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The French Presence in the West, 1734-1874

by Cornelius J. Jaenen
University of Ottawa

Manitoba History, Number 24, Autumn 1992

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

This paper by Cornelius J. Jaenen of the University of Ottawa was given at the “Focus on the Forks” conference held in April of 1991 at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature in Winnipeg. Professor Jaenen has had a long and distinguished career as a scholar of early Canadian history and is the author of a number of works on early French and Amerindian history, including Friend and Foe: Aspects of French-Amerindian Cultural Contact in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, published in 1976.

The French were the first Europeans to penetrate the western region of Canada and to extend their sovereignty and their institutions onto the Prairies. In that sense they were a “founding people;” to employ a term now out of fashion. Western Canadians who see only small pockets of scattered francophone settlements today find it difficult to realize that the French were the first to come into this Native territory, the first to establish commercial relations, the first to establish a military presence, the first to establish missions and schools, the first to extend their sovereignty and to incorporate the region administratively into the eastern colony then called New. France. Yet, these are historical facts that help us understand why Franco-Manitobans believe they have a special place in provincial history, if not “special status” I propose to outline briefly this French presence at the Forks and in the West.

Statue of the French explorer La Vérendrye at the Legislature Building, Winnipeg.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

As early as 1717, Zacharie Robutel de La Noue was assigned the mission of establishing posts west of Lake Superior in the interests of the fur trade and scientific speculation about a water route through the continent to the Western Sea. He got no farther than Thunder Bay, where he established the post of Kaministiquia, of which Pierre Gaultier de La Vérendrye became commandant in 1728. Six years later two members of La Vérendrye’s party reached the forks of the Red and Assiniboine, the first recorded Europeans to visit this site, well-known and utilized by the original Native peoples. La Vérendrye himself arrived here on 24 September 1738 and pressed on up the Assiniboine river hoping to discover the route to the Western Sea in the upper reaches of the Mississippi-Missouri system. Meanwhile, one of his lieutenants built Fort Rouge at the Forks, but it seems to have been little more than a storage depot and was reported abandoned by 1749. Forts La Reine, Bourbon, Dauphin and Paskoyac, on the other hand, assured a flow of Western peltries to New France. Fort Kaministiquia was the headquarters of this most westerly region of New France, officially known as La Mer de l ’Ouest, and Canadian officers of the Troupes de la Marine were stationed with small garrisons at the hinterland posts along the main waterways, including the Saskatchewan. Legardeur de Saint-Pierre was put in command after La Vérendrye’s death. In 1750 he sent his lieutenant, M. de Niverville up the Saskatchewan and Bow rivers to a point near present day Calgary, where Fort la Jonquire was built. In 1755 the Western garrisons were ordered withdrawn to serve in the Seven Year’s War but the Chevalier de La Corne, put in charge of the Western region in 1753, built a fort just below the forks of the North and South Saskatchewan in 1756.

Following the cession of New France to the British Crown, the fur trade resumed in 1764, still dominated by the Montreal merchants and Canadian voyageurs. The American Revolution and loss of the territory south of the Great Lakes stimulated new activity in the Far West, especially the Athabasca country. The North-West Company, for example, had at least 900 employees at the beginning of the 19th century, most of them French-Canadians. Métis from the upper Great Lakes region, often portrayed as francophone and Catholic, began to settle in the vicinity of the Forks. They quickly became associated with the North-West Company trade, notably as suppliers of the indispensable pemmican, and so opposed to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Selkirk settlement. At this stage, there was already the basis for a bilingual and bicultural community.

The francophones consisted of Métis and voyageurs connected with the Montreal-based fur trade. The Selkirk settlers found a heroic friend in one of these Canadien voyageurs—Jean-Baptiste Lagimodiere. Around 1805 he had married an adventurous young woman of good family and education, Marie Anne Gaboury, in her native Quebec village of Maskinonge. She followed him to the Forks, then often accompanied him on his journeys on the plains from the Missouri to the North Saskatchewan and as far west as the foothills of the Rockies. She is believed to have been the first non-Native woman to have lived here. It was Lagimodiere who carried Colin Robertson’s despatch for help to Lord Selkirk in Montreal, 2600 km overland on foot in winter in 38 days! When Selkirk arrived at Red River in July 1817, he was greeted by many of his settlers, some of the two hundred or so French and Métis settled on the east bank of the Red River who came out of neighbourly feeling, retired servants of the fur companies, some curious Indians, and about one hundred de Meurons and de Watteville soldiers who settled mostly among the French along the Seine river. Louis Nolin was soon hired as official interpreter for Selkirk in his dealings with the Ojibway and Cree. Catholic missionaries began arriving in 1818. By 1823 the francophones numbered about 350 in the vicinity of St. Boniface, and another 450 (mostly Métis) in the neighbourhood of Pembina who moved north that same year. As a result the population around St. Boniface nearly doubled. Some of the Métis were sedentary farmers but many were buffalo hunters.

Then, the severe winter of 1825-26 so discouraged many, particularly the Swiss, that 243 departed for the United States. The census of 1831 recorded 262 Roman Catholic families and 195 Protestant families at Red River settlement. Fort Garry had a stone powder magazine, while across the river Father Provencher’s mission had had a girls school since 1829. The census of 1847 recorded 503 Catholic families and 444 Protestant families for a total population of 4,871. There were at least 1500 “transients,” or Métis who were seasonal migrants. The Métis always claimed the right to buy and sell without restriction, so they resisted Hudson’s Bay Company regulations aimed at controlling commerce. In their resistance they were soon joined by anglophone “half-breeds,” as they were called. When a certain Guillaume Sayer was arrested for trading in furs near Lake Manitoba in 1849, Louis Riel Sr., the miller at St. Boniface, organized a party of three hundred men after early mass on Ascension Day (May 17) to appear at Fort Garry at 11 o’clock for the Sayer trial. This was an early warning that the community, especially its francophone component, was not about to see its perceived rights violated by heavy-handed authority.

Unidentified Métis at St. Francois Xavier, Manitoba, circa 1880s.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

The transfer of the region to Canada in 1869 was seen as the grossest violation of local rights. As Louis Riel would say, the people had been treated like “poor dumb driven cattle.” The transfer from company rule to the British government and then to the Canadian Dominion had proceeded without consulting the people concerned. It was the francophone population, the majority at Red River, who protested most effectively. It was they, in good measure, who won provincial status as opposed to colonial territorial subservience to Ottawa, and obtained constitutional sanction of the dualism that had long existed in the region. Thanks to their insistence on negotiated terms of union, Manitoba entered Confederation in 1870 as a bilingual and bicultural province, a status which reflected both its historic development and its actual demographic and institutional character.

What was the situation at the time of union, insofar as the francophones were concerned? The troubles of 1869-70 seem to have created some sense of cohesion, of belonging to a French Catholic community, where before French Canadians and Métis were generally perceived as different “races,” the Quebec press even referring to Riel and the Métis as “savages” and “uncivilized” The “founders” were made up of 445 families, thirty-three of them from Quebec living in St. Boniface being its social and cultural elite. Most lived in the woods of St. Vital, both banks of the river Sale westwards from St. Norbert, at Ste. Anne on the Seine, at Ste. Agathe on the Pembina trail, on the Saskatchewan trail on the north bank of the Assiniboine around St. Charles, St. Francois-Xavier and Baie St. Paul, and at the fishing stations of St. Laurent on Lake Manitoba and Grand Marais on Lake Winnipeg. It was not an imposing community in social and economic terms, yet it drew favourable comment from visiting Mennonite elders in 1873. Jacob Shantz wrote:

They are a civilized class of people. I have been amongst them as a stranger, have boarded and lodged with them, and I have invariably found them very obliging and hospitable, and to their honour be it said, I saw none of them as rough and wicked as some of our own class of Canadians. They have schools and churches, wherever they have settlements, as I have before mentioned and I was informed by an official who assisted in taking the census, that they can nearly all read and write.

The demographic weight of the community and its institutional development seemed to assure its role in the new province. An ethnic balance was adhered to in both the Legislative Council and the Legislative Assembly, in the delineation of electoral districts, in the composition of a non-partisan cabinet, and in the parish system of local government. In 1871, the provincial legislature created a dual confessional system of Protestant and Catholic public schools. St. Boniface College was incorporated to provide advanced education in French. Captain Villiers of the Quebec Regiment was given the task of organizing a provincial police force. Presiding over all was a conciliatory royal representative, Nova Scotian Lt. Gov. Adams Archibald, accused by the Toronto Globe of being an English man who acted like a Frenchman and a Protestant who behaved like a Catholic.

Unfortunately, the course of provincial history did not follow along the route sketched out at its inception. Archbishop Taché used his persuasive powers to attract a number of Quebecois to St. Boniface—men such as Joseph Royal who founded the paper Le Metis, Joseph Dubuc who was an effective legislator, and Marc-Amable Girard who sat on the Executive Council and was Provincial Treasurer. Among Colonel Wolseley’s soldiers who came in 1870, supposedly to restore order but in fact to create some disturbances themselves, were volunteers such as Taillefer, Taschereau, Gagnier, Martineau, Magot, Tetu, d’Eschambault and Simard who decided to settle in the province. Taché prevailed on the Quebec bishops to send a circular letter to all parish clergy urging settlers to come West to reinforce the French presence. Only fifteen persons came in 1871. The federal government, concerned about emigration from Quebec to the United States, gave its support to a plan to repatriate Franco-Americans in Manitoba. The Société de Colonisation du Manitoba enjoyed a modest success, attracting 441 poor families from New England and 991 families from Quebec. The latter boosted the population of St. Boniface and Winnipeg as a number went into business. South Main Street became a centre of French-Canadian businesses and hotels. But the main flow of immigration soon came from Ontario, the British Isles, Iceland and Russia. Many Métis, deprived of their lands reserved under the constitutional arrangements of 1870, moved on to the North Saskatchewan, while Quebecois migrants found closer areas for resettlement.

The rest is well known to Manitobans. As the francophones became a minority in the province, declining to about 10% of the population by 1890, the demands for institutional and constitutional change seemed politically irresistible. The United States became much more attractive for French Canadians than Manitoba or the North-West Territories. Indeed, the pressures for assimilation were no greater in New England than in Manitoba, official propaganda and folklore to the contrary notwithstanding.

With today’s concerns for constitutional renewal, multiculturalism, aboriginal rights, and majoritarian democracy, we do well to remember our roots, the historic origins of our local communities. The Forks of the Red and Assiniboine has witnessed historic events and developments which we should not ignore as we think of our future. The 20th century was once supposed to be Canada’s century. If we missed our chance in this century, perhaps in remembering our historic roots we may be lucky enough to regain it in the 21st century.

“Map containing the new discoveries to the west of Canada, 1740”, from the La Vérendrye expedition of the late 1730s. This illustration is best understood by rotating the map sideways, on the north south axis. At the top right is Hudson Bay and in the centre the north and south basins of Lake Winnipeg. The location of Fort Rouge at the Forks is immediately south of the lake at the junction of the rivers Rouge and Assiniboille.
Source: National Archives of Canada

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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