Elaborating on MacKay’s Immigration History

Scott MacKay’s immigration piece in the Sunday ProJo was a good piece of historical writing. However, and inevitably, it will be used by some as proof for their arguments in the contemporary illegal immigrant debate. Namely that the U.S. has “historically” allowed all immigrants, whether illegal or not.
My first thought after reading the piece was that, while historically accurate, it doesn’t necessarily reflect the situation that confronts us now. To be fair, though, this was only the first in a series (at least according to the ProJo), so I don’t want to take MacKay to task when I don’t know what else is forthcoming. However, I do suspect that there is an attempt to link the past with the present rather too directly–and some of MacKay’s writing has the air of polemic rather than reporting.
Perhaps the issue that stirs the passions the most is that the primary difference between the immigrants of then and now is that the U.S. did not have the current social welfare apparatus in place. As such, the tax dollars of American citizens didn’t go to support the immigrants of yesteryear. Instead, the immigrants worked hard for what they got. Were the conditions deplorable? Yes. Did they face racism and xenophobia? Yes. But to conflate then with now is simply not accurate.
MacKay writes about how French-Canadians were resistant to be assimilated into the U.S. culture and society. That is entirely true and I deal extensively with it below. He seems to be emphasizing this for the sake of invoking compassion for today’s immigrants–and by doing so he conflates the legal/illegal distinction–but there is another way to look at it. Instead of using it as an excuse for today’s immigrants, the difficulties encountered by the French Canadians as they attempted to cling to la survivance can also be used as an object lesson.
I don’t think anyone will argue that chances are that the quicker an individual can acclimate to our culture and learn our language, the quicker he can succeed. That does not mean that Americans should denigrate or dismiss the various cultures of the immigrants–and we must keep in mind that there are waves of immigrants, which can obscure any acute progress in cultural education that is being made–but it does mean that we shouldn’t let our compassion or forbearance be taken for granted. Today’s immigrants should learn the “American way” as soon as possible and be encouraged to do so. That does not mean that they will be or should be somehow forced to forget their own culture.
Another point is that there was no such thing as “illegal immigration” until the U.S. passed laws saying so. MacKay deals with this, and although he certainly ascribes nefarious motives for the passage of the these laws, they were passed in reaction to a specific problem. Americans believed that too many people were coming in, too fast. Regardless of the ofttimes despicable reasoning behind the original passage of these laws, they are still the law and most Americans want to keep it that way.
By limiting immigration, the laws–if properly enforced–would actually reduce the current level of acrimony. They help to throttle back on the “incursion” of “the other” (to use a favorite academic term)–they make the waves smaller–and make it easier for those immigrants who enter the country legally to assimilate into the U.S. If these laws weren’t so popular amongst Americans–including legal immigrants–then I don’t think that some illegal immigration apologists would so consistently conflate the difference between illegal and legal immigration.
Overall, I find it interesting that much of this recounting of history is deemed pertinent because it apparently supports the argument that goes something like this: we’ve always had these immigration problems in the U.S. so why is it such a big deal now? What’s missing from MacKay’s accurate re-telling of history is any sense of learning from the lessons of the past. (Though, as I indicated, perhaps that will be present in the next story). Since when have progressives taken to premising their arguments upon the notion of “that’s the way it’s always been…” to argue for what it should be now? Usually they take what they know of history and try to identify a better way of dealing with the problems that were encountered. In this case, it seems like they’re really just saying that everything is fine, let’s move on.
In the extended portion of this post, I’ve tried to elaborate a bit on some of the unsaid implications in MacKay’s piece by calling upon my own research into French-Canadian immigration during the post-Civil War era. To do this, I’ve excerpted liberally from a 4-part series on the topic that I’ve posted at Spinning Clio. (For important background–and full sources–see these posts on French-Canadian immigration before the Civil War and French-Canadian involvement in the Civil War, portions of which are included in this post).

Congratulations for braving an especially long post. Let’s proceed.
I’ll excerpt from MacKay’s discussion of post-Civil War French-Canadian immigration and add my own elaborations as I go. Let’s start with MacKay:

After the Civil War, Rhode Island’s economy swelled. Immigrants swarmed into the state from around the world. Waiting for them here was the brutal energy of unfettered capitalism: factory jobs producing woolens and cotton, forging metals and machine tools and crafting jewelry.
French-Canadians from Quebec, where the farm-based economy could no longer support the growing population, were recruited to work in textile factories. Mill owners sent recruiters to Quebec, promising a “better life” in the mills of New England. Many settled in Woonsocket, Pawtucket, Warren and West Warwick. No one was much concerned about their citizenship status.

MacKay is right that the French Canadian famers (habitants) in Quebec were suffering and this was because they had a growing population and not enough (poor) land. Even before the Civil War, French-Canadians had been in search of sources of supplementary income and turned to work as farmhands throughout rural northern New England as well as in the lumber camps of Maine or in the Vermont brickworks. The close proximity of northern New England to their homeland enabled them to more easily maintain their family and community ties.
In southern New England, especially Massachusetts, the small factories had begun to evolve into huge enterprises, especially the textile industry. Even before the Civil War, the booming textile economy fattened the wallets of the factory owners, it also did the same for the wallets of the American and Irish factory workers. The modernization of the factory processes also resulted in the creation of repetitive jobs that could be filled by unskilled labor. These jobs were unsatisfying to many American and Irish workers who left the factory floor for supervisory jobs or left the factory altogether.
Immigrants were an attractive source of labor as they were willing to work for less than American workers. Temporary employment in the mills of New England soon became an attractive way to earn supplemental income for the habitants. They went to America, leaving their families behind, and hoped to make enough money to pay off debts and get the farm back home or a new one in the U.S. up and running. The French Canadian habitant usually hoped to one day return to his agrarian way of life. There is an obvious parallel to many of the immigrants (legal and not) that live and work in the U.S. today. To continue with MacKay:

“One of the big misconceptions about immigrants is that they started speaking English the minute they walked off the boat,” says [URI professor and Rhode Island historian Scott] Molloy.
French-Canadians hewed fiercely to their ethnic identity and tried to preserve their language, religion and church schools. The leaders of the Franco-American community fought with Irish bishops and, sometimes, with Protestant political figures.

Usually one or two family members made the journey to New England to work and assess the situation. When they discovered the plethora of job opportunities and the money that could be earned, they summoned the rest of the family to follow. This became known as l’émigration en chaîne, or emigration based on familial or communal connections. One of the results of l’émigration en chaîne was the migration of many people from the same parish or region in Canada to a particular New England town or industrial region. This helped to lessen the emotional and cultural loss associated with immigration. As an example, it was discovered that Woonsocket, Rhode Island was the destination of twenty-one of the fifty-one families that had left St. Prosper parish in Champlain County between 1879 and 1892. In essence, the “petit Canada” in Woonsocket could have just as accurately been called “petit Prosper.”
While this exodus of French Canadian manpower continued to bleed Canada, many in Canada took notice and some began to warn of dire consequences. Included in this was the cultivation of a myth, la vocation de la terr, or the idea that, according to God, Canadians were supposed to be farmers. While many French Canadians heeded these warnings, the migration southward continued, but this ideal was present in the minds of many habitants who abandoned their mill jobs each summer and returned to Canada with the hope reestablishing the profitability of their abandoned farm.
Regardless of the societal pressures, French Canadian immigration to the U.S. increased towards the end of the Civil War. It is a measure of the degree of economic desperation felt at home by the French Canadians that they were willing to jump cultural, social and political hurdles to migrate to a country immersed in the middle of a civil war. Thousands throughout Quebec contracted fievre des Etats-Unis and rushed across the border. By the end of the Civil War, the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, modernized in the 1850’s and made more efficient by the war, was ready to run at full speed. French Canadianswere willing to work and willing to uproot their families for a chance at the seemingly endless opportunities available in America. So when MacKay writes:

Life in the mills wasn’t easy; 12-hours days were the norm, amid the mind-dulling noise of a power loom. Factories were freezing in winter and sweatshops in summer.

Keep in perspective that 12 hour days in a factory in which an entire family could earn cash was nothing compared to relying on poor crop yields from hardscrabble farming. And the point about the entire family is important. According to MacKay

The nasty secret behind Rhode Island’s flourishing textile economy was the state’s shameful record of child labor. Small hands and tiny fingers worked in the mills, creating lives of luxury for factory owners. By the dawn of the 20th century, Rhode Island relied on child labor to a greater degree than any other state in the industrial Northeast.
Mill owners had the General Assembly in thrall and legislators refused to enact laws banning child labor.
Children quit school to work in factories and lost limbs in machinery. It was the price of supporting immigrant families.

This may be hard to believe as we look back from the 21st century, but the French Canadians realized that the jobs they were doing in the textile factories required no real skill and that almost anyone, including children, could find work. Child labor was not taboo in French Canadian society and their Roman Catholic faith encouraged large families. These two facts combined to make factory work extremely attractive as the habitants realized that the more children they had, the more they could earn. Many habitants sent for their entire families with this in mind. While we are more enlightened and protective of children now, the fact is that many immigrants saw nothing wrong with putting their kids to work. It’s a little anachronistic to project our own sensibilities–right though they may be–back into 19th century this way.
In 1865, the great French Canadian migration truly began and most French Canadians settled in the “petit Canadas” of New England factory towns. Their willingness to migrate to these “petit Canadas”, despite the filth and poorly kept housing that characterized these neighborhoods, led to a reputation of being an ignorant and unclean people.

Darkness, foul odors, lack of space and air, shabby surroundings, all these were universal characteristics of tenement life, to which the French Canadians had no exclusive claim, but their quarters were repeatedly singled out as among the worst or most ill-kept in New England. {Iris Saunders Podea, “Quebec to ‘Little Canada’: The Coming of the French Canadians to New England in the Nineteenth Century,” The New England Quarterly, Vol.23, No.3 (1950)}

The reasons for living in these ghettos were many. Economic factors were the primary reason as it was simply cheaper to pack a family into a small row house, which was often owned by their employer. Settlement in “petit Canadas” allowed them to be close to their work and also allowed them to settle in a neighborhood that closely resembled the parish that they had left. The surroundings may have been alien to them, but the familiar people and sense of community provided a cocoon that insulated them and helped them cope with the monumental differences between American society and that of their heritage.
Protecting their heritage–la survivance–was both a noble ideal and a stumbling block to the full acceptance by Americans of French Canadian immigrants. When the French Canadians arrived in the United States, the prospect of them staying or going back to Canada was often an open question for both themselves and Americans. At first, they didn’t seem inclined to make the U.S. a permanent home. They sought jobs in the U.S. because of poor economic conditions in Canada and hoped to earn a few hundred dollars in the mills and return to their farms to continue to aspire to the ideal of la vocation de la terr. Those who did not return to Canada immediately did send money home, which seemed to indicate the transient nature of their stay in America.
Unlike European immigrants, the French Canadians in New England were geographically close to their homeland and the maintenance of family and communal bonds was facilitated through visits, reading newspapers from Canada and by sending their children to be educated in the land of their heritage. This open, dual loyalty puzzled many Americans, especially when contrasted with the attitudes of the majority of other immigrant groups. To many Americans, the French Canadian people appeared willing to reap the rewards of the economic boom while at the same time unwilling to participate in American society as a whole. This dichotomy led to much resentment, and it was the French Canadian attitude towards religion, education, and language that led to the most suspicion.
The Catholic French Canadians took their faith to Puritanical New England and faced many obstacles as they attempted to practice their religion. It is true that there were already Roman Catholic parishes throughout New England, but most of these had been established by the English speaking Irish who had been established firmly in New England prior to the arrival of the French Canadians. The Irish viewed the French Canadians with jealousy and suspicion, an attitude at least partially developed from the fact that the Irish were overwhelmingly pro-union and had seen French Canadian strike breakers brought in by mill owners time after time.
Misunderstandings between the two groups were exacerbated by the additional problem of the language barrier, which proved especially difficult because Irish priests often led the mixed parishes of Irish and French Canadians and there were internal clashes between the two groups. A natural desire to establish their own, French speaking parishes was eventually realized. Hand in hand with the establishment of the churches was that of the parochial schools, which usually taught in both French and English. This was in contrast to the public schools, which made little or no effort to provide for non-English speaking children. It was primarily for this reason that public schools were rejected by the majority of French Canadians in favor of the parochial schools. Besides serving the spiritual and educational needs of the French Canadian community respectively, the French Roman Catholic Church and parochial school also provided for the maintenance of la survivance.
The French Canadians initially stayed away from politics or involvement in local government. Neither political party had ever catered to them, chiefly due to the language barrier and probably because of some racial or religious prejudice. As a practical matter, many politicians probably did not want to waste their effort attempting to appeal to a group that primarily consisted of transient workers who made no attempt to speak the language or showed any inclination of making America their permanent home.
Eventually, French Canadian leaders came to realize that self-segregation and their apparent unwillingness to becoming participants in American society was detrimental to their reputation. They determined that naturalization of the French Canadian people was the most effective method they could use to gain acceptance. Initial interest in naturalization was less than overwhelming, but leaders held numerous National Conventions of French Canadians in the United States to promote naturalization and these meetings also unified them in their efforts to overcome the stereotypes held by other Americans.
These efforts to more fully integrate the French Canadian people into America were hindered by the increasing influx of French Canadians from Canada. While headway was being made to naturalize those already in the U.S., there was a significant amount of time spent indoctrinating and orienting the successive waves of French Canadians coming across the border. The stream of rural habitants arriving in the United States also reaffirmed a negative stereotype. To the jaundiced eye of many Americans, the French Canadians seemed to repeatedly commit the same infractions against accepted American social practices. No discrimination between the recent French Canadian immigrants and those of the second or third generation was made.
The post-War increase in the number of rural French Canadian immigrants in the United States did not go unnoticed. Many American newspapers reported complaints concerning the influx and these complaints were supplemented by exaggerated estimates of the number of French Canadians that had arrived in America. In April of 1870, the New York Times reported that there were estimated to be 500,000 French Canadians in the United States. Recent scholarship puts the actual figure at closer to 100,000 in all of New England, which had the largest concentration of French Canadians in the United States. Given this last, it is scarcely believable that an additional 400,000 French Canadians lived in the Midwest or West.
The initial trickle of French Canadians who had endured discrimination, bigotry and mistrust in America showed their friends, families and communities that the rewards of working in America were well worth the trouble. Immediately after the Civil War, the trickle became a stream and by 1870 the stream became a river. The push of economic uncertainty north of the border combined with the pull of ever-growing thirst for manpower by the factories and mills south of the border proved irresistible.
For the next thirty years the immigration of French Canadians to the U.S. reached new levels. Included in this wave were a great many of the intellectual and professional classes who contributed greatly to the social and cultural welfare of the French Canadians in New England. By the second or third generation, the Franco-Americans who were the progeny of the original, unskilled habitants were being brought up bilingual and better able to participate in American society. Undoubtedly, the constant pressure from other Americans to conform to the generally accepted precepts of American life also influenced the behavior of the Franco-Americans. In the end, their willingness to accept American society as their own led to the full integration of the French Canadian people into America, though many would regret that la survivance had been sacrificed in the process.

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17 years ago

Marc –
As a Woonsocket native of French-Canadian anscestry, I probably don’t know enough about my family’s and my hometown’s history. I have an uncle who has done quite a bit of research into our family’s past; I should tap into his knowledge more. Anyway, thank you for the lesson.
I do know that bilingual education continued until fairly recently, with at least one of my parents (who are approaching 60) attending parochial schools where the students were taught (by nuns of course) in French for 1/2 of the day and in English for the other 1/2.
I also know that my memere was always a bit disappointed that I didn’t learn French better, though what I remember most about her was her unquestioning love for her family no matter what language we spoke. My kids loved her so much, and she them (despite the fact that their descent is only 1/2 French-Canadian and 1/4 Anglo and 1/4 Nigerian!).

Marc Comtois
17 years ago

As you may have guessed, my historical interest in the subject is at least partly an offshoot of my own genealogy. My parents were both educated in a Catholic School in Northern Vermont and were actually kind of tri-lingual, learning Latin in addition to having classes in both English and French. My father was #5 of 10 kids and was the first to not be educated completely “en Francais.” His older brother and 3 sisters can speak fluent French, but Dad and the rest of the siblings “lost it”.
I hope I indicated that I think that its regrettable that some aspects of la survivance have been lost. So I’m sympathetic to immigrants who want to cling to their ways. However, they also have to be willing to buy into the ways of America, too (assuming they want to stay.

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