The Transplantation of French Canada: A Challenge to Immigration History

January 25, 2016
By: Patrick Lacroix

“The old English stock of the Bay State seems to have its power of assimilating other people taxed to the utmost,” lamented a writer for Boston’s Daily Globe in the winter of 1889. “We have thus rapidly developing among us,” added Egbert Smyth several years later, “an organized community opposed to Americanization, secluded by all possible effort on the part of its leaders from the assimilating influences which affect other immigrants.

These writers were not Know-Nothings expressing distress over a wave of Irish Catholic immigrants. Nor were they reacting to Emma Lazarus’s tired and poor “huddled masses,” perhaps Italian or Central European, which, by the tens of thousands, were coming through New York City’s harbor. The problem group identified by Smyth and the Globe journalist was one that scholars have since often overlooked, but which then, in the late nineteenth century, proved of greatest concern to New Englanders: French Canadians who rode in from the St. Lawrence River valley and seemed destined to remain isolated in small, transplanted island communities.

The first Canadians to pour over the international border were seeking political refuge in the aftermath of insurrections in 1837-1838. Through the next decades, their numbers increased. Following the Civil War, the steady stream of immigrants became a deluge. These newcomers were now fleeing poor agricultural conditions. While young men worked on Vermont farms or in Maine’s lumber camps, more numerous were the families that migrated to industrial cities. There, at last, they might settle a mortgage on the family plot or other debts. This was North America’s response to the European groups described a generation ago by John Bodnar: not society’s lowest rung, but those struggling in their encounter with modern finance and with capitalism’s reaches into the countryside. In time, as French-Canadian families became better established in such places as Lowell and Fall River, in Massachusetts, they lured from Quebec professionals willing to serve them. By the Great Depression, nearly a million Canadians of French descent had settled, temporarily or otherwise, in the United States.

Quebec’s exiles were afforded a luxury not available to Europeans: proximity to the homeland and thus the possibility of far greater mobility. This is precisely what writers like Egbert Smyth lamented. The rail lines stretching from Montreal to New England and those who traveled them seemed to make a mere fiction of the border. The happy isolation that strengthened the United States’ assimilating capacities was broken, not by virtue of political or military influence, but through French Canadians’ cultural imperialism. Yet perhaps were these migrants and immigrants not as exceptional as once thought.

Roman Catholic bishops accommodated their growing flock by creating national parishes. But their willingness to provide distinct institutions to the Canadian faithful would be increasingly tested. Conscious of their numbers, the immigrants became more assertive. Irish Americans resented the fragmentation of the Church and the revival of nativism to which “clannish” Canadians contributed. At last, those very nativists waged war, in the last two decades of the century, on ethnic parochial schools. If Smyth, the Globe, and others shied away from the most disparaging language and even sounded an optimistic note, they were drowned by what John Higham has deemed the “crisis of the eighties.” The bishops, seeing themselves as the only true guides that French Canadians could claim in the United States, walked a delicate tightrope, alternately inviting priests from Quebec and declining requests for new national parishes as circumstances dictated.

In fact, well before the turn of the century, these Canadian exiles had other guides to which they turned. Though they loved their French-Canadian pastors, in times of conflict they followed the lead of professional men who promoted a sense of French-Canadian manifest destiny. Caring little for political boundaries, they moved with the resolve of people not dispossessed or economically marginalized, but animated by the national ideas propounded so strongly in Europe at the same time – and likewise carried to the Great Republic.

Thus the French-Canadian case invites greater inclusion in American immigration history, which for so long focused on European arrivals and has only recently begun doing justice to Asian and Latin American immigration. Faced with similar economic circumstances at home, the same mediating structures in their new country, and an ideology of national survival, taking advantage of an open immigration policy but also encountering the winds of nativism, French Canadians and their European counterparts seem to fit the same conceptual mold. This reflection should therefore stand as a challenge to historians: greater attention to those who came from the north will add greatly to our understanding of the American immigrant experience and bring to light continuing methodological shortcomings in immigration scholarship.

Patrick Lacroix

Patrick Lacroix is a Ph.D. candidate and a former Fulbright grantee at the University of New Hampshire, where he has taught since 2012. His work pertains primarily to the interaction between Catholicism and national identities in North America. He is the author of two research articles: “Immigration, Minority Rights, and Catholic Policy- Making in Post-War Canada,” published in Histoire sociale/Social History (2014), and “Choosing Peace and Order: National Security and Sovereignty in a North American Borderland, 1837-1842,” soon to appear in The International History Review. A third piece, on Franco-American life between 1869 and 1890, will appear in the Catholic Historical Review in 2016. His dissertation presents the ways in which President Kennedy’s faith shaped church-state issues from 1960 to 1963.

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