French Education in Saskatchewan

French education has been an integral part of the linguistic history of our province since before 1905 and encompasses a rich and challenging past. The history of French education begins with the linguistic and education rights promised to French Canadians outside of Quebec which led to the development and implementation in 1995 of Saskatchewan’s only francophone school division, la Division scolaire francophone No. 310 . It offers a complete Pre-K–12 curriculum in a highly varied program tailored to meet the academic, cultural, and linguistic needs of francophone students throughout the province.

The North-West Territories Act of 1875 granted the establishment of separate schools to minority Protestant or Catholic ratepayers in the North-West Territories based on religious practice. Instruction could be in French or English according to the wishes of the majority of the ratepayers. By 1885, four Catholic public schools were in operation: Duck Lake, Bellevue, St. Louis, and St. Laurent, all within the future confines of our province. These four schools were effectively French Catholic. A subsequent law promulgated in 1888, however, limited French instruction by obliging schools to teach in English at the primary levels. In 1892, allowance for French instruction was reinstated, but French-Canadian Catholics no longer had the right to manage their own schools.

When Saskatchewan became a province in 1905, it followed in principle the tenets of section 93 of the British North America Act which had confirmed that French was one of the two official languages of Canada and that minority education rights would be protected. In 1905, however, there were no provisions concerning French education. It was a law called La Loi de la Saskatchewan that provided for the establishment of separate schools. The federal government under Sir Wilfrid Laurier, using the rights of Catholics under existing laws, tried to re-establish a religion-based education system when Alberta and Saskatchewan became provinces. However, under heavy protest by radical lobby groups such as the Orange Order, and the weakening of the government position with the resignation of Clifford Sifton, Laurier’s Minister of the Interior, the provisions of 1892 were retained.

Four years after becoming part of Canada, English was the only language of instruction in Saskatchewan with French instruction limited to the primary grades even though French, among other languages, was present in many communities. It was only in 1915 that provincial laws actually stated that French could be taught. Again, in 1917 these laws were amended to limit French instruction to Grade 1. The French community protested and the ensuing lobby resulted in a further modification of the law so that in 1918, only one hour of French instruction per day was allowed. Subsequently, in 1925, the ACFC (Association catholique franco-canadienne de la Saskatchewan) assumed full responsibility for the French program by establishing a curriculum, purchasing and distributing textbooks and supplies, carrying out periodic evaluations of its program, instituting a system of annual examinations, awards, and diplomas, and ensuring a supply of qualified teachers, all without any government support until the mid 1960s.

During these early years, the negative reactions of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) were severely affecting the French-Catholic community. By 1925, the KKK had many followers in Saskatchewan who protested against religious dress of nuns and brothers who taught in ACFC schools, the use of religious images and symbols, and the use of the French language.

In 1931, the provincial government led by Premier J.T.M. Anderson declared English to be the only language of instruction in the entire province. The Education Act still allowed for one hour of French instruction per day but practically the language of instruction had to be English. In school districts where school trustees adopted the appropriate resolutions, the French course could be taught during the school day. In some cases, it was taught after school, on weekends, in parish halls, and usually on a volunteer basis.

By 1944, French-Catholic communities faced another challenge with the adoption of the Larger School Unit Act which forced the amalgamation of school districts, and consequently, French Catholics found themselves in a minority situation in all school units. Though French Catholics were still a majority in a large number of school districts in areas where they had been established, they did not control a single Larger School Unit in the whole province. Assimilation took root and numbers of French-language speakers dwindled. As a result, some French communities disappeared as linguistic entities.

It was not until 1965 that the tide would change with Saskatoon French-Catholic students going on strike, fighting for catechism to be taught in French. Following this public demonstration, the Department of Education established the Tait Commission to investigate the problem, and also created a supervisor position within the Department responsible for French instruction. One year later, the Education Act was amended to allow the use of French as the language of instruction for the one hour per day and the half hour of religious instruction. In 1968, another revision allowed for the establishment of designated schools: Type “A” schools that could now teach as much as 80% in French, and Type “B” schools that offered a variable amount of teaching time in French (usually about 50%). It was also during this decade that the term “francophone” came into use when referring to French Catholics or those of French descent.

In this same year, the federal government recognized French and English as the two official languages of Canada. This would have far-reaching consequences on the Education Act and its regulations in Saskatchewan. First, in 1972 the Department of Education named a second French-language consultant, and in 1976 the Ready Commission presented its recommendations regarding the teaching of languages in Saskatchewan. More importantly, the 1978 amendments to article 180 of the School Act provided for Area Minority Language Schools which could offer programs using any minority language as the language of instruction. The right to education in the minority language was later spelled out in the Federal Charter of Rights in 1982.

These events resulted from Canada-wide lobbying and a number of challenges before the Courts on the part of the francophone community and most notably the ACFC, now called the Association Communautaire Fransaskoise de la Saskatchewan. Their efforts, along with those of local francophone school boards, were pivotal in creation of the Official Minority Language Office in Saskatchewan within the Department of Education. This office, formed in 1980, would be responsible for all French education in the province. Following this, the early 1980s witnessed symposiums regarding the needs of French education. In time, the province would witness the implementation of the particulars of Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that guaranteed to all official language minorities the right of instruction in one’s mother tongue. Also instrumental in this process were the francophone parents who used a Court challenge in 1987 to obtain their rights because they felt that the Charter of Rights had not been respected. In the mid-1980s, the Department of Education published in French the policies on Core Curriculum followed by the development and implementation of French curricula until about 1998.

During the implementation of Core Curriculum, important legislation was being drafted concerning francophone schools. Saskatchewan’s francophone parents issued a Court challenge in late 1987 at the Court of Queen’s Bench to obtain control of their own school board. The Court’s decision, rendered the following year, recognized the francophone community rights to French education and granted them control over their own school system. Additional challenges were met and finally amendments to the Education Act in 1994 created a third public and legal entity of education in the province (in addition to the public and separate school divisions), to administer francophone education. Nine regional francophone boards were established, which in 1999, for optimum efficiency, grew into one single provincial school division called la Division scolaire francophone No. 310. Core Curriculum was implemented in French beginning in 1988. As part of this initiative, the particular needs of francophone students were considered. Since 1994-95, the notion of integrating and developing the Fransaskois culture and identity has become an important focus for curriculum development and implementation at the Official Minority Language Office.

In 2004 in the francophone school division, there were twelve schools, with a student population of about 1,039. The school division administers pre-schools in all of its jurisdictions and before and after-school daycares in many others. One main area of focus from pre-school to Grade 12 is the nourishing of French identity, language, and culture as they pertain to students, parents, and the teaching community living in a minority milieu. It is the undying determination and political action of the francophone community and fellow stakeholders that has made French language education a reality for francophone students in Saskatchewan.

The needs and rights of francophones were etched into Saskatchewan’s linguistic history. Most notably, the Official Languages Act of 1968 would be equally instrumental in providing a bilingual education for students outside of the francophone school community. This law declared Canada to be an officially bilingual country, and as previously indicated, the provinces would continue to have jurisdiction over education. Soon after the passing of this law, Saskatchewan would see the establishment of French immersion schools and formal Core French programs. The administration of these three programs continues to be managed by the Official Minority Language Office at Saskatchewan Learning.

Estelle D'Almeida

Further Reading

Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages. 2001. Canadian Linguistic Facts and Figures: Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada; Martel, Angéline. 2001. Rights, Schools and Communities in Mimority Contexts: 1986-2002. Ottawa: Minister of Public Works and Government Services Canada.