Where everything started…
The first French Canadians who settled in what was to become Maillardville crossed Canada all the way from Rockland, Ontario, as well as Hull and Sherbrooke in Quebec. It was the know-how of the French Canadians in the forest industry along with their powerful work ethic that incited Fraser Mills – which was to become the largest saw mill operation in the British Empire – to recruit manpower all the way from Eastern Canada for their logging operations in B.C.
For a Quebecer in those days, the offer was very attractive: a steady job, daily wages of $2.50 for a 10-hour work day, 6 days a week. In addition, they were promised access to land for their families to settle, wood for building a house and the freedom to preserve their language. They were even told they could leave their umbrellas behind in Quebec; the weather was so fine in their new homeland!
The first contingent of approximately 100 adventurers arrived at the Fraser Mills Station on September 26th, 1909, on a train called the “Honeymoon Special” because so many couples got married the night before they left. The group of pioneers was quick to learn what a hard lifestyle awaited them, where everything needed to be built from scratch, but they must have seen the good side too, since very few of them returned back East. On the contrary, the new comers encouraged their distant families to come out to join them.
A Faith to guide them…
Religion held a very important place in the hearts of the pioneers. The management at Fraser Mills understood this and they offered the settlers the site and the materials needed to build a Catholic Church. By 1910, thanks to everyone’s efforts, the parishioners of Our Lady of Lourdes were able to celebrate Christmas mass in the church they had erected on Laval Square.
The first priest, R.P. Edmond Maillard o.m.i., a young priest from France who stayed with the pioneers for two years, left an indelible trace: the community was baptised in his honour in 1912.
Maillardville: a Blossoming Community…
Community services were organized quickly with whatever means the pioneers had at their disposal on their arrival. No time was lost in setting up a Catholic francophone school. The first Chief of Police, Mr. Emery Paré, established his office at home with two prison cells built behind the house. A fire fighters brigade was also formed, and the church bells served to sound the alarm in case of fire.
Stores started opening on Pitt River Road (later renamed Brunette Avenue), including the Proulx general store (which housed the Maillardville post office), the Thrift butcher shop, Grevelyn the shoemaker, the billiard hall, as well as the Tremblay community hall.
And of course an active social life also evolved very quickly in Maillardville. Community organizations were a great source of support for people dealing with difficult challenges and a helpful way for them to preserve their language and cultural traditions. A band was started, bingo nights were organized and various hockey and baseball teams played in friendly competitions. Each year, the Booth farm hosted the Maillardville annual family picnic and sports day, an event that everyone in the community looked forward to.
Later, the community established a number of associations: in 1957, the Maillardville francophone Scouts association was started in the Maillard Foyer, in 1969 a centre for the elderly and in 1973, a choral group called «les Échos du Pacifique».
Throughout its evolution, Maillardville weathered many storms. Fortunately, the solidarity that holds the community together helps them rise above difficulties. More than once, the inhabitants have spoken in one voice to defend their rights, in particular with the strikes at Fraser Mills and the Catholic schools.
Working conditions at the mill were attractive enough to incite the pioneers to cross Canada in 1909, but the situation deteriorated to the point where, in 1931, exasperation with conditions pushed the workers to band together to become what was to be the precursor of the labour union movement in British Columbia.
The community organized to resist the pressures and to survive the economic difficulties that resulted from this strike. For example, the women and children set up a community kitchen. Fortunately, the conflict was resolved within a few months but a number of workers who were involved in the strike were let go and banished from the company.
Twenty years later, Maillardville’s Catholic schools felt that they were the victims of injustices that caused them to go on strike on April 2nd, 1951. The Catholic School Board organized a demonstration with the 840 students, and the outcome was that they ultimately transferred the students over to the non-denominational public school board. This polemical action caused a shock wave across Canada and all the way to London, where the BBC did a special report on the events in Maillardville.
The strike continued for over a year. The children remained in public school, except on days of religious education. Unfortunately the action did not achieve any results in the short term. However, with sustained resistance on the issue of payment of property taxes, the battle carried out in Maillardville led to an exemption from future taxes for the Catholic schools not only in Maillardville but throughout the province.
Over the Years…
In the course of its history, the community has changed. The streets still bear the proud names of pioneering families and important personalities and the buildings are still a reminder of the rich history of the community. The original pioneer settlement on unbroken land gradually gave way to a modern multicultural community that still works actively to ensure that the French language will continue to flourish. Fraser Mills has closed its doors and many of the original businesses and shops on Brunette Road have been replaced by new ones. Happily, one thing has not changed at all: Maillardville is still a tight-knit francophone community!