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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000


Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College.

Rapatriement is a French word that means to repatriate. It is used specifically to describe the intense efforts that were carried out, from the 1870’s onward, to bring back to Quebec those French Canadians that had immigrated to the United States, to the New England area particularly. Between 1850 and 1930, an estimated 900,000 French Canadians emigrated to the United States. The Quebec elite at the outset ignored this vast movement but, eventually, its sheer size, and the threat to the position of the French-Catholic group in Canada, indeed to its survival, that this vast movement constituted served to focus attention to it from the 1870’s onward.

Once they had accepted the reality of the emigration of their compatriots, the French Canadian elite responded to it in two ways: first by sending to the area large numbers of priests, nuns and brothers that would minister to the spiritual needs of the expanding flock, and in the process help the immigrants keep their language and their faith, assure la survivance. Similarly, there came from Quebec significant numbers of doctors, dentists, pharmacists, lawyers, merchants who saw opportunities for personal advancement in the developing Franco-American communities. Together, with the original immigrants, they established "petits Canadas" and created social and cultural stability in the American environment and, thus, made the process of immigration easier for many. The second response was to try to convince these emigrants that they should return to Quebec.

There is no doubt that rapatriement of the emigrants was the preferred response by the ultramontane elite of Quebec. The emigration of so many French Canadians was perceived as a national calamity: the peril was both personal and national. By moving to the United States, a land dominated by anglophones and Protestants, the emigrants put their faith and their language in great danger. Their personal salvation was put on the line in a country where materialist values predominated. By losing the shelter of the rural society, and the support of the family they had left behind, they risked becoming acculturated, and thus assimilated to the American way of life. By leaving Quebec in such large numbers, they threatened to so weaken the society they left behind that it might collapse altogether. This is what made Edmond de Nevers, an important essayist of Quebec at the turn of the century, write: "Each defection of one of our people, each manifestation of a frame of mind that is not rooted in the old French ways, proud, intransigent, haughty, encourages among the ‘pansaxonists’ the fanciful hope of our future assimilation". It was thus imperative that they be brought back to the land of their ancestors, that they be repatriated.

In fact, we may consider that the two responses by the elite to the problem of emigration were contradictory. If priests from Quebec were successful in establishing national parishes in the New England area, and thus providing a way of life that lessened the shock of adaptation to a different world, then it was unlikely that the emigrants would wish to return to Quebec. To the extent that the "Little Canadas" were successful, they doomed the efforts of rapatriement to failure.

Yet, historian Ralph Vicero, who seriously studied the situation of the Franco-Americans in New England, has estimated that about 50% of the emigrants from Quebec returned to it at some stage, many doing so on several occasions before, more often than not, settling in permanently in the United States. Thus, rapatriement, even if temporary, was a fact of life. What brought the immigrants back to Quebec, and why did they return to the U.S.A.?

Four reasons seem to have brought back the emigrants to Quebec. These reasons are not mutually exclusive. More often than not, they strengthened one another.

In some few cases it would appear that emigrants returned essentially because they had achieved their objective(s). Many of the emigrants had left the rural areas of Quebec because they had fallen into debt. Unable to pay these debts, they had gone to the factories of New England to accumulate capital so as to be able to return to the farm. In some cases, it would appear that this objective was met and that this was the main cause for the return. However, it was likely that the very same reasons that drove them into debt were likely to produce the same result after their return from the United States. Thus these immigrants usually again returned to the United States at some point. This question has not been well studied and would deserve more attention.

Another reason for people to return was because of the emotional and cultural costs that were discussed in the article on the emigration of French Canadians to the United States. Few of the emigrants ever thought that they were leaving Quebec for good. They were naturally attached to the land of their ancestors. They wished to go to the United States "to make their fortune". They invariably planned to come back at some point. Indeed, they did usually come back. The literature is full of life stories of emigrants who tell of going back to see their family, their village, and their farm in the spring, or the fall. They spent some weeks doing this to the great despair of their employers who saw in this a lack of commitment to their business. One imagines the nostalgic conversations that took place on such trips, the emotional wrenching of having to go back, the appeals to stay... In any case, particularly among the older generation, they found it difficult to adapt to the new land, and frequently returned to Canada. This is what happened in the family of Philippe Lemay. He stayed in the U.S.A. but his parents returned to Canada. Again here, this process would deserve further study.

The third, and most evident and frequent reason to return to Quebec, was because of downturns in the American economy. There were four notable periods of difficulties between 1850 and 1930. There was a severe depression between 1873 and 1878 that led to massive layoffs in the textile industries of New England. Business improved from 1879 until around 1890, although there were ups and downs in this period as well. Again, in 1891 and 1894-1896 conditions were difficult: layoffs, salary cuts, strikes, plant closures took place. The prosperity lasted from 1896 to around 1913. The year 1913-1914 was a difficult one and again salaries were decreased and layoffs were made. The last period of difficulties, before the close of immigration with the Great Depression, was between 1919-1921. Each cycle brought its measure of misery and corresponds to large numbers of returnees to Quebec. At the best of times, working conditions had been difficult and wages, while far better than those of Quebec, did not allow for sufficient savings and cushioning over the bad times. If an employee was laid off, especially if the plant had closed, he had no other recourse but to return to Quebec, given the high cost of living in the U.S.A. So they shuffled back and forth according to the vagaries of the marketplace. However, to the extent that business usually eventually improved, and that Quebec was not able to offer them sufficient employment, or a high enough standard of living, they frequently returned to the United States.

The last reason for returning was because of the propaganda and programmes set up by governments, Church or repatriation and colonisation societies. From the mid 1870’s, the New England states became the target of intense efforts of rapatriement. In 1875, the Government of Quebec designated Ferdinand Gagnon, publisher of the newspaper Le travailleur of Worcester, as its agent of rapatriement. Gagnon was an active journalist who took his task as a "patriotic mission". He wrote countless articles on the subject, made speeches in several communities. In his view, the respect of Church and religion, patriotism, the love of family and spiritual values could all best be preserved by returning to Canada. Several priests, missionnaires-colonisateurs as they were called, from Quebec, who spoke to francophone audiences in New England, supported him. One of them was the famous Antoine Labelle, better known simply as Curé Labelle.

In 1875, the government of Quebec also issued the Repatriation Act. As it was applied in La Patrie, an area of Compton county in the Eastern townships, a repatriated settler could select from a designated area 100 acres of land, with a house and 4 acres cleared, ready for seeding. The cost was $0.60 an acre, plus $140 for the improvements. The government loaned the money and the settler had 10 years to repay. No interest was charged. The prospective settlers were supposed to obtain a character reference from their parish priest. Historian J. I Little who studied this colony found that between 1875 and 1877, when the experiment was terminated in La Patrie, 782 colonists from the United States had been established. Yet, it is clear that the colony, in so far as rapatriement was concerned, was a failure. The settlers had obviously come because of the bad conditions of the depression of 1873-1878. They were penniless to start with, and had no money beyond the loans extended to them by the government. The land they obtained was not very fertile. It led inevitably to hunger and hardship. The government was unable, or unwilling, to help further. With the return to prosperity, in 1878, they went back to the United States. The government of Quebec was left, high and dry, with very little to show for its efforts, and $80,000 poorer.

Another type of rapatriement attempt was made by the Société de rapatriement et de colonisation du Lac-St.-Jean between 1897 and 1904. This society was a group of well-meaning individuals who wished to develop their region, and attract immigrants from the United States for this purpose. They received the help of the federal government and of the Quebec-Lake-St.-John Railway Company. Robert G. LeBlanc, who studied this case, came to conclusions very similar to those Little had reached. The immigrants who came were penniless, were the products of the economic cycles and plant closures of the New England factories. When conditions improved in New England they returned. In any case, whether in the Eastern townships, or in the Lac-St.-Jean area, those that returned from the factories of the U.S.A. frequently found in their new settlements the economic conditions that had driven them from Quebec in the first place. Should we be surprised that their rapatriement failed in the end?

Another important factor in the failure of the repatriation efforts was the increasing adaptation of Franco-Americans to the environment of the United States. As time passed, they learned English and identified increasingly with their new country. They had children that were born in the United States and who felt comfortable there. As the percentage of the Canadian born Franco-Americans decreased, so did the desire to go back to Canada.

Table 1

Number and Percentage of Franco-Americans born in Canada
Or in the United States of at least one Canadian Parent, 1890-1930
(New England States only)


Number of Franco-Americans

% born in Canada

% born in the United States





















Source of the table: Leon TRUESDELL, The Canadian Born in the United States, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1943, p. 77 as quoted in Yves ROBY, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, 1776-1930, Sillery, Septentrion, 1990, p. 232

To the clerical elite, and to some extent to the governments of Quebec and Ottawa, rapatriement was a noble cause. It was an undertaking that was necessitated not only by economic conditions but, as well, as a patriotic endeavour. The ultramontane nationalists who saw the nation as under siege, wished to prevent the emigration of French Catholics by opening new regions to colonisation, and even by promoting railways and industry when necessary. When they failed to stem the tide of emigrants to the United States they launched and supported programmes of repatriation. There were enough returns to make them hope that the nation would be whole and one once again. However, while the volume of returnees was considerable, the inability of Quebec to absorb its excess of population, and the lack of industrial development of the province, doomed the efforts of rapatriement to failure in the long term. As one generation of expatriates gave way to a second one, returns were less frequent, adaptation to the United States was greater and, inevitably, Quebec started to look more and more foreign to them.

© 1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College