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“What Happened to French-Speaking Canada?,” Roland Madou, ON

Blog de Roland Madou Mars 2020

Canada was originally a French-speaking country. Now, it’s largely Anglophone. What happened?

Canada, which for a long time was completely Francophone, is largely Anglophone today. This shift was the result of several conscious and deliberate choices on the part of France! It was not in fact the English who were primarily responsible.

An Exemplary Queen

First of all, it should be noted that Queen Elizabeth II, Canada’s head of state, could serve as a role model for many Canadians. She has always performed her duties admirably, including during the Second World War, and she speaks French fluently (which is more than can be said for a number of Canadian government ministers). In so doing, she remains faithful to her origins: she is a 31st-generation descendant of William the Conqueror, the duke of Normandy who placed England under French rule for 350 years.

Interestingly, French was England’s official language during this long period of history. That explains why, even today, 40% of English words have a French origin (and not vice versa, contrary to popular belief).

New France: Canada’s Beginnings

After France colonized North America, New France covered nearly two thirds of the continent. French was the official language in this region for 150 years. Moreover, in 2015, the Ontario government celebrated 400 years of French presence in Ontario, beginning long before the English arrived.

However, England and France were at war with each other for centuries in multiple theatres, including Europe, Asia, the Antilles, and North America. The war in North America was known as the French and Indian War, or the Seven Years’ War (in French, the Guerre de Sept ans); it is sometimes considered to be the first true world war.

During this conflict, the two countries each won large victories in succession. The main events were the 1759 French defeat at the Plains of Abraham (Quebec City) and, in September 1760, the surrender of Montreal, before the French troops had even lifted their weapons!!! Vaudreuil, the governor general, made the decision to surrender in order to avoid a bloodbath and the complete devastation of Canada. King Louis XV, however, did not appreciate the choice. He held Vaudreuil personally responsible for the defeat and locked him in the Bastille.

After the surrender of Montreal (1760), the British took control of what was still legally New France. Martial law was enacted. During this military period, London left the French system in place. This was partially for practical reasons, since 99.7% of the population was Francophone!

Nevertheless, the French fought on despite their losses, and in the end it was England that requested the negotiation of a peace treaty, having been financially ruined by the enormous sums invested in the war. King George III made the decision; he was 22 years old when he succeeded his grandfather, King George II, who died barely one month after Montreal’s surrender.

The negotiations, led on the French side by the marquis César Gabriel de Choiseul, Minister of Foreign Affairs, went on for several years and resulted in the division of the colonies among the parties. France certainly could have kept New France, but was no longer interested in the territory. Canada was considered to be a vast icy expanse, without strategic importance, nothing but a money pit. As a result, France did not assert its claim to New France during the peace negotiations. The territory was voluntarily relinquished to England in favour of Guadeloupe, Martinique, Senegal and French India, whose sugar and spices were seen as more lucrative than the beaver pelts of New France, thought to be the only revenue source available there. The immense riches hidden underground had yet to be discovered!

In fact, the British officers, along with many British businessmen and politicians, would have preferred to keep the Antilles and leave New France to the French. For example, General James Murray, one of the principal English figures of the French and Indian War, said, in reference to New France, “If we are wise, we will not keep it!”

The French won that round. New France was given to the English under the Treaty of Paris (1763). The French prime minister, Duke Étienne-François de Choiseul (cousin to the negotiator) was also very satisfied with the outcome, which he considered to be a great success for France. Two centuries later, General Charles de Gaulle would recognize France’s mistake, calling it an irreparable abandonment for which France would never forgive itself. Some historians even view the loss of New France as the worst defeat in French history.

In the end, it was really the Treaty of Paris that sealed the fate of Canada and New France, and not any of the battles won or lost in North America or Europe!

It must be emphasized once again that Louis XV’s France gave no thought to including any type of linguistic clause in the Treaty of Paris when it was drafted. Nothing in the treaty guaranteed language rights to Canadians or Acadians, who became British citizens. The French negotiators were not especially worried about the survival of the French language. Furthermore, the same principle applied when Napoleon Bonaparte sold Louisiana to the Americans in 1803 and when Pondicherry was transferred to India in 1954. Outside of its own borders, France did not seem concerned with the French language.

Expansion of the Province of Quebec

After being handed over to England, New France endured, but under British rule. For administrative purposes, the British colonies were divided into several parts, one of which was called the “Province of Quebec” and had French as its official language. It included the future Ottawa and eastern Ontario.

To ensure the loyalty of his Francophone subjects, George III enlarged the Province of Quebec (Quebec Act, 1774) to include the whole Great Lakes region, as far north as Hudson Bay. The area also encompassed the future cities of Toronto, Windsor, Sudbury and Thunder Bay, in addition to Ottawa, as well as the entire territory between the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, where large American cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Duluth are now located.

And this enormous area was governed by French civil law!

The American War of Independence

Nonetheless, the decisive factor with regard to language in our country was the American War of Independence, which came about as a result of the American colonies’ rebellion against England.

A young and idealistic French aristocrat, the Marquis de La Fayette, took part in this revolutionary war led by American insurgents against the British colonial powers. He played a decisive role in the conflict, and, at 19 years old, was even granted the title of general by George Washington. Thanks to La Fayette, and with the support of the French navy, the Patriots narrowly won the American War of Independence against the British Loyalists.

To this day, La Fayette is regarded as a hero in the United States. He is one of only eight people in history, and the only person from France, to have been named an honorary citizen of the United States. There are many American cities named Fayetteville, La Fayette, or Lafayette in his honour. What’s more, when the United States went to war in 1917, American colonel Charles Stanton made a point of visiting La Fayette’s tomb, at Picpus Cemetery in Paris, to say in the presence of French marshal Joffre, “La Fayette, we are here.” It was his way of saying that America had returned the favour!

The irony is that this same La Fayette, still lauded in the United States, lived out his life in disgrace in France because he used force against the people during the French Revolution, on the orders of the Constituent Assembly. He escaped the guillotine only by fleeing the country.

The American victory was made official with the Treaty of Versailles (1783). Great Britain acknowledged American independence and surrendered the section of the Province of Quebec that was located to the south of the Great Lakes. In this way, the vast Province of Quebec created by George III was reduced to just a portion of modern-day Ontario and Quebec.

Linguistic Consequences

The American War of Independence had an enormous impact on the Francophones of Canada: Loyalists, faithful to the British Crown, were driven out of the newly founded United States and made their way to Canada, especially to the smaller Province of Quebec created under the Treaty of Versailles and still exclusively French-speaking. They then leveraged their loyalty to England to demand that the British Parliament give them the right not to speak French. London acquiesced, and, in 1791, split the Province of Quebec into Lower Canada (Francophone) and Upper Canada (Anglophone).

The Province of Quebec was no more. Lower Canada covered a part of today’s province of Quebec (it was much smaller than the current-day province!). Upper Canada, the Loyalists’ main haven, was a part of what is now Ontario. The province’s motto still refers to those Loyalists: Ut incepit fidelis sic permanet (Loyal she began, loyal she remains).


The English are therefore not the reason that Quebecers and other Francophones across Canada must fight so hard today to preserve their language. Thus, standing up in defence of the French language certainly does not mean fighting those who speak English. On the contrary, speakers of both languages must enter into dialogue. We must ensure that Anglophones are aware of the historic contributions that Francophones have made to our country and that they take these contributions into account.

But we must also convince Francophones to be proud of their language and not to fear speaking it! French will survive in Canada only if it is spoken extensively!

Roland Madou, Ottawa

March 2020