The francophone community of Alberta and the First World War

By Rebecca Lazarenko

When Canadians consider the French-Canadian experience of the First World War, what most often comes to mind is the opposition of French Canadians in Québec to conscription, and the war itself more broadly. Very few Canadians consider that there were multiple francophone communities outside of Québec and that their experiences during the war varied. Even fewer consider the possibility that the experiences and perspectives of those in Québec do not represent all of French Canada. When I was in my second year of my bachelor’s degree, I undertook a research project for a Canadian history class hoping to learn more about the conscription crisis. I expected to learn about the French Canadians of Québec and how the francophone communities outside of Québec reacted to conscription. However, all I could uncover was literature on Québec. It was as if French Canadians did not exist outside of Québec and had no part to play in this controversy.

Of particular interest to me was the experience of Alberta’s growing francophone community. France Levasseur Ouimet[1], one of the few Canadian historians to have done significant work on the community, notes there were 24,286 francophones living in Alberta in 1916, primarily in Edmonton and Calgary and the surrounding area. The population was a mix of French Canadians who migrated from Québec, French Canadians who were born in the West, others who descended from Metis populations and recent immigrants from France and Belgium. This was a vibrant, diverse and thriving community with strong social bonds and multiple organizations, including a number of French newspapers. From this research, the general question of my master’s thesis was born – to what extent were the perspectives and reactions of the francophone community of Alberta similar or different to those of the French Canadians of Québec during the First World War?

Knowing that the various French school crises had an enormous impact on the perspectives of French Canadians in Québec, the second point of the study was to determine if the persecution of the French language had a similar effect on the francophone community in Alberta. This article  provides a general summary of my key discoveries and sheds some light on the francophone community of Alberta during the First World War.

The Declaration of War

Due to the exaggerated emphasis on the anti-conscription riots in the Canadian memory of the First World War, many Canadians believe that French Canadians did not support the war or the Canadian war effort. Although some French-Canadian nationalists, led by Henri Bourassa[2], expressed concern over the imperialistic consequences of Canada joining the war, Québec’s initial reaction saw an outpouring of patriotic support from its francophones. When Canada entered the war on August 4th, 1914, the francophone communities across the country also responded with patriotic rallies, proudly singing the national anthems of England, France, and Canada. In addition to the rallies, French Canadians across the country openly and proudly expressed their desire to become volunteer soldiers and supported the creation of French-Canadian battalions. In Québec, the federal government authorized the Royal 22nd Battalion (le 22e bataillon) in October 1914. However, unlike in Québec, the francophone community of Alberta community had to petition the federal government for authorization for almost two full years. It was only in April 1916 that the government authorized the “233e batallion canadien-français du Nord-Ouest” and approximately 600 francophone men from the West enrolled, half from Alberta.

The first two paragraphs of an article about Alberta’s reaction to the declaration. Le Courrier de l’Ouest, August 6th, 1914, p. 8.

Despite the outpouring of support, French-Canadian nationalists in Québec argued that their participation was strictly voluntary and that they had no obligation to participate, it was not their “devoir” to become a soldier. However, many French Canadians of Québec believed they had a “devoir” to continue the fight for French linguistic rights, as it was a fight for their linguistic and cultural survival. It is this perspective that marks the fundamental difference between the French Canadians of Québec and the francophone community of Alberta. The francophone community believed that it had a “devoir” to do both. As the pages of the Courrier de l’Ouest were filled with articles calling for the community to take action and fight for their rights, it was also filled with articles explaining that they had a “devoir moral”, a moral obligation, to join the Canadian war effort. Therefore, unlike the French-Canadian nationalists in Québec, the members of the francophone community of Alberta believed that they had a moral obligation to fight for the freedom of their former and current “Patrie”, (France and England) and to continue the fight for their rights. As such, Le Courrier de l’Ouest represented that both causes were worthy and important, but, most importantly, that neither influenced the other.


The Second Battle of Ypres

The Second battle of Ypres marked Canada’s first real military engagement in the First World War. Due to the perception of their almost miraculous resistance after four days of intense battle, in April 1915, Canadian soldiers gained a reputation as tough and dependable. As such, international, national and local presses published an overwhelming number of articles singing the praise of Canada, its victory at Ypres, and the glory and bravery of its soldiers. However, much of this praise was part of the government’s propaganda agenda to bombard the Canadian people with uplifting and heroic tales of their soldiers and to downplay the Canadian losses at the front – all in the hope of maintaining morale and support for the War.

Despite Québec’s growing opposition to the War and its escalating outrage over the Règlement 17, with the provincial government compared to German tyrants, the francophone newspapers of Québec were obligated to participate in the propaganda[3]. Its newspapers published hundreds and several different types of articles, ranging from editorials, reproductions of “official reports[4]”, “eye witness” stories and “from the front” reports, information articles, messages from Allied leaders, and reproductions of foreign press articles. As such, while the French Canadians of Québec were questioning why they should fight overseas for the rights and freedom of others when they did not have such privileges in their own country, their newspapers published numerous articles praising the Canadian victory at Ypres and the Canadian war effort. Although Le Courrier de l’Ouest (Alberta) also participated in this propaganda campaign, it only published two articles and one picture about Ypres. At the same time as the Second Battle of Ypres, two scandals struck the francophone community of Alberta: the Michener motion and the intensifying protests against the Règlement 17, which were much more immediate and important for the community.

An article criticizing the French-Canadian ministers (federal) for allowing French-Canadian rights to be violated, specifically regarding the lack of French war stamps. Le Nationaliste, April 18th, 1915, p. 1.

At the beginning of April 1915, the Alberta government passed the Michener motion, which explicitly condemned bilingualism and declared that the only language of instruction in Alberta schools would be English. The francophone community was outraged and scandalized. Francophone and other European immigrants compared the situation with that of the persecution of language rights in Alsace and the German Poland. The community took immediate action and rapidly organized and made it clear that they were ready to fight the oppressive motion, to the same extent as their compatriots in Ontario. The community also showed its solidarity with the French Canadians of Ontario as they compared the English Canadians of Ontario to the Germans, labeling them the “Boches de l’Ontario.” The community then pushed the issue a step farther and declared that all English Canadians who purposely set out to oppress, assimilate and eliminate French language rights in Canada were just as deplorable as the Germans; they were the “Boches du Canada.” However, despite the francophone community’s explicit resistance to assimilation, not a single article or letter published in Le Courrier de l’Ouest opposed the War. The French linguistic crises did not appear to affect the francophone community of Alberta’s involvement in the war effort. In fact, the Courrier de l’Ouest continued to represent the francophone community of Alberta as equally devoted to the War and the fight for French-Canadian rights.

The first paragraph of an article comparing English Canadians to Germans. Le Courrier de l’Ouest, May 13th, 1915, p. 1 et 8.

The Conscription Crisis

The popular narrative of the conscription crisis argues that English Canadians supported conscription, while French Canada did not, refusingto do their part for victory[5]. The reality was much more complicated as the French Canadians of Québec were not a homogenous group. There were three distinct political ideologies within Quebec during the First World War: the liberals who supported the war, but concurred that joining the war was a choice, the nationalists who completely opposed the war, but also believed that French Canadians had a choice, and the imperialists who believed in the cause and the obligation of the French Canadians to participate. Yet, the only perspective that covered the pages of the English Canadian press was that of the nationalists, and, more specifically, the extremists who supported violence in opposition to the War. When riots erupted over Easter weekend in 1918, the English press crucified the French-Canadian population, calling for the imposition of martial law in Québec, despite the isolation of the riots to one single quarter in Québec City.

In response to the call for martial law, the francophone newspapers of Québec declared that the riots were purposely being exaggerated as a means of turning English Canadians against Québec. Although their articles called for calm and the restoration of peace, they argued that the incessant and purposeful provocations of English Canada caused the outbreak of violence and, therefore, English Canadians were equally to blame for the riots. A more extremist point of view declared that French Canadians of Québec were the victims of a conspiracy, a diabolical plot orchestrated by English Canada to accomplish their anti-French agenda: the destruction of the French Canadian “race.” Extremist or not, the common belief was that they were the victims of the story, the riots being an effect of brutal victimization.

The first paragraph of an article describing, in great detail, how French Canadians of Québec were the victims of a diabolical English Canadian plot.
Le Nationaliste, 7 avril 1918, p. 1.

According to the francophone newspapers of Alberta, the francophone community was very much at odds with the opinions of the French-Canadian nationalists in Québec. For starters, there is no indication that the community did not support conscription. In fact, the community’s involvement in recruitment, its unwavering support for the war, and its insistence that all French Canadians had a moral “devoir” to join the war suggests a general support of conscription. Furthermore, after the outbreak of riots in Québec city, several articles in L’Union stated that conscription was the reason all Canadians should be united rather than divided, due to the shared sorrows of the war. Finally, although the riots negatively affected the French Canadians of Québec, it had a positive effect on the francophone community of Alberta. The eruption of hatred inspired the members of the community to renew their initiative of unity (within the community) and it reinvigorated their desire to fight for their survival.

Even though the francophone community had a different perspective on conscription, L’Union came to the defense of their compatriots in Québec. Most importantly, it blatantly stated that all French Canadians had done their part, their “devoir,” and the sacrifices of their men should not be ignored and discredited. Secondly, although the opinions published in L’Union made it clear that the violent riots were a disgrace to the dignity of the French Canadian “race” and, consequently, condemned the riots, they also stated that the community understood the reason for the violence. Due to the intense and hateful provocations of English Canadians, it was inevitable that the French Canadians in Québec would retaliate. But, even with the understanding of why the riots happened, L’Union and the community did not justify the violence. Once again, although the community came to the defense of its brothers under fire in Québec, L’Union assured readers that its defense could not be interpreted as a form dissent of support and encouragement of more violence. Overall, during the conscription crisis, L’Union represented the community as highly supportive of the War, despite its solidarity with Québec.

Overall, it is evident that the francophone community of Alberta shared different perspectives on the war than French Canadians in Québec. Despite common beliefs, such as the need to continue fighting for French rights, the francophone newspapers of Alberta represented the community as whole heartily dedicated to the war and the idea that there was a moral “devoir” never faltered. As such, my major concluding point indicates that due to the vastly divergent realities between Québec and francophone Alberta, the francophone newspapers of Alberta strategically crafted the representation of their community as a form of self-preservation. Due to the double minority[6] status of the francophone community of Alberta, its newspapers and members did not have the same freedom of speech as in Québec. Meaningful dissent could have brought down the wrath of the English majority in Alberta and endangered their already limited linguistic rights. The representation of the community as completely dedicated to the war[7] was a way to foster positive relations between the English and the French. It was also a way to show English Canadians that the francophones of their province were “good citizens,” willing to sacrifice their lives for their country, and therefore generate support for their future struggles for their linguistic rights. As a result, the francophone newspapers of Alberta played an extremely important role in protecting and furthering the linguistic rights of their community.

Rebecca Lazarenko is a graduate student at York University, pursuing a Ph.D in History. Her doctoral research focuses on the Prairie Francophone communities from 1900-1950, particularly examining their history during the two World Wars and the impact of the French school crises.


[1] Levasseur-Ouimet, France. D’année En Année: De 1659 à 2000: Une présentation synchronique des événements historiques Franco-Albertains. Edmonton, Alberta: Institut du patrimoine, Faculté Saint-Jean, 2003. Levasseur-Ouimet, France. 1899-1999, Saint-Joachim, La première paroisse catholique d’Edmonton. Edmonton, Alberta: F. Levasseur-Ouimet, 1999.

[2] Henri Bourassa was a major political figure and the creator and editor of the newspaper Le Devoir. His voice had considerable weight, as much as Sir Wilfrid Laurier, the leader of the liberal party.

[3] Keshen explains that all Canadian press outlets, francophone included, were obligated to publish propaganda. Jeff Keshen, Propaganda and Censorship During Canada’s Great War. Edmonton, Alberta: University of Alberta Press, 1996.

[4] Also note that Keshen explains that eyewitness accounts, official reports and stories from the front were quite often works of pure fiction or were heavily edited. The Canadian government hired Sir Max Aitken, who rarely visited the front or interacted with soldiers from the front, to write its eyewitness reports.

[5] We also cannot forget that the French Canadians were not the only ones to oppose conscription: opposition was widespread in English Canada as well.

[6] First belonging to the French-Canadian minority. Second, being a French community existing in a primarily English province.

[7] This is to not say that the representation was false, and that the community was not dedicated, but rather that it is possible the newspapers neglected to publish articles or letters that expressed ideas similar to those of French Canadians nationalists.

This post is part of’s ongoing project on the First World War: “Canada’s First World War: A Centennial Series on”. Launched in 2014, the series is concluding in 2019. All the posts in the series continue to be accessible here.

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