Linguistic History of Canada

Canada and Linguistic Policies of Non-Intervention

Politics in Canada in 1867

The Canada of 1867 bore little resemblance to the Canada of today. It was a sparsely populated country of 3.4 million inhabitants (3.7 million by 1871) divided between four provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick. Despite its vast stretches of wilderness, Canada was no longer an "archipelago of British colonies." It was turning into a country, but as yet only in the east; 76% of Canadians lived in Ontario or Quebec, and the rest in the Maritimes.

Canada of 1867

©Jacques Leclerc 2018

Canada's population broke down as follows according to the 1871 census data:










New Brunswick



Nova Scotia






©Jacques Leclerc 2018

Of course, the Canada of 1867 bore little resemblance to the Canada of today, because it was much smaller. However other British colonies existed in the rest of the area covered by Canada today: Newfoundland (146,536) and Prince Edward Island (94,021) in the east, British Columbia (10,586) in the far west, and Rupert's Land (undetermined population) in the vast region between B.C. and Ontario that extended across present-day Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut, as well as part of Ontario and Quebec.

Terminology – Confederation or Federation?

Since 1867, people have often used Canadian Confederation as the long name for Canada. Officially, however, Dominion of Canada was the name chosen in 1867, but it fell out of use. Later the "Federal Union" came to be known simply as the Confederation, a word still used today to designate the country. Nevertheless the term Confederation has no official or legal status and is found nowhere in the Canadian Constitution of 1867. In the 19th century, the terms federation and confederation were employed as synonyms.

For simplicity's sake, one could say that the Dominion of Canada came into being on July 1, 1867, with the confederation of four provinces (Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick) of British North America into a Federal Union. In 1867, Canada was still a British colony, and would stay one until 1931 with the proclamation of the Statute of Westminster (London).

In actual fact, contemporary Canada is a federation, not a confederation. The latter term is used today to designate a union of independent states having delegated by treaty certain government jurisdictions to a central government. That is why we speak of the Helvetian Confederation (the cantons have retained their political sovereignty), or Swiss Confederation as it became on April 18, 1999. The term federation refers to a union of associated states into a single federal state with two levels of government. There are numerous examples of federations around the world: the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Belgium, Russia, South Africa, etc.

From Confederation on, the Anglophone inhabitants of Canada began to call themselves Canadians, rendering the French word Canadiens (which designated French-speaking Canadians) obsolete. French-speaking Canadians came to be systematically known as French Canadians (Canadiens français) as opposed to English Canadians (Canadiens anglais).

For more information, please consult the section Foundations of this site

Fields of Jurisdiction

At the time of Canada's creation in 1867, the system was set up as a federal one, with powers divided up between the centre (federal authorities) and the provinces (provincial powers with a government in each province). Sections 91 and 92 of the Constitution of 1867 set out their respective areas of jurisdiction:

Federal jurisdiction

  • Trade
  • Taxes
  • Mail
  • Militia and defence
  • Currency and banks
  • Indian policies
  • Criminal law
  • Residual powers (fields not mentioned in the British North America Act)
  • Right of disallowance over the provinces
  • Provincial jurisdiction
  • Public lands and forests
  • Health system
  • Municipal institutions
  • Marriage
  • Property and civil laws
  • Education
  • Commercial licensing
  • Provincial constitutions
  • Shared jurisdiction
  • Agriculture
  • Companies and economic development
  • Prisons and justice systems
  • Fisheries
  • Public works
  • Transportations and communications
  • Immigration

Source: "Acte de l'Amérique du Nord britannique," in Gérald-A. Beaudoin, La Constitution du Canada, Montréal, Wilson et Lafleur, 1990, p. 849-902.

Although generally speaking federal authorities are responsible for matters of general and national interest, and provincial governments for regional matters, the defining line between the jurisdictions of the two levels is not quite clear. It is not easy to determine what constitute "general affairs" (federal government) and "local affairs" (provincial governments), given that both levels of government are at once independent and complementary. This has led to regular jurisdictional spats in the course of Canada's history, notably on language matters.

The Power of Disallowance

In 1867, the Canadian government won the power to disallow any law of a provincial assembly in the year following its passage. This power was used extensively in the four subsequent decades. Between 1867 and 1876, the federal government overturned 20 provincial statutes; then 32 between 1877 and 1886; 13 between 1887 and 1896; 22 between 1897 and 1906; and 8 between 1907 and 1916, for a total of 95. Over the same period, the lieutenant-governors of the provinces refused Royal assent to 64 acts of provincial legislatures (called "reserved acts"). The grand total of disallowed and reserved acts was thus 159.

After a long fight by Ontario, the Privy Council in London recognized the sovereignty of the provinces in their spheres of jurisdiction. The Federal Parliament lost the right to disallow provincial statutes as it saw fit, putting an end to the abuse practices of centralizing prime ministers, John Alexander Macdonald being prominent among them. The power of disallowance was rarely used thereafter, and the country's political evolution served to strengthen the hand of the provinces within Confederation. The power of disallowance still legally exists, but it is no longer used. On occasion, special interest groups try to get the federal government to apply it against unpopular provincial legislation.

British North America Act of 1867 and Linguistic Question

The 1867 Constitution was officially adopted on March 29, 1867, under the name British North America Act 1867, 30–31 Victoria, c. 3 (U.K.) by the Parliament of Westminster. It came into force at noon on July 1, 1867, turning Canada into the Dominion of Canada. In 1982, the British North America Act was renamed the Constitution Act, 1867. Interestingly enough, Canada does not possess a constitution, i.e., a single document, but some thirty constitutional texts (for details, see the Legislative Framework section of this website). The constitutional text of 1867 is still in effect today and is an integral part of what is called the Canadian Constitution. On July 1, 1867, Toronto's Globe saluted the birth of a new white, English, Protestant Canada in these terms:

We salute the birth of a new nation. A united English America four million inhabitants strong takes its place today among the great nations of the world.


John Alexander Macdonald, the first prime minister of Canada, expressed his notions of equality between the two languages joined together in the Confederation thus:

I disagree with the viewpoint expressed in certain quarters that we must somehow attempt to suppress one language or place it in an inferior position with regard to the other; any such attempt is doomed to failure, and even were it possible, would be foolish and petty.

In George-Étienne Cartier's opinion, the Constitution of 1867 needed to accord Quebec sufficient autonomy to protect its language, religion, and tradition of civil law. For George Brown, 1867 marked the end of French domination over Canada and the advent of a new British nationality; at the Quebec Conference in 1864, he exclaimed, "Is it not wonderful? French Canadianism entirely extinguished!" But nothing happened as planned, with hard reality having a tendency to intervene.

The Constitution Act, 1867, which is still in effect today, contains only a single section on language, section 133. It stipulates that members have the right to use English or French in the Parliament of Canada and the Legislature of the Province of Quebec, as do citizens in any proceedings before a federal court of Canada or a court of Quebec. It is worded thus:

Section 133

1) Either the English or the French Language may be used by any Person in the Debates of the Houses of the Parliament of Canada and of the Houses of the Legislature of Quebec; and both those Languages shall be used in the respective Records and Journals of those Houses; and either of those Languages may be used by any Person or in any Pleading or Process in or issuing from any Court of Canada established under this Act, and in or from all or any of the Courts of Quebec.

2) The Acts of the Parliament of Canada and of the Legislature of Quebec shall be printed and published in both those Languages.

It is important to understand that section 133 did not institute official bilingualism in Canada as a whole; it simply permitted the use of English and French in the Federal Parliament, the Quebec Legislature, and the courts of the province of Quebec and those still to be created by the federal government. It could even be said that English and French were not recognized at all as official languages.

In the 19th century, the notion of a bilingual country had scarcely taken root and flew in the face of the notion of the nation state, i.e., a country perceived as having a single language and a single "race" (a very popular term at the time). English Canadians could not even conceive of a nation with two official languages, although examples did exist (e.g., Switzerland). That's why there was no talk of institutional bilingualism, let alone official bilingualism. Although recognition of the two languages was limited to two precise areas (legislation and federal courts), English and French did achieve real legal status, although without being enshrined per se as official languages. Of the four original provinces, only Quebec was required under the 1867 Constitution to be bilingual, but there, too, without the languages being declared official.

In actual fact, the Constitution Act, 1867, did not commit the federal government, the federal civil service, or Quebec to bilingualism. All it did was create what Franco-Ontarian legal scholar Gérald-Armand Beaudoin (1929 – 2008) called "an embryo of official bilingualism." The purpose of Section 133 had never been to impose an institutional framework on language. Today one might say the law had loose ends, but institutional bilingualism was a rare commodity in 1867, even non-existent. Only the Swiss Federation had any such system, but it is unlikely the drafters of the Constitution—essentially John A. Macdonald—consulted the Swiss constitution of the day (which was written in German and French). At most, they looked at existing statutes in the British colonies, none of which was bilingual. So this "embryo of bilingualism" was no cause for surprise. It wasn't common practice at the time. In fact, some viewed it as excessively tolerant!

Examples of bilingualism could be found in the administrative, judicial, school, and other systems of certain countries (Switzerland, Belgium, Finland, Italy, etc.), but few bilingualism provisions enshrined in legal texts, i.e., a constitution or statute. It also needs to be remembered that those who negotiated the Constitution, the "Fathers of Confederation" as they are known, had only a single model to guide them—that of the United Kingdom, which had chased all the minority languages (Welsh, Gaelic, Irish, Manks) from its midst in favour of the unifying power of English. In the case of Canada, the embryo of legislative and judicial bilingualism was probably perceived as an almost revolutionary advance. 

Legislative Bilingualism

In practice, the two languages could never be equal in Parliament because anyone speaking in French was not understood by the English majority, and vice versa. Simultaneous interpretation was not introduced until 1969. This meant that Francophones members and senators generally had to be bilingual, particularly if they wanted to occupy important posts. Debates in English would have seemed excruciatingly long to unilingual Francophones. So English became the language of communication in Parliament. When a member wanted to be understood, he had to use English or risk seeing two-thirds of the assembly get up and leave.

The rules at the time called for motions to be read in both languages and bills to be printed in English and French. However, working documents and briefs to parliamentary committees were generally in English only. Most regulations were issued in English, except for those intended for the whole country or Quebec. In all other cases, written materials were prepared and released in English only, including Cabinet orders in council. Although certain texts in the Official Gazette had to be translated, only the English version was official. In other words, if English was the working language, French could only be a language of translation. Putting the two on an equal footing wasby no means an easy task.


There was also the problem of drafting and translating laws. To be valid, the English and French versions had to be enacted together. But in the decades after 1867 it became obvious that the laws of Parliament were always drafted in English and only translated into French. The French version was often very poor and required a knowledge of English to understand the real meaning of the law. Sometimes identical passages had different meanings in English and French, and in the worst cases could contradict each other. Obviously this could have dangerous consequences, since both versions had force of law. When problems cropped up due to contradictory versions, a bilingual amendment had to be passed to change the version that was wrong (generally the French). Some legal scholars held that it was simply impossible to reconcile two different legal systems (common law and French law) that had different writing styles. In 1922, Judge Adjutor Rivard (18678 – 1945) of the Court of Queen's Bench had this to say:

How an Englishman develops an idea, for instance, bears little resemblance to how a Frenchman would do the same. The mentality, the way of thinking, the method is different. We can grasp the idea of a law in one language and express it but poorly in another. Unless the two tongues share a same spirit and the two peoples an identical intellectual process, any attempt at translation will be vain unless one first completely assimilates the legal notion to be transplanted, which in itself alters the essence, introduces new viewpoints, reorders both the details and the whole according to a new economy, and in the end presents a new conception of the law, with all the attendant changes to make it fit another manner of thinking, doing, and speaking. Any other method of borrowing shall assuredly lead to deplorable consequences.

In the 1980s, the federal government would find solutions to these problems by calling on two drafting committees, one English and the other French, and a third to reconcile the two versions.

Judicial Bilingualism

When the Constitution was adopted in 1867, there were no federal courts in Canada. However, section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867, provided for Parliament to create a general court of appeal and other courts of law. The Supreme Court would be the first federal court created under this provision, in 1875. Later came the Exchequer Court (now Federal Court), court martials, and the courts of Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

Legal Bilingualism

When the Supreme Court of Canada was created, it was made up of six judges, two of whom had to be from Quebec. In 1927, the number of judges was increased to seven, but Quebec's representation remained unchanged. It wasn't until 1949 that the number of judges went to nine and the number of Quebec judges to three. However, nothing said the Quebec judges had to be Francophone.

The Supreme Court was not a particular favourite of Francophones. Already in 1880, many were complaining about the role it accorded French. It was impossible to plead in French before a court made up of six unilingual English judges, and, for the whole first century, Francophone lawyers felt obliged to plead in English if they wanted to represent their clients well. Francophone judges had to write their notes in English to be understood by their colleagues. And Supreme Court legal reports were never published in French. The same was true of other federal courts, too.

In fact, The Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism (also known as the Laurendeau-Dunton Commission came to the troubling conclusion in 1969 that judicial bilingualism was a failure. In 1967, Commission member Peter H. Russell noted that "the evidence is clear…by any reasonable measure of bilingualism, the Court has failed." In other words, although de jure equals, English and French were not de facto equals, since the workings of the Court required Francophone lawyers to use English extensively. Research by the Laurendeau-Dunton commission revealed that 90% of judgments were rendered in English only between 1877 and 1882. Among those rendered in French only was one by Justice Télésphore Fournier (1823 – 1869), who received a letter from the publisher of the Canadian Law Journal complaining that Supreme Court judgments were being published "in a foreign language." Before 1963, all summaries, even of judgments handed down in French, were written exclusively in English.

Moreover, it was still possible to appeal Supreme Court decisions to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of Great Britain, which operated entirely in English. The committee, formed in 1833, had authority over Canadian courts from 1844 until 1949. It served as the true last court of appeal for Canada, and rendered numerous judgments on matters concerning the Canadian Constitution. It wasn't until 1949 that the Supreme Court of Canada became the highest court in the land.

So the situation remained uncomfortable for Francophones through 100 years of Confederation—and not just in the Supreme Court. When other federal courts were created, provincial courts were put in charge of enforcing the laws. That way, the Federal Parliament could extract itself from its bilingualism obligations under section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867. Had the federal government of the time used its own courts, bilingualism would have been mandatory. Obviously, the situation would later change, but it took time.

Educational Rights under the 1867 Constitution

Section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867, protected the educational rights of religious minorities wherever these rights had been recognized prior to 1867. These were not "language rights" but "confessional rights," except that Francophones used them to try to protect their French Catholic schools. The school was a "linguistic refuge" for Francophones outside Quebec and Anglophones inside Quebec. Section 93 reads as follows:

Section 93

In and for each Province the Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Education, subject and according to the following Provisions:--

1) Nothing in any such Law shall prejudicially affect any Right or Privilege with respect to Denominational Schools which any Class of Persons have by Law in the Province at the Union;

2) All the Powers, Privileges and Duties at the Union by Law conferred and imposed in Upper Canada on the Separate Schools and School Trustees of the Queen's Roman Catholic Subjects shall be and the same are hereby extended to the Dissentient Schools of the Queen's Protestant and Roman Catholic Subjects in Quebec;

3) Where in any Province a System of Separate or Dissentient Schools exists by Law at the Union or is thereafter established by the Legislature of the Province, an Appeal shall lie to the Governor General in Council from any Act or Decision of any Provincial Authority affecting any Right or Privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic Minority of the Queen's Subjects in relation to Education;

4) In case any such Provincial Law as from Time to Time seems to the Governor General in Council requisite for the Execution of the Provisions of this Section is not made, or in case any Decision of the Governor General in Council on any Appeal under this Section is not duly executed by the proper Provincial Authority in that Behalf, then and in every such Case, and as far as the Circumstances of each Case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial Laws for the due Execution of the Provisions of this Section and of any Decision of the Governor General in Council under this Section.

Section 93 A

Paragraphs 1) to 4) of section 93 do not apply to Quebec.

The French Canadian élites mobilized to have section 93 of the Constitution Act, 1867 respected and, especially in Ontario, used confessional schools as a "cultural and linguistic refuge." However, this constitutional provision proved quite ineffective at protecting the rights of the Francophone minority. Section 93 was too subject to political pressure by the Anglophone majority.

The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council of London's interpretation of it in 1916 appears quite restrictive today: "Language rights enjoy no constitutional protection, except the use of French in the courts and the parliaments of Ottawa and Quebec."

Policy of Non-Intervention

In the 100 years following the foundation of modern-day Canada in 1867 until the adoption of the Official Languages Act in 1969, the federal government (and its provincial counterparts) almost never legislated on language matters. When it did so, it was with regard to section 133, e.g., the publication or consolidation of laws or regulations. Federal language legislation was so rare, there are virtually no examples. Hence the expression "policy of non-intervention."

In principle, a non-interventionist policy is unwritten and unofficial, although the government can decide to state its intent, further its actions through administrative means, or even enact regulations, orders in council, or vague constitutional or legislative provisions. However, a non-interventionist government refrains from acting as arbitrator and is careful not to adopt specific legislative provisions. The principles of freedom of choice, tolerance, and the acceptance of differences are often invoked to justify such policies.

In Canada, successive governments stuck to the bare minimum provisions of section 133 of the Constitution (1867), with the result that for a century French remained a mere language of translation for statutes and regulations. The necessary structures were never put in place to implement bilingualism outside the legislative sphere or the smatterings found in the judicial system. After 1969, the situation would change radically, and even more so after 1982.


In brief, administrative bilingualism got short shrift in the decades after 1867. Henri Bourassa, the founder of Montreal's daily Le Devoir, started pushing for bilingualism in federal institutions in 1904. In February 1907, Henri Bourassa even supported a motion by MP de Montmagny, Armand Lavergne (1880 – 1935) which motioned for English and French to be on an equal footing in the minting of currencies and in the administration of the Post Office. The project was quickly withdrawn due to Prime Minister Laurier's refusal to adopt it. Lavergne reoffended in May, demanding, this time, the use of French in all federal public services. Lavigne did not harvest any support. But the matter had been raised nonetheless, particularly since many Francophones believed that the Canadian Confederation was a "pact between two nations" or two "founding peoples." Henri Bourassa was one such believer:

The basis of Confederation is the duality of races, the duality of languages, guaranteed by the equality of rights. This pact was to put an end to conflict between the races and the Churches, and assure us all, Catholic and protestant, French and English, a perfect equality of rights right across the Canadian Confederation.

The thesis of the "pact between two founding peoples" would be taken up again by Abbé Lionel Groulx (1867-1967) in the mid-forties and raised by a number of others, including in 1967 in the Laurendeau-Dunton Report on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. But it reposed on an ambiguous conception of the Confederation of 1867: For Francophones, it was a pact between two founding peoples, but for Anglophones, it was a pact among four provinces. This explains why the federal government tried between the wars to discredit the notion of "founding peoples" espoused in particular by the Francophones of Quebec and Ontario. This was also a period during which French was constantly on the retreat in the country's political, social, and economic life.

The Canadian Armed Forces were also a source of trouble. In early 1916 as the number of Canadian volunteers began to drop, certain English Canadians accused the Francophones of not doing their part. It was true that French Canadians were far from sharing their fellow countrymen's enthusiasm for the war. They had no particular affection for Great Britain, nor for that matter for France. They agreed to fight provided it was on a voluntary basis, which partly explains why there were fewer Francophone recruits. But there was also the matter of language. The army was still unilingual English, except for a single battalion that had been thrown together. English was still the only language in use at Army headquarters, and Francophone officers were few and far between. French Canadians couldn't be expected to enroll in the Canadian Army when it was perceived not only as "foreign", but also as assimilative

Mackenzie King

During the Second World War, only the Army had Francophone units. Commanding officers were overwhelming Anglophone and made English the language of communication. There was also the issue of conscription. At the war's start, all political parties agreed that enrollment would be voluntary, but this consensus broke down in 1942. But Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King (1874-1950) had promised Quebecers he would never introduce conscription. He therefore decided to ask the Canadian people to relieve him of his pledge never to use conscription. Since there were more voters in English Canada, the Francophone vote was cancelled out. Conscription won the day: 71.2% of Quebecers (and 85% of Francophones) voted NO, whereas 80% of the population in the rest of Canada voted YES. These were the results Mackenzie King feared the most, because they split the country along linguistic lines. On learning the news, he confided in his diary:

I thought of Durham's report on the state of Quebec when he arrived there after the Rebellion of 1837–1838, and said he found two nations warring in the bosom of a single state. That would be the case in Canada, as applied to Canada as a whole, unless the whole question of conscription from now on is approached with the utmost care.

Ever the politician, Prime Minister King put off conscription with a masterpiece of deliberate ambiguity: "Not necessarily conscription, but conscription if necessary." The meaning of necessary he did not make clear.

Concessions to bilingualism outside the framework of the Constitution were won through long fights that would leave people shaking their heads today: bilingual stamps in 1927, bilingual bank notes in 1936, bilingual cheques from the federal government in 1945 (in Quebec) and in 1962 (elsewhere), and of course the long-awaited bilingual manual of parliamentary procedure and bilingual menus at the Parliament Hill restaurant. In 1934, the government created the Translation Bureau so that the civil service, which up until then had been virtually unilingual, could communicate in French in Quebec, which it did in 1938.

Apart from the Constitution Act, 1867, adopted by the British Parliament, the first Canadian statute of a linguistic nature dates from 1938. Despite opposition from Anglophone ministers and Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King, Quebec MP Wilfrid Lacroix managed to have a law passed aimed at preventing civil servants who did not speak French from being transferred to Quebec. Subsequent initiatives on behalf of French met with general indifference.

Union Jack and Canada flags

Meanwhile, Francophone minorities in the other provinces were ignored. It wasn't until 1958 that the Civil Service Commission decided that civil servants in bilingual communities should be able to communicate in both official languages. Then in 1965 the Maple Leaf replaced the Union Jack as the country's flag, the late 1960s saw the advent of official bilingualism in Canada, and in 1980 a bilingual national anthem was adopted in replacement of God Save the Queen.

All these facts show that successive federal governments long practiced a policy of non-intervention, sticking to the letter of the 1867 Constitution. Yet even though it was apparent the language provisions of section 133 carried little weight, they served as a foundation for the future language policies that would progressively emerge after 1969 within the federal government apparatus and in certain provinces.

Among the four founding provinces of Canada in 1867, only Quebec was forced to be bilingual, and only somewhat so in its legislature and courts. It may appear odd today that negotiators at the time did not suggest the same rights and obligations for all the provinces, i.e., force Ontario, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick to be bilingual, too. After all, the three provinces had large Francophone minorities, just like Quebec had an Anglophone minority. But the fact of the matter was, doing so was unthinkable. English Canadians in 1867 considered Canada to be an English country of British origin, and the English-French bilingualism already permitted in the Union was perceived as a sign of great tolerance it is the egalitarian vision that one would have today, but at that time, it was deemed unfathomable. It was deemed normal that British Canada would be peopled by British people who spoke English.

During the same era, the Belgian government dominated by Francophones was conducting a policy of unilingualism toward the Flemish without raising indignation elsewhere in the world. Other similar examples could be found in the Europe of the day, such as in Finland (with Russian), Poland (with Russian), Estonia (with Russian), Ireland (with English), Ukraine (with Russian), etc. One should also remember that English Canadians had the example of the British Isles to follow, where Welsh, Gaelic, and Irish had been wiped out in favour of English. Throughout the British Empire, English alone was official, whether in the West Indies (Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago, Dominica, etc.), Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, etc. It was the same in Canada—unilingualism was perceived as the normal way to run a country, or more precisely, a nation-state. Obviously, it was not very mindful of the individual and group rights of minorities, but the evolution of customs and mentalities would take many more decades before leading to greater equity. The whole matter was great cause for a debate around the world in the 1960s.

In actual fact, the federal government was virtually unilingual English for nearly a century, except for the laws of Parliament (House of Commons and Senate), which were passed and enacted in English and French. The federal courts were in principle bilingual, but only randomly so in fact, British tradition being such that English remained the normal language of justice everywhere, except in Quebec where bilingualism was the norm. Quebec was the only province to practice a form of administrative bilingualism. In the three other provinces, the English unilingualism of 1867 continued on in the decades after. The first century of Confederation would come to be characterized by policies of non-intervention on the part of the federal government and of exclusion on the part of several provincial governments. Generally speaking, they perpetuated the status quo and respected the letter of section 133, i.e., a degree of legislative and judicial bilingualism in Ottawa and Quebec City, but none whatsoever elsewhere (in the other provinces)

Statute of Westminster, 1931
The Statute of Westminster

It must be remembered that Canada only ceased to be a colony of the United Kingdom in 1931. The adoption that year of the Statute of Westminster made Canada completely independent from the mother country. The Statute of Westminster gave legal effect to the decisions taken at the international conferences in London between 1926 and 1930. During these conferences, Canada along with Australia, the Irish Free State, Newfoundland, New Zealand, and the Union of South Africa—i.e., all the British dominions of the Empire—obtained total autonomy within the British Empire.

The Statute of Westminster called for the dominions to be distinct political entities within the British Empire, co-equals sharing the same status in all matters of domestic and foreign trade, but also united by a common allegiance to the Crown and freely associated as members of the "British Commonwealth of Nations."

From December 11, 1931, on, no British law enacted extended to Canada (section 4), and the term colony no long applied to Canada or to the other dominions. However, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council maintained its role as a court of final appeal on constitutional matters until 1949. In addition, Canada demanded another exception: Unlike the other dominions, it declines the right to amend its own constitution. Already at the time, Canadians were having trouble agreeing on a constitutional amending formula. They would have to wait until 1982.

Territorial Expansion (1867–1949) and Its Linguistic Consequences

The four founding provinces—Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario, and Quebec—became the heart of federal Canada in 1867. Then a few years later, then prime minister Sir John Alexander Macdonald bought Rupert's Land and negotiated the entry of three other provinces (Manitoba in 1870, British Columbia in 1871, and Prince Edward Island in 1873) and created two territories (the Northwest Territories in 1870 and the Yukon Territory in 1898). At the turn of the century (1905), Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Northwest Territories. The inhabitants of Newfoundland had the opportunity to become part of Canada in 1869 and in 1896, but rejected the offer until 1949, when they finally joined the Confederation, which, it should be remembered, has always been a federation

Dates of Admission into the Federation
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

This territorial expansion in Canada was fuelled by the fear of U.S. expansionism. In the year of Confederation (1867), the United States had just bought Alaska from Russia for $7.2 million, and it was thought this would encourage the Americans to connect the north and south through British Columbia. The Union Pacific Railway was completed in 1864, boosting the population in the northwestern United States. American merchants and colonists began to see opportunities for expansion into the vast, practically uninhabited Canadian plains. Since 1863, nine new states had been created, a number of which hugged the Canadian border: Minnesota in 1858, Wisconsin in 1863, Montana and Washington in 1889, and Idaho in 1890. All of these events made the Americans look very suspicious in the eyes of Canadians, who feared a new rise in expansionism in the West. Canada needed to outstrip the Americans and open up new land for colonization.

The territorial expansion of Canada after 1867 also had major linguistic consequences. It ensured the spread of the English language across the continent, reducing, and even eliminating, some rights of French speakers despite the enshrinement of these rights in the Constitution of Canada. One thing is certain—although the federal language policy was one of non-intervention (i.e., doing no more than what the Constitution required), certain provinces actively sought to restrict francophone rights, and in many cases managed to eliminate them altogether for a time. In short, policies ranged from non-intervention to outright prohibition, except in the Parliament of Canada.

It is important to remember that in 1900, Canada had a population of 5.4 million. In the years that followed, Canada experienced the highest immigration rates of the century. For example, between 1896 and 1914, some 1.1 million Europeans settled in Canada, with two-thirds from Great Britain. More than half of these immigrants (618,000) settled in the West, and were joined by 172,000 Americans. Such a wave of immigration dramatically altered the ethnic makeup of the Canadian population. Descendants of the British, French, and aboriginal populations saw their proportions decline.

So it comes as little surprise that in the late 19th century and early 20th century, English Canadians were very concerned about assimilating the new ethnic groups flooding into the country and, as a result, denied French Canadians—who they viewed as just another group of non-Anglophones—the right to separate schools. In other words, French Canadians—and Amerindians—were lumped in the same group as the throngs of immigrants. Canada remained an English-speaking country in which bilingualism was tolerated in Federal Parliament and Quebec, but not in the other provinces. In 1911, some 22% of the population of Canada was foreign born, which meant the country was no longer massively of British descent, but rather multiethnic. However, mentalities did not change until much later.

Purchase of Rupert's Land (1869)

The Hudson's Bay Company was experiencing financial difficulties and, despite its merger in 1821 with the Northwest Company, was no longer able to turn a profit in the fur trade. The Hudson's Bay Company monopoly was broken up in 1859, thus opening up the market in this vast region to all entrepreneurs. In 1867, Rupert's Land was still a "private colony" (since 1670), and spanned all lands in the Hudson Bay watershed, which included part of western Quebec, the bulk of northwestern Ontario, all of Manitoba, nearly all of Saskatchewan and Alberta, and the eastern edge of the Northwest Territories.

Achat de la Terre de Rupert (1869)
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

The Hudson's Bay Company estimated its land to be worth $400 million, considering that the Americans had just purchased Alaska, a much smaller territory, for $7.2 million. Following pressure by the British government on company officials, Canada struck a very good deal indeed in 1869. For a mere $1.5 million, Canada signed the largest real estate transaction in its history to purchase this immense territory stretching across seven million square kilometres. The Hudson's Bay Company kept its forts and counters, but abandoned all privileges as a monopoly in the fur trade. All of these new territories were christened the Northwest Territories in 1870. However, this acquisition had some major human and territorial impacts that were unexpected by the Canadian government.

In their haste to populate the country and open up new regions to colonization, John A. Macdonald and his negotiators (George-Étienne Cartier and William McDougall) had neglected to consider the major issues that annexation would raise with the people who had long inhabited these regions—some 100,000 people, the bulk of whom were Inuit, Amerindian (Cree, Tchippewayan, Yellowknife, Slave, Dogrib, Hare, and Kaska), and Métis. Negotiations on the purchase of the territories were held between Canada, the United Kingdom, and the Hudson's Bay Company, but excluded the people living on the land in question. The Métis of the Northwest Territories, also called "half-breeds," were the most vocal in their claims and consisted of three linguistic groups: French-speaking Métis (the majority); English-speaking Métis of Scottish descent, said to be "from the Hudson Bay"; and the Métis assimilated by the Amerindians and who spoke a native language.

However, it was the Métis from the Red River (in the Winnipeg area) who felt most despoiled by the purchase of the Northwest Territories. They had a population of some 12,000 inhabitants, including 5,757 French-speaking Métis, 4,083 English-speaking Métis, 1,500 Canadians (fur traders and land speculators), and 558 Amerindians. In the ten years that followed, some 4,000 French-speaking Canadians from Quebec came to settle in Manitoba. Ten thousand Métis had been living on this land for 200 years; they hunted bison, ran farms (divided into rows as under the French regime), and traded with the Americans. Government surveyors arrived on the scene as owners. And while threatening to strip the Métis of their land, they kept the best land for themselves without offering any kind of compromise.

The Métis decided to fight the federal surveyors and, under the leadership of Louis Riel (1844-1885), created a provisional government. They then demanded that the federal government grant them ownership of their land and recognize their religious rights. But one of the surveyors, an anti-Catholic Orangeman named Thomas Scott (1842-1870), rebelled against Louis Riel's "government" and after a summary trial was executed. This unfortunate incident sparked a national crisis. While Francophones saw Riel as a defender of Catholicism and the French language in the West, Anglophones from Ontario considered Scott a martyr who needed avenging. Riel was viewed as the main instigator of the anti-government rebellion.

Birth of Manitoba and Language Rights

The prime minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald (in power from 1867 to 1873, then from 1878 to 1891), recognized that military action in Manitoba was impossible as the distances to cover were too vast without a railroad connecting to the West. Moreover, as the British government had not yet ratified the transfer of the Northwest Territories to Canada, the Métis had not actually broken any Canadian laws. After heated negotiations, the Canadian government decided to create the province of Manitoba (from the name suggested by Louis Riel) while taking into consideration most of the Métis' demands. It agreed not to remove the Métis from their land, to set aside a large expanse of land for them for hunting, and to recognize their rights to practise Catholicism and speak French. On May 2, 1870, John A. Macdonald presented the Manitoba Act to Parliament. The act received royal assent on May 12.

Naissance du Manitoba
©Jacques Leclerc 2018

The province of Manitoba, which entered Confederation on July 15, 1870, covered 36,000 km² in the Red River Valley, a minuscule area compared to Manitoba's current size of 650,000 km². The name Manitoba was initially applied to Lake Manitoba. There are two theories on the origin of the name. One possibility is that it came from the Assiniboine Mini and tobow, meaning "Prairie Lake," which was the name used by French explorer Pierre de La Vérendrye. However, the more probable source is the Cree maniotwapow, which means "the strait of the spirit or the manitobau." This refers to the sound produced by pebbles on a beach on Manitoba Island in Lake Manitoba. This sound is thought to be the source of a superstition among natives, who believed that a manito or "spirit" played a drum on this beach.

But the Manitoba of this era was not on equal terms with the founding provinces (Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia), because the federal government denied it control over its natural resources (forests, mineral and water resources, etc.) and colonization for the next 60 years. Later in 1881, Manitoba's boundaries were expanded, and again in 1912 when Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec were all extended north.


In the meantime, fearing arrest, Louis Riel took refuge in the United States in 1870, but was nonetheless twice elected to the House of Commons, which refused to have him as a member. He returned to Manitoba in 1884 to attempt a second armed rebellion. This time, the English-speaking Métis refused to follow him all the way. And with the railroad in place, the Canadian army quickly overcame the Métis in Batoche, Saskatchewan. On May 15, 1885, Riel turned himself in to the North-West Mounted Police. His trial took place in Regina, then the capital of the Northwest Territories. Appearing before an exclusively English-speaking, protestant jury, Riel was found guilty of high treason against the Crown (by virtue of an ancient law that dated back to Edward III, who reigned in the 14th century) and condemned to hang, despite the fact that he had not killed anyone. He was sent to the gallows on November 16, 1885.

The Anglophone Protestants of Ontario considered Riel's death revenge for the execution of Thomas Scott. Canadian Francophones including Quebecers viewed his execution as a racist decision against a French-speaking Catholic. Many Quebecers questioned their province's membership in the Canadian Confederation. The crisis stirred up anti-English sentiments among French speakers (and vice versa), while also demonstrating to Canadians how harmful religious and language conflicts could be when poorly handled. Prime Minister Macdonald also added fuel to the fire when he declared that "even if all the dogs of Quebec bark, Riel will be hanged!" It would be unthinkable for a Canadian prime minister to utter such words today without being immediately forced to resign. This crisis not only heightened the mistrust between English and French speakers, but for a long time also undermined the credibility of the federal government in the defence of minority rights.

Constitutional Rights

It is interesting to note that as early as 1835, the Assiniboine Council enforced the law and helped run the government. A number of French speakers, both Métis and Canadians, were called upon to perform a variety of duties in the courts and for the police. In 1854, all Assiniboine laws and regulations were written in English and French. Then the province of Manitoba was created in 1870. From a language perspective, section 23 of the Manitoba Act, a constitutional act, set out the following:

Section 23

Either the English or the French language may be used by any person in the debates of the Houses of the Legislature, and both those languages shall be used in the respective Records and Journals of those Houses; and either of those languages may be used by any person, or in any Pleading or Process, in or issuing from any Court of Canada established under the British North America Act, 1867, or in or from all or any of the Courts of the Province. The Acts of the Legislature shall be printed and published in both those languages.

In actuality, these are the same clauses as contained in section 133 of the Constitutional Law, 1867. Section 23 set out that English and French were allowed in the Legislature of Manitoba and that the records, journals, and laws had to be written and published in both languages, which could also be used in Manitoba's provincial courts. Reading between the lines of this very limited provision, it is clear that Canadian parliamentarians did not want to go beyond previous constitutional requirements.

Language Rights Recognized by the Province

Franco-Manitobans represented a considerable percentage of the population (over 40%) at this time. The census of 1871 showed 5,700 French-speaking Métis, 4,000 English-speaking Métis, and 1,600 representatives of the white population (Scottish and French Canadians). The French speakers, therefore, had a right to expect a certain degree of language protection, and they were given the same language and religious rights as English speakers for as long as they remained a sizeable minority.

Section 22 of the Manitoba Act of 1870, a constitutional statute, provided for a system of public denominational schools subsidized by the province:

Section 22

In and for the Province, the said Legislature may exclusively make Laws in relation to Education, subject and according to the following provisions:

1) Nothing in any such Law shall prejudicially affect any right or privilege with respect to Denominational Schools which any class of persons have by Law or practice in the Province at the Union:

2) An appeal shall lie to the Governor General in Council from any Act or decision of the Legislature of the Province, or of any Provincial Authority, affecting any right or privilege of the Protestant or Roman Catholic minority of the Queen's subjects in relation to Education:

Legislation touching schools subject to certain provisions.
3) In case any such Provincial Law, as from time to time seems to the Governor General in Council requisite for the due execution of the provisions of this section, is not made, or in case any decision of the Governor General in Council on any appeal under this section is not duly executed by the proper Provincial Authority in that behalf, then, and in every such case, and as far only as the circumstances of each case require, the Parliament of Canada may make remedial Laws for the due execution of the provisions of this section, and of any decision of the Governor General in Council under this section. Power reserved to Parliament.

What is more, the Manitoba School Act of 1871 (or Education Act) stipulated that the Board of Education had to offer French-language schools all the necessary educational materials (books, maps, etc.) in French. In 1878, the Catholic section of the Board of Education adopted regulations on the language of instruction in Manitoba Catholic schools; it stipulated that the language spoken by the majority of taxpayers in a district would be the language of instruction in school.

Section 2 of the 1873 Act concerning Municipalities stipulated that any applications to create a municipality had to be made in French and English in the Manitoba Gazette. Another 1875 act, the Act respecting County Municipalities, set out that municipal bylaws and notices be published in both languages. The 1875 Elections Act of Manitoba stipulated that English and French be used in voter instructions, election proclamations, and voter lists. Lastly, the 1876 Act respecting Jurors and Juries set out that in a trial conducted in French, the court could order the jury to be composed of an equal number of French and English-speaking jurors. In 1879, the English Party caucus suggested that official documents no longer be printed in French; the issue was debated and adopted in the House, but the lieutenant-governor, Joseph Cauchon, refused to sign the bill. These protection measures would not last, and after the death of Riel, Franco-Manitobans began to see their language prohibited in various ways. It is important to note that the arrival of many English-speaking colonists from Ontario had shifted demographics in favour of the English-speaking majority.

The Official Language Act

The numerical inferiority of Francophones was enough in the eyes of Manitoban leaders to justify abolishing language and religious rights. While Francophones represented about half of the overall population in 1871, they accounted for only 15.9% in 1881 (9,950 out of 62,260) and 7.2% in 1891 (11,102 out of 152,506). A sea change occurred in 1889 with the adoption of the notorious Official Language Act, which made English the sole language used by the Manitoba government in records, journals, and laws. The act came into force on May 1, 1890, and contained only two sections. Section 1 stipulated the following:

Section 1

English language be official language

1) Any statute or law to the contrary notwithstanding, the English language only shall be used in the records and journals of the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, and in any pleadings or process in or issuing from any court in the province of Manitoba.


2) The Acts of the Legislature of Manitoba need be printed and publishing only in the English Language.

Once the act was adopted, the Official Manitoba Gazette was published in English only. Francophones lost the advantage of legal equality and the institutions that came with bilingual public services, bilingual government publications, and bilingual provincial courts, which included Francophones’ right to a French-speaking jury.

On March 20, 1889, the Legislative Assembly adopted a bill amending the Administration of Justice Act of 1885 and providing for the abolition of Francophone juries. Another bill adopted two days later stipulated that a French-speaking lawyer pleading before a French-speaking judge in a court in which the parties and witnesses are French Canadian could not, by law, use the French language. On March 28, the members finally decided "that the journals and statutes would be printed in English only." English thus became the only language permitted in all legislative and judiciary activities.

This trend spread to the schools. The Manitoba Legislature adopted a law abolishing the Catholic and Protestant sections in order to give control over education to a "Department of Education." A second bill was introduced and adopted with regard to public schools that abolished Catholic schools and made provisions for Catholics to be taxed for public schools. The Manitoba government of Premier Thomas Greenway (in power from 1880-1900) received numerous petitions calling for the appeal of the school acts, but did not alter its decision. The Manitoba Legislature rescinded the following rights and privileges the Catholic minority had thus far enjoyed:

a) The right to build, maintain, furnish, manage, operate, and support Roman Catholic schools in the manner stipulated by the laws in force

b) The right to a share of all subsidies from public funds for public instruction needs

c) The right, for Roman Catholics making contributions to support Roman Catholic schools, to be exempt from all contribution payments for the maintenance of other schools

Petitions—including one from the entire Canadian Catholic episcopate—were sent to the federal authorities asking them to revoke the law as permitted under the Canadian Constitution in 1867. On the recommendation of the federal justice minister, Sir John Thompson, a trial was held in Winnipeg, but the efforts by Catholics were fruitless. Manitoba Protestants maintained that the majority had the right to revoke a constitutional decision and do away with the rights granted the minority in 1870. As for the minority, it sought the revocation of a provincial law unilaterally repealing constitutional rights. This crisis sparked a nationwide debate. The prime minister of Canada, John A. Macdonald, referred the issue to the courts. The Court of Queen's Bench of Winnipeg declared the laws constitutional and the Court of Appeal for Manitoba upheld the verdict in February 1891. In October, the Supreme Court of Canada reversed the ruling of the Court of Appeal for Manitoba by declaring the laws unconstitutional. But on July 30, 1892, the London Privy Council—then the highest judicial authority in the land—rendered a judgment declaring the Manitoba laws constitutional. The London Privy Council upheld both the validity of the Manitoba provincial law and the power of the federal government to restore the education rights Franco-Manitobans had lost. It was an unusual decision that further heightened the conflict between the federal government and the province!

Far from improving, the condition of Catholic Franco-Manitobans further deteriorated with a new law in 1894 that stipulated that no municipality, even an exclusively Catholic one, had the right to impose taxes for Catholic schools established in the municipality; this same law also called for the confiscation of all school properties in districts not subject to the new legislation. That said, it is interesting to note that the Official Language Act of Manitoba would be declared unconstitutional some 90 years later, in 1979, when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of Georges Forest, a businessman from Saint-Boniface, who had contested its constitutionality.

Laurier-Greenway Compromise

In 1896, the federal government went down to electoral defeat and Wilfrid Laurier (1841-1919), a francophone Liberal, took power after promising to strike a compromise. He was the first French-speaking Canadian to hold this position. Throughout his career, he tried to act as arbitrator between the Anglophone majority and the francophone minority. A school regulation, known as the Laurier-Greenway Compromise—a combination of the names of the Canadian prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier (1986-1991), and the premier of Manitoba, Thomas Greenway (1888-1900)—included a provision allowing instruction in a language other than English in "bilingual schools," where 10 students or more spoke the second language in rural zones and 25 or more in urban centres. Section 2.10 addressed the issue of French:

Section 2

10) When ten of the pupils in any school speak the French language or any language other than English, as their native language, the teaching of such pupils shall be conducted in French, or such other language, and English upon the bilingual system.

Wilfrid Laurier and Thomas Greenway

The Laurier-Greenway Compromise is available by clicking HERE. Franco-Manitobans had to finance their Catholic schools themselves while paying taxes for English public schools. As a result, Laurier faced a difficult challenge in reconciling the interests and opinions of English and French-speaking Canadians. School conflicts were long a thorn in the side of Canadian politics.

The Laurier-Greenway Compromise was short-lived, as new regulations repealed this clause in 1896 and made English the only language of instruction in all Manitoba public schools. Then on March 10 in 1916, Manitoba adopted a new education act—the Thornton Act, named after the Minister of Education, which revoked bilingual schools, and thereby abolished all instruction in French, and made primary school (in English) mandatory for the children of the province. The same year saw the founding of the Association d'éducation des Canadiens français du Manitoba (AECFM), an association that operated for over 50 years as a sort of parallel Department of Education to improve French education for the Francophones of Manitoba—Franco-Manitobans would settle into a half century of quiet resistance. It was not until the 1950s that the Manitoba government decided to progressively reinstate French instruction in certain schools from grades 4 to 12. By virtue of an amendment in 1967 to the Manitoba Public Schools Act, French instruction was authorized for up to half of the school day.

Bilingualism never met with general approval in Manitoba, where it was viewed unfavourably from the late 19th century to the 1980s. For the multiethnic majority, it represented a costly irritant they wished would go away. On the other hand, for the francophone minority, it was a constant struggle for cultural and linguistic survival.

Northwest Territories
Canada on 1905

In the 1871 census, the population of the Northwest Territories was estimated at 48,000, one-third of which was Francophone. By 1885, Francophones accounted for no more than 10% of the overall population, which was mainly Indian, English, Scottish, Irish, French Canadian, and Métis. By virtue of the Northwest Territories Act of 1875, a public school system was set up that allowed religious minorities (Catholics or Protestants) to establish separate schools financed through a special tax. Under the Northwest Territories Act of 1877, the Constitution of these territories guaranteed bilingualism at the Legislative Assembly and in the courts. Section 110, as it was later known, was enacted in 1886 as an amendment to section 18 of the Northwest Territories Act. In addition to the fact that it reiterated the free choice of language in the courts, it allowed the Territorial Assembly to "regulate its proceedings, and the manner of recording and publishing the same":

Section 18

Section 110 of the act is hereby abridged and replaced as follows:

"110. Either the English or the French language may be used by any person in the debates of the Legislative Assembly of the Territories and in proceedings before the courts; and both those languages shall be used in the records and journals of such Assembly; and all Ordinances made under this Act shall be printed in both those languages: Provided, however, that after the next general election of the Legislative Assembly, such Assembly may by Ordinance or otherwise, regulate its proceedings and the manner of recording and publishing the same, and the regulations so made shall be embodied in a proclamation which shall be forthwith made and published by the Lieutenant Governor in conformity with the law, and thereafter shall have full force and effect."

Section 110 of the Northwest Territories Act was scarcely enforced and Francophones wound up gradually losing most of their rights. It was, in fact, the leaders of the Territories found official bilingualism to be expensive (about $400 a year) and devised all sorts of complications to justify axing the system. On January 22, 1890, conservative MP D'Alton McCarthy (1836-1898), a fierce anti-Catholic and anti-francophone submitted a bill to the House of Commons to amend the Northwest Territories Act and abolish the official bilingual status of this Canadian region. He elaborated on his objective as follows: "My only desire is to work for the public good, and I believe that we will see that our truest interest in this country is to work to establish racial unity through national and language uniformity." Other MPs shared his point of view, notably the member for Norfolk North, John Charlton:

The stated goal of the Anglo-Saxon is to make his race the greatest race on Earth, and the hope of the Anglo-Saxon is that the day will come, before too many more decades are out, when the English language is the normal means of communication between all the races of the Earth, and that the English race is the dominant race of the world, so that the Anglo-Saxon may fulfill the destiny that God has obviously assigned him on this Earth.

Wilfrid Laurier, then leader of the Liberal opposition in the House of Commons, took the floor on February 17, 1890, but did not share this perspective:

However if I say this country must be English, it in no way follows that only a single language—the English language—can be spoken here. I am as loyal as the honourable member to the institutions of Canada, I am the son of a French Canadian mother, and I declare that I am as fond of the language I learned at her bosom as I am of the life she gave me.

People were eager to hear what Prime Minister John Macdonald had to say. For him, it was out of the question to make one language inferior to the other:

The oft-repeated statement that Canada was conquered is always beside the point. Whether Canada was conquered or ceded, we have a constitution under which all British subjects are perfectly equal, with equal language, religion, property, and human rights. There is no superior race, there is no conquered race here, we are all British subjects, and those who are not of British descent are not any less British subjects for it.

Macdonald maintained that if McCarthy wanted to see the French language disappear, he should focus his attention on the province of Quebec, not the Northwest Territories where so few French Canadians lived. That is why Prime Minister Macdonald recommended that the local Legislature be left to its own devices to decide on the language issue. On February 12, the Canadian Parliament adopted a motion to allow the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories to regulate its own language matters.

Two years later, the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly decided to abolish French in official publications. An 1892 ordinance declared English the only language of use in schools and the courts. The Northwest Territories Council then abolished separate schools (i.e., French and Catholic).

By the beginning of the 20th century, the Northwest Territories was mostly populated by people of British origin, but there were still many Métis. Settlers of German, Russian, French, Austro-Hungarian, and Scandinavian origins had made their homes in the region as well. The majority were Protestant (Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists, and Lutherans), but there were also Catholics, Orthodox, Doukhobors, and members of other denominations.

Starting in 1901, the Government of the Northwest Territories authorized separate Catholic schools once again. The first version of the laws of 1905 seemed to introduce a separate Catholic school system. Wilfrid Laurier, under criticism from many influential members of Parliament within the Liberal government, among them Clifford Sifton, who resigned in 1905, came to another compromise.

In the following decades, Canada paid little attention to what was happening north of the 60th parallel. In 1953, Louis Saint-Laurent, Prime Minister of Canada from 1948 to 1957, even maintained that "Canada administered the vast regions of the north continually for 90 years with no unity of purpose." In 1967, the seat of territorial government was transferred from Ottawa to Yellowknife, which became the capital of the Northwest Territories.


British Columbia (1871)

The fact that troops had to be dispatched in order to quell the Métis rebellion in 1870 demonstrated the need for the Canadian government to develop a faster, more reliable mode of transportation. That same year, the federal government promised British Columbia that it would build a railroad stretching all the way to the Pacific Ocean provided that the colony of British Columbia joined Confederation. The House of Commons ratified the proposal in 1871 and construction of a transcontinental railroad became a policy priority for the government. On July 20, 1871, British Columbia joined the Canadian Confederation, becoming the country's sixth province. Canada assumed the former British colony's debt and pledged to build a railroad connecting it to Ontario within ten years. However, construction delays irritated provincial leaders, who threatened on many occasions to secede. The first trains finally reached the Pacific coast in 1886.

British Columbia

@Jacques Leclerc 2018

The Province's Name

A large part of the current province of British Columbia was initially called New Caledonia. However, this name was rejected—a French territory by that name (Nouvelle-Calédonie) already existed in the South Pacific—in favour of British Columbia. The name Columbia (from the Columbia River, which was named by the American Captain Robert Gray in honour of his ship Columbia) was then used unofficially to refer to the southern part of the British colony. Queen Victoria is believed to have selected this name, even though it was not officially adopted until 1858.


In April of 1778, the famous Captain James Cook (1728–1779) first called this area "King George's Sound," then changed the name to "Nootka Sound," believing that this was the Native name. The city of Vancouver was named after the famous British navigator, Captain George Vancouver (1757–1798) who, in 1792, named and explored Burrard Inlet, the stretch of sea separating Vancouver Island from the continent. And clearly, the city of Victoria, like many other places by this name, was named in honour of Queen Victoria (1819–1900).

Population and Immigration

In 1850, the population of British Columbia, then a British colony, stood at 6,900 and was 60% Francophone. After the gold rush and the massive influx of immigrants in the late 19th century, French Canadians soon found themselves very much a minority. Nevertheless, British Columbia's integration into Confederation went much more smoothly than Manitoba's. English immigration continued and led to an Anglophone majority. In 1871, certain Montreal newspapers, both French and English, were hesitant to include British Columbia in Confederation, citing the ethnic makeup of the population and debt of the former colony. Le Canadien wrote, "We want to build a railroad to the Pacific that will cost at least 25 million louis for a population of 16,000 whites, 1,000 Chinese, and 45,000 Métis." The Montreal Herald feared the possibility of doubling the national debt for a few thousand "idolatrous Chinese and Indians." By 1901, Francophones represented only 2.5% of the population (179,000), and by 1931 1.1%.

The province experienced its own social tensions with the arrival of Asian immigrants (predominantly from China), which began in the gold rush era and intensified as more and more workers were hired to build the railroad. After 1890, the Chinese were joined by newcomers from Japan. In 1905, British Columbia had 5,000 immigrants from India, most of whom were Sikhs. The number of Japanese immigrants, predominantly from poor little fishing and farming villages, hit 10,000 in 1910. Following pressure by members of the white working class and riots against Asians, the provincial governments took measures to restrict "foreign" immigration. The federal government eventually limited immigration by passing the Chinese Immigration Act in 1923. The Asian population was thus the focus of white hostility. The greatest concern of authorities at the time was to quickly assimilate minority communities through the schools, which were seen as a great way to encourage the use of English. Francophone rights were not on the agenda in these times when so many were afflicted with xenophobia. It would be 40 more years before Canadians began to feel differently.

English Language

British Columbia was spared the grief of language conflicts throughout its history. English was the official language, and there was no need to introduce legislation to this effect. It became the de facto official language. Francophones were forgotten, just like the numerous Asian immigrants and natives. There was no constitutional obligation to offer legal services in French in British Columbia nor was there any legislation recognizing the right to use French in the courts. Moreover, a blanket clause in the province's Rules of Procedure set out that all documents had to be written in English. This clause did not apply to criminal courts as that would contravene provisions of the Canadian Criminal Code, but these Criminal Code provisions did not enter into force until 1990. For over a century, the Francophone minority had to attend English schools for their education.

Prince Edward Island (1873)

The colony of Prince Edward Island refused to join the Confederation in 1867 because it felt it had little to gain. It did not want to pay for the construction of railroads on the continent and feared it would lose its Assembly, and thus control over its own affairs. But faced with economic difficulties and a considerable debt, the representatives of this small Maritime colony changed their minds. The colonial government sent negotiators to Ottawa and managed to secure excellent terms: Canada assumed Prince Edward Island's debt, paid $800,000 to purchase land from absentee landlords, guaranteed communications with the continent via a ferry, and granted it six seats in Parliament rather than the five promised at the Quebec Conference in 1764. In 1773, the representatives submitted a resolution to the Legislative Assembly calling for Union; all but two members voted in favour of joining the Confederation. Prince Edward Island entered Confederation on July 1, 1873, becoming Canada's seventh province. At that time the province had a population of 94,021, mostly of British, Irish, Scottish, and Acadian (Tignish, Malpeque, Rustico, and Bay Fortune) descent.

Prince Edward Island

English had already long been the sole language in the colony. The island government's policy of assimilation had caused the Acadians to lose virtually all their rights, notably in the area of education. Certain historians maintain that in 1876, the province of Prince Edward Island adopted an Official Language Act that made English the only language used in records, journals, and laws, as well as in the Legislature and courts. However, the laws adopted before 1862 were revamped that year under the title The Acts of the General Assembly of Prince Edward Island from the establishment of the legislature in the thirteenth year of reign of His Majesty the King George the Third, A.D. 1773. This did not cover all titles of the laws adopted during this period, nor the full texts of all these laws. It is impossible to verify the existence of numerous laws with their titles alone. Many school acts existed, such as those passed in 1830, 1834, 1837, 1841, 1847, 1861, and 1880. But provincial records no longer contain the texts of these acts. The first act for which a text still exists is a school act from 1861: 24 Vic. c. 36 An Act to consolidate and amend the several laws relating to education, which repealed others (15 Vic.c. 13, 16 Vic. c. 2, 17 Vic. c. 3, 18 V. 12, 20 Vic. c. 17, and 23 Vic. c. 14 and 15). Neither this 1861 act nor the others that followed contained any provisions with regard to the language of instruction.


Then, the Association of Acadian Teachers of the Island was created in 1893 to encourage the teaching of French in public schools. Société Saint-Thomas-d'Aquin (SSTA) supported this, and, from its inception in 1919, worked to gather funds for the education of Acadian youth. The government progressively authorized the construction of Acadian schools in order for French to become the language of instruction, but all textbooks were still written in English. Around 1929, half of Acadian students still went to English schools. Ten years later, French instruction in Acadian schools amounted to reading and grammar courses with a few dictations and compositions—the rest was in English.

Political pressure and petitions led the Department of Education to prepare a new program in 1939 in which French was the language of instruction until Grade 6, except for math, which was taught in English. Up until the 1950s, these schools, mostly in rural areas, were very rudimentary and did not enjoy the same advantages as rural Anglophone schools. For example, in 1944, the vast majority of Acadian schools (405 out of 473) had only one room, with all students sitting around a wood burning stove, and no indoor toilets or running water.

Yukon Territory (1898)

The Yukon Territory was separated from the Northwest Territories in 1898 in response to the enormous population increase in the region during the Klondike gold rush. However, a large portion of this population left the territory once gold supplies ran out.

Yukon Province

Yukon was originally an Amerindian name first used to refer to the river. The term Yukon comes from Yu-kun-ah, which means "big river." The name was first noted in 1846 by John Bell (1799–1868), an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company. In 1886, Dawson City was the site of an Indian fishing camp; by four years later, it had transformed into the largest urban centre in Canada west of Winnipeg, with a population of 40,000, primarily made up of itinerant prospectors.

Section 110 of the Northwest Territories Act was little enforced in the Yukon. As a result, Francophones lost most of their language rights.

Saskatchewan and Alberta (1905)
Alberta and Saskatchwan

Canada had the power to create provinces in the Northwest Territories, but did not do so at first because it seemed too difficult for colonists to reach this remote region. The situation started to change when the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed in 1885.


The Canadian government sought to encourage intensive immigration after 1896, especially in the West. Many Americans sold their farms to purchase inexpensive land for themselves and their children. It is believed that one-third of immigrants in the West came from the United States.

Many immigrants settled in the Prairies (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Between 1901 and 1911, the population of Canada increased by more than one-third, rising from 5.3 million to 7.2 million. It is estimated that nearly half of this demographic growth was attributable to the sharp population increase in the Prairie Provinces. Throughout the first decade of the 20th century, the population of Saskatchewan quintupled, reaching 400,000; Alberta's population rose from 73,000 to 374,000 inhabitants, and that of Manitoba increased from 255,000 to 461,000.

The English, Germans, Scandinavians, Austrians, and the odd francophone from France or Belgium continued to arrive. The most famous groups are still the Slavs, particularly the Ruthenians (known as the "immigrants in the sheepskin coats") and Ukrainians. The name Ruthians comes from the Greek word Roussynreferring to someone living in Rous, or Ruthenia, later known as Russia (or the lands ruled by the Prince of Kiev in the Middle Ages); the Ruthenians were called Rusyns and then Russians. As for the Ukrainians, they were called "Little Russians" (as opposed to the "Great Russians" from Russia), a name given all Ukrainians insinuating that they had forgotten their language and culture in the Czarist era. Today, Ruthenia is a region of Ukraine known as Subcarpathian Ukraine (near the border with Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania) whose name has changed on a number of occasions throughout history.

Integration Policy

This mixing of cultures together with certain language policies tended to favour the exclusive use of English, especially in schools where English instruction was mandatory. What was viewed as normal for Anglophones and immigrants was less so for Francophones. In 1908, the Methodist journal Missionary Outlook expressed an opinion that was no doubt widespread among Anglo-Canadian Protestants:

If we wish to create a superior race on the North American continent, a race that God will especially commit to his works, what is our duty toward those who today are our fellow citizens? Many of them are Christians in name only; they belong to the Roman or Greek Catholic Church, but their moral standards are much inferior to those of the Christians of the Dominion. They have to come to this young and free country to find a home for themselves and their children. We are duty-bound to welcome them with the Bible in hand, and to cultivate in their minds the principles and ideals of Anglo-Saxon civilization.

Everywhere—in every group, city, and region—the task of the English majority was to rapidly "Canadianize" newcomers by impressing upon them the values and language of English civilization. But it was not easy to culturally and linguistically assimilate the thousands of immigrants arriving every year in Canada. The creation of the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan led Wilfrid Laurier to advocate Manitoba's solution regarding separate denominational schools; this stance proved pivotal, and signed a death warrant for bilingualism and cultural duality in Canada for years to come.

Creation of Alberta and Saskatchewan

The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were carved out of the Northwest Territories in 1905. The name of Alberta was suggested by the Marquis de Lorne, Governor General of Canada from 1878 to 1883, in honour of his wife, Princess Louise Caroline Alberta Wettin (1848–1939), the fourth daughter of Queen Victoria. The name was first given to the "district of Alberta" in 1882, and was then used again when the eighth province of the Dominion of Canada was created on September 1, 1905.

As for Saskatchewan, it was named after the Saskatchewan River, which the Cree called Kisiskatchewani Sipi or "swift-flowing river." The explorer Anthony Henday's spelling was Keiskatchewan, but the modern rendering Saskatchewan was the one officially adopted in 1882 when a portion of the present-day province was designated a "provisional district of the Northwest Territories." Saskatchewan earned the status of province on September 1, 1905, thus becoming the ninth province of Canada.

Language Disputes

The provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan were subject to the provisions of the Northwest Territories Act. Section 110, it should be recalled, stipulated that French and English could be used at the Legislative Assembly, in texts of law, and in the courts, and that both English and French had to be used in court rulings, laws, minutes, and archives of the Territorial Assembly. Alberta and Saskatchewan were part of the Northwest Territories before they became Canadian provinces in 1905, but authorities "overlooked" the fact that this constitutional act still applied to both provinces. Moreover, neither the Act to establish and provide for the Government of the Province of Alberta (1905) nor the Act to establish and provide for the Government of the Province of Saskatchewan (1905) made any reference to language. That is why neither of the provinces enforced the provisions of Section 110 of the Northwest Territories Act, which stipulated that the Legislative Assembly use French and English in laws and in courts. As a result, French was excluded from legislation and the courts.

A new language dispute erupted in determining whether the acts creating Alberta and Saskatchewan should guarantee the rights of Catholics and Francophones. The Alberta School Act, adopted in 1905, designated English as the sole language of instruction, but allowed a certain degree of French to be used in primary schools.

In Saskatchewan, the School Act of 1909 made English the only language of instruction, but also allowed a certain degree of French to be used in primary schools. On February 22, 1918, members of the Saskatchewan school board adopted a series of resolutions that ended bilingualism in schools:

No person shall be elected as commissioner unless he is a British subject able to read and write the English language; this agreement immediately requires the provincial government to take the necessary measures to ensure that all children in the province receive proper instruction, adapted to their individual needs, in the English language; English shall be the sole language of instruction in all schools in the province; no language other than English shall be taught during school hours at any school subject to the provisions of the School Act.

In 1929, a third act abolished French in schools once more; this act reinforced and clarified the 1918 act. In 1931, an amendment to the School Act imposed English as the sole language of instruction in the province's public schools. French was prohibited during normal school hours, but French courses could be given after school. Despite the shortage of teachers, the government prohibited the hiring of teachers who were trained in Quebec or who held teaching certificates from that province; it ruled illegal any teaching certificates not obtained in Saskatchewan.

As Francophones in the two new provinces won only minimal protection, Canadian Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier lost the support of numerous citizens, both French and English speaking. The Canadian prime minister knew that in order to stay in power, he needed to avoid conflicts between Francophones and Anglophones and try to reconcile the two sides. A skilled politician, he nevertheless had to govern in a period of sharp tensions when French Canadians were fearful of being assimilated and English Canadians wished to strengthen their ties with the British Empire.


His patience sorely tried, Laurier came to fill his speeches with vague generalities. Quebec nationalist Henri Bourassa nicknamed Wilfrid Laurier "Waffley Wilfy," but English-speaking Canadians felt that the moniker "Sir Won'tfrid" was more fitting. In general, Anglophones believed Laurier to be too French, while Francophones thought him too English! This was the era where French-speaking members of parliament in the House were told to "speak white!" When MP Henri Bourassa spoke out against the ideas of some of his Anglophone colleagues, he was booed and told to "speak white" as he explained his positions in French. Aside from the other Francophones, nobody understood him! Obviously, it was not respectful and we could have said "Speak English instead" It should be noted that simultaneous interpretation was not introduced until 1969.

It was not until 1968 that the Saskatchewan government allowed French to be taught for one hour a day in certain designated schools.

Arrival of the Last Province: Newfoundland (1949)

The island of Newfoundland was never a settlement colony, as London had prohibited this from the start. The first English colonists came from the southwest of England, then were followed throughout the 18th century by immigrants from the southeast of Ireland. The people who settled on the island thus formed a mixed British-Irish society that gave the island its unique flavour. In addition, despite the overwhelmingly Anglophone population and the assimilation that ensued, Newfoundland always had a small francophone community of a few hundred people who managed to preserve their language and culture. Most inhabitants of Newfoundland—in both the English and French-speaking communities—lived a more remote existence than other Canadians and preserved distinct, rather archaic linguistic traits. But Newfoundland remained a British colony with all this entailed in terms of the exclusive use of English. For the most part, the population of Newfoundland was divided among numerous small villages along the island's jagged coastline, far from major urban centres. This had a strong influence on the culture and language of the residents of the island.

New Foundland

It was not until 1832 that Great Britain granted Newfoundland the right to representative government. This was followed by full autonomy and responsible government in 1855. The late 19th and early 20th century period was marked by international conflict, first with France (1888–1904), then the United States (1905–1910) and Canada (1927). Fishing zone disputes between the French and the British were settled in April 1904, putting an end to France's fishing rights (except for Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon). Newfoundland was granted dominion status in 1917, and saw its territory increase in 1927 when part of Labrador was added by London's Privy Council (the rest was annexed to Quebec).

The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s practically bankrupted Newfoundland (which had a $100 million debt); it had to ask the United States and Great Britain for handouts. In 1934, the British Parliament withdrew Newfoundland's responsible government, and executive power was given to a six-member Royal Commission.

Small Francophone Community

The island's Francophones had thus far mostly been concentrated in Port-au-Port, and were very isolated from the Anglophone community, which allowed them to keep their language and culture. In 1939, the French spoken here echoed that of a true village in France, although many nautical terms had slipped into day-to-day use: you didn't "turn your cup over," you capsized it; instead of "turning around," you came about; people wouldn't "tie" their shoelaces, but made them fast; you would rig your horse, etc. Some old Francophones even spoke the Breton dialect up until the 1950s. Many francophone sailors married Anglophones rather than Acadians or women from Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon. The strong British influence led some of them to change their names: Lainé became Lainey and Dubois became Woods. Names that are neither Acadian nor Quebec in origin can still be found, such as Formager, Garnier, Kerfont, Lecoure, Retieff.

In 1941, under an agreement with Great Britain, the United States was allowed to lease certain sites to set up air force bases, including one in the francophone area of Stephenville. The American presence breathed new life into the island's economy, but raised concerns of annexation by the United States. Moreover, due to the influx of American workers, Stephenville became almost entirely Anglophone. After World War II, the future of Newfoundland once again became a concern for inhabitants of the island. British public servants were little interested in a return to responsible government due to the economic burden this would represent for the colony. Instead, they preferred to have Newfoundland enter Canadian Confederation.



Two referendums were held in 1948. After the second referendum (July 22, 1948), Newfoundland became the tenth province of Canada. The agreement was ratified by the Canadian Parliament in February 1949, and the British Parliament in March of the same year. Joseph Roberts Smallwood served as premier for nearly a quarter century.

Throughout the 1950s, Francophones from various backgrounds came to settle in the capital city of St. John's: they were Acadians, Quebecers, French (from France or Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon), Franco-Ontarians, or West Indians. There is little to say about the language rights that followed Newfoundland's entry into the Confederation, because the province had not yet turned its attention to the issue, all the more so as it was not subject to section 133 of the Constitutional Act of 1867.

Linguistic Policies of the Founding Provinces

Protecting minority language rights was not a consideration at the time of Confederation. At best, minorities were left to fend for themselves; at worst, they were banned or assimilated. The Western world offered few examples other than non-intervention or assimilation. For the British Empire and Canadian politicians to have a more generous outlook would have been surprising indeed.

Nova Scotia

In 1871, the population of Nova Scotia was 387,800. In January 1881, the City of Halifax was designated the official point of entry for immigrants (Pier 21 starting in 1924). In language matters, Nova Scotia was not subject to section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867, which meant neither the Legislature nor the judiciary was bilingual. Before Confederation, the Parliament had passed the Education Act in 1864, called the Tupper Law, which declared English the sole language of instruction. The act made the schools unilingual English and non-confessional. For the Acadians, this was tantamount to cultural, religious, and linguistic assimilation.

Nova Scotia

After years of struggle, the Acadians obtained authorization from the Council of Public Instruction to teach the first four years of primary school in French. Given the dearth of qualified francophone teachers, the government issued "permissive" licences, i.e., licences for people with no diplomas, until enough trained teachers could be recruited. A training program was set up at the Provincial Normal School to meet the need for Acadian teachers, but which in addition to providing instruction in French, sought to improve fluency in English among applicants who spoke "Acadian French." More schoolbooks became available in French starting in 1902 and were authorized for the first five years of primary school, after which all teaching was in English except at private schools and classical colleges. By 1908, there was still just a single Acadian school inspector for all of Nova Scotia.

New Brunswick
New Brunswick

In 1867, the population of New Brunswick was 285,600, including 87,000 Acadians. Like Nova Scotia, the province was not subject to section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867, meaning no form of bilingualism existed, despite the substantial Acadian population. New Brunswick was, therefore, unilingual English both in the Legislature and the courts.

School Administration

The school situation in the province was much like in Nova Scotia. In May 1871, the government of Premier George Edwin King (in office from 1870-1872, then from 1872-1878) decided to eliminate the French Catholic parish schools. It passed the Common School Act declaring public schools non-denominational. It was forbidden to teach catechism in school or to wear distinguishing religious garb, which prevented the religious communities from providing qualified personnel. In addition, all school books had to be approved by the Provincial Bureau of Education. This law meant that Francophone parents had to choose between paying twice for schools through taxes and private tuition or defying the clergy and sending their children to free public schools to be taught in English.

The House of Commons

Although the Irish Catholics also opposed the New Brunswick school law, it was mainly Acadians who led the fight against it. They petitioned federal and British authorities to overturn the Common School Act. In the House of Commons, Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, the MP for the riding of Quebec (1844-1853) and future premier of Quebec, asked for the British North America Act to be amended to provide all religious groups in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia with the rights, privileges, and benefits they possessed prior to 1867. Canadian Prime Minister John Alexander Macdonald advised the Catholic minority of New Brunswick to be patient and wait for justice to be done. Honoré Mercier, the MP for Rouville and future premier of Quebec (1887-1891), used the occasion to make his first speech in the House of Commons:

The Quebec minority forms only a seventh, and the Ontario minority, only a sixth of the entire population of these respective provinces, whereas the New Brunswick minority is over a third of the total population. I cite these figures, which have their logical place in this debate, in order to demonstrate the crying injustice done to our coreligionists in New Brunswick. A law persecutes a third of the population of the province, cruelly depriving it of the rights and privileges generously accorded a sixth and a seventh of the populations of the other provinces.

New Brunswick MP John Costigan for Victoria introduced a motion stating that all laws that troubled Canada's religious peace were unjust and that consequently New Brunswick's school act should be disallowed. He also presented a motion asking the aggrieved parties to submit the case to the Privy Council in London. In the end, Costigan's motion passed the House of Commons, placing the Macdonald government in a minority position, but not causing it to fall. Nevertheless, all outside efforts to change the situation of Francophones in New Brunswick came to naught.


George Edwin King

After four years of fighting and a riot in Caraquet, Premier George King of New Brunswick offered a compromise to Acadians. On August 6, 1875, his government adopted a regulation stating that in parishes with sufficient numbers of Catholic children, the latter could receive their instruction in separate schools, and that religion could be taught in buildings belonging to the religious communities or the Catholic Church after school hours. In addition to allowing catechism outside regular classes, the regulation permitted the wearing of religious garb, exempted the nuns from attending Training School, and permitted instruction and study in French in primary schools. However, most of the school books available in French schools remained "bilingual" until 1907. A book was considered "bilingual" if it was written in English or French, which essentially meant they were written in English, except for French readers, French grammars, and books on Canadian history.

In 1885, the New Brunswick government set up the French Department (its official name) for Acadians. Classes given by the French Department were in French, but were designed to better prepare students to take regular classes in English. These French classes were in addition to the other classes leading to an English diploma. With an educational system so little conducive to teaching French, the Acadians fought back and defended the use of French. Over the years, they managed to obtain various French readers for students and the appointment of Acadian inspectors.

For the most part, Acadian politicians shied away from school and language debates. They tended to tow the party line, both provincially and federally. Like their Anglophone counterparts, they placed little importance on promoting language rights. It wasn't until the founding of the Acadian Party in Bathurst, New Brunswick, in 1972 that politicians would pay attention to Acadian issues.


In 1867, Ontario was still a small province. Its borders would be extended west and north in 1876 and 1912. The 1871 census recorded a population of about 1.6 million for the province. Of this number, 1.3 million were of British origin (42% Irish, 32% English, 24% Scottish, 3% Welsh), some 159,000 were of German origin, and 75,000 were French-speaking, i.e., 4.7% of the population. As for religious denominations, the figures were as follows: : Methodists 29%, Presbyterians 22%, Anglicans 20%, Catholics 17%, and Baptists 5%.

The Francophone Minority


Only after 1840 did the small francophone population of Ontario receive reinforcements. Around the time, Quebec's burgeoning population began to overflow out west. A first wave of farmers came to Prescott and Russell counties (now Prescott-Russell County), while Quebecers from around Rigaud (Vaudreuil-Soulanges County) and Montreal settled in the border area. Then in the 1880s, more big contingents of Quebec Francophones—mostly from Montreal and the Ottawa Valley—moved northeast to the Sudbury area of Ontario, and after 1910 to Hearst, further north. This era saw the advent of French place names like Dubreuilville, Lavigne, Chapleau, Lafontaine, Lefaibre, Routhier, Monetville, Marionville, Val-Gagné, and others. In 1911, Franco-Ontarians formed 8% of the total population and lived mostly in the peripheral zones of the southwest, east, and northeast.

Ontario was never made subject to section 133 of the Constitution Act, 1867. French was never recognized as an official language at the time of Confederation (nor for that matter was English), and for many decades services in French were viewed as a privilege the government could revoke at will.

Reports from the time indicate that Ontario Francophones were viewed as a group that refused to assimilate into the majority. They enjoyed the support of the Catholic Church and solidly established institutions. At the time of Ontario's entry into Confederation, Franco-Ontarian children attended their own "separate schools," i.e., confessional schools run by the religious orders. In 1871, parish priest A. Brunet of L'Orignal wrote to Egerton Ryerson, a prestigious Methodist minister, author, editor-in-chief, and school administrator:

The francophone population of this school sector [...] was obliged to set up a separate school in 1867 for the sole purpose of teaching its language, the school trustees of the public common schools having constantly neglected to hire a teacher capable of teaching French.

In 1869, the Ontario Ministry of Education approved nine French-language textbooks for regions designated as bilingual. But it wasn't until 1871 that school became compulsory for children with the enactment of the Ontario School Act, which required all children aged 7 to 12 to attend school at least four months per year.

In 1885, the Ministry of Education imposed a by-law requiring all schools in the province to teach English. The goal was to integrate and assimilate the many immigrants, but the by-law also directly and harmfully affected Francophones. This marked the start of the so-called "bilingual" schools in the counties of Essex and Kent in the southwest and Russell, Prescott, and Carleton in the east. The schools were generally public, and instruction was usually in two languages—French and English. In 1891, a report by the Ministry of Education estimated there were 83 French schools in the province. In 1889, the Ontario government set up a commission to ascertain whether the bilingual French schools were complying with the Ministry of Education's directives. In the schools of Prescott and Russell, it discovered that most all of the teachers had never graduated from teacher`s college for primary school, and that instruction in English was very inadequate. This poor showing was blamed on the teaching of French! In response, the Ontario government adopted the Regulations of the Ontario Department of Education in 1890 imposing English as the language of instruction throughout Ontario, except where pupils did not understand English. This exception was a loophole designed to permit "bilingual schools" to teach many of their classes in French.

Expansion of the Franco-Ontarian Community and Extremist Reactions

Francophone parishes multiplied in Ontario, notably in Ottawa, where French-speaking Canadians came seeking careers in the federal civil service. Fighting broke out when Anglophone members of the Separate School Board accused the Catholic bishop of erecting a "ring of French schools" around the city. The trustees were worried their tax dollars were being used for French schools. And with the growing number of Franco-Ontarians, Orangemen (who were mostly anti-Catholic and anti-French) started to worry about their province's protestant heritage while Irish Catholics were afraid of being overwhelmed by the French language in their churches. George Howard Ferguson (1870–1946), an Orangeman who would later become premier of Ontario (1923–1930), resumed rather well the opinion of most Anglo-Ontarians at the time:

A bilingual school system breeds racial division. It imprints the idea of racial difference on the minds of youth and prevents the mixing of the population [...] Experience in the United States, where the school system admits only one language, has shown the wisdom of such a system.

Many Anglophones of the time saw Franco-Ontarian schools as a "Papist intrusion" into Canadian affairs! Here's what D'Alton McCarthy, the Conservative MPP for Simoce-East and Grand Master of the Ontario West Orange Lodge, had to say in 1888:

Who should rule over Canada, the queen or the pope? Will this country be English or French? [...] This is a British country, and the sooner we take in hand our French Canadian fellow subjects and make them British in sentiment and teach them the English language, the less trouble we shall have to prevent. Now is when the ballot box must deliver a solution to this grave problem; if it finds no remedy in this generation, the next generation will have to take up the bayonet.

This extremist stance (taking up the bayonet) was not shared by all Ontario Anglophones, but it illustrates a concept of the nation as forming a single whole, i.e., white and Anglo-protestant, also known as in the United States the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants). Also of note were the telling remarks of Norfolk Liberal MP John Charlton in explaining his One Nation theory to the Equal Rights Association in Toronto on June 11, 1889:

I believe that assimilation of the races in the Canadian Confederation is most desirable. I do not see how we can form a nation in all its grandeur so long as we have in this country two distinct races with opposing aspirations, desires, and institutions. Abraham Lincoln said that the people of the United States could not live half free and half in slavery. Canada can never live half in English and half in French.

But John Charlton (1829-1910) went further, ridiculing the Francophones of the St. Lawrence River Valley, whom he compared to "midgets.":

"The idea of raising a Latin race on the banks of the St. Lawrence is an insult to common sense. The Anglo-Saxon cannot be hindered in his march forward by the efforts of such midgets."

The problem was some spokesmen of the English and protestant majority saw francophone affirmation as a threat, particularly since their birth rate was higher than that of Anglophones. On July 12, 1889, D'Alton McCarthy, considered one of the most brilliant lawyers of his generation, made no secret of his intentions with regard to the assimilation of Francophones:

We live in an English country, and the sooner we can anglicize French Canadians, the better it will be for our posterity whose load will be lightened. This question must be settled sooner or later. [...] When French is abolished in the North-West, there will still be much for us to do. Let's first take care of the two languages in the North-West Territories and the teaching of French in schools in the English provinces; once these two matters are settled, we will have accomplished something and smoothed the road to the future.

The following December 12, D'Alton McCarthy alluded to the disappearance of Francophones as a good solution:

Lord Durham understood that so long as the French Canadians were free to educate themselves in French in their schools, to feed their intelligence with French literature rather than English literature, they would remain French in every way. [...] Is there a shadow of a doubt that between these two races, more than between any two others, if union is to be, it must bring the disappearance of one of the two languages and the teaching of the other?

As for Wilfrid Laurier, then leader of the federal Liberal Party, which was in opposition, he preached the equality of the two communities (June 24, 1889):

As for myself, I don't want the French Canadians to dominate anyone, and I don't want anyone to dominate them. Equal justice, equal rights.

But English Canadians were not yet ready for such a vision of equality. Toronto, and all of Ontario, were in the throws of a wave of anti-francophone and anti-Catholic sentiment. It was felt that the use of French in Ontario schools was a threat to the province's integrity as an Anglophone and protestant community. The cry went out to abolish the "privileges" of Ontario's Catholic minority in the name of "equal rights." The separate school system was particularly decried, as it was seen as unfair, ineffectual, and dangerous in light of the growing demographic weight of Franco-Ontarians.

James P. Whitney

Increasingly, Anglo-Ontarians, and the Grand Orange Lodge of Ontario West, pressured their government to forbid French instruction. They asked for amendments to the school regulations to make using French illegal and impossible in the public and private schools of Ontario. Ontario premier James P. Whitney (1905–1914) was sympathetic, stating in the Legislature on April 13, 1912:

The teaching of English should commence as soon as a child enters school, the use of French as a language of instruction and communication varying according to local circumstances on receipt of the report by the school inspector, but in no case continuing on after the first year.

Regulation 17

Given that the desired assimilation did not take place, the government passed Regulation 17 in June 1912. It would become a provincial statute in 1915. Here are a few excerpts from the Regulation (sections 1, 3, 4, and 13) in its somewhat kinder 1913 version:

Section 1

There are only two classes of Primary Schools in Ontario-Public Schools and Separate Schools; but, for convenience of reference, the term English-French is applied to those schools of each class that the Department-whenever it is so requested by the school boards having jurisdiction in the matter-submits to inspection as provided in section 5 below, and in which French is the language of instruction and communication as limited in 3 (1).

Section 3

The following changes will be made to the public and separate school courses.

The User of French Instruction and Communication

1) In the case of French-speaking pupils, French may be used as the language of instruction and communication; but such use of French shall not be continued for the study of English beyond Form I, except where the inspector determines that French may be used as the language of instruction and communication for the study of English in the case of pupils who, upon completion of Form I, are unable to speak and understand the English language well enough.

Special Course in English for French-Speaking Pupils

2) In the case of French-speaking pupils who are unable to speak and understand the English language well enough for the purpose of instruction and communication, the following provision is hereby made:

a) As soon as the Pupil enters the school he shall begin the study and the use of the English language.

NOTE-A manual of Method for use in teaching English to French-speaking pupils will be distributed amongst the schools by the Department of Education. This manual must be used in all schools. Copies may be obtained, as required, upon request to the Deputy Minister.

b) As soon as the pupil has acquired sufficient facility in the use of the English language he shall take up in that language the course of study.

French as a Subject of Study in Public and Separate Schools

Section 4

In schools designated under Section 1, French may be taught in addition to the subjects prescribed for the Public and Separate Schools in Forms I through IV, under the following conditions:

1) Such instruction in French may be taken only by pupils whose parents or guardians direct that they shall do so.

2) Such instruction in French shall be distributed throughout the time-table in such as manner as to enable French-speaking pupils to acquire adequate knowledge of the English and French languages.

3) In Public or Separate Schools where French is a subject of study, the text-books presently in use shall remain authorized.

Section 13

1) No teacher shall be granted a certificate to teach in English-French schools who does possess a knowledge of the two languages sufficient to instill primary pupils with an adequate knowledge of the English and French languages.

2) No teacher shall remain in office or be appointed in any of said schools who does not possess a knowledge of the English language sufficient to instill primary pupils with an adequate knowledge of the English and French languages.

A National Controversy

The national controversy this regulation raised helped forge the Franco-Ontarian identity. Franco-Ontarians were quick to react. They organized their own clandestine classes and raised money to pay for the classes and launch court proceedings, with the clear support of Ontario's Catholic clergy. The following year (1913), Franco-Ontarians founded the newspaper Le Droit to defend their rights. In Quebec, the provincial government joined the fight by passing a law in 1916 allowing school boards to contribute financially to the Franco-Ontarian cause.

The federal Parliament also saw fights over the matter of Ontario Education. The debate reached a fever pitch when Quebec nationalist Henri Bourassa accused the "Krauts" of Ontario of mistreating their francophone minority, saying the war wasn't in Europe, but in Ontario. Meanwhile, two Anglophone members of the Quebec Legislature, William Stephen Bullock (Shefford) and John Thomas Finnie (Count of Saint-Laurent), presented a motion on the Ontario school issue on January 13, 1915:

That this House, without questioning the principles of provincial autonomy, and without in any way seeking to interfere in the affairs of the other provinces of Confederation, notes with regret the divisions that seem to exist among the population of the province of Ontario with regard to bilingual schools, and believes it is in the interest of the Dominion generally that all questions of this nature be broached from a broad, generous and patriotic viewpoint, remaining ever mindful that one of the fundamental principles of British liberty throughout the Empire is respect for the rights and privileges of minorities.


The motion was unanimously adopted by the Quebec Legislative Assembly and a copy sent to Bishop Michael Francis Fallon, the Irish Catholic bishop of London, Ontario. Fallon had been named bishop of the diocese of London in 1909, and quickly acquired a dubious reputation among French Canadians for promoting English unilingualism at the University of Ottawa. His appointment to London caused consternation for it was feared the new bishop would attack bilingual schools. And as a matter of fact, Bishop Fallon held fast to his intention to banish French from the schools: "I consider the much-discussed Regulation 17 a fair and equitable solution; I've said it in public before and in private, and I'm prepared to say it again should the need arise." Like many in Ontario, the Irish bishop felt the province was under siege by francophone hordes. On February 16, Major Fallon wrote to the treasurer of Ontario, Thomas William McGarry (1914-1919:

This agitation has but one purpose: gradually establish a network of French schools in Ontario within a French republic occupying the banks of the St. Lawrence. [...] Should the provincial government today retreat a millionth of an inch from its declared position, it is not imprudent to predict that the people of Ontario are going to provide the most lively political entertainment in their history.

In the Windsor region, a number of francophone members of the clergy rebelled against their bishop for taking the government's side. During his episcopate, which lasted more than twenty years, Bishop Fallon remained at the heart of the ethno-linguistic quarrels aroused by the school question in Ontario (1912-27). At his death, he was considered a "hero" by many Irish Catholics, but a "demon" by Franco-Ontarians.


In 1910, the Prime Minister of Canada, Robert Borden (a Conservative), refused to intervene with the Ontario Conservatives; the opposition Liberals raised the controversy over Regulation 17 and tabled a motion asking Ontario to treat its minority with more respect. When the vote was taken, the two political parties split along language lines—Quebec Conservatives voted in favour of the Liberal proposal, while Western Liberals voted against. The courts ruled against the demands of the Franco-Ontarians, and Regulation 17 was never repealed; it simply fell into abeyance in 1944 when it was not renewed.


In the decades to follow, Franco-Ontarians managed to maintain their own school system, but it was a constant struggle. After the First World War, sentiment against French schools dissipated somewhat among Anglo-Ontarians, many feeling these continual quarrels paled in comparison to the serious international rivalries of the day. The judicial and social bickering was also thought to threaten the existence of the province if solutions were not found.

Despite Regulation 17, bilingual schools started up again in 1927 when the government loosened the rules. But until 1969, not a single French language secondary school received any government aid, except for grades 9 and 10. As for French primary school, this was viewed as a privilege accorded the minority, and it was mandatory the schools also teach English. Happily this state of affairs is now ancient history. But it took the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in 1967 for the French language to win back ground in Ontario.

Quebec Province

Quebec's population stood at 1.2 million in the 1871 census, 78% of whom were of French origin, 10% Irish, 6% English, and 5% Scottish. Of the total, 86% were Catholic. The province of Quebec represented 34.1% of the total population of Canada's four provinces at the time. With the entry of other provinces into Confederation (Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan), Quebec would find itself relegated to permanent minority status within the Dominion of Canada. By 1926, Quebec accounted for only 30% of Canada's population.

Quebec's entry into Confederation was marked by the flying of British flags and the singing of "God Save the Queen." Until then, Francophones had been accustomed to calling themselves Canadiens and their English-speaking compatriots, les Anglais. Now everyone was a Canadian, much to their chagrin. To make a distinction, now they had to say French Canadians. Joseph Cauchon was chosen as the first premier of Quebec, but Anglophone antipathy toward him was such that he could not form a cabinet. He was replaced on July 15, 1867, by Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, who accepted on the proviso he could keep control over education; the following year, he took the opportunity to found the Department of Public Instruction.

It was a time of great hope, for Quebec once again had its own Parliament. On July 1, 1867, the newspaper La Minerve declared:

Canadians, let us rally around the new flag. Our constitution will bring peace and harmony. All rights have been respected; all races are treated on an equal footing; and all of us, French Canadians, English, Scottish, Irish, are members of the same united family, forming a powerful state, capable of fighting the undue influence of strong neighbours. [...] We shall no longer fear annexation.

But English newspapers in Montreal protested, fearing that Quebec's Anglophone minority was finished, served up on a platter to the francophone majority. To George-Étienne Cartier, one of the "Fathers of Confederation," the difference between Francophones and Anglophones appeared slim indeed. At a reception in his honour in Quebec City on December 23, 1869, he declared, "We are no longer French here, but French-speaking English citizens."

Legislative and Judicial Bilingualism

Section 133 of Canada's Constitution of 1867 provided that members could use English or French in the Parliament of Canada and in the Legislature of the Province of Quebec. This meant Quebec was the only province subject to this constitutional provision. In addition, pleadings before the federal courts of Canada and the courts of Quebec could be in either language. The Constitution Act, 1867, it should be remembered, did not impose across-the-board bilingualism on Quebec or its civil service; rather, it instituted an "embryo of official bilingualism." Bilingual federal political institutions were a concession to the francophone minority in Ottawa, accorded in return for the same concession to the Anglophone minority of Quebec. It was take it or leave it. Had Quebec not accepted bilingualism, the federal government would never have been bilingual.

In actual fact, the two languages were just as unequal in the provincial Parliament as they were in Ottawa, because any member speaking English was not understood by the francophone majority (and vice versa). French became the unofficial language of Parliament. If a member wanted to be understood, he had to use French or watch as two-thirds of the assembly got up and walked out. However, laws and regulations continued to be written by Anglophone law clerks, and were subsequently translated into French. Anglophones also obtained a special status that protected them from the province's francophone majority: Quebec's Anglophone ridings—the Eastern Townships as they were called—were "protected" and could only be abolished with a double majority vote of both the members of provincial Parliament and the twelve Anglophone members.

As for the courts, they continued to be bilingual, made easier by the fact that all laws had two versions, one English and one (translated) French.

Educational System

On January 20, 1869, during the second session of the first Legislature of the province of Quebec, representatives of the Anglophone protestant community presented a bill intended to better structure their educational system. It was passed the following March 25. A protestant Legislative Council member, Jeffery Hale, reacted thus:

I will say I belong to the minority, and that we asked for justice, and the majority, which could have turned us down, did not do so, but acted with the greatest liberality, even beyond what we expected.

The educational system in Quebec was founded on two virtually parallel religious structures, one protestant (English) and the other Catholic (French).

Another action taken during Quebec's first Legislature, which concluded in February 1870, was the creation of a provincial police force. Among the minimum requirements to become a first class member, applicants had to be at least 18 but not over 40, whereas "first class sergeants and constables must know how to read and write in English or French." In other words, there was no need to be bilingual; it was enough to speak one language or the other.

In 1875, in reaction to the controversy in Manitoba and New Brunswick over schools, the newspaper Le Canadien claimed a diabolical conspiracy was at play (February 3, 1875 edition):

One would be tempted to believe there is an immense conspiracy against the French race in the Dominion. Stomped down in Manitoba, crushed in New Brunswick, we are threatened with destruction. This must not go on.

Honoré Mercier

With debates raging over schools in Manitoba and New Brunswick and tensions high over Louis Riel's execution on November 16, 1885, the Francophones of Quebec turned to a nationalist premier, Honoré Mercier. In a speech in Montreal on April 4, 1893, he declared,

When I say we owe nothing to England, I mean politically, for I am convinced [...] that the union between Upper and Lower Canada, as well as Confederation, was imposed on us with hostile intent toward the French element and with the hope to make it disappear in short order.

In the same speech, Mercier went so far as to propose the independence of Quebec, saying,

You have colonial dependency, I offer you fortune and prosperity; you are but a colony ignored the world over, I offer the chance to become a great people, respected and recognized among the nations of the world.

This public declaration was deemed highly "subversive" coming from the premier of a Canadian province. It could not go unanswered! Influential Anglophones understood that quick action was needed to tie the financial hands of all future premiers of Quebec, and arranged for public finances to be under the control of Anglo-Montreal financiers. From that point on right up until 1960, all of Quebec's finance ministers would be Anglophone, and would impose English as the working language of their department with impunity. As a matter of fact, English was used in most other departments, too.

Linguistic Non-Intervention

French Canadians came to realize their provincial government was not a very energetic defender of their language. A loud talker but not great of a walker, the Quebec government did not yet believe in using the state to promote the language of the Francophone majority. The population seemed to take for granted that their provincial government was simply incapable of defending the French fact. Meanwhile, Ontario, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick used their parliaments on several occasions to protect the English language under the perceived threat of francophone minorities.


In 1910, the government of Quebec was forced to intervene for the first time in language matters. Had it not been for the tenacity, if not outright stubbornness, of member Armand Lavergne, the Quebec government would have never passed what came to be called the "Lavergne Law." For two years, Lavergne raised a hue and cry throughout the province and eventually submitted a petition of 1.7 million signatures. Almost the entire province—including Anglophones—was behind him. Faced with such support, the Quebec government gave in and adopted his law. It amended the Quebec Civil Code (chapter 40) to require public utilities operating in Quebec to serve their customers in English and in French, but it forbade nothing. Called an Act to amend the Civil Code as regards contracts with public utilities, here is how it read:

Article 1

The following articles are added after article 16826 of the Civil Code, as enacted under the statute 5 Edward VII, Chapter 28, Section I:

"1682c. Traveller's tickets, bag claim tickets, waybills, bills of lading, telegrams, handbills and contract forms made, furnished, or delivered by a railway, maritime, telegraph, telephone, transportation, courier or electrical energy company, as well as notices and regulations posted in stations, cars, boats, offices, factories and workshops must be printed in French and in English."

"1682d. Any contravention of a provision of the preceding article by a railway, maritime, telegraph, telephone, transportation, courier or electrical energy company doing business in this province shall be punishable by a fine not exceeding twenty dollars, without prejudice to recourse for damages."

Article 2

This act is effective January 1, 1911.

Although mild in scope, the Lavergne law was enforced very progressively. Ten years later in 1921, infractions of this Quebec legislation were still frequently denounced in the press. Incredibly, this didn't stop the Quebec government from issuing its own cheques in English only until 1925.

Maurice Duplessis

Some 25 years later, this attitude that some historians have labelled "timorous" still pervaded the Quebec government. In 1937, premier Maurice Duplessis (1890–1959) decided to pass a law giving priority to the French text in the interpretation of Quebec statutes and regulations. He felt it was normal to give precedence to French, the language of the majority in Quebec. However, the Act respecting interpretation of the statutes of the province (May 20, 1937) so annoyed the English minority that less than a year later (March 31, 1938), Maurice Duplessis publicly admitted "his error" and repealed the law. This linguistic flip-flop was welcomed at the time as an act of "political courage" and earned Premier Duplessis the congratulations of the entire Anglophone community.

Quebec legislators remained totally dependent on English in the drafting of their own laws. All Quebec statutes continued to be drawn up in English or copied from laws passed earlier by English Canadian or Anglo-American legislatures. The English version was sometimes so poorly or confusedly translated into French that it was necessary to consult the more grammatically correct English version to understand its real French meaning. It must be remembered that until the late 1950s, many Quebec civil servants were unilingual Anglophones, particularly the law clerks, senior civil servants, and the economists at the "Treasury Department," now called the Treasury Council This linguistic subordination merely reflected a general state of affairs, including the economic subordination of Francophones. The situation wouldn't be resolved until the late1960s.

That was when Francophones Quebecers began to wonder who they were. The term Québécois came to replace French Canadian, but it was not quite that simple, because Québécois could also include Anglophones (those who lived in Quebec). In 1985, filmmaker Pierre Falardeau produced the movie Elvis Gratton to mock the Québécois who had voted NO in the 1980 referendum on Quebec sovereignty. In his movie, the main character, Bob "Elvis" Gratton, wins an Elvis Presley impersonation contest and a trip to the tropical island of Santa Banana. In the plane taking him back home to Quebec after his one-week vacation, Bob Gratton gets asked by a passenger where he is from. He answers, "I'm a Québécois Canadian." Then he explains, "a French Canadian Frenchman." But he's still not quite there: "a North American who's French." For many Quebec Francophones, this monologue ably summed up how hard it is to define the identity of the "French of America."

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