It’s said that 60 per cent of Fort Victoria’s population in 1858 spoke French.
A fully Francophone newspaper, the Courrier de la Nouvelle-Calédonie, launched that year, as did one of the city’s first schools, St. Ann’s Schoolhouse, on the grounds that later became St. Ann’s Academy.
The Sisters of St. Ann, who taught at the schoolhouse, did so in French.
“Fort Victoria’s labourers were French speaking, which is why the Sisters came here, out of a need to educate the children of the labourers,” says Julie Cormier, executive director of the Friends of St. Ann’s Academy Society.
The non-profit society was created in 1997 in the hopes of restoring the academy to a modern vision of its original mandate.
One of the Friends’ key programs offers bilingual summer tours of the campus. They’ve been running the past two years and the plan is to make French tours of St. Ann’s a year-round affair. The group also hopes to make field trips to St. Ann’s an integrated part of the school curriculum for Francophone schools in Greater Victoria.
The society, in partnership with the Provincial Capital Commission, created and installed bilingual interpretive signs in 2012 across the six-acre grounds.
They tell the story of the academy, its founding members and legacy of education, Francophone heritage and advancement of women in Victoria and B.C., Cormier says. L’Association Historique Francophone de Victoria also donated funds towards the project.
“Because the academy has deep roots into the Francophone heritage of Victoria, we want to reach out to French schools or schools with French immersion classes to build more identity and sense of place with Victoria’s history,” she adds.
The museum repaired and restored the original schoolhouse, also known as the Pioneer Convent, and reproduced the original classroom.
The building was relocated to Thunderbird Park on the grounds of the Royal B.C. Museum. There it sits alongside Helmcken House, a fitting neighbour, as Dr. Helmcken was one of the first doctors in the area.
The neatly kept building of St. Ann’s Academy and surrounding property on Humboldt Street is visited by an estimated 30,000 people per year and hosts more than 120 weddings, theatre, music and dance performances, as well as other festivals and events.