French History of the Edmonton Area

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ft. edmonton paintingPaul Kane Painting Fort Edmonton c. 1845
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Central and Northern Alberta has many locations, that have French history. Their earliest history comes from the fur trade, the Catholic missionaries that traveled into Western Canada and later farmers. A lot of the early French settlement, was in and around the Edmonton area.

Fort Edmonton was a Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) trading post and had several locations, along the North Saskatchewan River, before locating on a high bank, at a ford in the river, near where the Alberta Legislature is. The HBC operated from York Factory, on Hudson’s Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba with workers of Aboriginal, English, French, Irish & Scots decent. The break off competitor was the Northwest Company, who operated from Montreal, with a similar mix of workers.

As a result many of the inhabitants, of Fort Edmonton, were of French descent. Father Jean Baptiste Thibeault first visited Fort Edmonton as a missionary in 1842. Thibeault did not remain in the fort, however; in 1844 he established a Catholic mission northwest of Edmonton at Devil’s Lake, which he renamed Lac St. Anne. Thibeault was also present at the 1847 Christmas dinner in the Fort descriptively immortalized in artist Paul Kane’s memoirs.

Later Father Albert Lacombe, a member of The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, St. Albert mission in 1861. He was responsible for the peace between the Cree and Blackfoot. Other French Catholic missionaries in the area would have included Father Hippolyte Leduc (1867) and Bishop Vital Grandin (1868).

St. Joachim French ParishSt. Joachim French Parish
Source:Catholic Archdiocese of Edmonton

As the Tourism Edmonton states in respect to the City’s first French Quarter: “Situated at the very heart of the first French Quarter, the Saint-Joachim Catholic Parish was established in 1838 in Fort Edmonton. Four different buildings will carry the name Saint-Joachim Church (9920 110 Street), the last of which was built in 1899 and still exists today. A great many of the French community’s associations were established by parishioners of Saint-Joachim: la Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste (1894) la Société du parler français (1912) and l’Association canadienne-française de l’Alberta (1926).”

The original French Quarter of Edmonton, is located in the south of the Oliver neighbourhood. The City of Edmonton has an Oliver Walking Tour, PDF format. Many of the historical French buildings and sites, in the area west of 109 Street and south of Jasper Avenue, are include in the publication that you can download. Those of importance to the french history are:

*Very little remains of these two hospitals. the Misericordia Hospital relocated to the west end, in the 1970’s. Parts of the back section, of the General Hospital, were built over where the original hospital stood.

In 1861 Father Lacombe established a mission over-looking the Sturgeon River at what is now known as St. Albert.  St. Albert is the oldest, non-fortified community in Alberta and was the largest agricultural settlement west of Winnipeg. Early settlement, of St. Albert, used the old French Canadian, river lot system for assigning property. Using this system, lots were divided along the shore of the Sturgeon River.

The river lots, as well as the two-story log house, La Maison Chevigny (1881), St. Albert grain elevator, train station, two room school and interpretive centre are located at Musée Héritage Museum (5 St. Anne Street  St. Albert).

father lacombe chapelFather Lacombe Chapel
Photo: Bencito the Traveller

By following St. Vital Avenue just off the St. Albert Trail (Mark Messier Trail), visitors to St. Albert can reach Mission Hill, home to the Father Lacombe Chapel National Historic Site, Alberta’s oldest surviving building, built in 1861. When there be sure to tour:

  • The old Chapel.
  • The Bishop’s Palace (also a National Historic Site).
  • The crypt, at the back of the Cathedral, where Father Lacombe and Bishop Grandin are buried.
  • The grotto and through the cemetery, the resting place of some of St. Albert’s first residents.
old st albert trailOld St. Albert Trail

In addition to the larger St. Albert Trail, that continues on as Groat Rd. from 111th Ave in Edmonton, there’s another St. Albert Trail. It runs through a residential area east of Groat Road and south of 117th  to 112th Avenue. This residential road, follows the course of the original trail, but was gobbled up as the city expanded (see map above).

Moving north of St. Albert on Hwy. #2, the next important destination of the French history of the Edmonton, will be Morinville.

St Jean BaptisteSt Jean Baptiste Parish – Morinville, AB.
Source: & Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst

Morinville was settled, in the late 1800s by Father Morin, an Oblate missionary, who brought many French settlers. The highlight of Morinville is the Roman Catholic Church of the St. Jean Baptiste Parish. Built the church in 1907, along with its adjacent but now inoperative convent Morinville Convent, was declared a National Historical Site in 1975. In 2005, the grounds of the church were landscaped with a clock tower, new grass, trees and shrubs, in celebration of Alberta’s 100th anniversary as a province.

Former Notre Dame ConventFormer Notre Dame Convent – Morinville, AB.
: & Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst

It’s interesting to note the similarity, between the St. Jean Baptiste Parish and that of Saint-Joachim Catholic Parish, in Edmonton.

St EmileSt Emile Roman Catholic Church – Legal, AB.
Source & Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst

Further north, on Hwy. #2, you will reach Legal, with it’s bilingual traffic signs, it is truly a French community. As stated by Hendrik Slegtenhorst “The earliest settlers were in search of homesteads, and arrived in the 1890s from France by way of California. To these were added large numbers from Québec, attracted by the area’s fertile soil, and the influence of the mission, assigned by the Catholic hierarchy, to colonize the west with settlers recruited from Québec, to l’abbé Jean-Baptiste Morin, instrumental as well in the inception of Morinville. A chapel was built as early as 1889. The first church was constructed in 1911-12; the current church was built in 1950. The Paroisse St-Émile de Legal celebrated its hundredth anniversary in 1991.”

There are other locations in the Edmonton area, north and west of the city that French origins. As previously mentioned; Lac St. Anne, where the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage National Historic Site of Canada, is located. The site is described, on the above webpage as: “…located on the shore of Lac Ste. Anne, a broad, shallow lake in north-central Alberta. The pilgrimage site is a flat piece of land that extends down to the shores of the lake. The site consists of a landscape and a portion of a lake. On the site is a small church, a rectory, and a confessional building, Stations of the Cross, a cemetery and pilgrim facilities including a store, food concession stands, and washroom and shower buildings. On the right side, nearer the lake is the large, pentagonal-shaped Saint Anne shrine with roof and open sides, while at the lakes edge stands a gazebo where the blessing of the lake takes place during the pilgrimage. Trees and shrubs border the eastern boundary. Official recognition refers to the shore-site, which includes a contiguous, semi-circular section of lake”.

Bon Accord and Villeneuve, are also north of Edmonton, but of little historical significance to French history, of Alberta.

Going south of Edmonton, on the QEII Highway, there are two small cities that bare the names of the French Catholic history of Alberta. Leduc is with Edmonton Capital Region and has the name of early Catholic Priest, in the area (Father Hippolyte Leduc). Lacombe, which closer to Red Deer than Edmonton, bares the name of the aforementioned, Father Lacombe. These have the same level of French history as do Bon Accord and Villeneuve.

St Vital Roman Catholic ChurchSt Vital Roman Catholic Church – Beaumont, AB.
Source: Wikipedia

Beaumont is a town in Leduc County within the Edmonton Capital Region, northeast of Leduc. Its downtown core resembles a French village with unique architecture and red brick walkways. It is named for the “beautiful hill” on which St. Vital Church, built in 1919, is located within the centre of the town.

Edmonton French QuarterEdmonton French Quarter
Source: Edmonton French Quarter Website

Taking a trip, back into Edmonton’s south side, in the Bonnie Doon neighbourhood, at 86 Avenue and Rue Marie-Anne Gaboury (91 Street), is what’s referred to as the French Quarter. Established in October 2012, The French Quarter is a Business Revitalization Zone nestled in the cultural heart of Edmonton’s French speaking population.

Historically centred around the The Pavillon Lacerte, Campus Saint-Jean of the University of Alberta, the area is developing as modern district, for french culture in Edmonton.

Travelers wishing to find more french culture, in various locations in Alberta. They especially find it in the northwest Peace Country, but be prepared for a 522 km. trip from Edmonton to Peace River.

Future trekkers to the Peace Country, may want consider the Grouard-Peace River Trail, operated by Alberta Trail Net, part of the Trans Canada Trail. Sections of this part of the trail are available.

The Peace Country is a very large area, stretching from Slave Lake, in the east and past Ft. St. John and Dawson Creek, in British Columbia. From Valleyview in the south, to High Level in the north. High Level is close to the Northwest Territories border.

In addition to Peace River, travelers will will find very french communities, such a Fahler. The major commercial centre, of the Peace Country is Grande Prairie.

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