French Settlements

The family of Napoléon Pilon, ca. 1910, who homesteaded near Patrick, Saskatchewan.
Brian Mlazgar

Three explanations for the establishment of series of French bloc settlements across the prairies after the North-West Resistance can be suggested. First, the immigration of large numbers of French-speaking farmers to the prairies could serve to stabilize the restive, semi-nomadic Métis. The Métis would be provided not only with the opportunity to improve their farming, but also to intermarry with French-speakers and to incorporate their stigmatized half-breed identity into a broader French-Canadian identity. Many Métis, however, chose to retreat further into isolation rather than have their mixed identity viewed unfavourably.

First convent at Ponteix, 1913.
Notre Dame d’Auvergne Church Archives

Second, the establishment of specifically French bloc settlements should be seen as only one element in the general context of prairie settlement: many other ethnic groups rapidly developed their own bloc settlements throughout the prairies due to immigration schemes of the federal government and specialized agencies, often operating in close connection with the railways, which were anxious to settle profitable grain farmers along their rights of way. Moreover, with the emergence of the bloc settlement as the typical pattern in this region of Canada, the gravitation of co-ethnics to appropriate settlement areas was likely: people of French origin would settle in one of the new French settlements rather than in an area which had been settled predominantly by people of other ethnic origins.

Third, most of the French settlements resulted from a planned attempt to maintain a significant proportion of French-speakers in the west. French clergy played a vital role in such colonization schemes. Most of the French settlements which developed in southeastern Saskatchewan were founded by Mgr. Jean Gaire during the 1890s, while most of those in the south-central and southwestern regions were established by Pères Royer and Gravel in 1906–10. Many of the immigrants from France and Quebec who settled areas adjacent to the St-Laurent settlement after the 1885 Rebellion arrived under the auspices of the Société d’Immigration Française, centred in Montreal and supervised by Auguste Bodard, the secretary-general, himself an immigrant from Brittany. The society had been formed to encourage immigration from France, Belgium and the “Suisse romande” (French Switzerland) to French settlements throughout the west. Bodard believed that such immigration would re-establish equilibrium between French speakers and English speakers in the west, at least in the rural areas. Bodard saw the chances for survival in Saskatchewan and Manitoba as better than in Ontario, pointing out that already the Franco-Manitobans had priests, parishes, and schools everywhere.

Many of the tens of thousands of “Fransaskois” (Saskatchewan French) live in francophone communities and parishes located within thirty-two distinctly French rural settlements. Two series of French bloc settlements were organized in Saskatchewan, one across the northern part of the prairies (note that the prairies constitute only the southern half of the province as a whole, however) and the other across the southern part; these two series were separated by a central belt in which no French settlements were organized. With the arrival of the French immigrants after the 1885 Rebellion, the Métis settlement of St-Laurent became the nucleus of one of the largest French settlements in the prairies, despite the scattering of the Métis. While a few immigrants from France settled in the Batoche area as early as 1881 and 1884, the main influx commenced in 1886 when settlers arrived in the St-Louis area. They came from Poitou, Brittany, Maine, Savoy, and Picardy. The small community of Hoey was first settled at about the same time by immigrants from Belgium, Paris, and the Saintonge region. The village of Domrémy was established in 1892 by settlers from Ste-Anne-de-la-Pérade and Ste-Geneviève-de-Batiscan, Quebec; in 1894–95 they were joined by immigrants from France, chiefly from Brittany but also from Poitou. In 1896 the Abbé Barbier came from St-Louis to organize a new parish, Ste-Jeanne-d’Arc. At St-Isidore-de-Bellevue the francophone population included Métis families who had settled in the district by the early 1880s, followed by descendants of Acadian exiles who had resettled in Quebec before coming to Bellevue in 1883–94, Québecois families from communities in the Eastern Townships and other regions of Quebec, several families from a French-Canadian (originally Québecois) settlement in Minnesota, and a few families who came directly from France.

While these communities immediately east of the St-Laurent settlement of the Métis were developing, the historic Métis village of Duck Lake (Lac-aux-Canards) was being reinforced as a French-speaking centre in 1894–95 by immigrants from Poitou, Brittany, Paris, Normandy, Savoy and Franche-Comté. West of Duck Lake, the parishes of Ste-Anne-de-Titanic and St-François-de-Carlton were established in 1902 to serve the newly arrived immigrants from Brittany, Poitou, and Belgium. Southeast of Domremy, immigrants from Franche-Comté and Dauphiné had settled by 1899 around Bonne-Madone and Reynaud; they were served by Père Voisin, himself an immigrant from the Jura area on the Swiss frontier, as well as the Abbé Barbier from St-Louis. Virtually all of the communities in this settlement remain predominantly French.

A second French settlement to develop in the north-central region of the province was situated about 40 km east of Saskatoon. The settlement began to develop in 1897 with the first establishment of the community successively called Marcotte Ranch, Lally Siding (since 1904), Howell (since 1906), and finally Prud’homme (after the bishop of the French-language diocese of Prince Albert, since 1922). The initial settlers were from Nantes in Loire-Atlantique, and Arras, in Artois, France; some arrived after first settling in Ste-Rose-du-Lac and Grande-Clairière, Manitoba. In 1910 they were joined by immigrants from the Belgian province of Hainaut. The Abbé Bourdel, born in Brittany, arrived in 1904 to establish the parish of Sts-Donatien-et-Rogatien; he was succeeded in 1931 by Maurice Baudoux, a son of one of the families from Belgium, who was destined to become Bishop of St-Paul, a French-language diocese in Alberta, then Archbishop of St-Boniface. A second parish in the settlement was St-Philippe-de-Néri, established at Vonda in 1907. The parish of St-Denis, due south of Vonda, came into existence in 1910; it had been settled first by immigrants from Saintonge, Poitou, Brittany, Flanders and Hainaut, and then by families brought out from Quebec by the Abbé Bérubé. The Abbé Mollier, the first resident parish priest, came from the Rhône Valley in southern France. Today there are over 1,000 people of French origin in this settlement, inclusive of the town of Vonda, the incorporated village of Prud’homme, and the hamlet of St-Denis.

To the northeast of Prince Albert, the White Star area was settled in 1904 by Breton immigrants. Originally this locality was called Edouardville (after Br. Edouard Courbis, the director of an orphanage in Prince Albert, who was originally from the Guyenne region in southwestern France). The adjoining area to the east was soon settled by immigrants from Guyenne, Brittany, and Normandy. The parish of St-Jacques became the focal point for the small settlement, which today has a French population of about 600 in and around the hamlets of Albertville and Henribourg, originally Morinville (named after Henri Albert Morin, as influential first settler). In 1904 a large Breton settlement began to develop at St-Brieux, about 35 km southwest of Melfort, with the arrival of several families from St-Brieuc, Brittany, led by Père Le Floch. A second church, Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, was constructed at nearby Kermaria in 1906. The mission of St-Philippe (1930) serves a mixed French and Hungarian population in the Little Moose district west of St-Brieux. Today the settlement has a French population numbering about 900, and St-Brieux remains predominantly French. There are also another 300 people of French origin in the Omand district near Meskanaw, about 35 km northwest of St-Brieux.

French and Belgian colonists from Manitoba had settled in three areas in the northeastern region of the Saskatchewan prairies by 1910: St-Front (about 50 km southeast of St-Brieux); Perigord (40 km east of St-Front); and Veillardville (immediately west of the town of Hudson Bay). They were joined by immigrants from Savoy, Limousin, and Beauce at St-Front; by immigrants from Auvergne, Poitou, Savoy, and Picardy at Perigord; and by Québecois in all three settlements. The parish of St-Front (1926) was first served by the omnipresent Abbé Barbier; other early French parishes were St-Athanase-de-Perigord and the mission of Pré-Ste-Marie (30 km north of Perigord). The French population in each of these three settlements may be estimated to number at least 300. Zenon Park (named after Zenon Chamberland, an early settler) had been settled by Québecois by 1910; centred on the parish of Notre-Dame-de-la-Nativité, it remains solidly French (close to 90% of the residents claim French origin). There are approximately 500 people of French extraction in the immediate area.

While French settlements were developing in the northeastern region of the Saskatchewan prairies, others began to develop in the northwestern region. During the early 1880s, Père Cochin established missions to serve Indians and Métis at Cut Knife, Delmas, Cochin, and Meadow Lake. Onésime Dorval, who was to become the best known and most respected French-language teacher in the settlements on the northern plains, arrived in Battleford in 1880, having come to the Red River settlement in Manitoba from Quebec three years previously; in 1896 she moved to Batoche, and in 1914 to Duck Lake. The Prince brothers, one of whom was to become a senator, began farming in the country immediately west of the Battlefords in 1888, having immigrated from St-Grégoire, Quebec. By 1907, immigrants from France had settled at Delmas and Jackfish Lake and had joined Québecois at Vawn. Today people of French origin number some 1,500 on the north side of the river, around the communities of Vawn, Edam, Cochin, and Jackfish Lake (parish of St-Léon); and they number about 800 on the south side of the river around Delmas (parish of St-Jean-Baptiste-de-la-Salle). In 1971 they constituted a large majority at Delmas and Jackfish Lake, and almost half of the population of Vawn and one-quarter of Edam.

A second French settlement to develop in the northwestern region was the one centred on the village of Marcelin, about midway between North Battleford and Prince Albert. In 1899 Antoine Marcelin immigrated from North Dakota to settled in the Moon Hills (part of the Coteau), west of the present village of Marcelin; later he purchased land where the village now stands. Breton immigrants soon settled in the area, and a French school as well as the parish of St-Albert (1902) were organized by Père Lejeunesse. During the 1930s families from French settlements in the southern regions of the province, driven north by drought and the search for pastures for their livestock, settled among immigrants from France, Quebec, and Michigan in the hills west of Marcelin. People of French origin in the Marcelin and Coteau settlement today number close to 1,000, but now comprise less than half of the population of Marcelin.

The most extensive French settlement in the northwestern region began to develop in 1909, when labourers immigrated from Quebec and New England to work in the new pulp mills at Big River. By 1912 many French-Canadian families were settling around Debden. At the same time Spiritwood was named by its first postmaster, Rupert Dumond, after his former hometown in North Dakota. Several families from the Prud’homme-St-Denis settlement near Saskatoon settled in the Laventure district north of Spiritwood in 1911, as well as in the Lac-Bérubé district southwest of Debden in 1914. With the construction of a railway west through Spiritwood, immigrants from Bapaume, France, settled in a district of the same name immediately west of town in 1929. The Québecois followed the construction of another line west from Debden in 1930–31 to settle around Ormeaux, Victoire, Pascal, Morneau, Capasin, and Léoville. Meanwhile, other adjacent districts had been settled, uniting all of these communities into an extensive French settlement. Today there are six French parishes in this general region: Notre-Dame-du-Sacré-Coeur at Big River (1909), St-Bonaventure at Laventure (1911), St-Jean-Baptiste at Debden (1912), Sacré-Coeur at Spiritwood (1912), Notre-Dame-des-Victoires at Victoire (1914), and Ste-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus at Léoville (1930). People of French origin comprise approximately two-thirds of the population of Debden and a quarter of the population of Spiritwood. Today there are close to 3,000 French people in this settlement as a whole.

Two other, smaller French settlements in the northwestern region remain to be considered. There are some 1,600 French in the Meadow Lake area; almost a third of them live in the town of Meadow Lake itself, where they are served by the parish of Notre-Dame-de-la-Paix; about 400 of them are in the vicinity of Makwa, where they are served by the parish of St-Thomas-Apôtre; and the remainder are scattered around the bush districts to the southeast of Meadow Lake. There are also some 700 French in the Paradise Hill area. This settlement developed in 1910–14 with the arrival of French-speaking settlers from southwestern France, Brittany, and even the Yukon goldfields; focal point for the settlement was the rural district of Butte-St-Pierre, where the parish church of St-Pierre was originally located; it was eventually moved into the village of Paradise Hill.

The earliest French settlements in southern Saskatchewan developed in the southeastern region. A French-speaking aristocrat from Alsace, Dr. Rudoph Meyer, arrived in Whitewood in 1884, accompanied by several counts from Alsace and Paris; together they developed the St-Hubert settlement southwest of Whitewood. The parish of Ste-Jeanne-d’Arc was organized, and imposing houses were constructed. Whole families were imported from France to work for the aristocrats: house domestics, gardeners, craftsmen, horse grooms, and tenant farmers. Horse racing days, held in conjunction with nearby Cannington Manor, where English gentry had settled, were especially popular social events. When the French counts visited their English counterparts, they did so in coaches accompanied by coachmen and footmen wearing top hats. In lieu of fox hunting, coyotes were hunted with imported purebred dogs and thoroughbred horses; expensive wines and foodstuffs were also imported. However, this curious colony was not without its problems: cattle, sheep and horse ranching was largely unsuccessful, as were brushmaking and cheese factories, and chicory and sugar beet farming. Meyer, disillusioned, returned to France within five years, followed by the other aristocrats, the last of whom left in 1913. But their entourage did remain, to be joined by settlers from many parts of France and Belgium as well as from the Fannystelle area in Manitoba. Other immigrants, from the Lyon region in France, settled around Dumas (about 35 km southeast) with the arrival of the railway in 1906. Today there are approximately 600 people of French origin in these two small settlements and in nearby towns and villages, where they comprise a small minority.

Many of the French bloc settlements in the southeastern region were formed due to the colonization schemes of Mgr. Jean Gaire, who immigrated from Alsace to St-Boniface in 1888. After visiting the Wolseley area in southern Saskatchewan, he returned to France the following year to recruit potential settlers. Responding to advertisements in French journals, French and Belgian immigrants first established the small colony of Grande-Clairière in Manitoba in 1890, then the communities of Cantal (parish of St-Raphael) and Bellegarde (parish of St-Maurice) in Saskatchewan, respectively in 1892 and 1893. The settlement, situated in the southeastern corner of Saskatchewan, expanded to include Wauchope (parish of St-Francois-Régis) by 1901–03, Storthoaks (parish of St-Antoine) and Alida by 1912–13, and finally Redvers (where the parish of Notre-Dame-de-Fatima was not organized until 1950). The original settlers included a few Métis families, but most immigrated directly from Belgium (Belgian Luxembourg) and France (Brittany, Lorraine, Provence, Auvergne, and Burgundy); later settlers arrived from Quebec. Today the settlement includes about 1,500 people of French origin. The hamlets of Bellegarde and Cantal remain wholly French (in fact, the former has been called “la capitale du Petit-Québec”); French people comprise about three-quarters of the population in Wauchope, half at Storthhoaks, less than a third at Alida, and about a quarter at Redvers and Antler.

In 1892 Mgr. Gaire also founded the settlement of Forget (named after the first Lieutenant-Governor of Saskatchewan). The first settlers arrived from many regions in France, particularly from Lorraine and Dauphiné; there are about 300 people of French origin in this small settlement today, yet they comprise only a quarter of the population in the small village of Forget itself. The next year the settlement of Montmartre (parish of Sacré-Coeur) began to develop some 25 km southwest of Wolseley. The settlers came from Montmartre, today an integral part of Paris, as well as from other regions in France and from Quebec. Today the settlement includes about 600 French living in and around the village of Montmartre, which is little more than one-third French, the hamlet of Candiac, and the surrounding rural districts. Another 300 French live about 50 km to the west, around the village of Sedley (parish of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce) and the rural district of Bechard. Residents of French origin now constitute a very small proportion of the population of Sedley: they claim that they are “pas forts, mais pas morts” (“not strong, but not yet dead”). French Canadians continued to supplement the Métis in the Qu’Appelle Valley. The mission at Lebret was established in 1866, and Mgr. Gaire founded the parish of Ste-Anne-du-Loup at Wolseley in 1888. The French proportion in Lebret has fallen only a little, and in other towns and villages of the area the French constitute a small minority; but people of French origin in this general area today may be estimated to number at least 1,000.

Another 400 are found downriver where the river crosses into Manitoba. Yet the settlement around Ste-Marthe-Rocanville (named after A.H. Rocan Bastien, the first postmaster) is actually an adjunct to the larger St-Lazare settlement across the border, inclusive of over 1,000 French and Francophone Métis. St-Lazare dates back to Métis settlement; the Métis were joined by French immigrants (served by a priest from Reims) in 1904. In the Souris River Valley west of Estevan, the Métis were joined by immigrants from Auvergne and Languedoc. The town of Radville (named after Conrad Paquin, an original homesteader) had its beginnings in 1905. About 1,000 people of French origin are found today in the Radville area, yet the French constitute little more than a third of the total population of Radville.

After the foundation of French settlements throughout the southeastern region, similar settlements rapidly came into existence in the south-central and southwestern regions, so that by 1910 a continuous series of French settlements stretched across southern Saskatchewan. Again, the clergy played a key role in this colonization process. The Abbé Marie-Albert Royer, curé of the parish of Ponteix in Auvergne, immigrated to St-Boniface in 1906, then set out to serve a small French-speaking community in Saskatchewan, Gauthierville or Villeroy, on Rivière-la-Vieille (Wood River). He moved further west that same year due to the arrival of the Abbé Louis-Pierre Gravel (born in Princeville, Nicolet, Quebec) with Québecois colonists from the Eastern Townships at nearby Ste-Philomène (later Gravelbourg). The Abbé Gravel had impressive credentials: he had been appointed “missionary-colonizer” of southern Saskatchewan by Archbishop Langevin of St-Boniface and was reportedly a personal friend of Prime Minister Laurier, who materially aided his colonization schemes. He was further assisted by his brothers Émile and Henri, who led the colonists in by wagon train from Moose Jaw. The Abbé Gravel supervised the expansion of the settlement to include the parishes of Ste-Radegonde at Laflèche in 1906–08, Mazenod in 1907–08, and Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes at Meyronne in 1908. Gravelbourg itself grew into a major French centre, gaining a “collège classique” (Collège Mathieu) in 1918, a large convent in 1919 and monastery in 1926, then the cathedral of Ste-Philomène in 1930, a seminary in 1931, and a couple of French-language radio stations in 1952. The diocese has always maintained close links with French Canada; the first bishop, Bishop Villeneuve, became Archbishop of Quebec and a cardinal, and later bishops became the Archbishops of Moncton, New Brunswick, and Ottawa. Today there are over 2,000 French Canadians in the Gravelbourg area.

While Gravelbourg was first coming into existence in 1906–07, settlers from St-Gabriel-de-Brandon and L’Acadie, Quebec, were joining the Métis at Willow Bunch, about 80 km to the southeast. Within ten years the settlement had expanded to include an extensive area. Today there are more than 2,000 French and Francophone Métis in this settlement; they constitute a majority in the town of Willow Bunch and in the hamlets of Lisieux and St-Victor, and in the surrounding rural districts. Francophone parishes and missions in this settlement have included St-Ignace-des-Saules at Willow Bunch (1906), St-Victor (1906), the mission of La Rivière-aux-Trembles at Little Woody (1907), Christ-Roi at Fife Lake (1908), St-Georges at Assiniboia (1913), Ste-Thérèse-de-l’Enfant-Jésus at Lisieux (1916), St-Jean at Rockglen, Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes at Verwood, and l’Assomption-de-la-Ste-Vierge at Maxstone.

The Wood Mountain (Montagne-de-bois) area, south of Gravelbourg and west of Willow Bunch, began to develop when Québecois from Ste-Clair in Dorchester County founded the community of Ferland. This settlement, centred on the parish of St-Jean-Baptiste at Ferland, founded in 1909, continued to expand with the establishment of new parishes and missions at Glentworth (St-Marcel) in 1929, Fir Mountain in 1939, and Wood Mountain in 1955. While Ferland remains almost completely French, the neighbouring villages of Glentworth and Wood Mountain have only small French minorities. All told, some 600 people of French origin are found in the general area. A small French settlement developed about 40 km northeast of Gravelbourg when the hamlets of Courval (parish of St-Joseph) and Coderre (parish of St-Charles) originated respectively in 1908 and 1910. The settlers came from the Eastern Townships in Quebec as well as from North Dakota; today their descendants number about 400–500.

The town of Ponteix, about 70 km west of Gravelbourg, had its origins when Père Royer arrived in 1907. First called Notre-Dame-d’Auvergne, it was renamed Ponteix after Père Royer’s home parish near Clermont-Ferrand, France. The first settlers came from Auvergne as well as from Belgium. At Lac-Pelletier (where the parish of Ste-Anne was founded in 1906), to the northwest, the Métis were joined by Québecois in 1906–07, then by immigrants from France in 1910. To the north of Ponteix, Vanguard (where the parish of St-Joseph was established in 1908) and Pambrun were settled partly by French-speaking farmers from the Eastern Townships in Quebec, from the United States, and from Belgium and France in 1908–09. To the southwest, the hamlet of Frenchville (where the parish of St-Joseph came into being in 1909) was settled in 1909–10 by immigrants from France and Belgium. To the west, the settlement expanded to include the Gouverneur district and the village of Cadillac (named after Antoine de Lamothe Cadillac, governor of Nouvelle France), where the parish of Notre-Dame-de-la-Confiance was organized in 1914. To the south, the settlement expanded into ranching grasslands. Today there are approximately 1,500 people of French origin in these areas. The town of Ponteix remains largely French, whereas in the small villages of Cadillac, Pambrun, and Vanguard the French are a minority.

Meanwhile, other French settlements had developed in the southwestern region. In 1908–10, the community of Valroy (later Dollard, named after Adam Dollard des Ormeaux, a Quebec hero in 1660), 70 km west of Cadillac, was established by settlers from Quebec and various French settlements on the prairies as well as by some Belgian families. Today their descendants number about 500 in the predominantly French community of Dollard, where the parish of Ste-Jeanne-d’Arc was founded in 1908, in the nearby towns of Eastend and Shaunavon, and in the surrounding rural districts at the eastern end of the Cypress Hills.

Almost 50 km south of Cadillac, Val-Marie, originally a Métis settlement, developed in 1910 when immigrants from France were brought in by Père Passaplan, who also contributed to the settlement of Lac-Pelletier; today their descendants number about 500, and approximately half of the population is French. The central parish is La-Nativité-de-Val-Marie (1910); later a second church, Notre-Dame-de-la-Présentation (1938), was organized in the neighbouring Masefield area, settled in 1926.

Approximately one-third of all the French-origin population in Saskatchewan lives in the northern tier of settlements, an almost equal number in the southern tier, and the remaining third in the major cities and in ethnically mixed areas not included within settlements. By 1971 there were almost 20,000 people of French origin in the six largest urban centres. Yet these urban minorities are proportionately insignificant within the total urban population, and they tend to be quite anglicized, the majority speaking English as their mother tongue (54% in urban areas, compared to 34% in rural areas in 1971). They are served by only five French-language parishes, although by 1977 six of the fifteen “écoles désignées” (designated schools offering French-language instruction in a variety of subjects) and both bilingual university programs were in the larger urban centres. Saskatoon and Regina have the largest number of French people, whereas Prince Albert and North Battleford have the highest proportion.

Alan Anderson


Further Reading

Frémont, D. 1980. Les Français dans L’Ouest canadien. St-Boniface: Les Editions du Blé; Lapointe, R. and L. Tessier. 1986. Histoire des Franco-Canadiens de la Saskatchewan. Regina: Société historique de la Saskatchewan.