the province, insists that French in the province can and must survive. “It’s true the pressures are strong to tell us we’re finished as a community, but we must keep on working with the youngsters and their parents. Just as families are failing to transmit values in sex and other areas, they’re failing to transmit our language and cultural values.”

One francophone who has been pressing for that is Manitoba’s assistant deputy minister of education Raymond Hébert He is responsible for French education and is an arch optimist, always seeking a silver lining in the dark linguistic clouds. He maintains that in addition to an anglophone backlash over French rights, there has also been a “frontlash” in the form of increased enrollments in French immersion courses by anglophone students. Says He'bert: “Manitoba is a model for the rest of Canada, Quebec and Ontario excluded, ofwhat can be done in the field of bilingual education.”

Manitoba’s health minister, Larry Desjardins, one of only two francophone cabinet ministers, takes a practical approach. “In many ways we’re just another ethnic group here, though we have a special status conferred on us nationally,” he says. “Some battles do have to be fought be-

cause if you don’t you end up with no influence. Still, we have to get along and if Quebec separates it could really damage us here. I’m violently anti-separatist, though I admire René Lévesque. His success was a victory for democracy, but if Quebec separates it could be the end of special rights for francophones elsewhere. It’s like a marriage-one partner wants out but the other isn’t too sure. In cases like that I think we have to try to persuade the one wanting out that marriage isn’t so bad.”

If Quebec were to separate, a loud sigh of relief would likely go up over anglophone Winnipeg, though a few monarchists might think about polishing up the buttons of their old army tunics. For many, separation is seen as a final solution to the “Quebec problem”: the ardent francophones of Manitoba could clear off" to Quebec and leave Canada in peace. Most Franco-Manitobans do not feel that way. Separation, they feel, would really be the beginning of the end, not a new beginning, for their “westernness.’And a willingness to coexist—often happily—in many cases outweighs their feelings of loyalty to Quebec or any kind of French-Canadian cause.

While the English waves seem to rise higher every day for those across the Red River, there remains nevertheless a nucleus of leadership and possible accommodation. “For our survival I think eventually we have to turn to Manitoba’s 20,000 bilingual anglophones,” says Marcoux. The lack of involvement on the part of Manitoba’s French-speaking anglophones in things French is a criticism often heard.

Similarly, some francophones warn against withdrawing from general community activity into linguistic and cultural isolation. Says Dr. Brian Ayotte, a heart specialist at St. Boniface Hospital: “To survive here we need a different approach and the greatest aid to survival is to become more involved and influential in the anglophone community.”

As it happens. Henri Marcoux is vicepresident of the annual Festival du Voyageur, held every February in St. Boniface. It’s a time of pea soup, casinos, dog sleds, snowshoeing and ice sculptures. But, ironically, it was launched in 1968 by anglophone sponsors. At first it attracted about 20.000 people annually, but now it brings in more than 300,000, most of them English-speaking. many of them visiting St. Boniface for the first time. “The odd thing is that they can’t get enough Frenchness,” observes Marcoux. “Though francophones now control the [festival] board, there’s been a reluctance to go too far and Frenchify it too much. But the anglophones are the ones demanding it. I think some of the francophones are afraid it’ll flop if they Frenchify it too much. You know the old saying about 'speak white.’ Some of them have got so used to groveling for crumbs that they’ve forgotten something important.” Q