These Ontario villages with French names where English is spoken

Paris, Champlain, LaSalle, Belleville… Ontario has several French-speaking names of municipalities. But do we still speak French there? These vestiges of the Franco-Ontarian presence, several times threatened with disappearance, can today camouflage predominantly English-speaking populations.

“When we see a French name, we say to ourselves: “There must be French life here”. But, often, these are vestiges of a very ancient history, so, […] sometimes, it does not resonate with contemporary reality,” explains professor emeritus in the Department of Geography at the University of Ottawa Anne Gilbert.

Appearances are sometimes deceiving. According to Statistics Canada 2021 census data compiled by The duty, less than 2% of residents of Belleville, between Kingston and Toronto, indicated that they had French as their mother tongue. A percentage that does not surprise Mme Gilbert, who explains that the French toponymy of this city is “almost the result of chance”. With no real connection to a French-speaking presence, it was named in honor of Annabella Wentworth, the wife of British colonial administrator Francis Gore. “There is not a corner that is more loyalist, more Anglo-Saxon, more cautious regarding French-speaking questions,” judges Mme Gilbert.

On the other hand, in the north and east of Ontario, “there was not only a French toponymy, but also a French life,” adds the former director of the Center for Research in French-Canadian Civilization. Thus, more than a third of the inhabitants of the small forest town of Chapleau have French as their mother tongue. “And when we see the third of French speakers, for people who work in a minority environment, that’s a good proportion of French speakers,” she says. Further north, French is the majority in Dubreuilville, a “typically Franco-Ontarian village” landlocked in a sea of ​​English, notes independent historian Diego Elizondo.

Although they have not always reflected the reality on the ground, French toponyms have been an important vector of attraction. “It was much more welcoming for French speakers […] because they knew that with [ces noms]there was at least a Franco-Ontarian history of the locality,” estimates Mr. Elizondo.

However, many strongholds of the Francophonie in the province, such as Hearst or Hawkesbury, have English names. Formerly “very sparsely populated by British migrants”, they became predominantly French-speaking thanks to the immigration of French speakers who left the St. Lawrence valley. “But the names [anglophones] remained,” underlines the historian.

One name can hide another

Each toponym has a different history. And those who remain have several times been threatened with disappearance.

At the end of the 18th centurye century, the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, “erased all French-speaking and indigenous toponyms and replaced them with English-speaking toponyms”, in order to “establish British colonial power”, recounts Diego Elizondo. This is how Fort Frontenac became Kingston, and Thunder Bay was renamed Thunder Bay.

French toponymy has, however, regained ground over the centuries, notably through the founding of French-speaking parishes. But certain names, like that of Sudbury, a town formerly called Sainte-Anne-des-Pins, did not last.

The merger of municipalities, carried out at the end of the 1990s by the conservative government of Mike Harris, also had the effect of “erasing the toponyms a little”, underlines the specialist in Franco-Ontarian history. If certain towns were grouped under a French-speaking name, such as Rivière des Français, other French-speaking municipalities were included in “large groups with predominantly English-speaking names”.

On a more “micro” scale, the Order of Jacques Cartier, founded in 1926, made the establishment of French-speaking street names a “battle horse in several localities,” adds Mr. Elizondo. A fight still led by the Franco-Ontarian Heritage and History Society of Orléans, in the suburbs of Ottawa. “I think that French speakers continue to understand the importance of having names that resemble them so that they feel at home,” summarizes the man who co-founded the organization.

The New Brunswick exception

All municipalities with French toponyms studied by The duty and located outside of Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick, are today with a strong English-speaking majority. For example, there are only 3% of native French speakers in Crapaud, on Prince Edward Island, and none in Roche Percée, in Saskatchewan.

New Brunswick is an exception, with an overwhelming majority of French speakers in most of its cities with French toponyms. “It must be admitted that a third of the population of New Brunswick is French,” emphasizes Gilbert.

These 30% of the population who had, in 2021, French as their only first official language spoken, are “not distributed equitably”, she adds. They “concentrate along the coast and towards the south”.

“There is not a small French village that will survive if the region is not also, to have a minimum of institutions. […] So, often, it’s not so much the location itself as the broader region that sets the tone. »

This report is supported by the Local Journalism Initiative, funded by the Government of Canada.

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