The settlement of French-speaking people in the regions which today comprise the province of Saskatchewan occurred in three distinct stages. First, during the era of the fur trade, from the mid-18th to the mid-19th century, numerous trading posts were established on the principal river systems by voyageurs of French or part-French extraction. Second, from the mid-19th century until the North-West Rebellion in 1885, many small Métis (mixed French-Indian) communities came into existence, some on the old river routes but most widely scattered across the southern prairies. Third, for half a century after the rebellion, French-speaking immigrants from Quebec, Europe and the United States arrived in large numbers to establish bloc settlements on the prairies. Yet the French were not alone in settling by this time: wide varieties of other ethnic groups were also establishing their own settlements, and soon greatly outnumbered the French. No longer was the French language the most widely spoken lingua franca in the region. French settlement in Saskatchewan, however, compared to settlement by most other ethnic groups, covered a relatively long period of time. Although the proportion of French-speakers declined, the absolute number of them greatly increased. By the 1930s numerous settlements, communities and parishes had been founded in which French was spoken.
Following the exploration of the Saskatchewan River by de la Vérendrye in 1737–41, Fort-à-la-Corne was the first European agricultural settlement in what would later become Saskatchewan. However, the area had been claimed by England since 1670 as the hinterland to the Hudson’s Bay Company’s territory of Rupert’s Land, a claim supported by the explorations of Henry Kelsey in 1690–91. With the collapse of Nouvelle France in 1763, a monopoly of the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) in the North-West might have seemed imminent, but from 1763 to 1779, independent traders based in Quebec established two trading posts on the Saskatchewan river systems for every one built by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Between 1779 and 1787, with the gradual consolidation of independent interests into the North West Company, based in Montreal, the HBC posts remained outnumbered by their rivals. In the years remaining until the turn of the century, the HBC increased its efforts to counter the Quebec concerns, especially in the north and upper Assiniboine area: half of the new posts were HBC ones. Competition between the two companies became so acute that a merger was forced in 1821, giving the HBC its long-sought monopoly of the fur trade.
Some eighty-six main trading posts had been established in what would become Saskatchewan between 1763 and 1821, though only about a dozen of them—mostly in remote northern areas—were to remain as permanent settlements. The French-speaking traders based in Quebec had constructed the majority of these. Approximately one-third of these posts were on the Churchill and other northern rivers, while two-thirds were on the North and South and lower Saskatchewan rivers, on the upper Assiniboine, and on the Qu’Appelle. Despite the impermanency of most of the posts, the era of the voyageur should be considered a significant chapter in the history of French settlement in Saskatchewan. Many of the posts established by the Quebec-based traders were given French names. However, French-speaking voyageurs had also worked for, or traded with, the arch-rival Hudson’s Bay Company, and some instances of HBC posts with French names could be noted prior to the merger of 1821. Métis communities grew around the northern posts after the merger, as well as around new posts established by voyageurs on the prairies. At this point, though, the initial stage of French settlement in Saskatchewan was ending, and a second stage was beginning. The mostly impermanent posts established by the voyageurs had, after more than a century, contributed relatively little French population. It was more the development of fairly permanent Métis communities which would lay a firmer base for French settlement.
The designation of “Métis” was originally applied to persons of mixed French and First Nations descent, while the term “half-breed” applied to persons of mixed descent who were not French-speaking Catholics but English-speaking Protestants, mostly of Scottish origin (later, the term Métis would be applied to both groups). Both groups were found in adjacent settlements along the Red River in Manitoba after 1812, with the French-speakers around St. Boniface and the English-speakers around Selkirk. The descendants of both groups were to move westward into Saskatchewan to establish new settlements. By 1870, the census of the North-West Territories and Manitoba listed 5,770 French-speaking Métis, 4,080 English-speaking Métis, and only 1,600 “European” settlers. But considerable numbers of the French-speaking Métis were at least partly of Scottish origin, as had been their voyageur predecessors. It was not uncommon for French-speaking Métis to have Scottish surnames. The first Francophone Métis settlements in Saskatchewan grew around the more permanent trading posts in the north, notably Ile-à-la-Crosse, La Loche, Buffalo Narrows (Lac-de-Boeufs), Green Lake (Lac-Vert), Beauval, and Meadow Lake (Lac-des-Prairies). After an exploratory visit by Br. Thibeault in 1844, the mission of St-Jean-Baptiste was founded at Ile-à-la-Crosse in 1846 by two Oblate priests, Père Taché and Br. Laflèche. With the arrival in the community of three Soeurs de la Charité (Sisters of Charity or “Grey Nuns,” based in Quebec) in 1860, a school, convent and medical clinic were established under the supervision of Bishop Grandin.
During the 1850s and the 1860s small bands of French-speaking Métis buffalo hunters settled on the prairies to the south: at Chimney Coulee in the Cypress Hills, in the Frenchman River Valley, at Lac-Pelletier and Vallée-Ste-Claire, around Montagne-de-Bois (Wood Mountain) in the Big Muddy Valley, on the Missouri Coteau, in the Souris River Valley, in the Qu’Appelle River Valley, and at La Prairie Ronde (Round Prairie), south of present-day Saskatoon. These settlements were linked to each other and to similar settlements in Manitoba by a network of wagon trails. In 1864 Fort Qu’Appelle, established by Pierre Hourie, a Métis from the Red River settlement in Manitoba, became a focal point for distant outlying Métis settlements. In 1866 Père Ritchot began to serve a mission near this fort, which had been established by Archbishop Taché of St-Boniface. Named St-Florent a couple of years later by two Oblate priests, Pères de Corby and Lestanc, it was soon renamed Lebret by Senator Girard after an early missionary, Père Lebret. The influential Père Hugonard continued to serve the Métis and Indians of Lebret and area from 1874 until his death in 1917.
A considerable influx of both French-speaking and English-speaking Métis from Manitoba resulted from the Red River Rebellion of 1869–70. These Métis had been concerned about the survival of their culture and settlements. The transfer of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s lands to Canada being imminent in 1869, the Métis feared that their traditional landholding system of river lots, which was in turn patterned after the rangs of the St. Lawrence and Richelieu valleys in Quebec, would be disrupted. The arrival of Canadian government land surveyors confirmed their suspicions, with the result that under the leadership of Louis Riel the Métis organized their own provisional government to protect their traditions and their title to the river lots. While open conflict was generally averted and the province of Manitoba was created in 1870 as a part of Canada, the restive Métis still did not feel secure, in view of the banishment of Riel and the continuing deprivation of Métis landholdings.
The French-speaking Métis who left the Red River settlements trekked westward up the Assiniboine River Valley, then split up, some heading southwest to Wood Mountain, others following the Qu’Appelle past St. Lazare, Marieval, and Lebret, then heading over the Touchwood Hills to the South Saskatchewan River. Forty families, largely from St-Francois-Xavier and Pembina, settled around La Coulée-Chapelle and La Coulée-des-Rochers, respectively a few kilometres northwest and north of Willow Bunch in the Wood Mountain area. An equal number of families moved to the banks of the South Saskatchewan river to found the short-lived community of La Petite Ville, situated several kilometres southeast of Duck Lake. The settlement soon shifted east across the river and several kilometres to the north with the foundation of the communities of Batoche and St-Laurent-Grandin by 1871, in a more favourable locale.
The St-Laurent settlement developed rapidly with the arrival of more families from the Red River settlements. They came from the St-Francois-Xavier, Rivière-Rouge, and Rivière-Seine settlements, respectively west, south and southeast of St-Boniface. Clergy immigrated directly from France to assist in the process of converting hard-living Métis buffalo hunters into sedentary, docile agriculturalists. The initial mission at La Petite Ville had been founded by Père Moulin, who had immigrated from Dinan in northern Brittany. Père Moulin and Père Bourgine of St-Laurent both also visited the mission of St-André-de-la-Prairie Ronde in 1870 and 1873. In 1874 Père André took charge of the church at St-Laurent-Grandin; he came from Guipavas, in Brittany. Other parishes were soon founded in the settlement: St-Sacrement-de-Duck-Lake in 1876, St-Eugene in 1880, St-Antoine-de-Batoche in 1881, and St-Louis-de-Langevin in 1882. Assisting in this effort were a couple of priests from the Maine region in western France: Pères Vegreville and Fourmond, as well as Père Lecoq (who had already founded the parish of Ste-Rose-du-Lac in Manitoba). River ferries came into service at Batoche in 1874 and at Gabriel’s Crossing three years later, started by Batoche Xavier Letendre and Gabriel Dumont, two of the most influential men in the settlement. By the 1880s, the St-Laurent settlement included four communities of forty to sixty families each (largely from St-Norbert in the Rivière-Rouge settlement), eight separate schools instructing in French, at least seven churches and missions, several post offices and stores, a fire brigade, a grist mill, and at least one saloon. Although the settlement was then situated within Canada’s North-West Territories, it was the seat of a self-declared Métis provisional government patterned after its predecessor in the Red River settlements.
Yet the stability of this settlement should not be overemphasized. The priests from France found it difficult to divert the Métis buffalo hunters from their nomadic ways, from using a Mitchif dialect infused with Indian words, and from a traditional mistrust of the clergy, education, alcoholic temperance, and European morality. In the opinion of the priests, then, the adaptation to farming went very slowly. Some Métis were becoming increasingly apprehensive about the likelihood of a repetition of a struggle with the Canadian government over the question of land titles, as the government had already announced its intention to resurvey the river lots and impose a grid system of land ownership. The Métis, assisted by the church hierarchy, demanded more representation in the administration of the North-West Territories and the courts. By 1883 some Métis were already selling their land to non-Métis farmers: reluctant to lead a sedentary life, they exhibited little enthusiasm for developing their lots, and chose to seek the charity of the church as they became progressively impoverished.
In 1884 Gabriel Dumont and a small Métis delegation brought Louis Riel back into Canada from exile in Montana, and during the spring of 1885 the frustrations of the Métis in the St-Laurent settlement erupted into armed conflict with Canadian troops. However, the North-West Resistance only served to increase rather than alleviate the difficulties of the Métis: it was not entirely supported by all Métis, nor backed completely by the clergy, and it resulted in an increasing exodus from the settlement, more destitution, and an identity crisis. The defeat and humiliation of the Métis marked the end of a fairly short period of Métis settling and predominance in the prairies. Many Métis were scattered, some moving to more isolated communities up north, some merging into larger surrounding French settlements, and others moving eventually into cities. La Prairie Ronde was dissolved soon after the Rebellion; yet nearby Frenchman’s Flats was resettled in 1902–12, only to find the last Métis families moving out again (mostly to Saskatoon) by 1939.