Welcome to Little Canada, the Minnesota city founded by a Winnipegger who fled the floods

Benjamin Gervais decided he'd had enough with all the flooding along the Red River near the site of modern-day Winnipeg. In 1844, he founded a French-speaking community called Little Canada, now a city of 9,800 people entirely surrounded by the sprawl of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Minneapolis-St. Paul suburb, founded in 1844 by a Red River refugee, retains its French-Canadian roots

A fleur-de-lis sits within a maple leaf in the official insignia for the City of Little Canada, Minn., which sits north of St. Paul. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Nearly two centuries ago, Benjamin Gervais decided he'd had enough with all the flooding along the Red River, near modern-day Winnipeg.

The flood of 1826 was simply too much for a farmer born along the less volatile shores of St. Lawrence River in Quebec. Other French-speaking farmers, some of them former voyageurs, felt precisely the same way about the Red River Settlement, the buggy and boggy agricultural community that eventually became Winnipeg.

So in 1833, Gervais packed up the family oxcart and headed south with 75 other francophones.

They became some of the first Winnipeggers to head to the U.S. in search of a better deal.

Gervais wound up settling on a bend in the Mississippi River, buying up land in modern-day St. Paul and effectively gave the Minnesota capital its name when he provided funds for the community's first Catholic church.

(CBC News Graphics)

And in 1844, Ben Gervais founded a French-speaking community called Little Canada, now a city of 9,800 people entirely surrounded by the sprawl of Minneapolis-St. Paul. 

"They called it Little Canada because it reminded them of home, with all the water and the trees," said John Keis, the mayor of Little Canada, a municipality that continues to show off its francophone and Canadian roots.

The city's official emblem, which appears on street signs as well as the local water tower, superimposes a fleur-de-lis over a maple leaf.

The August town fair is called Canadian Days. The town newsletter is called Le Petit Canadien.

And the francophone-founded city even pulled off a political feat that ought to make it the envy of Quebec: Little Canada successfully separated from New Canada, a larger township, in 1953.

Nonetheless, this distinct society within the Twin Cities isn't very French any more.

Most locals say "Jarvis" when they refer to community founder Gervais or his namesake Lake Gervais, the shallow body of water where Anishinaabe collected wild rice before the arrival of the French-Canadian and American settlers who would eventually possess the land.

John Keis is the mayor of Little Canada. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

"This was a French-speaking community well into the 1900s," said Curt Loschy, executive director of the Little Canada Historical Society, which possesses the family records of all voyageurs and farmers who founded the community.

Only a handful of long-time residents continue to speak a smattering of their childhood French, he s​aid. 

The Canadian content of Little Canada is also something of a coincidence. The locals are polite, but perhaps no more so than other people in the Twin Cities, who take pride in "Minnesota nice," the state-wide interpersonal esthetic.

"People are very proud of it being called Little Canada and kind of having a small-town atmosphere inside of a big town," said Mayor Keis, a retired information-technology professional who can remember the days when Little Canada was still a separate town.

Little Canada, Minn. was founded by a French-Canadian settler who gave up on farming in the flood-prone Red River Valley. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

Before the construction of Interstate Highway 35E, which runs north from St. Paul, "you had to pack up the family to come up here," Keis said.

The construction of the freeway may be the worst thing to ever happen to Little Canada. It was built straight through the centre of the city, effectively bisecting the 6.4-square-kilometre city into a residential eastern section and a more commercial western half.

"We always say if they had to do this over again, they probably wouldn't do it," said Keis of the freeway construction.

"It's a hard thing. We always try to figure out how to connect both sides, so people don't feel isolated to one side or the other."

In other words, Little Canada is just like Canada proper, where the east and west perpetually struggle to get to know each other.

Despite the Interstate, Little Canada retains some semblance of its small-town feel, Keis insisted.

"People are very proud and protective of Little Canada," he said.

"It really hasn't changed that much," added Loschy. "We still have the church. We still have commercial activity, maybe more now. It's still a great place to live."​

It's a city surrounded entirely by the sprawl of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and founded by a French-Canadian who gave up on Winnipeg almost two centuries ago. 1:57

About the Author

Bartley Kives

Reporter, CBC Manitoba

Reporter Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba. His work has also appeared in publications such as the Guardian and Explore magazine.