In the early 1880s there were less than 3,000 people claiming French origin scattered throughout the entire North-West Territories (which then comprised most of western Canada and all of northern Canada, excluding British Columbia and a small central portion of Manitoba). However, according to some estimates, as many as half the total population of the Territories may have been at least partially francophone, for French - or a mixture of French with various Native languages - was widely spoken by the omnipresent Métis. In 1882, the Districts of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, Athabasca and Alberta were created out of the western portions of the North-West Territories; the southern or prairie portion of present-day Saskatchewan occupied most of the Districts of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia. By 1891 just over 900 residents counted in the Districts of Saskatchewan and Assiniboia had been born in Quebec, while almost 100 had immigrated directly from France. During the next decade immigration from Quebec continued, with the establishment of francophone settlements across the prairies: by 1901, the number of Québecois had tripled to almost 2,700. However, immigration direct from France was only a trickle: 167 by the turn of the century. A more substantial flow from francophone Europe (France and Belgium, and to a minor extent Luxembourg and Switzerland) during the next decade lessened this Québecois dominance; in fact, many of the thirty-two French settlements in the new province of Saskatchewan (founded in 1905) had been established primarily if not exclusively by French-speaking immigrants direct from Europe.

In 1941, census data indicated that a high proportion (87%) of the 50,530 people in Saskatchewan claiming French ethnic origin (excluding the 4,250 claiming Belgian ethnic origin) were Canadian-born. Migration into Saskatchewan from other Canadian provinces, the United States, and Europe had virtually ceased. Almost two-thirds (63%) of French Canadians in Saskatchewan had been born in this province, compared to about 14% who had migrated from Quebec, almost 6% from the other western provinces (particularly Manitoba), and just over 4% from Ontario and the other eastern provinces. But a substantial, if lessening, proportion were immigrants from Europe and the United States: approximately 13%. Prior to the 1981 Census, respondents to the question on ethnic origin could claim only a single ethnic origin through the male lineage. Thus the French-Canadian population of Saskatchewan, for example, was actually counted as people with a French father (hence presumably a French surname), regardless of whether the mother, or any other female predecessor, had been French or not - whereas people with a French mother but not a French father could not claim French origin. So it is conceivable that, on the one hand, the actual French-Canadian population of the province was under-counted in each census; on the other hand, it may have been over-counted because intermarriage had not been taken into consideration. The 1981 Census attempted to correct this situation by permitting respondents to claim multiple ethnic origin.

In 1981 almost 47,000 people claimed to be only of French descent, plus almost 3,000 of Belgian, over 1,000 Swiss, and a small number of Luxembourg origin (note, however, that in these latter three countries, French is not the mother tongue of most people). Another 15,000 people claimed Métis origin; yet it is not clear how many of these people would be more specifically of Franco-Métis descent, or speaking a Franco-Métis dialect such as Mitchif (while a majority of Métis in Saskatchewan are probably of part-French origin, a substantial proportion could be of other Euro-Canadian ethnicity - especially Scottish - mixed with Aboriginal origin). Of the more than 22,000 people estimated to be of part-French origin (apart from those claiming only Métis origin), the largest number - more than 9,000 - also claimed British origin; almost as many - over 8,000 - claimed other non-Aboriginal origins; while another 4,000 combined French origin with British plus other non-Aboriginal origins. Relatively few (just over 1,000) people who did not identify themselves exclusively as Métis claimed to be of part-French, part-Aboriginal origin. Adding up all of these data, we arrive at an absolute maximum figure for possible French or part-French origin of almost 89,000 (that is, including all people of Belgian, Swiss, Luxembourg and Métis origins). Obviously, a far lower number would be French-speaking.

In 1901, there were very few people of French origin (2,634), and still fewer of Belgian origin, living in what would soon become the province of Saskatchewan. However, during the first decade of the 20th century the French population would increase tenfold (to 23,251 in 1911), then again double in the second decade (to 42,152 in 1921). Much of this rapid increase was doubtless due to large-scale migration of Francophones from Quebec and other Canadian provinces, as well as from French settlements already established in American states such as Minnesota, and particularly from many regions in France and to a lesser extent Francophone regions in Belgium and Switzerland. During the 1920s this influx slowed, and with the exodus from French settlements in Saskatchewan due to the Depression and repeated droughts, the French population of the province remained quite static after 1931 (50,700 in 1931; 50,530 in 1941; 51,930 in 1951), reaching a peak in 1961 (59,824), and then slowly declining again (to 56,200 in 1971). With the change in census definitions in 1981, 46,915 people claimed to be solely of French origin, yet by then an increasing proportion of French were intermarried, so that their children were claiming mixed ethnic origins. Recent census data (2001) revealed that 109,800 Saskatchewan residents (11.4% of the total population) claimed French origin, making them the sixth largest ethnic group in the province. However, only 13.7% (15,040) of them claimed to be only of French origin, compared to 86.3% (94,755) who also claimed other ethnic origins besides French.

During the past several decades, the urbanization of the French population of Saskatchewan has been dramatic. Back in 1941, 70% of that population was living in rural areas, whereas by 1981 this proportion had fallen to 45%. Moreover, through the 1960s most of the rural French population consisted of farming families, whereas today most are non-farming rural families. In 1971 (the last census in which detailed, complete data on ethnicity in rural communities are available) there were thirty-nine incorporated communities in Saskatchewan where Francophones comprised at least 10% of the total community population; yet only thirteen of these communities had a Francophone majority. Francophones made up between one-third and one-half of the population in another eight communities; between 20% and one-third in seven communities; and 10-19% in the remaining eleven communities. It must also be noted that people claiming French ethnic origin made up a majority in fifteen communities, 33-49% in eleven, 20-32% in six and 10-19% in six. Of course, the difference between those two sets of data is due to the fact that not all those of French origin in these communities were still speaking French as their primary mother tongue. Yet there were some striking discrepancies: in five communities, Francophones outnumbered people claiming French origin; and in one rural community, residents claiming to be of French origin outnumbered those who recognized French as their mother tongue four to one. The small village of Ferland had both the highest proportion of French origin (94.1%) and French speakers (90.9%); the largest predominantly French community was Gravelbourg.

Examination of demographic data since 1971 in thirty substantially Francophone communities in Saskatchewan reveals that seventeen communities have been consistently declining, although the rate of decline has varied from slow to rapid. Most of the rapidly declining communities are located in the southwestern region, which is more prone to drought; but the other sixteen communities have been increasing. Given the variation, any generalization about overall population trends is difficult. It could be pointed out, though, that seven of the smallest communities (with less than a hundred residents) are declining and seem destined to become virtual ghost towns. Moreover, besides these incorporated communities, most of the many francophone communities which are unincorporated small villages and hamlets have experienced rural depopulation more severely.

The proportion of French-origin population in Saskatchewan speaking French as their primary mother tongue has declined markedly over the past several decades. Back in 1921, 91.7% of the French-origin population over ten years of age was French-speaking, whereas by 1961 little more than half of the French population was speaking French as their mother tongue. Yet, as this proportion has remained more or less constant since then, linguistic assimilation may have been slowed more effectively in recent decades, perhaps due to the increased availability of French language media and education. By 1981, within the population claiming only French origin, for every person speaking primarily French at home, four were speaking English . Approximately half of those claiming exclusively French origin were bilingual; the other half spoke only English. Moreover, almost two-thirds of the bilingual population of exclusively French origin preferred to speak English at home; similarly, of the total Francophone (French mother tongue) population in Saskatchewan, almost two-thirds preferred to speak English at home. Every one in ten of these people claiming French mother tongue reported that they speak only English; the vast majority were bilingual; very few - only several hundred - could speak only French. On the other hand, there were almost 800 people in the province claiming English as their mother tongue, yet speaking primarily French at home. However, with the rapid rise in the number of French language immersion programs throughout Saskatchewan since the 1980s, there were twice as many people bilingual in French and English as there were bilingual French-Canadians; apparently, familiarity with the French language was increasing among people who were not French-Canadians, although still only a small proportion of these non-French were bilingual in French and English. While less than half of the people claiming only French origin are Francophone, to this French-speaking, French-origin population may be added people speaking French as their mother tongue who are either partly of French origin, or claim other ethnic origins.

Does French tend to be spoken by a higher proportion of the French-origin population in urban or in rural areas? Clearly, French Canadians in rural Saskatchewan (especially the farming population) have consistently been more likely to retain French. Moreover, a far higher proportion of the rural francophone population has continued to speak French at home than the urban Francophone population (42.5% compared to 29.9% in 1981). Yet, with the steady shift of French population from rural into urban areas, there are now more Francophones of French origin in urban than in rural areas, although there are more people speaking French at home in rural areas than urban, in absolute numbers. In 2001, 17,775 residents of Saskatchewan considered French to be their mother tongue; another 1,375 considered both French and English; and 8,280 considered French plus another language other than English.

Age and generation differences in ethnic language retention in Saskatchewan, including among French-origin population, are noteworthy. Retention, and particularly actual use of the French mother tongue, declines markedly from first generation through third or fourth, and from older age cohorts to younger. The age structure of French-Canadians in Saskatchewan is distributed quite evenly, both in urban and rural areas; but patterns of language use are not. Far higher proportions of French language use in the home, and exclusive use of French are found in the very youngest (pre-school) and oldest (post-retirement) age cohorts.

The demographic trends discerned are not indicative of a strong survival of the French minority in Saskatchewan. Ethnic origin will continue to become more complex with increasing intermarriage; concomitantly, the number of Saskatchewan people claiming only French origin continues to decline. The proportion of French-origin population resident in urban areas has steadily been increasing at the expense of the rural proportion, and it is in the urban areas that the greatest decline in actual use of the French language has occurred. There are numerous communities in Saskatchewan with substantial proportions of French residents; however, most of them have been losing population. There has been a marked decline, over the past several decades, in the proportion of people of French origin still speaking French as their primary mother tongue. The steady drift into English language use may have been slowed down in recent years by the increased availability of French language programs and immersion classes, French media, and organized activities conducted in French; but examination of the age structure and language use would seem to indicate that as a whole younger-generation French Canadians in Saskatchewan are not significantly reversing the trend of linguistic assimilation. Even among young adults who claim to be francophone, only about one in five is actually speaking French more than English at home.

Committed French-speaking French residents of Saskatchewan represent only a relatively small and declining proportion of the total population in the province claiming, in whole or in part, French origin. While familiarity with the French language has increased somewhat among the non-French population, the vast majority of Saskatchewan people are not familiar with the French language, as are more than half of the people claiming to be of French descent. Yet the historical impact of French settlement in Saskatchewan has been most significant, represented in the many French communities scattered across the province. (See also French settlements, French and Métis settlements)

Alan Anderson