Randy McDonald (rfmcdpei) wrote,
Randy McDonald

[BRIEF NOTE] The Franco-Americans

Wikipedia reports that roughly 13 million people identify themselves as Franco-American, but that term is misleading. By the time that the great transatlantic migrations began in the mid-19th century, rapid economic growth and slowing population growth combined to make France not a source of immigrants but a magnet for immigrants. Rather, this number includes people of French stock. Most of these Franco-Americans aren't French per se, but rather trace their ancestry to one or another of the well-rooted Francophone community established in North American even before American independence. As Pierre Anctil writes in The Canadian Encyclopedia, immigrants from a relatively agrarian French Canada--from Québec and Acadia--to an industrialized New England played a leading role in the formation of the modern Franco-American community.

From the mid-19th century to around 1930, over 900 000 francophone Québecois emigrated to the US. They migrated in waves, especially after the American Civil War, and around 1890 managed to feel at home and, in a few generations, adopted the habits and customs of their new surroundings. Their descendants are known as Franco-Americans, though the term did not appear until the end of the 19th century. The approximately 5 million Franco-Americans constitute the largest element within the Québec diaspora in all North America.

The magnitude of the huge migration ("La Grande Hémorragie") shook Québec society and led to a renewal of nativism in New England, where almost half the emigrants settled. Most of the emigrants came from rural areas of Québec. They were looking for financial and job security, especially in textile and shoe factories. Franco-Americans' job skills diversified over time, however, and they gained access to commercial positions and to the liberal professions. Around 1930, when the Great Depression put a stop to emigration, the New England states had gained a significant Franco-American population, most of it in industrial cities like Lowell, Lawrence and New Bedford (Mass), Woonsocket (RI), Manchester and Nashua (NH), and Biddeford and Lewiston (Me).

These French Catholic Franco-Americans created "little Canadas" in some districts in the major American cities, reproducing their cultural life and French-Canadian religious institutions. Until WWII, and despite their Americanization, the descendants of the Québecois emigrants probably managed to preserve their identity better than other ethnic groups.

Strong French Canadian identities did little to halt the assimilation of these immigrants and their American-born families, as it happens. Just in time for Fête nationale du Québec or St. Jean Baptiste Day, the Montreal Gazette published John Kalbfleisch's article Francophone émigrés came home for St. Jean Baptiste Day". Even early on in la grande hémorragie, Franco-Americans were decidedly unwilling to respond to the calls of their former homeland's nationalism.

It was a St. Jean Baptiste Day with a difference. Not only was it the 40th anniversary of the founding of the Société St. Jean Baptiste, main sponsor of the day's activities. In addition, thousands of visitors from French-Canadian communities in the United States had flooded into Montreal to join the celebration.

Mainly from New England, they had emigrated over the previous decade in search of jobs in towns like Lowell and Manchester. As many as half a million people, by some counts, had bled away in
La grande hémorragie. Now, perhaps 18,000 were coming back, if only for a few days.

They had been invited by the SSJB chiefly to help mark the society's birthday. But men like Father Jean-Baptiste Primeau and newspaper editor Ferdinand Gagnon had a different motive in urging their fellow émigrés to accept. Quebec's economy was picking up and, seeing this, perhaps some of the visitors would decide to return home for good.

[. . .]

There were speeches seemingly without end, not only back on the Champ de Mars after the mass but that evening at a dinner for 1,000 people in the Bonsecours Market building. Gagnon, we reported, assured the evening's banqueters "that if Canada ever required the help of her sons in the States, she would see ... the strength of their arms and the devotion of their hearts."

Over the next two days, the various St. Jean Baptiste societies from Canada and the United States met in the Église du Gesù on Bleury St. to debate the future of
la francophonie in North America. They urged the Quebec government to expand land grants to franco-Americans proposing to return home. There was even talk of a new, independent country, a wildly improbable union of territory on both sides of the border where francophones lived.

In March 1875, the Quebec government appointed Gagnon as repatriation agent, with a mandate to encourage the diaspora to return. Alas, things didn't work out the way they had hoped.

A large part of the problem was those 18,000 émigrés who had visited Montreal the previous June. There was no mistaking the prosperity that many had found in the States. It showed in their clothing, in the money they splashed around and in the stories of the better life they had found.

That year, according to émigré journalist Alexandre Belisle, there was a renewed mass desertion toward the United States, "a small-scale evacuation of the province of Quebec."

In an essay on Gagnon, historian Yves Roby writes that "for every émigré who returned, five or 10 persons crossed the border in the opposite direction. The invitation extended by Quebec had almost no appeal for a person who had already succumbed to the attraction of the United States and left everything." Significant emigration to New England would continue until the onset of the Great Depression more than half a century later.

The Canadian Encyclopedia article concludes that "most Franco-Americans succumbed to the attractions of the American way of life and the English language, especially since they lived primarily in urbanized surroundings," and since cultural developments in French Canadian--particularly the transformations wrought by Québec's Quiet Revolution--had no parallels in local Franco-American life. Assimilation to an enthusiastically capitalist, mass media-consuming and Anglphone society won out in the end over very porous borders and fairly strong group identities. (Yes, I'd say that comparisons with Mexican-Americans are actually probably pretty well-grounded.)
Tags: canada, francophonie, immigration, new england, quebec, united states
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