A Semi-Autonomous Defence (1871-1898)

The Role of Francophones

Francophone Participation in the Militia

Infantry tunic, Canadian Volunteer Militia, 1870-1876

Caption: Infantry tunic, Canadian Volunteer Militia, 1870-1876

Indeed a Francophone problem already existed within the Canadian defence system. Forming approximately 35 percent of Canada's population up to 1914, Francophones accounted for only 20 percent of its military manpower and about 10 percent of its officer positions (depending on the year). Between 1876 and 1898, RMC trained 10 or so Francophone officers (4.7 percent) out of the 255 obtaining commissions there. The figures for Permanent Militia officers on the Militia List of the Dominion of Canada for 1888 are shown in the table.

"We do not have the percentage of officers we require," concluded an admirer of minister Adolphe Caron, adding: "Yet this is the fault of neither the minister nor the officers, but is due to the fact that our people do not give military service the attention it deserves." 20

In the 6th Military District (Montreal), the records for 1868 through 1873 reveal no French-Canadian officers in the artillery or the engineers. In 1871, however, when the Fenian threat was still alive and George-Étienne Cartier was the minister of militia and defence, Colonel Robertson Ross, the Adjutant-General of Militia, estimated that over 2,000 of the 5,310 officers and men from the 5th and 6th Military districts then training in the Laprairie camp were Francophones. The threat posed by the United States subsequently faded, and throughout Canada, as we have seen, the militia saw both its role and its budgets shrink for about a decade.

At the same time, British traditions were becoming more and more entrenched. A proposal to establish Zouave units to deal with the Fenian threat was refused - which was hardly encouraging for the Francophones who had made the suggestion. In fact, the entire military system was being modelled on that of the British Empire: uniforms, military regulations, and exchanges of officers and instructors. In the Militia Report of 1878, Selby Smyth pointed out that the British government approved and even desired "the assimilation at all points of the Canadian Militia with the British Army." 21 The General Officers Commanding laboured mightily to promote this cause.

The regular army, which delivered training to the Non-Permanent Militia, harboured a great many former British soldiers who had decided to serve in Canada after their British army contracts expired. The working language was English. Commands were issued in English, and correspondence between Francophones was in English. Annual exercises were also conducted in English, which created problems for the prodigious numbers of unilingual Francophones. In the camps, improvised translations for unilingual Francophones simply hampered their progress. The Francophone officers, who were militarily no more competent than their Anglophone colleagues, generally spoke poor English, which frustrated their efforts. Translated manuals were rare and always late in arriving. Since governments showed interest in the militia only when it was needed, everyone soon learned to manage on their own. At his own expense, Louis-Timothée Suzor translated a drill manual published in 1863 and 1867. He had not finished translating the second edition before it was superseded, in 1877, by a new Field Exercises manual. In 1885 this new manual was translated by David Frève, on his own initiative. In 1888, however, the British launched a new series of manuals that even in 1914 were not to be found in French. If a translation did exist, the Francophone officer was required to pay for it, while his Anglophone colleague got his book free of charge. All this led to problems, including the introduction into the French used by Francophone soldiers of a host of poorly integrated English terms. Most importantly, this state of affairs drove Francophones out of the army.

Among the officers of the Non-Permanent Militia - who became instructors, it will be remembered - matters grew even more complicated. At first, courses were delivered in English. Then, beginning in the 1880s, battalions frequently opened their own schools, offering mandatory officer courses culminating in district examinations. This meant that a candidate could be taught, in French, the rudiments of a profession that was really practised only in English.

Yet for 18 of the 31 years between 1867 and 1898 the department of militia and defence was headed by Francophone ministers, three in all. The position of deputy minister was held by Francophones from 1868 to 1898 - in fact, this was true until 1940. One has to wonder exactly how determined these men were in promoting the use of their language within the Militia. Just in terms of getting the training manuals translated, it took years of ministerial pressure to get permission from the General Officer Commanding to publish Frève's work.

Additional Images

Private, 65th Battalion (Mount Royal Rifles), circa 1880-1885
The Canadian militia in 1898
Cadet corps of the Zouaves pontificaux canadiens, Sacré-Coeur Parish, Chicoutimi, 1924
Permanent Militia Officers in 1888