Sylvan Lake, Alberta
Location: 25 km west of Red Deer, between Sylvan Lake and Burnt (now Cygnet) Lake. 4-34-38-W5 and 2-27-38-W5. Approximately 52.298549 N, 114.066580 W (source: S. Kilburn). Current Sylvan Lake: 52.30833 N, -114.096389 W.
A French socialist colony was established at Sylvan Lake in 1906 by Dr. Adalbert Alexi Cornil Tanche (1860-1917). The impetus for the settlement began a year earlier in Vieux Condé, a coal-mining town near Lille, France, when a miners’ strike was violently broken by the French military on behalf of the mine owners who wished to hire scabs. The failure of the strike was a bitter disappointment for Dr. Tanche. He was an outspoken advocate for socialist principles whose medical office was frequently where meetings with miners took place. As their future in France was uncertain at best, families in the region were open to Dr. Tanche’s efforts to create a new socialist settlement, inspired perhaps partly by the utopian philosophy and living arrangements that had been advocated by Charles Fourier (1772-1837) in the early nineteenth century. In all, five families and 11 individuals prepared to set out with Dr Tanche, who was accompanied by his wife, Julia Armèline (Capelle) Tanche (1860-1916), and his young son, Jean René Henri Tanche (1899-1993).
The selection of Alberta as the group’s destination was largely due to the Canadian Pacific Railway’s efforts to attract settlers by offering homesteads of 160 acres for ten dollars. One of the group’s members, Gustave Vasseur, set out to scout possible settlement sites. He chose Sylvan Lake because a good number of French settlers were already in the area. However, by 1906 most of the good land was already spoken for. Instead of acquiring homestead land as expected, Vasseur purchased land lying between Sylvan Lake and Burnt Lake (now Cygnet Lake) from the Neightle family. The land was bought on behalf of the utopian group that Dr. Tanche had formed using funds Tanche provided.
At that time, Burnt Lake was shallow with extensive muddy and marsh areas that often flooded in the spring. Those features, together with its extensive wooded areas, made the area attractive to wildlife including jackfish, muskrat and extensive bird populations that were respectively snared, trapped, and shot for both sustenance and income by local settlers. On the other hand, the group wanted to farm. This was difficult because the drainage over a large area that affected the lands Vasseur had bought was very poor.
Charles Fourier’s “phalanstère” utopian model may have served at least in part as the inspiration for Dr. Tanche’s colony. Ideally a Fourier-style phalanstère accommodated 1,620 people with different skills and interests. All residents were to live in a single building with three parts: a central area for quiet activities such as sleeping, dining, and reading; a lateral wing for work and other noisy activities; and a third wing with ballrooms and halls that outsiders could visit for a fee. The community was intended to be self-contained with each individual contributing their resources and skills for the mutual benefit of all. Further, they were to be anticlerical as well as egalitarian with respect to gender roles. While Fourier was unsuccessful in securing funds to establish a phalanstère anywhere in Europe, some who borrowed his socialist utopian model created several such settlements in North America. In Canada, the later Doukhobor settlements in BC were reminiscent of Fourier’s ideas.
While Dr Tanche’s group had neither the resources nor population to establish the ideal phalanstère, they lived in the same log house and strived to follow the social utopian model advocated by Fourier. In practical terms, this meant that all residents were expected to work for the benefit of the colony and to give any revenue they earned outside of the colony to Dr Tanche who administered a common fund on the group’s behalf.
The group was ill-prepared for homesteading. The cattle that they purchased froze to death during the fierce winter of 1906-07. To sustain the community, the men worked in nearby coal mines while the women worked in hotels in Red Deer. Their contributions to the common fund were sufficient to purchase a steam tractor to till land for crops in the spring. However, the tractor became stuck in mud all too frequently and they reverted to ploughs pulled by horses while they walked behind. The steam tractor was converted to cut lumber and a mill was set up on the banks of Sylvan Lake. But, the poplar lumber they produced twisted and could not be used for construction. Consequently, they moved their operation to the banks of the Red Deer River where they milled spruce all through the following winter with the hope of selling it to a Catholic priest who was planning to build a convent in Red Deer. The priest, however, did not have any appreciation for the argumentative, anticlerical Dr. Tanche and elected instead to give his business to Protestants, who at least believed in God. In any event, the lumber that they had milled and stacked during the winter was washed away when the river flooded in the spring.
The loss of the lumber was a defining moment because in the months that followed most members of the utopian colony left to work or homestead elsewhere. They could take few resources with them as they did not have receipts for their financial contributions to the community and, in any case, the community was effectively bankrupt due to harsh conditions and the poor management skills of the charismatic Dr. Tanche.
While the Tanche family remained on the site, along with another of the original families, the Menues, the utopian colony was effectively dissolved in 1908. Dr Tanche suffered a debilitating stroke while ploughing in 1911. His wife died in 1916 and he died the following year while visiting his brother in France. Their son, John (Jean René Henri), stayed in Canada and later wrote a history of the settlement.
See Colin M. Coates (2012) on evidence for and against claims that Charles Fourier’s utopian socialism influenced Adalbert Tanche’s settlement at Sylvan Lake. The evidence is inconclusive. Tanche’s anticlericalism is a significant counterpart to the history of the Sylvan Lake mission written by Father Voisin. The founder’s son, John, left a firsthand account of the colony as he remembered it. Photographs of Dr. Tanche and of some of the buildings can be viewed at the following site (enter “Tanche” in the “Name” search key).
by David F. Brown
- Coates, Colin M. 2012. Une utopie française en Alberta: le phalanstère du docteur Adalbert Tanche à Sylvan Lake, 1906-1908. Paper presented at colloque “Les immigrants français au Canada à l’époque de la Grande Migration transatlantique (1870-1914).” Éditions du CRINI. Num 3, avril. Accessed 15.05.16. http://www.crini.univ-nantes.fr/35354114/0/fiche___pagelibre/&RH=1332493528973
- Father Voisin. 1916. The History of Sylvan Lake Mission 1900-1916. Handwritten account of the Catholic Church at Sylvan Lake. Sylvan Lake and District Archives.
- John Tanche fonds. 1972. Reminiscences of the Tanches and other families at Sylvan Lake, by Jean René Henri (John) Tanche. 1972. Glenbow Archives. Reference M1209, NA2531.
- Tanche, Jean René Henri (John). 1982. Letter to Mr Dawe, Archivist, Red Deer & District Archives. Red Deer & District Archives.
- Tanche, John. 1981. The French socialist colony. In The Districts’ diary – 95 years of history of the Crossroads, Poplar Ridge, Norma and Durham Districts, 430-434. Red Deer AB: Poplar Ridge Historical Committee.