French Canadians

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/French Canadians/Yves Frenette

In the 1991 census, nearly 8.4 million people were listed as French-Canadian, of whom 6,146,600 described themselves as being wholly and 2,242,580 partially of French-Canadian ethnic origin. Together, French Canadians represented 31.1 percent of Canada’s population. They are descendants of the French who settled in the St Lawrence valley in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The present entry, whose main theme is based on the mutability of identity, deals with the origin and development of this group of people and its fragmentation over the last thirty-five years.

The first European settlers in Canada were French. In a new land and exposed to the North American environment and the native peoples, they were gradually transformed into Canadiens. After the conquest of 1760 Canadiens had to share their land with the British who in turn became Canadians. To emphasize their linguistic distinctness, francophone elites began to call themselves Canadiens français, French Canadians, after 1820. Although most people continued to call themselves Canadiens, the labels “French-Canadian” and “French Canada” spread after 1840. We still hear these terms used today, especially by anglophones. They are anachronisms, however, given the historical developments that have caused French Canada to disappear as an ethnic entity in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Today’s descendants of the first Canadiens and French Canadians are the Québécois (5,451,925), Franco-Ontarians (1,422,405), Franco-Manitobans (152,250), Fransaskois (119,610), Franco-Albertans (319,040), Franco-Columbians (340,430), Franco-Yukonais (4085), and Franco-Tenois or francophones of the Northwest Territories (5560). While 80 percent of the population of Quebec consists of descendants of French Canadians, in other provinces and territories they constitute only 10 to 14 percent of the population. Outside Quebec, these people are increasingly called francophones hors-Québec, or francophones outside Quebec, an almost fictitious identity they share with the Acadians of the Atlantic provinces. This new identity owes its beginnings to the constitutional debates of the last twenty years, but it does not correspond to a genuine social reality.

In the United States, French Canadians became Franco-Americans at the beginning of this century. Though their experiences are a significant part of the larger French-Canadian story, this entry focuses on Canada, and especially Quebec, the heart of francophone life in North America since the beginning of European colonization.

To remain faithful to historical imperatives, this survey of French Canada should begin around 1840 and end around 1960. However, since identities evolve only over the long term and can never be properly observed in segments, we have chosen to study the ancestors of French Canadians before 1840 as well as their descendents after 1960.

This is a new undertaking, for the historical fragmentation of French Canada is reflected in its historiography. Jean Hamelin’s short history of French Canada (1967) is the most recent such account, but it focuses almost exclusively on Quebec francophones. We have to go back to Mason Wade in 1945 and Lionel Groulx in 1950–52 to find a historical analysis of French Canada as a whole. As a result, at the turn of the twenty-first century it is a worthwhile project to provide a history of the French Canadian people that encompasses the historiographic developments of recent decades, reflecting in particular our more recent concern with ordinary people – men, women, and children who emigrated to and lived in all parts of North America, who were moulded by its various environments, and who left their mark on the continent.