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Celebrating 100 years of French language science in Canada

Looking back on a century of scientific growth.
APR 27 2022

Celebrating 100 years of French language science in Canada

Looking back on a century of scientific growth.


The 1920s conjures up images of sequined dresses and couples dancing the Charleston to jazz music. But in Canada, the Roaring Twenties were also a turning point in the development of the French speaking scientific community, marked by the founding of Université de Montréal and – most importantly – a French-Canadian association for the advancement of science, now known as Acfas. Before the First World War, French-Canadian scientists were still very few and far between. The level of education of francophones trailed that of anglophones. Those who did pursue higher learning gravitated toward law, medicine and theology.

In this era before income tax was implemented, the governments of Quebec and Canada had limited financial resources. Research and science received little funding. English-speaking institutions like McGill University relied on philanthropy to become research powerhouses. “Francophones were generally less wealthy, and those who made donations tended to support the Catholic Church’s charitable works, which were focused on health and welfare rather than on the sciences,” explains Martin Pâquet, a historian at Université Laval.

New awareness

With the First World War came a new awareness about the role science plays in the sovereignty and development of a nation. In 1924, Brother Marie-Victorin, a botanist and intellectual who cofounded Acfas, wrote in Revue trimestrielle canadienne: “The race for knowledge and discovery is like an arms race, no nation can drop out without automatically becoming dependent on those that keep up the pace.”

During this same period, power generation and the expansion of industries like pulp and paper, mining and aluminum production were transforming Quebec’s economy. While the province still wasn’t taxing income, other taxes and usage fees were bringing more cash into government coffers. “This allowed the government to invest in science, particularly through grants to universities and financial aid programs,” Dr. Pâquet says.

Between 1920 and 1959, Quebec would go on to award over 650 scholarships through its first university scholarship program. This helped train talented scientists like Pierre Demers and Paul Lorrain, Adrien Pouliot, the main instigator behind the creation of the faculty of science at Université Laval, and Marthe Pelland, the first woman francophone Canadian medical student, who became Quebec’s first woman neurologist.

A community emerges

It was against this backdrop that a French Canadian scientific community began to develop in 1920. That year, Université de Montréal gained its independence from Université Laval and founded a faculty of science. Université Laval responded by creating its school of chemistry. Many learned societies emerged, including the Montreal Society of Biology, the Society of Mathematics and Astronomy, and the Canadian Natural History Society. Ultimately, not even the scientific community was immune to the decade’s effervescence.

In 1923, the president of the Society of Biology, Léo Pariseau, proposed forming an association for the advancement of science. The founding principles of Acfas were set out on June 15. It would bring together 11 learned societies. Dr. Pariseau would become its first president. At its official inauguration the following year, he summed up the importance of its mission by saying, “To we French Canadians, the intensive cultivation of science is one of the most essential conditions for our survival.”

At the time, science was seen as a powerful tool of political and economic emancipation. On Sept. 26, 1925, Marie-Victorin wrote in the French daily newspaper Le Devoir: “We will never be a true nation until we stop being at the mercy of foreign capital, foreign expertise and foreign intellectuals; until we are our own masters through the possession of knowledge and the physical resources of our land and its flora and fauna. To achieve that, we will need serious scientific qualifications.”

This scientific nationalism was a constant through the first decades of Acfas. “The development of science in French Canada is inextricably intertwined with French Canadian nationalism,” says Yves Gingras, a science historian and professor at Université du Québec à Montréal.
The founders of the organization wanted French Canadians to participate in the production of scientific knowledge. “Initially, the main objective was to attract more young people into the natural sciences,” Dr. Gingras says. “Its members gave many lectures on physics, biology and chemistry, particularly in classical colleges.”

Their efforts were focused almost exclusively on male youth. In the early 20th century, Quebec’s only French-language university was Université Laval. Aside from rare exceptions, this at-the-time very Catholic institution did not admit women, unlike McGill University. Those women who managed to work in science, following a roundabout education, did so primarily in biological sciences, the humanities and the social sciences. At the first 13 Acfas conferences, only 16 women presented papers, representing just two per cent of the total. Almost none were in physics, chemistry, mathematics or engineering. It was not until the late 1960s that francophone universities began admitting women on a general basis.

The humanities and social sciences would remain under the control of the Catholic Church until the second half of the 20th century. However, those fields did nonetheless develop. Dominicans and members of other orders attended the prestigious social sciences universities in Europe and the United States. Their approach remained moralistic and anchored in the Church’s social doctrine. For example, they believed that the way out of the economic hardships caused by the financial crash of 1929 was through increased charity.

Science communication

The growth of this scientific community increased the scientific literacy of the French-speaking population. “The founders of Acfas understood the importance of getting the public – and especially young people – involved. Science would not develop unless young francophones chose science disciplines,” says Dr. Gingras. For example, in 1933, Acfas held its first conference in Montreal. At the same time, the association collaborated on a major science fair, organized at Mont-Saint-Louis College by the Young Naturalists’ Club. It attracted 100,000 visitors.

In 1926, the creation of the French-Canadian Scientific Institute (l’Institut scientifique franco-canadien), another organization dedicated to science education and popularization, set the stage for a fierce rivalry with Acfas. Founded by Louis-Janvier Dalbis, a biology professor at Université de Montréal, the institute helped scientists from France travel to Quebec to give lectures until 1967. Many of those talks were open to the general public.

Marie-Victorin was critical of the institute, which he believed was primarily promoting scientists from France rather than developing science in Quebec. He was further irritated by the preference the government of Premier Louis-Alexandre Taschereau showed for the institute over Acfas. The two organizations played radically different roles. The institute helped build scientific and intellectual relationships between France and Quebec. Inspired by the large associations for the advancement of science in the U.S., the United Kingdom and France, Acfas became an actor in the promotion of research and teaching. Today, the organization’s mandate is still to promote research, innovation and science culture in the French-speaking world.

“Acfas has tirelessly promoted exchanges between the scientific community and the general public. The current context shows that remains important,” says Jean-Pierre Perreault, the current board chair of Acfas and vice-president of research and graduate studies at Université de Sherbrooke. “Disinformation about subjects such as vaccines and climate change has very concrete political and social implications.”

The chief science advisor of Canada, Mona Nemer, hopes the association will inspire others. “We need more organizations like Acfas,”
she says. “Disinformation relies strongly on a lack of understanding of the scientific method. The intersection between science and society is becoming crucial.”

The association also plays a major role in training young researchers. “The Acfas conference is often their first opportunity to present their research on the national or international stage and to interact with other francophone researchers,” Dr. Nemer says. “This is essential to ensuring the vitality of science in French.”

Over the years, Acfas members have also actively sought to be published in newspapers and magazines. In 1950, the Clerics of Saint Viator introduced Le jeune naturaliste magazine, which was transferred to Acfas in 1962 and renamed Jeune scientifique. In 1970, it became Québec Science and is now published by Vélo Québec Éditions.

In 1935, Les Annales de l’Acfas started publishing abstracts of papers presented at its annual conference as well as the results of other work
by francophone researchers. In the 1950s, it became a general interest science magazine. Since 1979, Acfas has published conference proceedings. The association also introduced Interface magazine in 1984, which was renamed Découvrir in 2000 and Magazine de l’Acfas in 2019.

The Quebec government provided support for this work. “In 1981, the first science policy already included the creation of the Fernand-Séguin scholarship, which supports young science journalists,” notes science historian Camille Limoges.

Challenges in minority communities

While Quebec’s francophone scientific community was blossoming through a range of initiatives, the situation was much different in other provinces. Between 1864 and 1930, a series of provincial laws banned French-language teaching in public schools. This meant that before they even thought about building a strong scientific community, francophones outside Quebec had to fight to study in their own language.

Inside Quebec, the strong link between French-language science and the future of the nation waned somewhat after the Quiet Revolution (1960-1966). Outside Quebec, the experience of francophone researchers and scientists was very different. “In minority situations, calls are significantly louder for science to play an active role in legitimizing the existence of francophone communities,” says François-Olivier Dorais, a history professor at Université du Québec à Chicoutimi.

This pressure affects researchers, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences. Some become overworked as a result of adding many media interviews and public talks to their teaching and research activities. The situation is exacerbated at smaller universities, where nearly two-thirds of francophone researchers do not have access to research assistants, as revealed by an Acfas report published in June 2021. This is also the case for half of the researchers at large universities.

“The financial difficulties of Laurentian University and the threatened closure of [the University of Alberta’s] Campus Saint-Jean also reveal the fragility of the francophone university system outside Quebec,” says Dr. Dorais, who is a University of Ottawa alumnus. The Acfas report also noted a decline in French grant applications and publications in the Canadian research ecosystem outside Quebec.

“We are currently in discussions to create an office for French-language research assistance similar to the research offices in Quebec universities,” says Dr. Perreault, adding that the association has six regional sections outside the province. The Quebec government will fund this Acfas-led initiative.

Language and meaning

In Canada, the development of science in French is often accompanied by debates about the place of English in science. “Starting in the 1950s, English came to dominate scientific communication. This was reinforced in the early 1990s with the rise of the knowledge economy,” explains Dr. Dorais.

Dr. Limoges remembers how this debate polarized opinions during his tenure as Acfas board chair from 1989 to 1990. “Some people had a maximalist vision that could extend to forcing francophone researchers to publish only in French. Others didn’t see the harm in allowing the use of English to extend right into the classroom,” he recalls.

Acfas opted to make a distinction between the publication language of scientific articles and the language of instruction and popularization. “At the time, English manuals were proliferating in francophone universities. And that was a problem,” Dr. Limoges explains. “Francophones must have access to an education in French in all scientific fields.” Conversely, the association considered the publication of scientific articles in English to be less of an issue.

However, the predominance of English in Canada’s francophone scientific community continues to worry Dr. Dorais. He believes that “in science, language is not neutral. It is not simply a communication tool. It has an impact on how issues are chosen and addressed. It also affects the relevance of researchers to their community. In this respect, doing science in French in North America is a political act.”

Although not prepared to go that far, Dr. Nemer recognizes the importance of the language in which researchers generate knowledge. She chaired the organizing committee of the 77th Acfas Conference, held in Ottawa in 2009 with the theme “science en français.” Dr. Nemer considers that “the existence of a francophone scientific community further enriches Canadian society. It promotes cultural and linguistic diversity in how science is approached, produced and communicated. And that is vital.”

Jean-François Venne
Jean-François Venne is a Montreal-based journalist specializing in education, research, innovation and business.
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