Jean-Antoine Bour pauses to point out the fine view from the Faculté Saint-Jean classroom window. In the distance, beyond the Faculté's playing fields, across the Mill Creek Ravine, and across the North Saskatchewan River, Edmonton's towers of commerce bask in the morning light beneath a blue Alberta sky.
For many people, it comes as a surprise that here, within sight of Edmonton's city centre it is possible to receive a complete university education in the French language. In fact Faculté Saint-Jean, of which Dr. Bour is dean, is the only institution devoted to French-language university curriculum in Western Canada. "West of Manitoba we're it," says Dean Bour. The Faculté offers degree programs leading to baccalaureate degrees in arts, science and education.
For a decade now the Faculté has been completely integrated into the University of Alberta, but its history begins much earlier. In 1908, the same year that the first University of Alberta classes were being held, a young Oblate Father named André Daridon, gathered together three students and began instruction in the Juniorate of St. John the Apostle at Pincher Creek, Alberta. Two years later, because Pincher Creek was not a central location, the juniorate was moved to Edmonton, and in 1911 it relocated to the Faculté's present site in the Bonnie Doon area of Edmonton. (That same year the University first occupied its present campus when it moved into Athabasca Hall.)
Though it resembled an ordinary college in some respects, Le Juniorat Saint-Jean, had the primary aim of preparing priests and brothers for the Oblate Missionaries of Mary Immaculate. In 1928, it enhanced its academic offering through an affiliation agreement with the University of Ottawa which established a program of secondary and university education for students of the French language. In 1943, the changing nature of the institution was recognized when the juniorate became Collège Saint-Jean. In 1961, other important changes took place: for the first time, female students were admitted to the university program at the Collège, and a college of education affiliated with Laval University was established.
Later in the 1960s, ties between the Collège and the nearby University of Alberta began to be solidified as first the Collège's education program and then its arts program became affiliated with the University. In 1970, Collège Saint-Jean became Collège universitaire Saint-Jean, and in 1976 the growing integration of the College into the University culminated in a three-party agreement between the Province of Alberta, the University of Alberta, and Les Révérends Pères Oblats de Marie Immaculée des Territoires du Nord Ouest. The agreement transferred the College's buildings and lands to the University. Two years later the Collège universitaire became a full faculty of the University as Faculté Saint-Jean.
Jean-Antoine Bour has been dean of FSJ since 1985. (He succeeded Gamila Morcos who had given her guidance to the Faculté for the previous five years.) A native of Paris, he came to North America in 1956, obtained his doctorate in French literature at Princeton, and later taught there and at other U.S. schools before joining the faculty of Mt. Allison University in New Brunswick in 1975. Immediately prior to coming to Faculté Saint-Jean, he served as dean of arts at Mount Allison.
Dr. Bour believes that the Faculté is at another turning point in its history. "We are rapidly reaching a point where a big step has to be made," he says. He makes a strong case for the need of the Faculté to continue to grow and develop, concluding that "for us, a plateau would be a decline. "At present, the Faculté has approximately 400 full-time students enrolled in its BA, BSc and BEd programs. Instruction is provided by 25 full-time academic staff and another 19 sessional teachers.
Addressing the need for growth, the dean says that some of the Faculté's current offerings are rather thin, quickly pointing out that he does not mean "thin" in quality but rather in breadth of offering, given the limited number of faculty members. Especially, he says, there is need to strengthen the sciences-mathematics in particular. "Outside Quebec and Atlantic Canada, science education in French is quite limited," he says.
Dean Bour articulates a vision for the Faculté which would see it offering all the basic elements of a solid liberal arts and sciences education-which, he points out, is also the foundation upon which a sound education program is built. While he believes it is desirable that his students take some of their courses at the main University campus (linked to FSJ by a free hourly mini-bus service), he argues that "completeness of culture" demands that all the basic areas of knowledge be represented at the Faculté. "Otherwise you're threatened by a truncated education," he says. Put another way: "You must carry in your head the language for all aspects of the culture — a language must be complete."
Of course, at a time of cutbacks in government spending, finding the resources to develop that vision may well prove difficult. But the dean believes that there is no real choice: "If we want a Faculté Saint-Jean that is vibrant and meaningful, that's the only way to go."
That's the message that Dr. Bour is planning on taking to the federal secretary of state in his quest for funding-through a bilateral Alberta-Ottawa agreement, the Faculté receives some federal government support in recognition of its contribution to Canadian bilingualism and biculturalism. (At the time this article was written, the scope of the request was still under consideration.)
Faculté Saint-Jean occupies a 4.5 hectare site just off 99 Street north of 84 Avenue. It consists of a small cluster of buildings, playing fields and — a reminder of its Oblate heritage — a grotto constructed behind the residence. A walk through the building corridors gives an impression of the nature of the Faculté. It seems a close community, reflecting to a great extent its residential nature: 89 students live in the Faculté's own residence and at the main campus six kilometres away, a wing in the Lister residence complex is devoted to FSJ students.
The majority of the Faculté's students, but certainly not all, come from homes where French is the first language, and while the Faculté opens its arms to "Francophiles" — students with other mother tongues but a strong interest in French culture — Dean Bour stresses the need for the strong participation of Franco-Albertans. "We need that organic link to the culture; we can't keep the French atmosphere alive in a test tube." To the Franco-Albertan community his message is simple: "Send us your children."
The location of the Faculté Saint-Jean campus in the heart of Edmonton's French community also helps greatly to maintain the Francophone atmosphere. And while he recognizes the disadvantages of a physical separation from the main University campus, Dr. Bour strongly believes that the future of the Faculté lies with its present site: "It enables us to keep our character and keeps us closer to the history of the Faculté, Collège and Juniorat."
Not only does the Faculté occupy a central location physically in Alberta's Francophone community, it is close to the cultural heart of Alberta's French-speaking population. The Faculté's well-organized and varied program of extension offerings takes it to all corners of the province, and into neighboring provinces as well. In addition, it provides space and expertise to a number of Francophone cultural undertakings each year and is the home of Le Théâtre Français d'Edmonton.
In fact, Dean Bour admits to being sometimes intimidated by the light in which the Francophone community has come to regard the Faculté: "So many hopes are attached to this place, it's sometimes frightening. It's great when people believe in an institution so much that they blame it for anything that goes wrong — but that can give the dean grey hair and short sleep."
As the dean continues in a reflective vein, an image of the towers of the city skyline comes to mind, not far away really. "I don't think," he says, "that outsiders — non-Francophones — realize how important it is for the Francophone community to have a Faculté Saint-Jean."
Published Spring 1987.