On the eve of the Journée internationale de la francophonie (International Francophonie Day – March 20), and in the context of the Semaine de la francophonie (Francophone week), it is interesting to note how appropriate it is that a human rights museum is being built in Manitoba, the very ground where Louis Riel, the Métis and other French-speaking activists fought for language rights.
The first fort built at The Forks was Fort Rouge, established in 1738 by the Canadian-born explorer La Vérendrye. Built mainly for protection, it was also a place for exchanges between Aboriginal peoples and Canadians of European descent. The two cultures were then respectful towards each other and learned much from one another.
Many places received the names we still use today and many Métis families can trace their origins back to that era. Towns with French names, like Portage-la-Prairie, La Salle, St. Malo and Grosse Isle, appeared throughout southern Manitoba, separated from each other by approximately a day’s ride in a Red River cart (an invention of the Métis).
When Manitoba became a province in 1870, half its population was either French Métis or French-Canadian.
Every year, Manitoba’s Francophone community invites the world to St. Boniface for the Festival du Voyageur. It features many displays of cultural heritage, but today’s Francophone vitality is also highlighted.
The Bill of Rights drafted by Louis Riel, in collaboration with representatives of both language groups, constitutes the framework of the Manitoba Act.Then came sombre days for French-language rights. In 1890, the Government of Manitoba adopted an act making English the only official language of the Province. After another ruling in 1916, teaching in French was forbidden. Our parents and grand-parents remember a time when, as school children, they had to hide their books whenever the provincial inspector came by.
This denial of French as an official language and as a language of instruction was in violation of Section 23 of the Manitoba Act and, coincidentally, of Section 23 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It took several cases before the Supreme Court of Canada (1979, 1985 and 1993, among others) for Francophones of Manitoba to regain their rights.
Implementing these federal decisions, however, did not come easily. French-language Manitobans were bullied, death threats were made, and buildings were set on fire. But at the same time, provincial laws were being translated, and the foundation was laid for a French-language school division, officially established in 1994.
The Conseil jeunesse provincial (Provincial Youth Council) of Manitoba recently reprinted these T-shirts (To love him/her… is to speak French to him/her), which date back to the 1970s. Francophone organizations regularly do campaigns to promote the use of French. (Photo Credit: Christel Lanthier, The Conseil jeunesse provincial)
As a kid growing up in Manitoba, I was hardly aware of the battles that my forefathers had fought. Our schools weren’t entirely French, but it felt to me like most of our rights were protected. I didn’t think much of it all until I myself was called “Frog” or told to “speak white” a few times. I also clearly remember a time when a stranger came up to me and my Francophone friend in a shopping mall in Winnipeg and said “Don’t you think it’s weird and ignorant that people speak their ethnic languages in public?” I was too flabbergasted to respond to her. Little did she know that she would become one of the reasons I am now so protective of my mother tongue!
So I am particularly proud to now work in a national institution where bilingualism is expected and respected, right here in Manitoba. The staff employed at the CMHR, who come from all over Canada and elsewhere, are fully aware of the Museum’s obligations in the area of official languages and are more than cooperative. It makes for a work environment where there is a wonderful opening to the French language and culture.
So, 275 years after the first fort was built at The Forks, another “fortress” is taking shape on the same soil – to encourage exchanges between peoples and to educate all who come to it in the hopes that it will help to protect human rights.