French Canadian Emigration
to the United States
Université de Montréal
Department of History,
1840 and 1930 roughly 900 000 French Canadians left Canada to emigrate
to the United States. This important migration, which has now been
largely forgotten in Quebecs collective memory, is certainly one of the
major events in Canadian demographic history. According to the 1980 American census,
13.6 million Americans claimed to have French ancestors. While a certain number
of these people may be of French, Belgian, Swiss, Cajun or Huguenot ancestry,
it is certain that a large proportion would have ancestors who emigrated from
French Canada or Acadia during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Indeed, it has been estimated that, in the absence of emigration, there would
be 4 to 5 million more francophones living in Canada today. Around 1900, there
would scarcely have been a French-Canadian or Acadian family that did not have
some of its members living in the United States. While similar patterns of emigration
affected English Canada, Canadian historians have more or less ignored this phenomenon,
largely because it was far more diffused, did not affect their society as much
as Quebec was affected as it was more used to migration than French-speaking Quebec
where "la survivance" was always a major concern, and, lastly, did not
leave the enduring traces that French-Canadian emigration did. Simply put, English
Canadians were less noticeable and assimilated far more rapidly into American
society than did French-speaking Catholics.
of French Canadian emigration to the United States
the outset, two important points need to be established: the first one is that
there are costs associated to emigration. These costs are economical, emotional
and cultural. The economical costs are fairly easy to estimate as they are quantifiable.
When individuals leave, assets have to be liquidated, often at a loss. Many material
possessions have to be left behind. Packing material has to be acquired. Then
there is the cost of transportation to their intended destination, and the cost
of sustaining themselves during their travel. Lastly, there will be further costs
of settlement, once the destination has been reached. The emotional costs are
more difficult to estimate. To migrate often means to leave behind beloved family
and friends with whom long association have forged strong emotional ties. To leave
family and friends behind certainly meant to leave behind ones support system.
It also always meant to forego the familiar surroundings of ones region
and ancestral home, the land that generations of their ancestors had toiled,
the landscape that had defined their environment since birth. All migrants have
to face these wrenching emotional costs, and they will frequently remember very
fondly that which they have left behind. The cultural costs may also be great.
If one immigrates from a region that has particular cultural characteristics,
such as way of life, language, religion and traditions, that are quite different
from the host society then one will have to adapt to a far greater extent than
a migrant that would share many cultural elements with the receiving society.
Thus, it is evident that the greater the costs, economical, emotional and cultural,
the less likely one is to leave ones country for another. While the economical
costs of French Canadians to leave for the United States might have been relatively
small, the emotional and, especially, the cultural costs were quite high. They
left behind a traditional rural society with strong family ties. They entered
an industrial world, alien to them by virtue of its way of life, language and
religion. Given these high emotional and cultural costs, it is surprising that
so many French Canadians engaged in the migration process between 1840 and 1930.
In fact, it would be normal to consider that French Canadians, who only find their
language and religion dominant in a part of the continent, would be the least
likely to engage in the migration process. Indeed, since the beginning of the
20th century, Quebec has had consistently the greatest rate of retention
of its population of all provinces in Canada (for more recent statistics, see this table as well). These comments serve to highlight
particularly the factors of causation for the emigration of French Canadians to
the Unites States: if French Canadians were the people least likely to migrate
from Canada, what severe problems impelled them to leave?
second factor to raise is one that is familiar to historians and sociologists:
immigration is the result of the interplay of push and pull factors.
As mentioned above, if there are potentially considerable costs to migrate, then
one engages in this process only when there are very serious reasons to do so.
These reasons may be personal, economical, social, political. Historically, the
great mover of large numbers of people has been poor or deteriorating economic
conditions. When ones life is miserable, when one does not see a way to
pull out of poverty, then one is literally pushed out of ones environment.
In this respect, much discussion of the poor economic conditions in Quebec will be found below.
If that is so, where should the migrant go? Sometimes, economical circumstances,
or political restrictions, will limit the choice. However, there is no doubt that
what will be the most attractive alternative, what will pull the immigrant,
is the land around them that is the most prosperous. In this respect, it should
be noted that in the 19th century, the United States emerged as one
of the most industrialised and prosperous nations on earth. To the Québécois,
the United States appeared as a vast Eldorado whose streets were literally paved
with gold. These factors are explored further below.
some French Canadians emigrated to the United States for political reasons, namely
young men trying to evade military conscription during the First World War or
rebels who had chosen to side with the American patriots during the American Revolution
or who had participated in the Lower-Canadian rebellions of 1837-38, an overwhelming
percentage of emigrants left for economic reasons. What were these economic reasons?
fundamental underlying causes of French-Canadian emigration can be found in the
unequal levels of industrial development, and thus of standards of living, between
Quebec and New England, or on a larger level, between Canada and the United States.
The industrial gap, combined with structural problems which plagued Quebecs
agriculture during the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, created an economic climate where thousands of French Canadians were
pushed to emigrate in order to earn a living. Thus, we can divide the causes of
French-Canadian emigration into two categories : those that pushed
French Canadians to emigrate and those that attracted emigrants to the
United States or, more fundamentally, the causes which are internal and those
which are external to Quebec.
an internal level, it must be noted that Quebecs agriculture underwent tremendous
strains during the 19th century. In part, these difficulties were demographic.
Indeed, throughout the century, Quebec experienced very rapid population growth. However, by the 1830s and 1840s,
Quebecs most fertile farm land had been systematically occupied, leaving
mostly peripheral regions open to agricultural colonisation, and thousands of
landless farmers searching either for affordable, accessible and fertile land,
or gainful employment. Between 1784 and 1844, Quebecs population increased
by about 400 %, while its total area of agricultural acreage rose only by 275
%, creating an important deficit of available farmland. While not as dramatic,
this trend continued between 1851 and 1901. Since Quebec was largely a rural society in the 19th century, agricultural problems were truly national problems.
the 1850s, colonisation began in several peripheral regions. Slowly, French-Canadians
began to farm in the Laurentians, the Saguenay-Lake St-John, the Lower St. Lawrence
and the Matapedia Valley, certain forested or unexploited areas of the Ottawa
Valley and the Eastern Townships, and, eventually as far north as the Temiscaming.
In the last quarter of the 19th century, French Canadians would also
begin to emigrate to Eastern Ontario, and, in smaller numbers, to Manitoba, Saskatchewan
the regions of Quebec that began to be actively colonised in the second half of
the 19th century suffered either from a lack of fertility, a difficult
access to major markets, a short growing season, or a combination of all three
factors. Thus, agricultural activity in these regions was quite arduous and often
was largely oriented towards self-sufficiency and subsistence. For many, farming
in these areas was only a part time activity. These farmers participated in an
economy based on agriculture and forestry. Farming was often so unprofitable in
peripheral regions that many would have to spend the entire winter, and part of
spring and fall, working in the various primary stages of the timber trade. These
seasonal jobs gave farmers access to desperately needed hard currency to develop
their farms and ensure their subsistence but created long term patterns of dependency.
Indeed, with timber barons being often the only major employers in many regions,
farmers had little or no choice but to enter into a dependent relationship with
them. Frequently, timber companies paid their employees with company scrip, lent
money at very high interest rates, were the only market for the produce of local
farms or monopolised the retail trade through company stores. They thus controlled
the retail and purchasing price for goods, services, manpower and credit. The
result was near monopolies that could have a virtual stranglehold over their region,
notably, through debt peonage. Both the farmer and the timber baron lived in a
symbiotic relationship. The farmer needed the employment, and the markets created
by the timber industry, while the timber baron relied on the farmer to provide
the manpower and the produce needed to fuel his logging camps. While co-dependent,
there is no doubt, given the plentiful supply of labour, as to who profited the
most from this system. The farmer could not subsist without the timber trade while
the relative poverty engendered by subsistence level agriculture provided the
cheap labour which the timber baron needed to generate profit. Quebec historians
have termed this relationship léconomie agro-forestière.
from the obvious difficulties associated with this type of farming, agriculture
in the more fertile and established regions also suffered from serious problems.
For most farmers, credit, vital to agricultural expansion, technical amelioration,
crop diversification and improvement of the livestock, was difficult to obtain.
Before the creation and widespread expansion of Caisses populaires and
the government farm credit system established in the 1930s, standard agricultural
credit was difficult to obtain in rural Quebec. In the 19th century,
and for a good part of the 20th, Quebecs banking network was
vastly deficient, largely concentrated in major cities, and overwhelmingly anglophone. Banks that did have branches in rural parishes were few, frequently smaller
French-Canadian institutions, regional in their scope, and had a smaller access
to capital. Moreover, they tended to lend money not to farmers but rather to the
local elite. Farmers frequently had to turn to local usurers for credit, with
all the problems which usury entails. Claude Henri Grignon's novel Un homme et son péché, published in 1933, is a good illustration of this point.
problem of indebtedness was of course related to the low productivity of the Quebec
farms. There were various reasons for this state of affairs and historians have
debated them for decades. These reasons will be discussed more fully elsewhere
at the site. However, it should be noted that, ever since the beginning of the
19th century, Quebec was in a state of agricultural crisis that would
truly only end with rural electrification, as well as with the large-scale development
of the dairy industry and market gardening in the 20th century. Essentially,
it should be borne in mind that until the onset of the 20th century,
the vast majority of Quebecers lived on farms, when the climate, land base, and
quality of soils suggested that this should not be so. Without proper alternatives,
the people of Quebec were condemned to rural life. Without credit they could not
improve their condition and, consequently, they fell increasingly into poverty.
Historians Yves Roby and Jean Hamelin [Histoire économique du Québec, 1851-1896,Montreal,
Fides 1971, p. 22] have estimated that the gross revenues derived from agriculture
by Quebec farmers were, on average, $230 annually. This was less than half the
income that Ontario farmers derived from their land.
credit problems, and the poverty attending it, were an important motivator for
emigration. Farmers all over Quebec would have to migrate to big cities in order
to find work either to pay off their debts, or after their farms had been foreclosed.
Furthermore, lack of credit hampered agricultural modernisation which, in turn,
engendered un-dynamic, un-profitable farming. Overall, these factors combined
to generate poverty even within the most fertile of Quebecs regions.
overpopulation, debt and infertile soils pushed French Canadians off their land.
However, external factors also attracted emigrants to the United States. Indeed,
during the second half of the 19th century, Canada and the United States
experienced rapid industrial growth. However industrialisation progressed far
more rapidly in the USA while Canadas economy remained more dependent on
primary economic activity. Moreover, industrial wages were generally higher in
the United States than they were in Canada. Simply put, jobs were easier to obtain
in the USA and at better wages.
who left their land were naturally attracted to the factories of the United States.
Despite the fact that, around 1890, a greater share of the Quebec economy depended on industry than Ontario did, labour markets were
saturated in the industrial agglomerations of Quebec and wages were low; work
was much easier to find in the USA and wages were higher. Moreover, these factory
jobs frequently required no formal skills or education and often would employ
children and women. While this was true of light industry throughout Canada and
the United States, it was especially true in the huge textile factories of New England
where several members of a family could find work.
majority of French-Canadian emigrants to the United States were from rural parishes
and agricultural problems are at the root of the economic factors that stimulated
emigration. However, a significant portion of emigrants were city-dwellers. Most
of these emigrants left to find more stable, higher paying work in the USA. While
for most, emigration usually meant proletarization, some middle class French Canadians
also emigrated. Priests, motivated by an apostolic zeal to safeguard the souls
of their compatriots, but also seeking the higher standard of living which working
class American parishes provided over rural or proletarian ones in Quebec, eventually
followed the general movement south. Doctors, lawyers, grocers and a wide swath
of Quebec society also emigrated, thus capitalising on the emigrants tendency
to ghettoise and patronise businesses and professionals who speak his language
and understand his culture.
emigration was often seen as a temporary solution to short-term financial problems
such as debt or unemployment, for many the higher standard of living of the United
States became difficult to forego. Many emigrants having left Quebec to avoid
seasonal unemployment, or to save money in order to buy a farm or machinery, or
to pay off their debts, found themselves unable to return home. While low paying
factory work may seem miserable to some, it was a dream come true for many emigrants
who had lived under far harsher conditions on Quebec farms or factories. For many
farmers industrial work represented a successful social gain. American life was,
for many emigrants, especially in the 19th century, their first real
contact with the wonders of electricity, running water, a steady paycheck, and
The development of the railway stimulated emigration. As Eastern North Americas
railroad network became more complex and affordable, emigrating to the United
States became simpler and cheaper. Indeed, while in 1840 a trip from Montreal
to Vermont would have taken several arduous and expensive days in a cart, by the
1880s it would only be a question of a few dollars and hours.
the emigration of French Canadians to the United States was internally caused
by demographic pressures, rural poverty created by indebtedness and a host of
other ills related to the climatic and geographical characteristics of the province,
low productivity of the farms, the developing agricultural crisis, the lack of
suitable regions of colonisation, the insufficient level of industrial development
to absorb the excess population and the low wages that inevitably attended such
a catastrophic situation. Externally, the proximity of the New England factories
that offered easy employment, good wages by Quebec standards, and the cheap and
easy access through the rail system fuelled the migration.
did the emigrants go?
railway also changed patterns of emigration. During the opening phases of the
movement, roughly from the 1840s to the 1860s, emigrants tended to
head for Northern New York State, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. They mostly
sought work as farmhands, in lumber camps and in proto-industrial shops like the
brickworks of Vermont. However, by the 1870s and 1880s, as industrialisation
progressed in New England and railway ties between Quebec and the North Eastern
United States became more solid, emigration patterns shifted from the States of
Northern New England to the textile towns
of Massachusetts, Rhode Island and, to a lesser extent, Connecticut.
of French Canadians in New England, 1860-1880
of French distribution
of French distribution
Source of the
data: Ralph D. VICERO, Immigration of French Canadians to New England, 1840-1900,
Ph.D thesis, Univesity of Wisconsin, 1968, p. 275; as given in Yves ROBY, Les
Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle Angleterre, 1776-1930, Sillery, Septentrion,
1990, p. 47
of Franco-Americans* in New England, 1900-1930
of French distribution
of French distribution
in Canada, or in the United States of one or two French-Canadian parents.
of the data: Leon TRUESDELL, The Canadian Born in the United States, New
haven, 1943, p. 77; as given in Yves ROBY, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre,
Sillery, Septentrion, 1990, p. 282.
was thus largely centred on New England. Emigrants usually chose to move to towns
and states relatively close to the Quebec section of the Canadian border. However,
French Canadians living outside of Quebec also preferred to migrate to states
adjacent or close to the Canadian border. Franco-Ontarians frequently moved to
Michigan and Illinois while Franco-Manitobans and other Western French Canadians
often opted for Minnesota and Wisconsin. Around 1900, Minneapolis and St. Paul
contained a fairly large community of French Canadians. This pattern ensured that
States like Rhode Island would prove more attractive to emigrants than New York
City, the Mecca of immigration in America, Pennsylvania or California.
focus of French Canadian immigration to the New England area particularly is also
related to two factors raised at the beginning of this article when the cost of
immigration was discussed. Given his poverty, the French Canadian emigrant could
not afford to go very far. The farther the destination, and the greater the length
of time one had to travel, the greater the cost would be. New England provided
the greatest opportunity at the lowest cost. However, it also minimised the cultural
costs. Given the reality that French Canadians would have great cultural costs
in leaving Quebec, one can only understand their large-scale emigration in the
19th century as a reflection of the serious economic problems of the
time and because of the geographical contiguity of New England to Quebec. Essentially,
it could be argued, these emigrants did not really leave Quebec not only because
they often thought of their emigration as temporary, as will be discussed below,
or because they established themselves in "petits Canadas" that
resembled very closely the geographical and social patterns of Quebec, but, as
well, because, in a sense, all they were doing was to slightly enlarge the borders
of French Canada. In this sense, there was little difference between settling
into New England or into the Saguenay region.
initial patterns of emigration to New England were reinforced by what has been
termed lémigration en chaîne. Family and parochial ties played an
important role in stimulating and channelling emigration. Often, the emigration
of an entire nuclear family would begin with the departure of a couple of its
members who would sound out the general situation in a given town and then would
send for the rest of their family. Cousins, uncles and nephews would often join
the initial family before bringing their own relatives down, creating a pattern
of settlement where family ties became the primary source of support and information
in the United States. This pattern would often ensure that certain American towns
would receive French-Canadian emigrants mostly from specific towns or parishes
within Quebec. For example, the French Canadians of Southbridge, Massachusetts,
tended to come from Sorel and Saint-Ours. This pattern, familiar to sociologists,
also served to minimise emotional and cultural costs of emigration.
themselves became the primary vectors of emigration. Visits and letters home would
often put French Canadians in Quebec in contact with American life. Upon their
return to Quebec, whether temporary or permanent, emigrants frequently painted
an idyllic vision of New England factory life and encouraged many of their relatives
or neighbours to try their luck aux États. In visits home, the emigrant
often spent lavish sums of money to impress his family and neighbours and to prove
to them that he had become successful. In many rural parishes, the gleam of a
gilded pocket watch, a store bought suit or dress and a few American trinkets
clashed with the relative material poverty of the local inhabitants. Indeed, the
expressions "loncle des États" [uncle from the States]or "la tante des États" [aunt from the States] developed in Quebec
to describe any relative that was rich, whether that relative was from the United
States or not! The emigrant often became the symbol of success, stimulating others
to follow his path to industrial New England.
conditions and the process of immigration
followed an ebb and flow pattern. Economic prosperity and boom in the United States
would lead to an important rise in the number of emigrants while recessions would
push French Canadians to remain in Quebec or, if they lived in the USA, to return
to Canada. During the period that saw the greatest number of people leave Quebec,
from 1860 to 1900, several booms and busts either slowed or sped up emigration
patterns. From the end of the American Civil War to 1873 and during the beginning
of the 1880s and 1890s, emigration reached a fever pitch, while from
1873 to 1879, for most of the 1880s and from 1894 to 1896, it slowed down.
recessions would lead to wage reductions and unemployment. Thus, lower wages,
and a congested labour market would make emigration a less attractive option for
many. Moreover, strikes, which often occurred during recessionary periods, when
wages stagnated or were reduced, could also push the emigrant to return to Quebec.
While most emigrants tended to occupy low paying non-unionized jobs, they were
sometimes affected by strikes among their better paid, skilled and unionized colleagues.
In an era where unions were relatively weak, strike funds were insufficient and
social security was almost inexistant, strikes could spell disaster for workers
and gobble up their savings rapidly. They often impelled the emigrant to gather
up his savings and return home, if only temporarily.
French Canadian emigration was frequently not permanent. Roughly half of the 900
000 people who left Quebec would return after one or several stays in the United
States. As we have seen, many emigrants sought only to stay long enough to accumulate
savings that would be sufficient to pay off their debts or to acquire a farm or
start a business. This issue is discussed further under the heading of rapatriement elsewhere at the site
reaction to immigration
it was a temporary strategy for many, emigration was seen as a disaster by Quebecs
elite who fought, unsuccessfully, to stop it. Approximately from 1840 to 1880,
this elite perceived those who chose to emigrate as un-patriotic people whose
departure would weaken French Canada by undermining its demographic position within
Confederation. French-Canadian emigrants were presented as unhappy, exploited
people who would lose their faith and language and be completely assimilated by
American society. The clerical elite frequently misidentified the reasons for
emigration laying the blame on the laziness of the emigrant or the extravagant
desire for luxury of his wife. They were portrayed as weak people, incapable of
effort or sacrifice, self-centred and inconsiderate of others. This negative characterisation
reflects the great sense of loss that was felt by the community, and a futile
attempt to cover up by pretending that it did not matter in any case. The classic
example of this attitude is attributed to George-Etienne Cartier, the father of Confederation, who is reported
to have said: "Laissez-les partir, cest la racaille qui sen va"
[let them go, its the riff-raff that are leaving]. Given this attitude,
little was done to prevent this immigration, to address the real problems that
caused it, and to provide the emigrants with the social, religious and cultural
support they needed in the new communities they established in the United States.
from about 1880, Quebecs elite began to change its view of this emigration.
The magnitude of the phenomenon was such, and the causes leading to it were so
obvious, that the elite could not continue to stigmatise and stereotype these
emigrants. They realised that assimilation was not necessarily a foregone conclusion
for those who emigrated. When faced with the relative dynamism of many emigrant
communities, they revised their vision of emigration. Indeed, it was during this
period that the term « Franco-American » began to be used to designate
French-Canadians living in the United States.
the general phenomenon of emigration was still largely condemned as being a danger
to French-Canadian society, Quebecs elite began to view Franco-Americans
more favourably. For some traditional nationalists, such as Jules-Paul Tardivel, emigration was
to be part of a movement to extend the boundaries of French Canada and of Catholicism.
Franco-Americans could maintain their faith and language and could even be the
backbone of an apostolic reconquest of Protestant North America. In such a view,
French Canadians in the United States became an important element in the developing "messianism" of French Canada. However, cultural survival and expansion
could only be guaranteed if the emigrant was well surrounded by French Canadian
priests and institutions. Accordingly, hundreds of Catholic clergymen and nuns
eventually left Quebec to serve in Franco-American communities. They ministered
to the spiritual needs, established schools
and hospitals, and created social institutions that mirrored
the patterns of Quebec.
Quebecs elite philosophised about the reconquest of the continent or the
weakening of French Canada, they also sought to put an end to emigration through
a variety of colonisation and repatriation schemes. The clerical elite, whose
ideology was heavily marked by agriculturalism, felt that emigration was fundamentally
a rural problem and that the massive colonisation of new agricultural land would
put an end to the phenomenon. They would call upon the government to stimulate
the development of unexploited regions, and gave what aid they could to those
who chose to farm in peripheral regions. Periodically, the provincial and federal
governments would launch repatriation programmes that sought to establish Franco-Americans
on farms in the Canadian West or in the colonisation regions of Quebec. These
schemes usually met with mitigated success as many emigrants had no desire to
return to the land or, in many cases, already owned land.
some of Quebecs elite, mostly liberal intellectuals and politicians, realised
that emigration was both an agricultural and an industrial problem. For these
people, industrialisation would put an end to emigration. They sought to stimulate
foreign investment so as to develop the secondary and tertiary segments of Quebecs
economy. They reasoned that it was industrial jobs and wages that had attracted
emigrants to the United States and that French Canadians would stay in, or return
to Quebec, if they could earn a living there. They sought to develop the transportation
infrastructure so that Quebec goods gain easy access to markets. Such policies
became the backbone of the Liberal governments from 1897 onward. Alexandre Taschereau,
Quebecs premier from 1920 to 1936, was fond of saying that he preferred
to import capital than export French Canadians. Indeed, this was the feeling of
most people in Quebec at the time and that is partly why they continuously returned
such governments to power, and kept them in place for long periods of time.
dismayed traditional nationalists, such as Lionel Groulx, who saw industrialisation
and the foreign control of Quebecs economy as a danger to French-Canadian
society as great as was emigration. They argued that French Canada was an inherently
rural society and that urbanisation and industrialisation would upset its traditional
balance. Emigration was a disaster not only because it placed French Canadians
in a foreign country but also because it exposed them to a foreign environment:
the dangerous and dirty life of urban, industrial exploitation. The factory was
as foreign to French Canada as was the United States.
and the "Little Canadas"
Quebecs clerical elite condemned the factory and the dangers of urban life,
Franco-Americans adapted themselves to it in their own way. As patterns of emigration
began to fill certain American towns with French Canadians, neighbourhoods began
to acquire a French flavour. These neighbourhoods were called « Little Canadas »
and life in them was predominantly French and Catholic. Around their local church
and school, life appeared much the same as it was in some parts of Quebec. In
these "Little Canadas", Franco-Americans could often speak French to
their priest, grocer or doctor. This was especially the case as the number of
French priests, most of them sent from Quebec, rose substantially as time passed.
Father Hamon, in his 1891 study, had found that 175 French-speaking priests ministered
to the French parishes of New England; the ratio of French priests to francophone
parishioners was the highest in the diocese of Burlington, in Vermont (1610:1)
and lowest in the diocese of Providence which straddled Massachusetts and Rhode
Island (2866:1) [see the corresponding figures for Quebec].Given
the concentration of French Catholics in urban centres, these figures were already
rather good. Yet, over time they improved substantially. A careful examination
of the Guide officiel des Franco-Americains, 1927, where the editor carefully
listed every francophone priest found in the United States, tells us that there
were 620 French-speaking priests in the same area Hamon had covered earlier. Some
communities were especially well serviced in their national parishes. Plattsburg,
New-York, had 8 Franco-American priests in 1927. Pawtucket and Woonsocket, both
in Rhode Island, had 13 and 22 Franco-American priests respectively. Lowell, Massachusetts
had 21 French-speaking priests. The number of French-speaking professionals, many
of them educated in Quebec, also rose substantially and contributed greatly to
providing services in French in many communities, and thus contributed to survivance.
In 1927, there were 61 Franco-American doctors in Maine and 178 in Massachusetts.
The community of Fall River had 8 francophone lawyers, 21 doctors, 11 dentists
and 16 Parmacists. Lowell had 45 similar Franco-American professionals. As the
emigrants would slowly take over a factory, French sometimes became the language
of work on the shop floor, and bewildered anglophone foremen sought to learn a
few key French words and phrases to keep things running smoothly. All these elements
contributed to slow down the rate of assimilation among Franco-Americans.
Franco-Americans encountered some resistance in their attempts to withstand assimilation,
notably from Irish-Americans who sought to maintain their relative hegemony over
the Catholic Church in America, they were largely successful, for a time, in building
impressive institutional and social networks. Around 1900, Franco-Americans were
sufficiently numerous in New England to have their own French parishes, bilingual
parochial schools, French newspapers and fraternal organisations. While many Franco-Americans
were being assimilated before the 1930s, a steady stream of new arrivals
from Quebec, and a dynamic though somewhat ghettoized community, ensured that
their society would continue to thrive. Around 1900, a list of the twenty five
North American towns containing the most francophones would have included Fall
River, Massachusets (33 000 Franco-Americans), Lowell, Massachusets (24 800), Manchester, New Hampshire (23 000), and Woonsocket, Rhode Island (17 000). In these large cities,
they frequently constituted a sizeable proportion of the total population, sometimes
as much as 25% to 60%. The importance of these figures will be grasped when it
is remembered that, if they are compared to the cities of Quebec, then Fall River
was the third largest French Canadian city in importance, after Montreal and Quebec
City; Lowell would be in fourth place, etc. In fact, in 1900, the New England
area contained ten cities with a French Canadian population in excess of 10,000,
while Quebec only had five, most of them barely above 10,000. During the same
period, there were roughly as many daily French newspapers in New England as in
Quebec; an author estimated that 195 Franco-American newspapers were founded between
1838 and 1910.
French Canadian emigrant to New England was a factory worker, particularly in
the huge cotton mills that dotted the area. In this respect, the French Canadian
immigrants played a significant role in the industrial expansion of the New England
area in the last half of the 19th century. Some of these textile mills
had as many as 10,000 workers and employment was often readily available, as upwardly
mobile English and Scots moved out of the area and were replaced by the Irish,
French Canadians, Southern and Eastern Europeans. In these factories, wages were
low, although higher than in Quebec, and work related accidents were frequent.
The heat created by the machines, and the proper lack of ventilation, was stiffening;
the noise of dozens of machines all working at the same time was deafening and
could be heard hundreds of meters away from the factories; cotton dust was everywhere
and coated the workers lungs. Working hours were long, from 10-12 hours
a day, up to six days a week, and much of it was spent standing while keeping
an eye on several machines. These conditions were commonplace at the time and
not restricted to New England. The newcomers were frequently victims of discrimination,
as immigrants with a different language and religion often were at the time. They
were called "frogs", pea-soupers" or Canucks. In this case, the
national antipathy was compounded by the fact that French Canadians worked for
lower wages, and sometimes were used as strike-breakers. They were blamed for
keeping wages low and for resisting naturalisation. The classic pronouncement
on this issue was in 1881, by Carroll D. Wright, Head of the Bureau of Statistics
of Labor for Massachusetts who wrote that French Canadians were "the Chinese
of the Eastern States" who had no interest in the American social and political
institutions. The comparison with the Chinese, when one understands the very unfavourable
view that North Americans had of them at the time, greatly offended leaders of
the French Canadian community. Intermarriage with people of other nationalities
was not frequent, at least until the third generation.
living conditions and the socio-economic status of the inhabitants of the "Little
Canadas" were very poor. Based on the data presented by Father Hamon, in
his book Les Canadiens-Français de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, published in
1891, the percentage of proprietors among Franco-Americans in 1889 was rather
small in the large cities ranging from a low 4.2% in Manchester to a high of 21%
in Worcester. Thus, as they rarely owned property, they lived in tenements that
are described as lacking comfort and amenities, and usually far too small and
overcrowded. Built around the most uninteresting part of the town, in shabby surroundings,
the "Little Canadas" had a considerable population density, among the
highest in the United States. Thus, one should not be surprised that health conditions
were also poor. For example, in 1886 a diphtheria epidemic in Brunswick, Maine,
killed 74 French Canadians, most of them children. A study conducted on the French
Canadian population of Lowell, in 1875, indicates that about 52% were in very
difficult economic circumstances. Another study of wages paid in the cotton mills
in 1908 shows that French Canadian mill workers earned $10.09 a week on average.
This amount was between 5-25% lower that the wage earned by Irish, English or
Scottish mill workers. Nor did the situation improve rapidly. Research conducted
in 1935 in Newburyport, where about 1500 Franco-Americans lived, shows that, when
the population is divided according to income into five different classes, 40%
of French Canadians fell in the lowest category, another 23.8% fell in the fourth
and 15.3% fell in the lower middle class category. Yet, what should be remembered
is that, despite these miserable conditions, French Canadians continued to come
to the United States until 1930. That fact is the truest testimony of the miserable
socio-economic conditions that prevailed over much of French-speaking Quebec at
were largely ghettoized. Nevertheless, they participated in American life. Father
Hamon, in the study quoted previously, listed 103 French Canadians occupying public
functions throughout New England in 1889. It should be noted that he applied a
very liberal definition of the functions, listing such people as postmasters,
tax collectors and Justices of the Peace. Still, the figure is large enough to
allow us to nuance the Wright Report that claimed that Franco-Americans showed
no interest in American civic affairs. Franco-Americans would join American fraternal
organisations, play baseball and football and attend public high schools. Roughly
4000 of them fought for the Union side during the Civil War, and tens of thousands
served their country during World War One and Two. Indeed, more Franco-Americans
fought in the American army in the First World War than French Canadians did in
the Canadian army. This fact was not missed by the Canadian government that advertised in the Franco-American press to
recruit soldiers. While many Franco-Americans sought to preserve
their language, culture and institutions, they could also be as patriotic and
nativistic as contemporary native-born Protestant Americans.
decline of the "Little Canadas" and the progressive
assimilation of Franco-Americans
Franco-American communities thrived around the turn of the century, and it was
possible to live and work in French in several towns in New England until the
1940s, by the middle of the 20th century assimilation had largely
run its course. The decline of Franco-America can chiefly be attributed to causes
that were both external and internal to New England.
the demise of Franco-America can be blamed on the gradual decline and eventual
end of French-Canadian emigration. Among the emigrant communities, new arrivals
had always compensated for the losses sustained by assimilation, and allowed Franco-America
to perpetuate itself. However, in 1930, during the opening phases of the Great
Depression, the American government put a virtual stop to Canadian immigration
by imposing severe restrictions on continental immigration and naturalisation
(extra- continental immigration had been severely restricted from 1928 on). However,
this was but the immediate cause for the halting of French-Canadian emigration.
On a structural level, emigration ended because Quebecs economy and industrial
structure grew at an unprecedented rate during World War Two and the postwar era.
Simply put, as industrialisation sped up in the 1940s, there were enough
better paid jobs available in Quebec to ensure that Quebecers did not have to
leave the Province in droves to earn a living.
an internal level, the decline of Franco-America can chiefly be attributed to
the decline of the textile industry in New England and to the social rise of Franco-Americans.
From the beginning of the 20th century to the mid-1930s the cotton
industry of New England, which employed thousands of Franco-Americans, began to
relocate to the states of the Southern USA, where labour costs were lower. The
closing of a mill in a single industry town often forced Franco-Americans to return
to Quebec and discouraged others from emigrating there. Moreover, while the textile
industry slowly moved south, Franco-Americans were slowly climbing the social
ladder and leaving their lower paying jobs and tenement neighbourhoods to a new
generation of cheap foreign labour composed of Greco-Americans, Polish-Americans,
and Italian-Americans. This social ascent intensified in the 1940s and 1950s
as postwar prosperity allowed many Franco-Americans to leave their tenements in
the Little Canadas and move to a less crowded suburban life. This geographic dispersion
broke the isolation of many Franco-American communities and hastened assimilation.
life and culture seduced younger Franco-Americans who realised that assimilation
was the key to social improvement. Those who attended American public high schools
or were drafted in the two World wars were at a greater risk of assimilation.
Franco-Americans, long accused of lack of patriotism toward the United States,
joined the army in great numbers during the two world wars. For example, the small
community of Salmon Falls in New Hampshire contributed 68 soldiers to the Great
War even though the community only had 125 Franco-American families. The leaders
of the Franco-American community supported conscription as a means to show their
loyalty to the USA. Eventually, by the 1960s, French could only be heard
spoken in New England by middle-aged and elderly people. Despite a certain cultural
renaissance which began in Franco-America in the 1970s, under the impulse
of the New Ethnicity movement, French is no longer a functional language in New
England. The once strong ties of kinship that bound Quebec to French New England
have loosened to the point of virtual collapse.
legacy of French Canadian immigration to the United States
Canadian emigration has left an enduring mark upon French Canada and New England.
Historians have yet to accurately measure the cultural and economic impact of
the repatriation of those who chose to return to Quebec. Aside from stimulating
the economy by returning with their savings, these emigrants also carried a certain
cultural baggage. They introduced new anglicisms like facterie (factory/usine)
into the French Canadian language, and new dishes like the pâté chinois (shepherds
pie, called chinois because it had been encountered in China, Maine) into
the French Canadian diet. The emigrant became one of the prime vessels of transmission
for American culture within French Canada. They also helped project a very positive
image of the United States in Quebec, in sharp contrast to the anti-Americanism
that sometimes characterised English-speaking Canada. To this day this positive
image has remained.
also left their mark on New England. They strengthened its Catholic institutions
and participated in its industrialisation process. The Credit Union movement in
America began after Alphonse Desjardins helped Franco-Americans in several towns
found their own Caisses populaires.
good deal of research remains to be done on emigration and Franco-American life.
Both French-Canadian and Franco-American societies offer insights into each other.
Indeed, it is interesting to note that while French is, for the most part, no
longer spoken in Franco-America, the Roman Catholic faith there has remained strong.
In Quebec the opposite has occurred. Each society has maintained an important
pillar of survival and a backbone of French Canadian identity before
the 1960s: language and faith. As historians in Quebec « discover » their forgotten relatives in the United States, they learn much about their own
society, which has also undergone radical social changes in this century.
there are still gaps in the research, the literature on this subject
is considerable, of high quality and of great interest. This literature
is available both in English and in French, from an increasing
body of historians and social scientists with French Canadian
roots in the United States, and from Quebec historians. Only a
few are mentioned here as a proper bibliography would cover several
bibliographical essay, unfortunately written nearly twenty years ago, is Gérard
J. BRAULT, "État présent des études sur les centres Franco-Américains de
la Nouvelle-Angleterre", in Vie française, Situation de la recherche sur
la Franco américanie, Québec, 1980, pp. 9-36. The book contains a wide variety
of analyses of interest to our subject. Indeed, the entire collection of the Vie
française colloquiums is to be consulted; all are edited by Claire QUINTAL.
Among these are Lémigrant québécois vers les États-Unis: 1850-1920, Québec, 1982, 122p. Le journalisme de langue française aux États-Unis, Québec,
1984, 162p. Lémigrant acadien vers les États-Unis: 1842-1950, Québec,
analysis of the emigration of French Canadians to the United States is Yves ROBY,
Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, 1776-1930, Sillery, Septentrion,
1990, 434p. This book would deserve to be translated into English. Another general
source of information is Gérard J. BRAULT, The French Canadian Heritage in
New England, Hanover, University Press of New England, 1986, 282p. The Brault
volume contains a very extensive bibliography on pages 241-264.
best measurements of the phenomenon of emigration to the United States and of
the methodological problems associated with this research have been made by Gilles
PAQUET and Wayne SMITH, "LÉmigration des Canadiens français vers les
États-Unis, 1790-1940: problématique et coups de sonde", in lActualité
économique, Vol. 59, No 3, (september 1983): 423-453 and Yolande LAVOIE, LÉmigration
des Québécois aux États-Unis de 1840 à 1930, Québec, Conseil de la langue
française, 1979. Ralph VICERO, "Sources statistiques pour létude de
limmigration et du peuplement canadien-français en Nouvelle-Angleterre au
cours du XIXe siècle", in Recherches sociographiques, Vol, 12 (1971):361-377.
The data provided by Lavoie is universally used in the literature today.
very useful short discussion of the causes of the emigration of French Canadians
is found in Albert FAUCHER, "Explication socio-économique des migrations
dans lhistoire du Québec", in Royal Society of Canada, Transactions,
Series IV, Vol 13 (1975): 91-107. Another excellent study, by the leading expert
on the subject is Yves ROBY, "Lévolution économique du Québec et limmigrant
(1850-1929)", in Claire QUINTAL, ed., Lémigration québécoise vers
les États-Unis: 1850-1920, Québec, Conseil de la Vie française, 1982. The
entire volume is full of incisive essays.
shifting view of the elite of French Canadian emigration to the USA is analysed
by Yves Roby in "Les Canadiens français des États-Unis (1860-1900): dévoyés
ou missionnaires" in Revue dhistoire de lAmérique française,
Vol. 41, No 1 (Summer 1987): 3-22.
useful beginning for examining French Canadians views of the United States,
particularly through its literature is Jacques COTNAM, "Americans Viewed
Through French Canadian Eyes" in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol.
10, No. 4 (Spring 1977): 784-796.
important Sentinelle issue that brought the French Canadians of Woonsocket
to clash with their Irish Episcopacy over issues of survivance is discussed
in R. S. SORRELL, "Sentinelle Affair (1924-1929) Religion and Militant Survivance in Woonsocket, Rhode Island", in Rhode Island History,
Vol. 36 (1977): 67-79. This issue is not discussed above as it will be dealt with
separately in another text. A similar issue [Flint Affair] is discussed in Philip T. SYLVIA, The Flint Affair: French-Canadian
Struggle for Survivance", in Catholic Historical Review, Vol.
45, No. 3 (July 1979): 414-435.
of the following studies contribute an element in understanding the Franco American
society, way of life or socio-economic condition. Pierre ANCTIL, "Lidentité
de limmigrant québécois en Nouvelle-Angleterre. Le Rapport Wright de 1882",
in Recherches Sociographiques, Vol. 22, No. 3 (1981): 331-360. Pierre ANCTIL, "La Franco-Américanie ou le Québec den bas", in Cahiers de
géographie de Québec, Vol. 23 (april 1979): 39-52. Pierre ANCTIL, "The
Chinese of the Eastern States, 1881", in Recherches sociographiques,
Vol. 22, No. 1 (1981): 125-130. Iris Saunders PODEA, "Quebec to Little
Canada: The Coming of the French Canadians to New England in the Nineteenth
Century", in New England Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 3 (1950): 365-380.
Claire QUINTAL, ed., The Little Canadas of New England, Worcester French
Institute, Assumption College, 1983. Bruno RAMIREZ, "French Canadian Immigrants
in the New England Cotton Industry: A Socioeconomic profile", in Labour/Le
travailleur, No. 11 (Spring 1983) 125-142. Bruno RAMIREZ et Jean LAMARRE, "Du Québec vers les États-Unis: Létude des lieux dorigine",
in Revue dhistoire de lAmérique française, Vol. 38, No 3 (1985):
409-422. Jacques ROUILLARD, Ah les États! Les travailleurs canadiens-français
dans lindustrie textile de la Nouvelle-Angleterre daprès le témoignage
des derniers migrants, Montréal, Boréal Express, 1985, 155p. Richard S. SORRELL,
"The survivance of French Canadians in New England (1865-1930): History,
Geography and Demography as Destiny", in Ethnic and Racial Studies,
Vol. 4, No. 1 (January 1981): 91-109. Martin TÉTREAULT, "Immigration et santé
publique: Lowell, Massachusetts, 1865-1890", in Canadian Historical Association,
Papers, 1985, pp. 29-44
1999 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College