200 Years of French Education at Université de Saint-Boniface

The origins of Université de Saint-Boniface (USB), Western Canada’s first post-secondary institution, date back to Father Norbert Provencher’s arrival to the Red River Colony in 1818. It started with him teaching Latin and Philosophy to two young Métis boys in a modest wooden building that housed a church and a small school. From then on, the educational mission was established and continued to thrive.

From 1853 on, Mgr. Alexandre Taché continued Provencher’s work in the same spirit of classical education. The small school, which was named Collège de Saint-Boniface, was created. In 1855, construction began for a new building on the corner of Taché Avenue and Masson Street, which was completed in 1857. Louis Riel, who would go on to become the Métis leader who negotiated the creation of the province of Manitoba, studied there. Between 1866 and 1870, under the direction of Father Georges Dugas, Collège refined its classical education—based on Latin, Greek and Philosophy—, which remained in place until the end of the 1960s.  

A Trailblazing Institution

Manitoba entered Canadian Confederation in 1870. Collège de Saint-Boniface was incorporated in 1871 and was one of the new province’s first official institutions. Manitoba then experienced a significant influx of Francophone immigrants, primarily from Quebec, but also from France, Switzerland and Belgium. Collège de Saint-Boniface was the true heart of French life in Western Canada. In 1877, along with two Anglophone colleges, it cofounded the University of Manitoba.

The Growth and Influence of Collège

In 1880, increased enrolment led to the construction of a larger building on the site that is now Provencher Park. Collège de Saint-Boniface had an annual enrolment of approximately three hundred students at this time. After having been run by the Oblate Fathers, the Brothers of the Christian Schools and secular clergy, in 1885 Collège was passed over to the Jesuits, who managed the institution until 1967. Collège was bilingual until 1925, when the English Catholic college was opened. After graduating, the young men would go on to join the business world or to pursue studies in medicine, law or theology.  

It should be noted that in 1916, the Manitoba government prohibited French-language teaching in public schools. Collège de Saint-Boniface, being a private institution, continued its activities and even encouraged public schools to defy the ban. French-language education continued behind the backs of the authorities. Meetings were held at Collège by the Francophone rights organization, the Association d’éducation des Canadiens français du Manitoba (AECFM), predecessor to today’s Société de la francophonie manitobaine (SFM).

On November 25, 1922, a major fire destroyed Collège and, in an unprecedented human tragedy, resulted in the loss of 10 lives: 9 students ages 9 to 16 and a Jesuit brother. All of the Collège records and its 20,000 library volumes were also lost. Mgr. Arthur Béliveau, the Archbishop of Saint-Boniface, donated the Petit Séminaire, located at 200 De la Cathédrale Avenue, for Collège to use. Université de Saint Boniface is still housed in this beautiful Tyndall stone building. Over the years, gymnasiums, a library, a theatre, a sports centre and, notably, a science pavilion were added to the existing building.  

Entering the Modern Era

Many significant changes took place in the sixties. First of all, in 1936, Institut collégial Saint-Joseph affiliated with Collège so that, through the institution, its young female students could receive a diploma from the University of Manitoba. In 1959, women were integrated into the Collège classrooms. After over 140 years of educating boys, co-education was finally offered. 

Continuing education was another new addition at Collège during the sixties, but it was not until 1988 that the Continuing Education Division would officially be established as a unit offering language courses—notably, oral French—and professional and personal development, in addition to devoting a large part of its service to activities for youth.  

In 1969, after a century and a half under religious direction, Collège officially became a secular institution. It was, and remains, governed by a Board of Governors made up of representatives from Manitoba’s Francophonie. In 1972, the qualifier universitaire was added to Collège, thereby creating Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface (CUSB).

Three years later, CUSB began offering technical and professional training, a sector that would become crucial. Today, École technique et professionnelle (ETP) offers seven programs, with an enrolment of approximately 170 students. ETP also oversees the School of Nursing and Health Studies, which offers three programs with over 150 students. 

In 1982, CUSB decided to focus on postsecondary education, which resulted in the secondary-level education being transferred to Collège Louis-Riel.

In June 2011, after many years of working with the governments, Collège universitaire de Saint-Boniface legally obtained the prestigious title of Université de Saint-Boniface. Today, it has 15 university programs that are offered to over 1,000 students who are learning in an environment of choice.

A History Looking to the Future

Since its beginning, Université de Saint-Boniface has been a home for, and a protector and promotor of French language and culture in Western Canada. A pillar of Manitoba’s Fracophonie, it has shaped and continues to shape leaders that contribute to the vitality of their community and shine beyond their province.      

Its programs that continue to grow, in fields as varied as business, science, education, arts, health, technology and translation, attract students from around the world. Likewise, the vitality of student life and extracurricular activities such as sports, theatre and music, have had an undeniable impact on our past and current students.   

In many respects, Université de Saint-Boniface is a microcosm of Canada: with roots going back to a French-Canadian educational project with Métis people, it evolved to also bring together Francophones, bilingual Anglophones, newcomers and international students through Francophone education in an Anglo-majority context.  

Slideshow image

© 2013-2021 Université de Saint-Boniface