Canadian heritage and identity

Discovering the French presence in Saskatchewan

Saswaus House is a historic site located near Nipawin in northern Saskatchewan. The origin of its name has long been a mystery—Saswaus is neither English, nor Cree, nor French, nor German. Where does the word come from?

Carol Léonard, an associate professor of education at the University of Alberta’s Saint-Jean campus, discovered the answer to this question as part of his SSHRC‑funded research. “In studying old documents, I initially found the word Saswee (pronounced sassooway),” he says. “In fact, Saswaus is a phonetic English adaptation, itself derived from a Cree adaptation of the given name François.”

More specifically, the name refers to François-Jérôme Beaume—also known as Leblanc—who worked for the Sieur de La Vérendrye as part of the mid‑18th century fur trade. At that time, the name François (pronounced franswa) was pronounced “Françoué” (fransooway). The leap to Saswee can be explained by the absence of the letters “f” and “r” from the phonological systems particular to Algonquin languages.

Franco‑Saskatchewanian by adoption and a passionate toponymist since the early 1980s, Carol Léonard has identified more than 2,500 place names in Saskatchewan reflecting the French presence in the province. In some cases, it was the explorers and pioneers of French ancestry who distorted words from the local indigenous languages, while in other cases, it was the Aboriginal people who adapted French words to their own languages. “In this toponymic blend the Métis seem to have played a leading role,” emphasises Léonard.

These findings have been published in Mémoire des noms de lieux d’origine et d’influence françaises en Saskatchewan, leading to the production of large‑format maps and posters. Created for Franco‑Saskatchewanian schools and French immersion classrooms, these maps and their supporting documents will be used as teaching tools in elementary and high schools across the province. “The maps are designed to answer young people’s questions about the origin of place names, raising awareness of the importance of the French presence in this part of the country,” says Léonard, who is especially interested in the role played by the linguistic landscape in shaping the identity of school‑aged youth.

Research financed by SSHRC : Mapping the Franco‑Saskatchewanian Presence