Henri Bourassa, Francophone rights, 1905

Quebec politician Henri Bourassa supported French language rights.

Henri Bourassa was a journalist and intellectual in turn-of-the-century Quebec. He was for a time a Liberal MP in Laurier’s caucus, but was increasingly bitter about compromises over French language rights. Bourassa made this speech in the House of Commons 1905, when it was proposed that existing French language rights should not be applied to the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta. Those rights had been extended to Manitoba upon entry into Confederation in 1870, but they had later been withdrawn in that province. That move which was now being used to deny French language rights in the new provinces, a development that Bourassa refused to accept.

“Are we entitled to no more consideration than our fellow countrymen who have drifted into a foreign land?”

I cannot bring myself to believe that in tracing the boundaries of Manitoba, the Dominion Parliament have thereby shown their intention of denying to the French-speaking people settled in the remainder of the territories the guarantees which they granted to that part of the population comprised within the limits of the new provinces . . . Would not the compact whereby the Dominion government is bound to guarantee to the Catholic minority in the Northwest their separate schools, bind them to maintain at the same time the official use of the French language, since these two constitutional rights were both included in the Bill of Rights presented by the delegates from the Red River and accepted by the Dominion Parliament? . . .

Provinces at Confederation

The Act of 1867 provided at the outset solely for the organization of the provinces then constitutional. Even before entering Confederation, these provinces enjoyed self-government; they had their own Parliament, their official tongue, their rules of parliamentary procedure. The idea did not occur to the fathers of Confederation to alter that condition of things; but in establishing the Dominion Parliament they did so on a basis in harmony with the rights and traditions of the two elements which make up the Canadian nation; and that is why they provided that the French and English tongues would be, on equal terms, the official language of Canada.

Western territories

Later on, the Dominion Parliament acquired those immense western territories out of which were carved the province of Manitoba and those of Alberta and Saskatchewan. These territories were acquired in the name and with the money of the whole Canadian people, French as well as English, Catholic as well as Protestant.

And when Parliament established the former of these provinces, they did not forget the rights of the French Canadian people; they deemed it fair and reasonable that the two official languages of Canada be so declared to be such in the province of Manitoba. Does the honourable member for St. John contend that the legislators of 1870, that the Macdonalds, the Cartiers, the Holtons, the Huntingtons, that all these eminent statesmen who were then at the head of both parties, broke the Constitution of 1867 when, in 1870, they recognized the rights of the French language in Manitoba?

Changing times?

[MR. DEMERS]: Circumstances have changed.
[MR. BOURASSA]: In what respect?
[MR. DEMERS]: As the prime minister [Sir Wilfrid Laurier] has explained, the French Canadians were numerous enough at the time to warrant the official recognition of the French language in Manitoba; that reason does not exist in the territories today . . .
[MR. BOURASSA]: The honourable member for St. John has referred to the small numbers of French-speaking people in the territories. The solicitor general argued on the same lines when he stated that we had no right to claim the official recognition of the French language in the Northwest Territories, because the French-speaking people were not as numerous as the Germans, the Doukhobors, or the Mormons. The prime minister spoke in a similar strain when he stated that the French Canadians in Massachusetts have stronger claims to the official recognition of their tongue in that state than the French-speaking people have in our western provinces.

Broken compact

Have we really reached that point? Are we, with one stroke of the pen, to blot out 150 years of our history; and on this Canadian soil, which our ancestors opened up to civilization under British flag, which we twice saved from the savage onslaughts on the part of Anglo-Saxon Protestants from the neighbouring republic; under this Constitution which is the mere outcome of the compact entered into by the two great groups of the Canadian nation; are we to be told that we are entitled to no more consideration than our fellow countrymen who have drifted into a foreign land? Is that really the reward coming to us after a century and a half of unfaltering loyalty to British institutions? Is that the result of the compact loyally gone into in 1867 between English- and French-speaking Canadians?

Retrace our steps

In order to do away with a proposal resting on the wide and solid foundation which I have mentioned, subterfuges are resorted to. It is argued that the original compact and the rights of the French language in the west have already been interfered with by Parliament in 1890. That is only a pretense. I have a higher notion of the duties and responsibilities devolving on the representatives of the Canadian nation. If the Parliament of 1890 has made a mistake [in Manitoba], that is no reason for us to repeat it and aggravate it. If the Parliament of 1890 misapprehended the work of the fathers of Confederation and of the makers of the Manitoba Constitution, it is our bounden duty to correct that mistake. Parliament in 1890 abolished the use of the French language in the legislative assembly [of Manitoba]; and now that injustice becomes an argument for those who wish to carry through that sinister work and do away with the printing in French of statutes and legal proceedings. An effort is made to palliate that wrong by covering it up with a further crime. To that I answer boldly: instead of resuming the work initiated by Parliament in 1890, let us retrace our footsteps and take the stand taken formerly by the promoters of the Act of 1870 . . .

Minority rights

If we are anxious to carry on the work of the makers of the Manitoba Constitution, if we are anxious to maintain the constitutional basis which I have referred to, let us introduce in the bills submitted to us a clause guaranteeing the rights of the minority against any interference similar to that of which the English majority has been guilty in 1892.

Instead of seeking in our past experience an excuse for our present inactivity, I find therein a lesson which should induce us to define clearly the rights of the minority and safeguard them by means of a precise and unmistakable enactment. Let us not delude ourselves in the matter. If the House rejects my proposal . . . then let us give up all hope as to the rights of the French language in the west. French-Canadian members who are fighting us are making for the downfall of our nationality; and should Parliament reject our amendment, I say an essential principle of our Constitution is being violated.

Consult your conscience

Let each one of us consult his conscience and realize what responsibility he is assuming just now. As for me, I refuse to take a hand in this unpatriotic work . . . I wish to blot out the wrong committed by the legislators of 1890, and to revert to the constitutional basis laid down by Parliament in 1870.

Post script

In his speech, Bourassa referred to the “the two great groups of the Canadian nation”, the English and French. He made no reference to Indigenous peoples, an oversight that was common among Canadian politicians until recent years. Bourassa later broke with Laurier and in 1910 he founded the influential newspaper Le Devoir.


Canada. House of Commons Debates, 10th Parliament, 1st Session, 1905, Vol 5, July 5, 1905, pp: 8847-52 

More information

The Canadian Encyclopedia. Henri Bourassa
CBC, A People’s History: French Canada’s New Voice

Photo credit

Library and Archives Canada

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