Telling the story of Ottawa’s Francophones

Posted on Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Crowd at the Festival franco-ontarien.

By Laura Darche

Francophones have helped shape the City of Ottawa since it was first founded as Bytown. Despite this, the story of Francophones in Ottawa is not well known. Le Centre for Research on French Canadian Culture (CRCCF) has decided to tell their story through a virtual museum entitled French Life in the Capital.

Combining documentary research and historical interpretation, this website presents original snapshots that recount the evolution, contributions and ambitions of the Francophone population of Ottawa. The site brings this history to life through a variety of archival documents reproduced in high definition, including photos, drawings, letters, notarized papers, audio footage, musical and video recordings. Teaching material is also provided. Here’s a brief look at some of the site’s resources.

Spaces in motion

Lower Town, LeBreton Flats, Sandy Hill, Vanier and Orléans are among the neighbourhoods built by Francophones. These areas are steeped in history and their inhabitants’ stories are told in their streets, both current and former. The great fire of 1900, urban renewal, the suburbanisation of the village of Orléans: all have left indelible traces on the landscape.

Before and after view of King Edward Avenue at Rideau intersection.

King Edward Avenue, once lined with majestic elm trees, was Lower Town’s largest park and the community’s playground before it became a major artery, choked with dense, noisy traffic.
Left photo: before redevelopment, looking north from Rideau, Ottawa [ca. 1920]. Library and Archives Canada, Department of the Interior photographic records (Ottawa) [graphic material]: numerical series OT, Ottawa city views, PA-034326.
Right photo: after redevelopment, looking north from Rideau, Ottawa, 2013. Ottawa past & present [website], King Edward Avenue @ Rideau Looking North.

Young man wearing snowshoes jumping over an obstacle on a snow-covered King Edward Avenue.

An obstacle course for snowshoe enthusiasts on King Edward Avenue exemplifies the role this area played in Lower Town’s community life during the 1950s.
Photo: Male snowshoers, King Edward Avenue at Clarence, east side [ca. 1950]. Library and Archives Canada, National Film Board of Canada. Still Photography Division [graphic material] (R1196-14-7-E), e010944011.

A vibrant community

Religious groups had been active in Ottawa for over a decade when the city was chosen as Canada’s capital. These Catholic orders had begun organizing the workers of the rough Bytown, and they greatly influenced the development of Ottawa’s Francophone community and its institutions.

Oblates seminarian in canoes.

Faced with a mixed population of Catholics, French-Canadians and Irish immigrants, the Oblate fathers became the first defenders of bilingualism. They said Mass, taught children and instructed priests in both languages. The College of Bytown, the bilingual predecessor of the University of Ottawa, and the local daily Le Droit are both legacies of this influential religious order.
Photo: Seminarians of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate on a river near [Ottawa], [1910-1914]. Source: University of Ottawa, CRCCF, Fonds Georges-Michaud (P62), Ph59-707.

Young girls in a classroom.

Thanks to the dynamic spirit of the young Élisabeth Bruyère, head of the Grey Nuns of the Cross, a school for the young girls of Bytown opened three years before a similar school for boys. The School for Nurses and later the University of Ottawa’s School of Education would allow young francophone women to take part in the economic life of Ottawa.
Photo : A Duhamel School class, Ottawa, [ca. 1940]. University of Ottawa, CRCCF, Fonds Germaine-Côté-Laplante (P104), Ph108-47.

Growing through culture

Language and cultural development are intrinsically linked. By moving to the new capital, Francophone politicians, public servants, journalists and other intellectuals formed a well-educated and faithful base that supported a vibrant culture despite the limited size of the population. This culture would spread its wings, influencing the rest of the province and the country.

Young woman wearing a costume and holding the Franco-Ontarian flag.

From the Institut canadien-français d’Ottawa (founded in 1852) to the Nouvelle Scène theatre company, along with Liaison magazine and the Festival Franco-Ontarien, Ottawa’s Francophones have built the institutions and facilities they need to broadcast their artistic endeavors.
Photo: 42nd edition of the Festival franco-ontarien at Major's Hill Park (Ottawa) from June 15 to 17, 2017. Photo: Sylvain Marier. Festival franco-ontarien, Franco047.


Once traditional and patriotic, at times activist and engaged, now creative and artistic, Ottawa’s Francophone theatre productions accurately reflect their community’s challenges and struggles for recognition.

Mobilization and power

As a cultural minority, Francophones have had to defend their language rights, in terms of education in French and in the provision of public services, including health care. Demonstrations, debates and even civil disobedience have won them several battles.

Cover page of Le Droit newspaper, 1913, presenting it's programme.

The daily newspaper Le Droit was created in 1912 to mobilize resistance to Regulation 17, which outlawed the teaching of French past the second grade.
Photo: front page of the Le Droit newspaper, presenting its program, March 27, 1913. Le Droit [printed matter], LeDroit_27031913_P1.

Ottawa's francophone community is alive and diverse.

Over the past few years, several organizations have joined forces to lobby the City of Ottawa to officially recognize both English and French as official languages.
Citizens march to call for the City of Ottawa to become officially bilingual, May 31, 2017. Photo credits: Jean-Philippe Héroux. Fédération des élèves du secondaire franco-ontarien.

The exhibition has been made possible through the support of the Virtual Museum of Canada’s Virtual Exhibits Investment Program. The Centre for Research on French Canadian Culture and the University of Ottawa have also supported the project through in-kind contributions.

The Centre for Research on French Canadian Culture specializes in archives, research and publications on the societies and cultures of North America’s historic and current and Francophone communities. It aims to promote the dissemination of knowledge and to highlight documentary resources.

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