New museum exhibit celebrates Windsor's French-Canadian roots
Carolyn Thompson, The Windsor Star.
From last names to streetscapes, Windsor is rooted in French.
A lot of people in Windsor don’t realize it, but so many people in the population are descendants of French-Canadians. It’s unbelievable," said Guillaume Teasdale, a University of Windsor history professor. “When you went to high school, how many of your friends had a French last name?"
Teasdale was one of about 50 people who gathered Wednesday for the opening of a new Museum Windsor exhibit at the Maison Francois Baby House on Pitt Street: Windsor’s French Roots.
The permanent exhibit, funded primarily through the City of Windsor and a provincial government grant, shares the French-Canadian history of the region and how it shaped the city.
It can be seen even through the narrow, parallel streets of downtown Windsor, said Madelyn Della Valle, the museum’s curator. At the time, English colonies were made of bigger chunks of property.
The French influence saw long, narrow farms stretch out from the riverside, giving each one access to the water. Many street names today — for example Lesperance and Goyeau — came from the farmers who owned the land.
Mayor Drew Dilkens, who is a descendent of a French-Canadian Windsorite, said it’s important to have a permanent exhibit that lets people in the community reflect on their ancestry and the birth of their city.
“It’s great that there’s a permanent place, a permanent home, where people can go and see how the city was formed, who formed the city, and what the French culture and heritage meant as the city has evolved,” he said. “It’s embedded in the fabric of our community.”
Nathalie Grenier, president of RDÉE Ontario, which works to strengthen the economy of francophone communities in the province, said Windsor’s French roots have been a well-kept secret for too long.
“It’s a very significant moment for the francophone community in Ontario — not just in Windsor. I think it’s going to have an impact,” she said.
It’s something the president of ACFO, a French-Canadian association, has been working to change.
Gérard Malo, the local president, said people often forget Windsor is the oldest continuous francophone settlement west of Montreal. More than 15,000 French-speakers live in the region.
Some, like Freddy Vyambwéra, who immigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo two years ago, are new to Windsor and still learning about its French history.
His teachers at College Boréal, where he studies business administration, told his class to visit the museum and learn about the French-Canadian Francois Baby who once lived in the house where the exhibit is housed. The same building served as a headquarters during the War of 1812.
“It touches my heart, gives me faith, to see that this house still exists since the time it was created,” he said in French. “I feel really proud to know that this historic building exists.”
That pride and knowledge of the Windsor region and its history is what this exhibit hopes to elicit, said curator Della Valle. She envisions classes taking tours and holding programs to inspire the community and tourists.
“It’s got a nice feel when you walk in. It’s a welcoming environment, with the room setting from the early French-Canadian cabin, music, and a couple of little things to bring it to life,” she said. “That’s really what we’re hoping to do.”
The museum will be open between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday. For holiday times and closures, go to citywindsor.ca.
254 Pitt Street West
Windsor, Ontario, Canada N9A 5L5
Phone: For general information, call 311.
For detailed inquiries, please call (519) 253-1812.