Looking at why La Cité matters by observing history
by cassidy savard, contributor
Born and raised in Saskatchewan’s sister province Alberta, my exposure to French was limited. In the public school I attended, we had mandatory French classes for a couple of years. As a result of these classes I was able to request permission en français to go to the bathroom and get a drink of water.
My limited French ability is layered in irony, considering I am Métis. With historical ties to the Red River and marked with a French last name, I am a mere representation of Indigenous and French assimilation.
However, my ability to only speak English as a form of irony went unacknowledged by me for most of my life. Growing up in the prairies as an anglophone, it is easy to overlook French. Growing up in the prairies as a francophone, on the other hand, means it is impossible to disregard English.
However, to overlook français-canadien – as a culture and as a language – is not only disregarding the inception of Canada but also a continuation of historical assimilationist attitudes.
Canada today encapsulates many cultural identities. Historically, Canada’s inception was also born out of cultural diversity.
Canada.ca, the official website of the Government of Canada, provides the article titled “Discover Canada—Canada’s History,” which details the events leading up to our modern cultural and political climate.
In the article, we begin by learning that in 1604 the first European settlement was created in what is now Nova Scotia by French explorers Pierre de Monts and Samuel de Champlain. Later, in 1608, Champlain would create a settlement in what is now Québec City.
For years the French and the Indigenous would work together in the fur trade.
It wasn’t until the 1670s that the English started to become a stronger presence in Canada, even beginning to outnumber the French colonies, which were collectively dubbed as New France.
It was in 1759 that the British defeated the French during the Battle of the Plains of Abraham and the New France colony was renamed the Province of Québec. To govern the French majority, the Quebec Act was passed in 1774, ensuring French civil law and religious freedom.
An article first published on Sept 30, 2007, by Claude Couture titled “Quebec” in the Canadian Encyclopedia describes the history of Quebec under the section “History: From New France to Confederation.”
Couture describes that the Province of Québec would be divided into Upper Canada and Lower Canada as a result of the Constitutional Act (1791). Upper Canada was primarily English-speaking and Protestant, while Lower Canada was primarily Catholic and French-speaking.
Again, The Canadian Encyclopedia grants us a look into the past in the article “Rebellions of 1837-38,” published on July 15, 2013, by Andrew McIntosh. In the article, we learn that Upper Canada and Lower Canada would each have their rebellions against the Crown between 1837 and 1838.
These rebellions of Lower and Upper Canada lead to the Durham Report, in which Durham recommended Upper and Lower Canada should merge and be given responsible government. Durham also argued that the French-speaking population should assimilate into the English-speaking culture to progress democracy.
In 1840, Upper Canada and Lower Canada merged, becoming the Province of Canada, according to the article “Discover Canada—Canada’s History” from Canada.ca.
The bilingualism that exists today can be best explained by the appropriately titled article “Bilingualism” by Celine Cooper from The Canadian Encyclopedia published July 5, 2019. In the article, Cooper explains that the Official Languages Act (1969) became a “cornerstone of institutional bilingualism,” permitting English and French to have equal status in Parliament and federal bodies.
However, Cooper also addresses that it is ultimately up to the provincial powers to respect the Canadian bilingualism policy.
According to a June 21, 2023 article on Statistics Canada titled “English-French bilingualism in Canada: Recent trends after five decades of official bilingualism,” the reality of bilingualism is represented in data: English-French bilingualism was at 9.5 per cent outside of Quebec in 2021.
For French continuity outside of Québec, these findings may not be the most optimistic. On the other hand, I’d say it exemplifies the need for institutions like La Cité. According to the “History” section on their site, La Cité was only officially formed as an autonomous academic institution in 2015.
It is at La Cité that I have taken French courses, and it is here that I consider taking their “French as a Second Language” program. Learning French is a way to ensure cultural continuity – for my own heritage and Canada’s alike.