Our French legacy

After nearly two months of plodding across the prairies in an ox-cart caravan, three Grey Nuns and their Métis interpreter finally arrived at Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta. They had endured summer heat and mosquito swarms, crossing sloughs and rivers, to be finally greeted by church bells and First Nations dancers on Sept. 24, 1859, 53 days after leaving St. Boniface, Manitoba.

That caravan delivered the first Sisters to Alberta, and with it, Catholic health care in the province was born.

The often-told story is marked annually on Legacy Day, Nov. 27, when Covenant Health honours the heritage and contributions of the founding Sisters. But there’s one part of the story that’s often missing, or at least glossed over, says Paul Denis, president of the community board for Saint Thomas Centre.

“We’ve lost the element of the francophone history,” says Paul. “All of these congregations came from France or from Quebec, and they were all French.”

The first three Sisters who arrived at Lac Ste. Anne had travelled from Montreal to St. Boniface the previous year.

While French was the first European language spoken in Alberta, history can be forgotten when we translate French names into English, including those of the religious congregations, from Les Soeurs Grises to Grey Nuns, says Paul.

“If you anglicize everything, the next generations will never know that these Sisters, who are heroes and saints, were actually from France and Quebec and they were francophone,” says Paul.

Provincial Archives of Alberta / OB9332

As a community board member and the Director of the Francophone Network for Health Services (Reseau Sante Albertain), he wants to ensure French health services are available for francophone people, whether they’re born-and-raised Albertans or recent immigrants from French-speaking countries.

“History is important because we need to know where we came from if we are to know where we are going.”

Alberta’s French-speaking population is among the fastest-growing in Canada. According to the 2016 census, the province’s francophone population grew by 29 per cent in the previous decade. That can create challenges.

Paul is working with the province to expand French health services wherever possible, whether it’s making sure patients know where to find French-speaking doctors or connecting seniors with continuing care beds in francophone facilities like Centre de Santé Saint-Thomas.

Through it all, Paul wants to ensure the legacy of the Sisters is honoured and extended—in both official languages.

“They gifted themselves to the community, unconditionally. They didn’t do it for money, they didn’t do it for glory. They did it because they cared, because they had made that choice of devoting their lives to Jesus and, through the community, achieved that.”

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