Francophone Alberta: Deeply Engaged in the First World War

By Rebecca Lazarenko

As news of impending conflict travelled across Canada on August 4, 1914, a monstrous manifestation in favour of the declaration of war was held in downtown Edmonton. Thousands of French and English residents marched up and down the streets of the city, proudly waving the French, British and Canadian flags, shouting “hourah!” in favour of the declaration, and loudly singing “Rule Britannia” and “La Marseillaise.” Around 8:00pm, multiple patriotic speeches were made by prominent English-Canadian and French-Canadian political figures in Alberta.

Despite cultural and linguistic differences, both the English and the French residents of Alberta declared their patriotic support for the Canadian war effort. Although French-Canadian nationalists in Québec quickly began questioning Canada’s involvement in the war, the francophone community of Alberta’s support never wavered. Its members continually demonstrated their belief in a moral “devoir” (duty) to actively support the Canadian war effort, as a means of honouring the dignity of the French “race”[1] and culture, but also to fight against injustice.

Readers of Canadian history can be forgiven for assuming that the experiences of Québec represent those of all French Canadians and francophones during the War: the commonly used historical term “French Canadian” usually disguises a focus on the French Canadians of Québec, to the exclusion of all other francophones.[2] For instance, Elizabeth H. Armstrong’s classic 1937 book, The Crisis of Quebec, 1914-1918, estimates that French-Canadian military participation in the First World War was around 35,000 men. Consequently, 35,000 has become the magic number repeated by others,[3] despite its exclusion of the French Canadians and francophones outside of Québec.

During my research for my Master’s degree, I came across the names of francophone[4] men in Alberta who were enlisting, printed in the following francophone newspapers of Alberta: Le Courrier de l’Ouest, Le Canadien-français, and L’Union. From these names, I created a master list and calculated francophone Alberta’s participation rate – an act that acknowledges the sacrifices of these previously uncelebrated soldiers as well as demonstrating the crucial need for a re-evaluation of Armstrong’s magic number. I also want to showcase the considerable involvement and support of Alberta’s francophone community for the Canadian war effort. The history of francophone Alberta[5] proves that Québec’s response to the First World War does not represent the entire French-Canadian experience of that period.


Demographic Roots of Francophone Alberta

After the Canadian Confederation (1867), white settler politicians in Ottawa feared that the United States of America might annex the adjacent prairie territories Canadians coveted (which were, at the time, monopolized by the Hudson’s Bay Company). Although the British government helped broker the sale of the territory to Canada in 1869-70 (with little to no regard for its Indigenous populations), the low number of white settlers in the region led to continued concern over American territorial ambitions. Accordingly, the Canadian government devised a plan to boost European immigration. The latter half of the nineteenth century saw the arrival of anywhere from 6,000 to 133,000 European immigrants per year, and after the turn of the century those numbers doubled, with hundreds of thousands of European settlers arriving annually. In 1906, the population of Alberta (founded in 1905) was 184,896; by 1911 it was 374,663, and in 1916 it had grown to 495,351. The censuses provided by Statistics Canada indicate that the population increase was due to white settler immigration, primarily from Great Britain and eastern and western Europe.

Historian France Levasseur-Ouimet’s census research[6] indicates that 24,286 of the 495,351 souls in Alberta in 1916 were francophones. My research reveals four main origins for this francophone population: France, Belgium, Québec, and the West itself (French Canadians born in the region). This demographic information is extremely important when discussing the community’s participation in the Great War because it makes it clear that the community’s relationship with France and Belgium was vastly different from that of Québec. By 1914, Québec’s populace had long since cut its colonial ties with France and no longer considered it to be the “patrie” (homeland). However, in Alberta, the relationship between the francophone community and France and Belgium was thriving. Francophone newspapers from the period provide evidence of a strong sense of solidarity between the diverse members of Alberta’s francophone community. That solidarity was not geographically limited to Alberta or Canada – it extended itself overseas.


Involvement in the Canadian War Effort

In September 1914, the Société Saint-Jean Baptiste d’Edmonton (St. John the Baptist Society of Edmonton) published an article in the Courrier de l’Ouest announcing that there would be a patriotic assembly to discuss the creation of a French-Canadian battalion. At this assembly, key leaders of the community, such as Major DeBlois Thibodeau, expressed that the French Canadians had a “devoir” (duty) to join the Canadian war effort, a notion the crowd enthusiastically applauded and cheered. By the end of the assembly, 50 men had enlisted and 50 more enlisted by the end of the weekend. Historian E. J. Hart noted that in addition to the desire to create a French-Canadian battalion in Alberta, the local French-Canadian men also wanted to enlist in the battalions of Québec.[7]

Unfortunately, authorization was not granted for the French-Canadian battalion, despite the outpouring of support. Instead, Alberta’s French-Canadian recruits were placed in the province’s anglophone battalions, such as the 31st (Calgary) and the 51st (Edmonton). When local francophones continued to enlist and the support for the French-Canadian battalion did not dissipate, Major Thibodeau switched gears and campaigned for the creation of a “ canadien-français de l’Ouest” (French-Canadian battalion of the West). As before, the government did not give its authorization and instead encouraged Thibodeau to continue recruiting for the already existing battalions in Alberta. However, in 1916, due to the decreasing enlistment rates across the country, the government finally authorized the “233e bataillon canadien-français du Nord-Ouest,” (233rd French-Canadian battalion of the North-West) under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Édouard Leprohon[8].

«Les volontaires Canadiens,» Le Courrier de l’Ouest, September 10th, 1914, p. 4.

Interestingly, even though the battalion was open to all western French-Canadians, I discovered that the 233rd battalion officers were all from Alberta and they, with the help of their community, undertook major recruitment initiatives. The 1916 efforts of the Société Saint-Jean Baptiste d’Edmonton’s newspaper, Le Canadien-français, are a good example. From April to August, the newspaper printed articles providing updates on the battalion and information on its officers; from September to November it published recruitment posters, the lyrics and music for the song “Soyons-Unis”[9] (“Let Us Be United”), supportive letters from members of the community, and recruitment letters written by Lieutenant James Gray Turgeon. Turgeon’s letters, which added a personal touch to the recruitment campaign, listed several reasons why his compatriots should enlist. Most notably, he argued that they all had a “devoir” (duty) to join the war effort and that their participation would only help the future of their community and their linguistic rights. The latter argument refers to the resurgence of the prosecution of French linguistic rights, specifically the Reglèment XVII (Regulation 17) of 1912 in Ontario and even the Manitoba Schools Crisis of 1890,[10] which gravely influenced French Canadian enlistment in Québec. Many francophones in Alberta advanced the idea that their support of the Canadian war effort would ensure that English Canadians saw them as allies and “true” Canadians – in other words, that they would prove their loyalty by doing their part in the war. In return for that loyalty, the expectation was that English Canadians would be more accepting of French linguistic rights.

Another francophone organization that supported the 233rd battalion was the Cercle Jeanne d’Arc d’Edmonton (Joan of Arc Circle of Edmonton). It hosted patriotic soirées where music and plays, such as “Le forgeron du Château” (“The Castle Blacksmith”), were put on to further encourage enlistment. At these soirées, recruiting officers, notably Lieutenant Adéodat Boileau and Lieutenant James Turgeon, gave rousing recruitment speeches. Former soldiers, such as Léon Quatre (a former high-ranking officer in the French Army), also added their voices to the mix and enthusiastically endorsed the 233rd battalion.

Lieutenant James Turgeon, Le Canadien-français, September 1916, p. 11/12

In total, the 233rd battalion had 13 officers and an estimated 600 soldiers.[11] Through my research, I discovered that at least 264 (almost half) of those soldiers were from Alberta, and I found the names of 168 of them. Despite Lieutenant-Colonel Leprohon’s valiant effort to reach the battalion’s recruitment quota, the soldiers of the 233rd were transferred to other battalions – mainly the French-Canadian battalions of Québec, such as the 22nd and the 178th.


Significance of the Statistics

My analysis of the wartime military participation of Alberta’s francophone community is complicated by both the newspapers’ publishing practices and the fact that the community included not only Canadian-born francophones but also French and Belgian immigrants. Alberta’s francophone newspapers did not always list all the names nor the precise number of French Canadians who enlisted. The same goes for the French and Belgian reservists. Therefore, my results reflect the minimum number of soldiers who may have enlisted.

I was able to confirm that at least 655 French reservists returned to France, but I only uncovered 115 of their names. However, the book edited by Jeff Keshen and Adriana A. Davies, The Frontier of Patriotism: Alberta and the First World War, states that nearly 4,000 French reservists left Saskatchewan and a comparable number left Alberta. It is therefore entirely possible that there are hundreds of French reservists that have not been uncovered. As for the Belgian reservists, I confirmed that at least 693 returned to Belgium, however, I could only find the names of 14. The Courrier de l’Ouest, citing the statistics given by the Belgian consulate in Edmonton, noted that there were 3000 Belgians in the Edmonton area in 1914, but the total number throughout Alberta remains unknown. Thus, similar to the French reservists, it is possible that there were hundreds more Belgian reservists. Overall, I discovered references to 1,348[12] French and Belgian reservists who left Alberta between August and November 1914. Finally, I confirmed that there were at least 1,682 French Canadian soldiers from Alberta. Of those 1,682, I found the names of 980. Unfortunately, the other 702 remain nameless numbers documented in Le Courrier de l’Ouest, Le Canadien-français and L’Union.[13]

In total, I discovered 3,030 francophone men from Alberta enlisted during the War. According to the research of historian France Levasseur-Ouimet, the population of the francophone community of Alberta in 1916 was 24,286. Based on Colonel Archer Fortescue Duguid’s calculations[14], only 30.3% of Alberta’s population was eligible to enlist[15]. This means that of the total population of the francophone community, a maximum of 7,359[16] men were eligible, and therefore their military participation rate was 41.2%[17]. This participation rate is slightly higher than the provincial average of 35.1% which demonstrates that the francophones of Alberta were proportionately just as engaged in the Canadian war effort as were anglophone Albertans.

Accordingly, in comparison to the participation rate of Québec, the francophone community of Alberta proves itself to be significantly more engaged in the Canadian war effort. Historian Jean Martin[18] uncovered that 88,052 men from Québec enlisted, 58,052 of whom were French Canadian and the remaining 30,000 were English Canadian. According to Duguid, in 1914, Québec’s population was 2,148,000, but only 442,930 were men and eligible to enlist (20.6%). If we eliminate the 30,000 English Canadian men already enlisted, that leaves us with a total of 412,930 eligible men. Using these statistics, under the assumption that the remaining 412,930 eligible men were French Canadian and that all English Canadian men eligible to enlist had done so (represented by the 30,000 enlisted)[19], Québec’s French-Canadian participation rate was 13.1%.

However, it may not be true that all 412,930 men were French Canadian. So, if we imagine that an additional 10% of the 412,930 eligible men were English Canadian, we’re left with a total of 371,637 eligible French-Canadian men and a participation rate of 15.6%. If we instead assume that an additional 20% of the 412,930 eligible men were English Canadian, we have a total of 330,344 eligible French-Canadian men and a participation rate of 17.6%. Finally, if we suspect instead that an additional 30% of the 412,930 eligible men were English Canadian, we then have a total of 289,051 eligible French-Canadian men and a participation rate of 20.0%.

It is significant, regardless of whether we use 13.1% or 20.0% as Québec’s French-Canadian participation rate, that the figure pales in comparison to Alberta’s francophone participation rate of 41.2%. Not only do we see that the francophone men of Alberta were more engaged in the Canadian military effort than the French-Canadian men of Québec, but also that Alberta’s francophone men were significant supporters of Canada’s role in the conflict, full-stop.

Overall, my research proves that the francophone community of Alberta was highly engaged in the military side of the Allied war effort (with Alberta’s francophones fighting in both Canadian and foreign forces). The military participation rate of its eligible men (41.2%) was noticeably higher than the overall participation rate of Albertan men (35.1%). It also confirms that the experience of the French Canadians of Québec does not represent all French Canadians, especially the francophone community of Alberta. As a result, there is a considerable need for additional research to fully examine and understand the broader French-Canadian experience during the First World War.

Recruitment poster for the 233rd battalion. Le Canadien-français, September 1916, p. 20.


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] Terminology used at the time.

[2] This error is more than likely due to the fact it is extremely difficult to prove what soldiers were French Canadian outside of Québec, as the enlistment papers did not ask potential soldiers to identify their “race” or language.

[3] More modern studies acknowledge that 35,000 represents Québec, however, their acknowledgment is as far as it goes. There is very little research that demonstrates that the French-Canadian participation was much higher, apart from the research of Dr. Jean Martin.

[4] Please note that the term “francophone” is a general term used to describe French Canadians (born in Canada), the French (born in France) and Belgians (born in Belgium). The use of the term “French Canadian” is to describe an individual of the French culture and language who was born in Canada and/or who became an official Canadian citizen. At this time, foreign born francophones living in Alberta did not refer to themselves as “French Canadians” until after they became citizens, however, even then, the “French Canadian” identity took time to develop.

[5] The term “Francophone Alberta” is used to describe the community, founded by French Canadians, the French and Belgians. At this time, it cannot be described as uniquely French Canadian.

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

[7] E.J. Hart, Ambitions et réalités: La communauté francophone d’Edmonton, 1795 – 1935 (Edmonton: Salon d’histoire de la francophonie albertaine, 1981).

[8] A French Canadian from Québec.

[9] This patriotic song was created specifically for the French Canadians of the West and its main message heavily encourages enlistment.

[10] It’s important to note that these crises lasted decades. The Règlement XVII crisis began in 1912 and found a resolution in 1944, one year before the end of the Second World war. The Manitoba Schools Crisis plagued the francophone community from 1890 to 1985, nearly a century of struggle against linguistic persecution.

[11] Simon Pagé noted the battalion had 580 men and Jean-Pierre Gagnon noted it had 600. Unless all the soldier files are found, confirmation of exact numbers is impossible.

[12] 655 French reservists + 693 Belgian reservists = 1682 total.

[13] Please note that newspapers did not always publish 100% factual numbers, most numbers were estimates. However, several articles that included statistical information cited their sources. For example, Le Courrier de l’Ouest published information it received from the French and Belgian consulates, which we must assume to be factual. The newspaper also published information it received from community officials, such as elected members of government or large community organizations, and once again, we assume them to be factual.

[14] A. Fortescue Duguid, Official History of the Canadian Forces in the Great War, 1914-1919: General Series (Ottawa: King’s Printer, 1938).

[15] Men between the age of 18-45. Regarding Duguid’s calculations, Duguid only considered men, he did not factor women into his calculations. Through my research, I did not find any evidence of francophone female military participation in Alberta.

[16] 24,286 x 30.3% = 7, 359 eligible francophone men

[17] 3,030 / 7,359 = 41.2 %

[18] Jean Martin. « La Participation Des Francophones Dans Le Corps Expéditionnaire Canadien (1914-1919) : Il Faut Réviser À La Hausse. » Canadian Historical Review 96, 3 (2015): 405 – 423.

[19] Québec was predominantly a French-Canadian province, with English Canadians in the minority.



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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