In the 1960s, French-Canadians were affirming a new political, economic and cultural autonomy. Quebec in particular affirmed a nationalist vision under the slogan “Maitres chez nous” or “Masters of our own house.” The federal government responded with the launch of a commission on bilingualism and biculturalism in order to study the relations between Canada’s two official languages: English and French. In Alberta: a wind filled the sails of education and politics.
After nearly 80 years of oppressing the teaching of French, the 1960s saw a loosening of the regulation of French education. In April 1968, the Alberta government authorized the teaching of French for half of the school day. In 1976, the province allowed use of French as the teaching language for 80% of the day. From 1968 to 1982, a growing number of anglophone students sought to study in French in 27 bilingual schools of Alberta, later designated as French immersion schools. These changes in policy allowed for the teaching of language, but not of culture. Francophone students had to wait as the other students first learned the language.
In 1982, the Canadian government repatriated the constitution and passes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Article 23 of the charter guarantees three rights: the right to instruction in the language of the minority, the right to educational establishments and the right, for the community, manage these establishments. But interpretations of what these rights mean differed between francophones and government authorities. In 1983, a group of parents under the banner of the Association de Georges et Julia Bugnet decided to sue the government. At the same time, a non-denominational private school named École Georges et Julia Bugnet opened its doors in Edmonton. A group of parents formed and ad hoc committee with the goal of obtaining a publicly funded francophone Catholic school. As such, École Maurice-Lavallée in Edmonton and École Saint-Antoine in Calgary opened in 1984 and École Heritage in Jean-Côté in 1988. With the victory Mahé/Bugnet case in the Supreme Court of Canada in 1990, more francophone school opened throughout the province. The Mahé/Bugnet decision confirmed the rights previously mentioned and affirmed that management schools by and for francophones was a right. Several years of conflict and negotiation resulted in amendments to School Act as the first law tabled by the new premier Ralph Klein in 1993. Today there are 40 francophone schools in Alberta serving over 7 000 students and managed under four school boards.
In 1964, the legislative assembly incorporates the ACFA as the official voice of Albertan francophones. In 1981, father André Mercure affirmed in court that article 110 of the North-West Territories Act was still in effect in Alberta, meaning that Alberta is obligated to legislative and judiciary bilingualism. Before the decision was rendered, a Franco-Albertan member of the legislative assembly, Léo Piquette, made headlines by asking a question in the Assembly to the minister of education Nancy Betkowski. The speaker of the assembly, David Carter iconically demanded: “En anglais s’il-vous-plait ! ” Over 500 people of all ages and from all regions showed up at the grounds of the legislature to protest in support of Mr. Piquette. A committee was set up to which elected to allow all languages including French until the Supreme Court would render its decision. On February 25, 1988, The Supreme Court of Canada found that article 110 was, in fact, still in effect, but that the province needed only to pass a law reverse any obligation and this was done on July 7, 1988, making English the only official language in Alberta. A formalized procedure was set up, in the legislative assembly, for the use of French if a two-hour notice is given and an English translation available for members. In 2015, Mr. Gilles Caron requires the decision to be reviewed and the Supreme Court upheld its status quo. Finally, in 2017, the government of Alberta introduced a policy concerning the francophone community in Alberta and the importance of providing services in French where the needs are made clear.
A school at Lac Sainte-Anne was the first to open in 1859, soon to be followed in 1862 by another at the Lac La Biche mission and a third at Fort Edmonton. These first schools marked the beginnings of Catholic and French education in Alberta. Even if the Northwest Territories were officially created in 1870, it was not until 1875 that a law enshrined the right to establish separate Catholic schools. However, in 1892 an ordinance made English the compulsory language of instruction in the Territories. Only in 1925 was French once again allowed as a language of instruction for one hour per day from grade three to eight. Teaching in private institutions such as le Juniorat Saint-Jean (established in 1908), the Collège des Jésuites (founded in 1913) and the Académie Assomption (founded in 1926) can be provided in French. The Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta (French-Canadian Association of Alberta) begins to shape community life and, in aiming to provide educational support, creates the Alberta Association of Bilingual Teachers (AIBA) in 1926 which became the Association of Bilingual Educators of Alberta (AEBA) in 1946. L’Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta voluntarily developed the programs of study, the assessment criteria, the training of teachers while coordinating a wide range of cultural activities. The organization also an annual French composition competition for francophone students from grades 3 to 12. The students’ results were widely announced in the Franco-Albertan provincial newspaper, La Survivance.
After several unsuccessful attempts to model French-Canadian community organizations after similar organizations in Quebec, the francophone community begins to structure itself. On December 13, 1925, 400 delegates summoned by the Cercle Jeanne-d’Arc and the Knights of Columbus launch the idea of an association aimed at protecting the French language and francophone culture in Alberta. The Association canadienne-française of Alberta was founded in 1926 and soon has members in up to 42 different francophone parishes throughout Alberta. In 1925, “Les Bonnes Amies” was created by five young girls, soon followed by Les Jeunes Canadiens, a similar organization for boys. These social organizations entertained francophone youth for the next 25 years.
In regards to newspapers, several were published as early as 1898, but it is La Survivance which holds a special in local francophone history. occupies a special place. Indeed, this provincial newspaper was launched by l’Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta in 1928; it has since gone through several makeovers and three name changes. In its first incarnation, the weekly was known as La Survivance from 1928 to 1967. It then acquired a new name, Le Franco-Albertain, from 1967 to 1979, and eventually became Le Franco we know today. (France Levasseur-Ouimet, D’année en année, 2001)
During the 1940s, the possibility of a French radio station in Alberta galvanized the imagination to such an extent that 45,000 Franco-Albertans easily raised $ 140,000 to help set up their own radio station. In spite of a rallying campaign opposed to French on the airwaves, CHFA was inaugurated in Edmonton at the Garneau Theatre on June 20, 1949. The station continued to broadcast as a private station until 1973. As the operating costs became excessively high, CBC/Radio-Canada bought CHFA and is still operating it today. (France Levasseur-Ouimet, D’année en année, 2001)
Since 1835, the civil administration, courts, and education systems in Western Canada had been conducted in both English and French. And after 1877, the Northwest Territories Act recognized French as one of their official languages. In 1888, opposition to the official recognition of French became very vocal in favour of recognizing English as the only language of the Canadian nation, and of the Northwest. In 1892, despite the presence of a very strong Francophone minority throughout the Northwest, the territorial assembly changed its rules to abolish the use of French as the language of government, the courts and education. From the creation of the province until the 1960s, there was no significant change to the legal status of French in Alberta.
Between 1885, the French-speaking population accounted for one-third of the colonizing languages of Alberta communities and 60% in the northern part of the province. (It should be noted that there were a number of First Nations who could speak French, but census did not enumerate for language.) French lost a lot of vitality in the 30 years that followed, because Canada organized a massive influx of more than 3 million newcomers to the West. Between 1885 and 1921, Alberta grew from about 15,500 to almost 600,000 residents, while the Francophone population only grew from 2,000 to about 25,000. A very large number of Francophone newcomers were French Canadians who tried their luck in the industrial cities of New England and took the opportunity to settle again on farmland in French-speaking enclaves such as Saint-Albert, Vegreville, Plamondon, Morinville, Legal, Beaumont, Bonnyville, St. Paul, and so on. Another segment of the population left France and Belgium for the same reasons to settle in villages like Trochu and Bellevue.