Community Governance of the Francophone Minority: a Cultural Heritage

par Johnson, Marc L.

Convention d'orientation nationale des Acadiens, Edmundston, N.B., 1979.

As a whole, the francophone minority in Canada has survived and is developing thanks to a constant investment in what could be called community governance, that is, the forms of organization that it has adopted in order to form a group and to influence public authorities. Governance of the francophone minority, now woven throughout the fabric of the country, was formed gradually to protect against the attacks of an often-hostile majority. By its persistence and its resilience, this governance is rich in lessons learned and is an integral part of French cultural heritage in North America.


Article disponible en français : Gouvernance communautaire de la minorité francophone : un patrimoine culturel

Francophone minority governance today 

Canadian Francophonie is multifaceted. In this article, we will distinguish francophone Québec from the rest of Canada. Québec is today by far the least minority-like francophone group in Canada. It hardly ever identifies itself today as a minority, even though sociologically it is certainly a linguistic minority in the larger context of North America. 

Francophone minority governance finds its true expression and vitality nowadays in the rest of Canada. It is like a pyramid, from the local level through the provincial or territorial to the cross-Canada level. At the top, a Fédération des communautés francophones et acadienne joins with the associations that represent most sectors of civil society (children, young people, women, seniors, arts and culture, heritage, sports, education, literacy, media, health, economic development, professions, etc.). The same range of organizations is found in the provinces and territories. At the base are numerous groups and committees; a recent count found more than 800 francophone organizations! And this number no doubt does not include many small groups that manage without government funding. 

First meeting of the Fédération des francophones de la Nouvelle-Écosse, in 1969

Government support, however, is one of the main characteristics of this constellation of francophone minority groups. They began in the 1960s to form in all regions and in all sectors thanks to the support provided by Canadian language policy. But this was not always the case. 

Before the 1960s, French Canada included the French-speaking people of Québec and of all provinces as far as the Pacific; Acadia completed the picture as far as the Atlantic. The specific nature of Québec in this Francophonie was less clear than today, and the structures of francophone governance were already being formed in a pan-Canadian network. In fact, the identity border was between Acadia and Québec, reinforced by distinct institutions.


Acadian governance in the past 

The awakening of the Acadian community goes back to the end of the nineteenth century. A new class of clergy and professionals proclaimed the Acadian renaissance, and set up governance structures to create community cohesion and to ensure collective mediation in dealing with government. This turning point was marked by the Conventions nationales des Acadiens beginning in 1881. These were great meetings during which thousands of representatives of Acadian communities discussed common problems, and adopted positions and national symbols (for example, the flag and the national day). The 1881 convention founded the Société nationale de l’Assomption, which is today the Société nationale de l’Acadie, and which presided over about a dozen conventions between 1884 and 1965, with the goal of ensuring the continuity and development of Acadian communities. 

At that time, when the clergy played a predominant role in community governance, the Vatican was asked to name a first Acadian Catholic bishop. French-language Catholic newspapers were published and subscribed to, the founding of schools was promoted, as well as the colonization of new communities, discouraging of emigration to the United States, modernization of agriculture, etc. 

Convention d'orientation nationale des Acadiens, Edmundston, N.B., 1979.

A number of institutions grew out of this movement, including the newspapers Le Moniteur acadien (1867), L’Évangeline (1887), and Le Madawaska (1913); associations for education in French in Prince Edward Island (1893), in New Brunswick (1936) and in Nova Scotia (1949); the Société mutuelle l’Assomption (1903), the first Acadian Catholic bishop (1912), the Société Saint-Thomas d’Aquin (1919), the first Acadian caisse populaire, and a multitude of institutions of higher learning. 

Charter of the Commanderie Alexandre-A.-Taché (Edmonton, Alberta) of the Ordre de Jacques Cartier, September 1930.

With the support of federal language policy since the 1960s, each of the Atlantic provinces acquired the full arsenal of francophone and Acadian community institutions, including the Fédération acadienne de la Nouvelle-Écosse (1968), the Société de l’Acadie du Nouveau-Brunswick (1973) and the Fédération des francophones de Terre-Neuve et du Labrador (1973).

One of the organizations that played an important role in minority governance is the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, also known as “la Patente”. Active in French Canada and in Acadia from 1927 to 1965, it worked secretly to provide for the common interests of French-language Catholics in Canada, by forming a militant elite present in all circles of power. Fiercely traditional and elitist, it lost ground when francophone civil society developed outside its sphere, with the aid of federal grants and the building up of the Québec state.


French-Canadian governance in the past 

French Canada, long established in Québec, gradually spread west from the eighteenth century onwards, and especially from the nineteenth, along with the Catholic church with its religious orders, colleges and parishes. Around the Church, a minority governance grew up, including the Ordre de Jacques-Cartier, the Conseil de la vie française en Amérique, and the Sociétés Saint-Jean-Baptiste (SSJB)which make up a true conglomerate.

The SSJB was founded in 1834 in Montréal, around the same leaders who chose 24 June – the feast of St John the Baptist – as the national holiday of French Canada. Under the aegis of the Catholic church, it gradually formed a network across French Canada and even in New England. In addition to its work of symbolic commemoration and mutual economic aid, it acted as a political representative of French Canadians. Moved by a spirit of reconquest, it promoted and then defended the French Canadian community in Ontario and Western Canada. Beginning in the 1950s, it became more centred on Québec, and supported the sovereigntist option, although its heritage is still present in the rest of French Canada. 

Ontario (Upper Canada), because of its proximity to Quebec (Lower Canada), had French-speaking residents from early times. However, the French-language community really began to grow only from the second half of the nineteenth century, with the establishment of the Catholic diocese of Bytown (1847), the Institut canadien-français d’Ottawa (1852), the Conseil des écoles séparées d’Ottawa (1856), the Ottawa newspaper Le Progrès (1858), the Union Saint-Joseph (1863), etc. As in other parts of Canada, the continuing threat to French-language schools led to the creation of the Association canadienne-française d’éducation d’Ontario (the present Assemblée de la francophonie de l’Ontario), just before the crisis of Regulation 17 in 1912, which officially suspended teaching in French in Ontario for fifteen years. 

Meeting of the Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste of Wauchope, Saskatchewan, June 27, 1909.

In the Western provinces, SSJB branches were set up in many communities from the end of the nineteenth century, for example before 1885 in North Battleford, in 1893 in La Broquerie, and in 1894 in Edmonton. Other francophone associations were formed, for example the Union canadienne-française of Vancouver in 1905 and the Association catholique de la jeunesse canadienne-française in Edmonton in 1913. In Manitoba, the Union nationale métisse Saint-Joseph has since 1887 shown the determination of this community to maintain its francophone identity. Together, these associations have felt the need to speak with one voice to the governments of their provinces or to Ottawa, especially since French-language schools are threatened everywhere. In this way provincial representation has been gradually established. 

Teachers’ picket line at the École Brébeuf

As in Acadia, large meetings (conventions, congresses, etc.) brought out the leaders of francophone communities, who agreed to put in place structures of minority governance. In 1911, the French Canadians of Saskatchewan held their first national convention and, two years later, founded the Association catholique franco-canadienne de la Saskatchewan (the present Assemblée communautaire fransaskoise). In Alberta, after a meeting of 400 people, the Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta was created in 1925. Then in 1945, the first French-language congress was held under the patronage of St John the Baptist, and the Fédération canadienne-française de la Colombie-Britannique (the present Fédération des francophones de la Colombie-Britannique) was born. In Manitoba, the Association d’éducation des Canadiens-français du Manitoba was founded in 1916, after a law abolishing French-language education. It was succeeded by the present-day Société franco-manitobaine in 1968.

Throughout Canada and in Acadia, these pioneer organizations furthered the creation of sectorial organizations which gradually formed the minority governance that we know today. This governance, historically anchored and socially recognized, nevertheless faces considerable challenges.


Minority governance and its challenges 

As we have seen, the survival of the French-language minority could never be taken for granted. It has been maintained by constant, repeated effort, by collective mobilization and by struggles with the authorities. With the francophone minority, community governance has always followed the same pattern of development. Militant associations have been founded, usually at the local level, to meet a threat or to advance a collective strategy. When the time comes, they have joined together to speak more strongly at the provincial level or in all of Canada. From an overall approach, the organizations then concentrate on different sectors and gradually cover all the ground. When the majority seemed unable or unwilling to understand, the voice of the minority has grown and spoken like thunder, with great gatherings that have relaunched the movement. This governance, though collective, has come in particular from the French-speaking elites, at first closely linked to the Church, and later more secular and related to professions. 

Representatives of the 33 organizations that signed the Déclaration du Sommet des communautés francophones et acadienne, Ottawa, June 3, 2007.

Minorities must by nature become active and innovative, to avoid being forced to conform to the norms of the majority. Thus whenever the English-Canadian majority has tried to assimilate its French-language minority, the latter has resisted and has invented forms of governance that give it a body and a voice. This historical process continues, as minority governance continues to spread to economic development and immigration, from schools to health services, in its latest manifestations of the inherited ability of Canadian Francophonie. Governance is also studies and analyzed from within, for example with the project Notre gouvernance, undertaken by the 2007 Sommet des communautés francophones et acadiennes, the research program Les savoirs de la gouvernance communautaire, and institutions such as the Observatoire de la gouvernance de l’Ontario français. 

But, as with any form of representation, the legitimacy of minority governance is subject to question. One of the few studies on the subject suggests that half of minority francophones do not feel that they are supported by the community leaders who are supposed to represent them. This question was raised at the 2007 Sommet. However vital and innovative it may be, governance of the francophone minority is a perpetual challenge to be met.

Marc L. Johnson
Sociologist and researcher, Institut canadien de recherche sur les minorités linguistiques




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