The New England Franco-Route: A Story of Immigration

Between 1840 and 1930, over 900,000 French Canadians and Acadians left their homes in Canada in search of a better life in the industrial towns of the booming region of New England and founded “Little Canadas” along the way. These people, who were concerned about retaining their language, culture and faith while working hard to improve their lives as immigrants and then citizens of their new country, have left a heavy and permanent impact on New England with their culture, food, pride, ideas and language.

Percent of residents speaking French (2015)

Today, French Canadians’ descendants represent about 20% of the population of the 6 New England states:  Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut. Even though French native speakers account for less than 1% of the population of the region, the French-Canadian identity and pride are still really strong among their descendants.

From the early days of the French-Canadian mass migration to the region in the mid 1800’s, this community was able to sustain itself as a distinct group with its language, culture and customs for well over four generations, before gradually integrating into the society of the majority after the Second World War and during the second half of the 20th Century. By following the Franco-Route, you will embark on a journey that recalls the life of a group of immigrants–their motivations, their challenges, their successes and their struggles, and the traces they left on the New England of today.

The Mass Exodus of French Canadians to the United States

After the failure of the Patriots’ uprising of 1837-1838 that followed the conquest of New France by the British, the French Canadians became a minority in their own country, first politically and then numerically. The French-Canadian elite lost a lot of their importance while the English-speaking commercial and financial elite became more prominent. This had huge implications for French Canadians who now had a lot less power over their collective destiny and felt the need to enter a state of subservience for decades that is referred to as “La Survivance” era.

With the arrival of large numbers of migrants from the British Isles into Canada, and with the rise of population due to the high birth rate of French Canadians (encouraged by the Catholic Church,) the most productive farming lands along the St. Lawrence Valley quickly became overcrowded, which even led to small famines. This encouraged authorities to open new farming lands in less productive regions further away from the historic settlements where French Canadians could settle. These new regions, which needed to be opened and harvested in often harsh conditions, didn’t satisfy all of the newcomers. Many of them became attracted by life in the cities, whether it was within Canada or elsewhere.

The crowded old settlements along the St. Lawrence River Valley and the sometimes deceiving newly-opened colonization areas became a place of choice for mill recruiters from everywhere to come to hire workers en masse.

“The central symbol for Canada-and this based on numerous instances of its occurrence in both English and French Canadian literature-is undoubtedly Survival, la Survivance.”

— Margaret Atwood

Mill owners in New England were amongst the ones who sent many of these recruiters as they quickly saw the opportunity that the French Canadians could represent for them. They were considered respectful of authority as well as good, hardworking and non-unionized workers. French-Canadian workers were also sought by New England mill owners because of their willingness, like many other groups of immigrants such as the Irish before them, to accept lower wages and harsher conditions than locally born English-speaking Protestants. In fact, the French Canadians were willing to accept such conditions because it represented an opportunity for them. In the mills of New England, they would earn on average about three times the amount of money that they would earn while working in the same types of mills and factories in Montreal. This is why, during the period between 1840 and 1930, over 900,000 French Canadians and Acadians decided to make the move and settle in one of the many mill towns of New England. Usually, entire families moved together since one or two family members often took a chance and tried the life in one of New England’s mill towns before encouraging the rest of the family and sometimes parts of their villages, to move south with them. Many came back, but those who stayed had a deep and lasting impact on the society where they settled.

Today, about 20% of the population of New England has some French-Canadian ancestry and contributes to preserving parts of this rich heritage. In the states closer to the province of Quebec, those numbers are even higher: French-Canadian descendants are about 30% in Maine and 25% in both Vermont and New Hampshire. Today, between 10 and 13 million people bear at least some French-Canadian ancestry in the United States, making the United States a place where there are about twice as many people of French- Canadian descent as in the entire province of Quebec.

History of “La Survivance” – The French-Canadian cultural resistance

“La Survivance,” which means “survival” in French, was the term that French Canadians adopted when referring to their fight for cultural survival. The term originated in Canada along the St. Lawrence River in 1840 before spreading and being adopted by most French-Canadian communities across North America.

Following the British conquest of Canada, things didn’t immediately change much for French Canadians. New administrators and a few merchants from the British Isles came to Canada to replace the French elite who mostly went back to France following the ceding of Canada. With the Treaty of Paris (1763), the British allowed the Canadians to retain their Catholic faith even though British laws still prevented Catholics from holding most governmental, judicial and bureaucratic positions.

The first British governor of Canada, James Murray (First civil governor from 1763 to 1766), didn’t want to be too harsh on Canadians at first because he didn’t want them to revolt or cause trouble. He allowed Canadians to keep some of their laws and customs. The second governor, Guy Carleton, like his predecessor, thought that being harsh on French Canadians was not a good idea if the government wanted to keep their allegiance and prevent them from revolting.

“Language is the guardian of the faith.”

— Anonymous

Soon after, a major event occurred that would change the fate of Canada. With the beginning of the tensions in the thirteen colonies that would eventually lead to the independence of the United States of America, the British became aware that they could lose both the thirteen colonies and Canada if they mistreated French Canadians.

This led the British to pass the Québec Act in 1774. This British law granted the French Canadians a guaranteed right of free practice of the Catholic faith, it established that French civil law would be accepted in the colony for matters of private law (which was previously only tolerated by the two first governors). It gave more rights to the Catholic Church and it extended the territory of the Province of Quebec considerably. This move didn’t entirely prevent some individuals from Canada from aligning with the Americans against the British during the war of independence. However these concessions certainly predisposed most to remain neutral during both the American siege of Québec City in 1775 and during the War of 1812, when the British and Americans were again in conflict.

For French Canadians, joining the Americans would have meant risking the loss of rights and becoming part of a much larger country where they would have been a distinct minority. This is one reason why the French Canadians didn’t answer any of the formal invitations that the soon-to-be United States sent to Canada.

Another major impact of the American Revolution was the arrival of English-speaking loyalists in Canada following the defeat of the British in the United States. Prior to the independence of the United States, the English speakers were only a small minority in Canada, still consisting mostly of administrators, merchants and soldiers. This changed with the arrival of loyalists, which quickly made many previously French-speaking regions predominantly English-speaking.  The regions affected were present-day Ontario, most of the former Acadian regions, the Eastern Townships and the Pontiac region in modern-day Quebec.

These loyalists, with some French Canadian allies, soon petitioned the British parliament for a legislative body of their own, which they obtained in 1791. This makes Parliament of Québec one of the oldest in the world. The people of the then “Lower Canada” used the democratic system given by the British but soon realized its limits, since the King’s representative could easily override any decisions made by the parliament. With these limitations in mind, some political figures of Parti Patriote, French-speakers and English-speakers alike, organized and sent a petition of 92 resolutions to London asking for more democratic and responsible political institutions. The resolutions didn’t please the officials in London who responded with ten resolutions further restraining the budgetary power of Lower Canada’s assembly. Seeing the political dead end and the rise of violence in the colony, some members of the Parti Patriote decided to arm themselves in preparation for war. Aware of this, the British troops were sent into one of the patriots’ strongholds at St-Denis-sur-Richelieu where they engaged the patriots. The battle ended in the only patriots’ victory. They were crushed at every other subsequent encounter with the British during 1837-1838. In 1838, after fleeing to the United States in search of support, the remaining patriots came back to Lower Canada and proclaimed an independent republic. This Republic never became a reality as the Patriot’s plan to take over the colony failed.

This two-year conflict and the failure of the Patriots’ uprising resulted in the execution, deportation and exile of many of Lower Canada’s important political leaders. This in turn greatly compromised the social, political and economic development of the French-Canadian population. While Lower Canada lost a large part of its political elite, this rebellion also reaffirmed the British hold on the colony. The end result was the merging of Lower Canada (predominantly French-speaking) and Upper Canada (predominantly English-speaking) into a single British colony where English was the only official language. This move by the British was intended to eventually assimilate the French Canadians and to strip them of their political power by making them a political minority within the merged state. This was the key element that began the Survivance era and ideology. It would predominate for most French Canadians between 1840 and 1960 in what would become the Province of Quebec. After the Patriots’ uprising, the Catholic Church and the English elites became the predominant influencers of social, political and economic affairs. The Catholic Church also gained influence because it had sided with the British during the uprising, fearing loss of privileges if the more secular and liberal Patriots won. Consequently, the French-Canadian elite resigned themselves to playing a minor role in the life of society in the hope of preserving a sense of French nationhood for the French Canadians. They adopted a more defensive outlook, focused on a vision of the past, on survival, and on the protection of more traditional values centered around the language, the Catholic faith and the traditions as well as the already established rights.

The adoption of “Survivance” ideas was fostered not only by the arrival of the loyalists, but also by the presence of many new immigrants from the British Isles. This English-speaking population grew rapidly, and by 1851, surpassed the French-speaking population in Canada. During this era, Montréal’s population was sixty percent English-speaking while that of Québec City totaled forty percent. Becoming an actual minority in their own country encouraged the French Canadians to accept the “Survivance” philosophy as their dominant political and social ideology. Most French Canadians were encouraged to avoid the dominant classes. They were urged to accept their subordination to the Catholic Church and to English economic and political interests, as well as to remain mostly agrarian, have large families and make up an undereducated social group. These factors prevented the assimilation of French Canadians within Québec and throughout many regions of North America.