From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/French Canadians/Yves Frenette
The Act of Union, which was passed on 23 July 1840 and came into effect on 10 February 1841, united Lower and Upper Canada into a single Province of Canada with one government. In the new province, half the assembly’s members were chosen by the voters of Lower Canada and the other half by those of Upper Canada. The union angered Canadiens, since the two components were granted the same number of seats even though Lower Canada had more people. Lower Canada also had to assume Upper Canada’s debts, and English became the sole official language of the colony.
Popular reaction was strong. Petitions from the Quebec City region demanded that the Act of Union be nullified. Some Canadiens even argued against any form of participation in political life. But once again, Britain’s assimilationist policies proved impracticable. In 1844 the British government was forced to accept the use of French in Canadian political life, and Canadiens, for their part, finally began to face up to the fact of British presence on Canadian soil. New waves of immigration meant that the English would soon outnumber Canadiens in the Province of Canada.
These anglophones began to appropriate the Canadien identity by calling themselves “Canadians,” forcing the francophone intelligentsia to redefine itself. The term French Canadian, which first appeared in 1820, came to represent the collectivity of Canadiens of French origin, viewed by the francophone elite as an entirely separate “race.” The use of “French Canadian” became widespread after the trauma of the rebellions and the Act of Union, although it never entirely replaced Canadien. A number of intellectuals continued to use the earlier term, which has always remained popular among the people. As recently as the 1970s, it was common to hear francophones, especially older ones, identify themselves as Canadiens to distinguish themselves from English Canadians. Moreover, the new French-Canadian identity was not only linguistic and genealogical: it was also religious. To be French-Canadian was also to be Catholic.
At the political level, former moderate Patriotes strongly denounced the discriminatory components of the Union regime but nonetheless invited their compatriots to participate in political life. These men believed that the union could bring about a solution to some of Lower Canada’s economic problems, the modernization of Lower Canadian institutions, and the institution of responsible government. This flexible and realistic attitude made possible a rapprochement between the politicians of Lower and Upper Canada, and it opened the door to compromises that eventually replaced Durham’s policies of assimilation.
The Reform coalition, led by Robert Baldwin of Upper Canada and Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine of Lower Canada, obtained responsible government in 1848 and, between 1841 and 1851, gradually put into place a municipal government framework and a system of public education. In the words of the authors of the Histoire du Bas-Saint-Laurent, “Direct democracy ... spread even to the smallest towns, which formed their own parish, municipal, and school councils.” For fifty years, the county had been a simple form of territorial division for voting purposes. Now it became a place of identification, so that one could think of courting the electors of Portneuf County or promoting Témiscouata County or praising the lumber potential of Saint-Maurice County. Under the new regime, French Canada was witnessing the first glimmers of a new identity that was midway between the parish and the nation.
Under the dynamic leadership of the superintendent of education, Jean-Baptiste Meilleur, and with the Church’s support, the government instituted elementary education for all children. It had to find and train teachers, develop programs, and build schools, despite the hostility of people who wished to retain their local autonomy, as witnessed by the “candle snuffers’ war” between 1849 and 1851. In 1854 the government abolished the seigneurial system, which it saw as a backward-looking constraint on economic development, and between 1857 and 1866 it undertook a reform of the civil code. The government apparatus was modernized during this period through the institution of a variety of regulations, the founding of a police force, and the establishment of instruments for managerial, financial, and territorial administration. This process gave the state a capacity for social control and standardization.
After 1858, however, no government was able to get a parliamentary majority, and Canadian politics came to an impasse. The Upper Canadian portion of the province was dominated by George Brown’s Clear Grits, who called for the annexation of the vast western territories, representation by population, non-denominational schools, and an economic policy that favoured Upper Canada. On the other hand, the largely Catholic Lower Canadians feared the Protestant Grits’ proselytizing and favoured the new Liberal-Conservative coalition, which had developed out of an earlier alliance between Reformers and Conservatives. Lower Canadians stopped supporting representation by population once the number of inhabitants of Upper Canada surpassed that of Lower Canada in the 1850s. Nor did they support the annexation of the western territories, which would only increase Upper Canada’s power. The rise of Toronto as a serious financial competitor was a further irritant to anglophone businessmen in Montreal.
After 1854, an increasing number of politicians saw the creation of a federal state stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific as a remedy for all of the Province of Canada’s ills. It would offer better financing for expensive railway projects. It would expedite the settlement of the west, providing an outlet for Canada’s surplus rural population and a domestic market for its manufacturing industry. A larger and stronger state would be able to borrow more easily on international financial markets. It would allow Canada to defend itself more effectively and economically against the territorial designs of the United States and possible attempts at annexation – which some French Canadians favoured. A federation would also help resolve the political impasse. Finally, with a provincial government, the former Lower Canada would manage its own affairs in such areas as civil law, language, religion, and cultural heritage.
Intercolonial discussions on a federal union took place between 1864 and 1867. The Rouges of Lower Canada, a radical and nationalist political group that was heir to the principles of 1837, feared that a federal state, based on representation by population and holding most of the power, would intensify the subordination of French Canadians. But they represented a minority view. Most French Canadians favoured the Conservative Party, which supported a federal union.
The British North America (BNA) Act, which was signed by Queen Victoria on 31 March 1867 and came into effect on 1 July, created the Canadian Confederation. Despite the limitations of a system in which power was divided between the provinces and the federal government, the BNA Act granted French Canadians a state apparatus that was unequivocally their own. Even the lieutenant governor, the queen’s representative in the new province of Quebec, would now be a French-Canadian Catholic. The reaction of the daily La Minerve (Montreal, 1826–99) to the advent of a new provincial government reflected the view of many French Canadians: “We see in it the recognition of French-Canadian nationality. As a distinct and separate nationality, we form a state within a state, with full enjoyment of our rights and a formal recognition of our national independence.” The idea of a binational Canada moulded out of the nations of French Canada and English Canada formed the political basis of French-Canadian identity. The British North America Act was defined as a pact between these two nations or founding peoples.
The new province of Quebec was bilingual. Both French and English could be used in parliamentary debates and before the provincial courts, and official documents had to be written in both languages. The province’s powers covered virtually all areas relating to social, civil, family, school, and municipal affairs, as well as the administration of public lands, prisons, and hospitals. In reality, however, the Quebec government was weak. It had to maintain a delicate balance among the federal government, the Catholic Church, and the anglophone minority.
As elsewhere in Canada, two political groupings vied for power. The Conservative Party was the child of the coalitions that had brought about Confederation and dominated the Quebec political scene from 1867 to the turn of the century. It portrayed itself as a party of moderates and took on the mantle of protector of French-Canadian Catholics. The Liberal Party, which in Quebec was heir to the Rouges and other factions that had opposed Confederation, developed slowly and did not become a serious threat to the Conservatives until the 1880s. Its economic policy was based on free trade. Although moderate forces in the party grew steadily at the expense of its radical wing, the Liberals had a hard time gaining credibility. Wilfrid Laurier, who became leader of the federal Liberal Party in 1887, finally succeeded in persuading French Canadians that the Liberals had become moderate and respectable. A long Liberal reign in Quebec began when Félix-Gabriel Marchand led the Liberals to victory in the 1897 provincial election. Simon-Napoléon Parent became premier when Marchand died in 1900, and Parent was succeeded by Lomer Gouin, who dominated provincial politics after 1905. A strong advocate of free enterprise, Premier Gouin offered attractive conditions to potential foreign investors to develop the province’s hydro-electric, mining, lumber, and other industries.
After 1840 and especially after 1867, French-Canadian politicians – Conservative and Liberal alike – played an important role in national, regional, and local politics, and their numbers rose dramatically, especially in Quebec. The establishment of two levels of government in 1867 increased the number of posts available and thousands of new positions opened up in municipalities and school commissions.
In 1861 there were 825,000 French Canadians in Lower Canada, representing 75 percent of the population. Most lived in the old rural areas of the St Lawrence valley and the new colonization regions. The shift towards commercial agriculture, which had begun in the preceding century, continued to promote social differentiation. For some farmers, this meant progress and comfort. They expanded their farms, doubled their productivity, and specialized in grain production and, after 1870, in the dairy industry, which was to become the backbone of Quebec agriculture.
“Progressive” farmers had a relatively high income. But, depending on the market, they were still subject to setbacks and their situation could become precarious overnight. After the 1830s, the rural areas of Quebec were seriously threatened by agricultural competition from Ontario, New York, and Pennsylvania, by the opening up of the west in Canada and the United States, and by a series of poor harvests. Sometimes difficulties were triggered by a political decision, like the abolition of preferential tariffs in Britain in 1846 or the imposition of the McKinley tariff in the United States half a century later. Moreover, modernization cost money. To buy ploughing equipment, farmers needed capital, which they most often obtained through credit. In many cases, short-term credit became synonymous with long-term debt. A parliamentary committee maintained in 1893 that farms that were not mortgaged for their full value were the exception rather than the rule. This may have been an exaggeration, but it nonetheless reflected a painful reality.
Most French-Canadian farmers practised subsistence farming on small plots that produced very little but generally satisfied the essential needs of their families. Their lands averaged forty hectares in size, of which less than a third was cultivated. Oats, barley, and some vegetables served as animal fodder, while buckwheat, wheat, peas, and garden crops went to feed the habitants themselves. On any given farm, between five and eight cows produced milk, whose cream went to make butter in the local butter factories. Finally, a sizable number of farmers lived in virtual poverty on small plots. In Berthier County, in 1871, 30 percent of the farms had less than 20 hectares of land. These small farmers often earned their income from some off-farm occupation, so that farming became a secondary activity for them. While they worked off the farm as day labourers, their wives and children harvested a few bushels of barley or potatoes and kept a few animals. Many other day labourers did not own land at all, because they had sold it or lost it or because they lacked the means to buy it in the first place. In the second half of the nineteenth century, between 5 and 26 percent of the population on the two banks of the St Lawrence between Montreal and Trois-Rivières consisted of day labourers. More than half were over forty years old, which indicated that they would continue to be day labourers all their lives.
Many farmers worked in lumber camps in the winter or in sawmills in the summer, participating in what the historian Normand Séguin has called an agro-forest system. In the middle of the century, new territories in the Ottawa region and beyond the Saguenay, in the area around Lac Saint-Jean, were opened to the forest industry. Sawn lumber, used in housing construction, grew in response to demand in the American market. In 1860 three-quarters of the lumberjacks in the Ottawa valley were French-Canadian. Ten years later, they held almost all the jobs in the squared timber industry in the region, and this virtual monopoly would continue over the years. On the other hand, they were given very few supervisory positions.
For governments and especially the Church, persuading farmers to clear new lands was at once a practical and a moral solution to the twin problems of overpopulation in the St Lawrence valley and emigration to the United States. They worked relentlessly to achieve this goal, and colonization north of the inhabited areas of Quebec took on mythic proportions. The north was depicted as a promised land far from any anglophones, where French Canadians could ensure their survival while developing the land along lines that promoted French-Canadian ideals and values. Through colonization societies and a stream of colonizing missionaries, the Church promoted the settlement of new lands. Quebec’s deputy minister of colonization in the late 1880s was a priest, Curé Antoine Labelle. The provincial government also undertook to remove any obstacles that might discourage movement towards these new settlements. It imposed a tax on large properties to encourage speculators to sell their lands, and offered free plots to settlers. Most important, it built roads and subsidized the construction of railways to areas of potential settlement.
In all, the area of occupied land increased by 78 percent between 1851 and 1901. In fact, as much new land was settled during this half-century as in the entire period between 1650 and 1850. The settlers themselves, however, often lived a life of misery, even in areas where the soil was fertile. They had to clear the land, build their own cabins, wait for the first harvest, and survive long isolated winters without supplies. With no logging camp, road, or railway within reach, those who persisted had no outlets for their produce. It was not surprising that many settlers became discouraged and left.
Many French Canadians made their way to towns and cities. Between 1850 and 1900, the proportion of Quebec’s population living in urban areas grew from 15 to 36 percent. Despite clear progress, however, Quebec’s industrialization took place too slowly to absorb the rural population surplus. Light manufacturing dominated Quebec industrial production, spreading from Montreal and Quebec City to small towns in the Montreal plain and the Eastern Townships such as Chambly, Saint-Jean, Magog, Coaticook, and Sherbrooke. As elsewhere in the western world, urbanization evolved along gender lines. French-Canadian women often preceded the men to the towns, where they hoped to find a job and gain more independence in their choice of a life companion. “By the 1860s,” writes Susan Mann Trofimenkoff, “they already formed the majority of young people in Montreal and Quebec, willing workers for the new industries and tractable servants for middle and upper class families.” At the turn of the century, they worked increasingly as salesgirls in large stores and secretaries and typists in offices.
After 1896, the impact of favourable economic circumstances was felt throughout Canada and Quebec, and the forest provided permanent jobs in the new wood-fibre and pulp industry. All of Quebec’s regions benefited to varying degrees. Growth in the manufacturing sector accelerated. From 1900 to 1910, manufacturing output in Quebec increased by 76 percent while the population grew by only 21 percent; per-capita production increased by 4.2 percent a year. A number of factors promoted the growth of the manufacturing sector. Electricity, the energy source best adapted to technological change, became prevalent. Offering impressive possibilities in this domain as they did in pulp and paper, Quebec and Ontario became attractive places to invest American capital. Favourable governmental policies were a further encouragement.
Montreal established itself as Canada’s leading city. With a population of 300,000 at the turn of the century, Montreal was also the country’s commercial centre. Almost half of Canadian exports and more than one third of imports passed through the city. All the heavy equipment for the country’s railways was made and maintained in Montreal. Western development contributed to the city’s expansion since Montreal industries supplied the west with consumer goods. After 1865, the influx of French Canadians into Montreal gave the city a French majority, which increased as its industrial suburbs were annexed.
Elsewhere in Quebec, new small towns were founded and existing ones grew in the wake of the second industrial revolution. The model city of Shawinigan, whose population was 11,000 in 1915, owed its name and its existence to the hydro-electric enterprise around which it was developed, the Shawinigan Water and Power Company. In the Eastern Townships, the Southern Canada Power Company brought industries into the areas it served. Thus, Saint-Jean-sur-le-Richelieu became home to canning, food processing, textile, clothing, and light metal plants. A third of the town’s labourers found work in the Singer sewing machine factory, founded in 1904. In the lower St Lawrence, the railway contributed to the development of Rivière-du-Loup. In addition, the railway and the forest industry led to the growth of industrial villages. Day labourers often bought or rented narrow strips of land on which to erect their tiny homes of boards and shingles, and sometimes the company itself built residential quarters. Throughout Quebec, industrial and residential development resulted in the expansion of the construction industry.
The growth of the American economy exercised a strong force of attraction on French Canadians. The clergy and lay elites, haunted by the size of the exodus to the United States and by its power as a symbol of political and economic failure, had to accept this demographic loss for better or worse. Whole concessions were deserted and on occasion religious authorities even had to shut down a parish. The elites made an enormous effort to stop the flow, but to no avail. On the other hand, a good proportion of migrants to New England, perhaps half, returned to live in Quebec, bringing new styles with them. Having become used to electricity, telephones, movies, illustrated newspapers, cars, and organized sports (especially baseball), these repatriated Quebeckers now opened film studios, movie theatres, and restaurants. As the authors of Histoire du Bas Saint-Laurent write, “Their model was not Montreal, but Boston and New York.”
The United States was not the only promised land that French Canadians chose outside Quebec. Smaller numbers also moved to Ontario, the prairie provinces, British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, and Yukon. In many places, the Church played a key role in these migrations. Thus, the first bishop of Bytown, Bruno Guigues, founded and became president of a colonization society in 1849. To counterbalance Protestant influence, he encouraged Quebec youth to settle on lands along the Ottawa River between Rigaud and Bytown, where there was already a sparse population of French-Canadian families. He conducted his promotion campaigns in western Quebec and most of the new arrivals came from that region. In their minds they were moving only a little deeper into the interior, as their parents and grandparents had done before them. They often settled on poor lands abandoned by anglophone farmers. Prescott and Russell counties in eastern Ontario quickly became primarily francophone.
Arriving in Ontario with little capital, the migrants could only buy small properties at first, on average twenty hectares, which were intensively exploited and became less productive each year. French-Canadian farmers in eastern Ontario did not see any advantage in owning too large a piece of land or in mechanizing their farming practices, since to make ends meet they had to leave their farms every year to go work in the logging camps, as they had done in Quebec. With some variation, French Canadians in southwestern Ontario, the Georgian Bay area, and northern Ontario did the same. By the end of the century, all regions underwent a shift towards dairy farming. However, subsistence agriculture and agriculture servicing the logging camps persisted in Ontario as it did in Quebec.
French Canadians also migrated to the industrial centres of Ontario, especially Toronto, where the Sacre-Coeur parish had 130 families at its founding in 1887, and Cornwall, where French Canadians worked in the textile and paper industries. As capital of Canada after 1866 and a small industrial centre, Ottawa drew bureaucrats, professionals, artisans, and labourers from the regions of Quebec City, Montreal, and Trois-Rivières. Ottawa had 23,000 French Canadians in 1910, representing more than a quarter of its population.
However, it was primarily northern Ontario, where railways were built, mines and pulp and paper mills opened, and hydro-electric plants developed, that became associated with the emergence of a French-Canadian proletariat in the early twentieth century. As in Quebec, the Church promoted the agricultural colonization of northern Ontario, depicted as a promised land where the French Canadian’s providential mission would finally flourish. Migrants came from eastern Ontario, the area around Montreal, and western Quebec. But as a result of the heavy clay content of the soil, the short growing season, and the long distance from markets, settlers quickly reverted to the subsistence agriculture of other regions, supplemented by mining and logging, or else commercial agriculture servicing the lumber camps. Others settled as unskilled labourers in company towns like Sudbury. The railway was also important in hiring French Canadians. Thus, almost the entire 8,000-person workforce of the Canadian Pacific Railway in the Sudbury region was French-Canadian. The combination of migration from Quebec to Ontario and a high birth rate brought about an increase in the number of French Canadians in Ontario from 13,969 in 1842 to 248,275, in 1921, which represented 8.5 percent of the province’s population.
In western Canada, the fur trade had given birth to the Metis people. (See also ABORIGINALS: METIS.) Shortly after Lord Selkirk founded the Red River settlement in the early nineteenth century, a few priests from Quebec ventured west to baptize the Metis and natives. Over time, the Catholic Church became firmly implanted in the region. However, when Canada purchased the Hudson’s Bay Company’s western lands, both the Metis and the clergy became anxious, fearing the influx of anglophone settlers from Ontario and the British Isles and the resulting threat to French language and culture in the west. The Metis succeeded, after an uprising in 1869, in gaining certain constitutional guarantees to protect their civil and religious institutions. However, Bishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché of Saint-Boniface doubted that the guarantees would endure if francophones no longer represented as large a proportion of the population. To keep francophones on an equal footing numerically in Manitoba and to limit emigration to the United States from Quebec, the western clergy sought to divert Quebec’s surplus population westward and repatriate French Canadians from the United States. Bishop Taché encouraged the establishment of colonization societies, solicited funds from the federal government, and sent several of his priests to recruit settlers, having gained the support of the Quebec bishops.
But Quebec farmers remained deaf to the clergy’s calls, especially since on previous visits missionaries from the Red River settlement had planted the impression in their minds that the region was uninhabitable. The campaign to recruit settlers was further hampered by the hanging of the Metis leader Louis Riel in 1885 as well as by the closing of separate schools, the abolition of bilingualism, and the setbacks suffered by Manitoba francophones in the courts in the 1890s. The Quebec intelligentsia, initially lukewarm, now openly opposed the idea of settling a region perceived as increasingly in the control of English Canadians and hostile to French Canadians. The potential settler faced practical difficulties as well. Very few had enough money to pay their travel costs. In 1899 a train ticket from Montreal to Edmonton cost $42.30, substantially more than a ticket to New England or Ontario. Because the prairies are so far from Quebec, people felt that settling there was an irreversible decision. As a result, only a minority of French Canadians from Quebec followed the call to settle in the west.
After 1874, attempts were made to compensate for this failure by seeking the repatriation of French Canadians who had emigrated to New England. This campaign too had inconclusive results at best. The colonizing missionaries met with strong resistance from the emigrants. They had to combat myths about the prairie climate and the opposition of Franco-American elites who saw their influence as being dependent on a stable population base. In addition, recruits from New England were often diverted to Minnesota by American agents.
Nonetheless, some clerical promoters of the west, often colonizing missionaries hired by the federal government, did succeed in founding French-Canadian hamlets in the region. Father C.-A. Beaudry and Father Moïse Blais brought a thousand people to seek their fortune in Manitoba, south of Saint-Boniface. In Alberta, Father J.B. Morin and Father J.A. Ouellette contributed greatly to French-Canadian settlement of the area north of Edmonton by founding Morinville and Ouelletteville. After 1912, other migrants settled in the Peace River valley, where they were offered free land. But there was no joint planning among the various western dioceses, the activities of clergy, lay people, and government agencies could not be closely coordinated, and the settlers were very poor. Moreover, the policy of settling francophone migrants in compact blocks, promoted by Bishop Taché and his successors, was only a partial success, since thousands of people from Ontario and Europe also settled in the region.
As a result, French settlements were scattered throughout the prairies. In Saskatchewan especially, francophones were dispersed through the province. The isolation of these small communities made their cultural survival extremely difficult. French Canadians also lived in urban areas. In Calgary, a hundred or so were concentrated in the Rouleauville quarter, where most were employed by the CPR. In Edmonton before World War I, 2,600 of the town’s 53,850 inhabitants were francophone, constituting its second-largest linguistic group. Over all, however, prairie francophones made up only 10 percent of the total population in 1915.
As in the areas west and south of the Great Lakes, French Canadians were first drawn to British Columbia by the fur trade. When the fur trade declined in the mid-nineteenth century, a number of them chose to stay in the colony. In 1857 they were the largest group of European descent, although the gold rush two years later shifted the balance. Spread out in small groupings with no community structures, these pioneers were quickly assimilated. The community of Haztic Prairie, however, remained French-speaking for a generation. Its residents were workers who originally came to build the CPR in the 1880s and later became farmers. By the eve of World War I, young people no longer maintained their parents’ culture.
On the other hand, a new French-Canadian community flourished during this period in southern British Columbia. In July 1909 the owners of the Fraser River Lumber Company, one of the largest lumber companies in British Columbia, turned to Quebec to recruit cheap, docile labour. The company sent an Irish priest to the Ottawa valley and the Eastern Townships, areas where loggers abounded and French Canadians had already come into contact with anglophones. A hundred or so families moved to British Columbia. Father Maillard from France was the founding priest of Notre-Dame-de-Lourdes parish and he gave his name to the village. For two decades, Maillardville had a secluded existence. It was more than an hour away from Vancouver and the immediate surroundings were thinly populated. The community grew through francophone immigration as well as natural increase. Relatives and friends of the first recruits from Quebec settled there, as did French Canadians from dying francophone pockets in British Columbia. In addition to its church and schools, the community had a brass band and baseball and hockey teams.
Geographical mobility was clearly an important part of French-Canadian identity. Thus, the sociologist Léon Gérin knew a family that moved twenty times in fifty years, spreading out over two Canadian provinces and several American cities. Also worth noting is the case of Ozias Tancrède, born in 1855 in Sainte-Croix, some fifty kilometres west of Quebec City on the south shore of the St Lawrence. Orphaned at a young age, Ozias was brought up by two older brothers who hired him out to work for Seigneur Joly when they moved out west. As a young man, Ozias courted Zénaïde Martel of Quebec City, and during the 1870s he spent a summer with her brother in Brooklyn, New York. The two friends and future brothers-in-law worked in a brickyard for $2.50 a day, which to them constituted a fortune. On their return, Ozias felt rich enough to buy a farm and ask for Zénaïde’s hand. Although Ozias left for Brooklyn again the following summer, Zénaïde hardly had time to get bored as she worked as a seamstress for a large Montreal manufacturer while also tending the land and farm animals. In April 1881 the couple and their two-year-old son made their way to Lewiston, Maine. Like so many others, they thought they were leaving their farm only temporarily. But the following year, when a neighbour offered to buy their land for $500, Ozias and Zénaïde decided to stay in the United States. He worked in factories while she took in boarders.
Getting away from debt or unemployment, looking for a better future for their children, seeking to improve their own situation, or simply dreaming of adventure, a growing number of French Canadians followed the Tancrèdes’ lead and left their native parishes. Migration could be temporary or permanent and depended on economic, social, and cultural factors. A husband and wife would settle in a colonization zone when they were just starting a family and then move to a town, most likely a New England textile centre, when they had children old enough to work in the mills. People and families who followed jobs from town to town in New England came to be known as coureurs de facterie. Mobility was so great that some merchants hired agents to track down those who had left without paying off their debts. In Ontario, western Canada, and the western United States, former Canadian voyageurs, cut off from French Canadians in communities they had helped found, were particularly quick to move. Throughout the French-Canadian archipelago, people also moved to wherever a logging camp was opening or wherever economic circumstances were favourable.
It is important to emphasize that families and individuals often moved more than once. A man might leave the old Baie-du-Febvre parish on the south shore of the St Lawrence to clear a piece of land in Wotton in the Eastern Townships. He would spend the winter in a lumber camp in Vermont and come back to Quebec to settle in Sherbrooke as a labourer. Finally, he would move south permanently, this time to the textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts. But his children would continue to wander. By the early twentieth century, two of them might be drawn back to Canada by the mines in Sudbury. Our man would keep in touch with his sister who had stayed behind to take care of their aging parents on the ancestral land, and with another brother who had done well in Wotton and was now its mayor. He might occasionally receive news from an uncle in Illinois, from a niece working as a domestic in Montreal, or from his former neighbour in Lowell who was now in Manitoba.
The result of this mobility was a new sense of French-Canadian territoriality – a new understanding of space. The death of Baie-du-Febvre’s priest, an election campaign in Wotton, a strike in Sherbrooke, the closing of a logging camp near Burlington, a drought in the midwest, a major fire in Montreal, the election of Wilfrid Laurier in 1896, the Ontario school crisis after 1912 – all were events of equal interest to French Canadians, who could usually link them to a living face or particular place in their memories.
Wherever they gathered, French Canadians brought with them their cultural traits and institutions, the foremost of which was the family. The family was the primary vehicle of education and the conduit for maintaining links with one’s place of origin. A chain migration often connected two or more regions in the French-Canadian archipelago. Migrants to Maine came for the most part from the Beauce region, while a large proportion of Rhode Island’s francophone population came from the area around Berthier en haut. Many French Canadians in Toronto came from the area around TroisRivières while those in eastern Ontario came from counties just across the provincial border.
After having made their mark on specific areas in Quebec, family networks would spread throughout Canada and the United States. The Janelle and Marcotte families, for instance, from the old river parishes of Baie-du-Febvre and Deschambault respectively, became linked by marriage in Wotton and established branches of their families in Drummondville and Saint-Georges-de-Windsor in the Eastern Townships. From there, family members migrated to Lewiston over a period of at least two generations. Belonging to a family network enabled households and individuals to move among a number of locations with the guarantee of finding support and sociability wherever they landed. In the words of geographer Christian Morissonneau, “families and relatives welcomed individuals wherever they went, and moving involved very little disorientation since migrants were always among family, among their own, even when elsewhere.”
New arrivals often arranged to share homes temporarily with relatives, who might be already established or might themselves be new arrivals. No matter where French Canadians moved, their neighbours were often relatives or people from the same parish or the same part of Quebec. Mutual support was especially evident at work. Family networks often acted as placement agencies, whether in a tool plant in Montreal, a large shoe factory in Quebec City, or a textile mill in Fall River, Massachusetts. These networks represented a form of material security in a system where the production process necessitated cooperation. The presence of family in a number of spots on the migratory map also acted as a backup system, to use historian Tamara Hareven’s expression. Mobility was easier for individuals who knew that others were staying behind to take care of the farm or aging parents. And even though geographical mobility was widespread, there was also a sedentary core of people who made it possible for French-Canadian communities to remain stable and take the lead in building institutions and guaranteeing the communities’ continuity.
It was through these family networks that chain migration took place. A move might be sparked by a letter from a sister, perhaps accompanied by a small sum or a newspaper clipping describing the inauguration of a parochial school in Bourbonnais, Illinois; a postcard showing a French-Canadian brass band in Saint-Boniface; an invitation, accompanied by a train ticket, to come and see Maillardville first-hand; Uncle So-and-so’s visit from the United States with his nice clothes and pockets filled with beautiful ringing coins; or simply a discussion at the church door about all the money that Michel Rousseau’s children were earning in the Montreal factories. Little more was needed to convince a household to try its luck elsewhere. Recruiting campaigns undertaken by companies, entrepreneurs, and the clergy also played a role.
A Toronto business, for instance, encouraged Montreal leather workers to move to Toronto. In 1918 about twenty families working in the textile industry in Montmorency, near Quebec City, settled in Welland, Ontario, to work for Empire Cotton. And the 1,000 French Canadians who helped build the CPR line between Mattawa and North Bay were almost all from the lower St Lawrence and the Gaspé. Father Pierre Gravel drew on his connections with acquaintances in his native county of Arthabaska in Quebec and contacts in New York state, where he had been a priest in several parishes, to settle an area in southwestern Saskatchewan. In Minnesota, the merchants Louis Fontaine and Rémi Fortier enticed acquaintances from Saint-Paul to the Red River valley. Afix Marcotte, who owned a store and several investment properties in Lewiston, virtually became an immigration broker. Directly or through contacts, he recruited clients in Quebec. When the new immigrants arrived in Lewiston, Marcotte provided them with lodging and supplies and found them work in the cotton mills.
The central role of the family in the migration process cannot be overemphasized. Migration was often an instrument of social reproduction, much as it had been under French rule. People wanted to give their sons a good start and marry their daughters well while maintaining family cohesion. The decision to leave was taken by the whole family, with all members having a say. In fact, women were often those who instigated the migration. They had had enough of “vivre entre le pain et la viande,” to use one early-twentieth-century woman migrant’s colourful expression for poverty.
Contrary to a long-standing belief, the family did well in urban areas. Exchanges based on blood and marriage were kept up for at least a generation. Family networks continued to be the basis for social contacts and provided a strong feeling of belonging to counter the destabilizing effects of geographical mobility. Moreover, the family’s economic role became greater in an urban context. Low wages forced family members to work out joint arrangements. These arrangements were essentially the same everywhere, although there were local variations, mostly related to the job market. The father was considered the principal breadwinner, but he was rarely able to support his family on his own. So teenage children also worked outside the house, while the mother stayed home. Women were regarded as bearing full responsibility for the material and social continuity of the household – and even for the overall cultural superiority of French Canadians in North America. They did the cooking, organizing, cleaning, and sewing. They also took in boarders and sometimes did the odd paid job that could be done at home and was considered socially appropriate for women, such as childcare, laundry, or cooking meals for factory workers.
In regions of Quebec and Ontario where the agro-forest economy took hold, gender divisions meant that fathers, sons, brothers, and other male relatives often worked together as members of larger groups. A father and his older sons, for example, might transport farm products to the logging camps and then bring the wood from the camps to the river. Often, brothers went to logging camps together, undoubtedly feeling the safety of numbers. Women stayed at home to oversee the vegetable garden, henhouse, and apiary, make soap, churn butter, weave fabrics, and sew clothes. For all intents and purposes, a woman was in charge of the farm in her husband’s absence, in addition to taking responsibility for household duties and the physical and psychological well-being of the children. What historian Normand Fortier wrote of the Outaouais region of western Quebec holds true for the whole French-Canadian archipelago: “A large part of household management involved allocating their resources and efforts within the confines of what was possible.”
Wherever they settled, French Canadians brought with them their religious practices and insititutions. Often devout, they accepted Catholicism, not primarily because it was imposed, but because it answered their questions and offered them something to identify with. The clergy were a familiar element in their lives and they knew how to adapt to differing circumstances. While they were ready to do penance at the designated times, they preferred to celebrate the great feasts, when they danced and drank without restraint. They loved to make group pilgrimages to sacred sites, not only to pray but also to enjoy themselves, and temperance campaigns, although sometimes effective, had to be repeated time and again. After 1884 Catholics in the Montreal area tended to read the mass-circulation daily La Presse (Montreal, 1884– ) rather than the clerical papers. Local news and human-interest stories interested them more than sermons. French Canadians moved to the cities and the United States in great numbers and increasingly supported the Liberal Party – even though the clergy warned against all these developments. Historian Nive Voisine perceptively notes that “it is no more true to describe Catholics ... during this period as oppressed, totally subject to the clergy, weighed down by threats, than it is to deny the clergy’s influence on their lives.”
Like their ancestors in New France, almost all French Canadians were practising Catholics. The crucifix was often set in a place of honour in their homes, and it was not unusual to find a picture of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph, St Anne, or another saint on their walls, not to mention a portrait of the pope. Palms from Palm Sunday were suspended here and there as a protective measure. It was traditional to say grace before meals and evening prayers at night. During storms they lit candles they had received at Candlemas and threw Easter water at their windows. Many wore scapular medals around their necks and carried rosary beads in their pockets or bags. Children’s games were also influenced by religious traditions. Moreover, many parents dreamed of giving a son or daughter to the church, and almost all French-Canadian families had a personal connection among the clergy.
French Canadians went to Sunday Mass and many went to vespers. Almost all went to Easter Mass, although sometimes they arrived late. They attended the major liturgies and went out of their way to hear the important sermons during parish missions. Many Catholics belonged to devotional associations. Devotions sometimes galvanized large crowds, notably the devotion to the pope, out of which arose the campaign to send Papal Zouaves to Rome to defend the Holy Father against Italian nationalist insurgents. By the end of the 1860s as many as 400 Zouaves, from all Quebec dioceses and all social classes, were ready to leave for Rome. They were not needed as soldiers in Italy, but on their return they formed an association, which helped to maintain their popularity along with that of the pope and the Church. Devotion to the Sacred Heart, which suited clerical desires to restore social mores, was also very popular.
Despite the advent of these new devotions, older ones remained popular as well. St Joseph, St Anne, and the Virgin Mary all benefited from apparitions in Europe. Moreover, priests and religious who had lived in Europe helped certain saints become better known. Father Calixte Marquis brought back from Rome innumerable relics that he spread throughout the province. Some of these would constitute the core of the Tour des Martyrs de Saint-Célestin, long a popular pilgrimage site in the Saint-Maurice valley. It was far from being the only one. With improved communications and the increase in popular devotions, several pilgrimage sites emerged. Sainte-Anne de Beaupré drew the largest crowds. Luc Désilets, the parish priest in Cap-de-la-Madeleine near Trois-Rivières, started organizing pilgrimages to his parish. Montreal also had its pilgrimage sites, the most famous being St Joseph’s Oratory. Many other smaller sites drew pilgrims from their region or locality.
Pilgrimages were only occasional events, and they should not make us lose sight of the fact that, as in New France, French Canadians’ faith was anchored in their daily lives. For people in the countryside, as Nive Voisine explains, the rhythm of parish life fit well with life in the fields. Catholicism also had an impact on space in French-Canadian communities. Catholics’ first loyalty was to their parish. It constituted their primary spatial reference, and the parish church was the primary sacred place. Architecturally, the church always dominated the village or neighbourhood. Religion was inscribed in Quebec’s place names: historian Guy Laperrière humorously explains that “all the saints in paradise apparently decided to gather in the province of Quebec.” French-Canadian folklore was impregnated with religion. Legends often reminded the people of the moral dangers that could arise through dancing or through young people keeping company together. Finally, language was also influenced by religion. To express anger or simply to embellish one’s language, a French Canadian would invoke the name of God, saints, or sacred objects.
While French-Canadian religious culture had roots in age-old practices, it was also part of a process of re-Christianization begun by the Church after the Rebellions of 1837–38. Under the guidance of dynamic leaders who were inspired by the ultramontane renewal in Europe, the Church brought about a revival of religious practice and increased its numbers. Between 1840 and 1900 the number of priests in Quebec grew from 464 to 2,276. This was twice the overall rate of population increase, so that the ratio of parishioners to priests was brought down from 1,185:1 to approximately 500:1. Members of male religious orders also increased in number, from 361 to 2,391. The rise in vocations was even more dramatic among women, with more than 6,500 women religious at the turn of the century – one sister for every 150 Catholics. With its new strength, the Church in Quebec could now easily send recruits beyond its borders. It increased the number of parishes throughout the French-Canadian archipelago and sent missionaries to communities that were too small to sustain a priest.
In many communities the priest was the most important figure. Financially independent owing to the income linked to his office, he usually functioned as the educational, economic, legal, and cultural adviser to his flock. He helped the unemployed get work and zealously promoted the development of industry, roads, and railways. Without hesitation he would call on his local member of the legislature or even a minister to achieve his goals. In small industrial towns he served as an intermediary between factory owners and the people.
Sometimes the priests themselves set up commercial or industrial enterprises. During the 1880s, the colonization society of Lake Temiskaming, a clerical enterprise, built steamboats and railway sections. In 1887 the society even helped to start up a railway company, to be run by an Oblate father. In some isolated parishes, the priest became a journalist of sorts, since his sermons were the only available source of information – filtered as it was – from the outside world. After Sunday Mass, on the front steps of the church, he might read extracts from the Gazette des campagnes (Country Gazette; Saint-Louis de Kamouraska/Sainte-Anne de la Pocatière, Que., 1861– 95), a newspaper founded by the clergy.
Whenever a natural disaster, bad harvest, or fire struck his flock, the priest was always ready to help in the rescue. In many ways, he was the parish. The names and actions of pioneer priests, such as Father Hévey in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Father Lamarche in Toronto, were enshrined in people’s memory, and some towns, such as Hébertville in the Lac Saint-Jean area and Morinville in Alberta, were named after their founding priests. Outside Quebec, it was in the parish that the ground was prepared for militant action in support of French culture and Catholic faith. The parish became an enclave in foreign territory, and more than in Quebec it was the pivot around which all social activity gravitated. The parish framework gave the migrant a sense of security, identity, and belonging in an unfamiliar place. The school, hospital, and caisse populaire (credit union) were all organized around the parish, which also sponsored recitals, bazaars, lectures, and plays.
Firmly believing the adage, “to lose one’s language is to lose one’s faith,” the clergy in the late nineteenth century came to uphold a vision based on a bicultural Canada, with a cultural appendage in the United States. It was better to stay in Quebec, but, if one had to leave, the other Canadian provinces were preferable by far to the Protestant, and maybe even atheist, republic to the south. By 1880, however, it had become clear that emigration from Quebec to the United States was becoming a permanent phenomenon. The Church incorporated the movement into its messianic idea of providential mission, reinterpreting emigration as a French-Canadian effort to reconquer Anglo-Protestant America. For one of the most influential French-Canadian theologians of the beginning of the twentieth century, Louis-Adolphe Pâquet, this reconquest in the name of religion and civilization constituted “the real vocation, the special vocation of the French race in America.”
The Church often acted as the mainspring of nationalist organizations, such as the Saint-Jean-Baptiste societies. Before the emergence of a lay elite, leaders in diaspora French-Canadian communities were recruited among the clergy, who maintained firm ties with Quebec. In 1910 the leadership of the new Association Canadienne-Française d’Éducation de l’Ontario (ACFEO), founded to defend Franco-Ontarian language rights, included several priests. Similarly, the French-Canadian clergy founded ideologically motivated newspapers, like Le Droit (Ottawa, 1913–), and in Ontario it turned the separate school system, established along denominational lines, into a linguistic and cultural refuge. During the crisis in the early years of the century over the place of French in Ontario schools, Bishop Élie Latulippe of the diocese of Haileybury went so far as to declare, “If our mother tongue is taken from us, let it only be when frozen to our palates and when our last comrade has fallen. Brothers, justice does not die and it is sometimes only on gravestones that palm leaves are spread and flowers open. Courage, brothers – we are now writing the most beautiful page of Canada’s history.”
Throughout the French-Canadian diaspora, the Catholic Church created a variety of services and institutions under the direction of priests and religious orders. In Quebec alone, the Catholic network of social assistance in the late nineteenth century included about fifty hospitals and asylums and dozens of specialized institutions.
In addition, the clergy controlled educational institutions, from elementary schools to universities. In Quebec, publicly funded Catholic schools were under the jurisdiction of the Catholic committee of the provincial Council of Public Instruction. All the province’s bishops sat on this committee along with an equal number of lay people. The bishops held supreme power over regulations, programs, textbooks, teaching personnel, inspectors, and even the drafting of school legislation. At the local level parish priests had considerable influence: they visited schools, closely surveyed teacher hirings, and examined teachers’ personal lives and the content of their teaching. In the United States, French-Canadian parishes quickly created a system of schools that Catholic children were supposed to attend. The Church also helped shape a male elite through its famous classical colleges. In the diaspora, French-Canadian centres gradually acquired their own classical colleges, which were run by male religious orders.
Girls received a convent education that was less thorough and did not lead to higher studies. Laval University, founded under the auspices of the Quebec seminary in 1852, completely excluded women until 1900. That year the institution’s clerical board agreed to allow women to attend classes in rhetoric and literature, but it did not grant them the right to write final examinations and no academic work was expected of them. This decision reflected the Catholic hierarchy’s defensive position with regard to women. Although the Church felt women’s place was in the home, it was unable to prevent middle-class women from forming organizations, and in 1907 it tried to provide a framework for them in the Fédération Nationale Saint-Jean-Baptiste. The following year, with the support of feminists, the women religious of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame founded a secondary school in Montreal, the École d’Enseignement Supérieur, exclusively devoted to the education of girls. The Church opposed it, however, and the institution was not granted the status of a classical college until 1926. Clerics much preferred to have girls attend normal schools and domestic-science schools, which they considered more conducive to promoting family and Catholic values.
Religious communities played a crucial role in providing a framework for Catholics. The Grey Nuns, the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of the Assumption, and numerous other orders of men and women took charge of institutions, especially schools, and fanned out through the whole French-Canadian archipelago. They emphasized the idea of belonging to a French-speaking nation while adjusting to life in minority communities outside Quebec, often by offering bilingual services in schools and hospitals. The bishops frequently entrusted these orders with the conversion of souls, as when Bishop Ignace Bourget of Montreal sent the Oblates of Mary Immaculate to the Ottawa valley lumber camps in 1845. Between 1845 and 1918, sixteen religious communities from Quebec, France, and French-speaking pockets in the United States became established in Ontario. This could be seen elsewhere as well. For instance, the parish of Bourbonnais in Illinois built a stone church in 1858, which bore a strong architectural resemblance to the old church in Cap-Saint-Ignace near Quebec City, native town to a number of the parishioners. The sisters of the Congrégation de Notre-Dame started a convent for young children in Bourbonnais in 1861, and in 1865 the Clerics of Saint-Viator of Joliette founded a classical college, which was to become a key institution for French Canadians in the American midwest. Granted a universtity charter in 1874, it trained priests, lawyers, journalists, and doctors, imbuing them with a deep sense of their religious and national heritage.
Using all its power, the Church made great efforts to counter the effects of the change in people’s mores engendered by urbanization and Americanization. To this end, it created associations as a way to manage and control parishioners: the Dames de Sainte-Anne, the Enfants de Marie, Sacred Heart leagues, Saint-Jean Baptiste societies, and others. After the publication of the socially minded papal encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, the Church made social action one of its priorities. In 1902 at Laval University, priests and lay people organized the Société du Parler Français to protect the French language against the threat of anglicization. Two years later, clerics founded the Association Catholique de la Jeunesse Canadienne (ACJC), a network of study and discussion groups for classical college students with branches throughout the French-Canadian archipelago. The ACJC’s aims were to prepare the coming generation “for a life of effective action for the good of religion andthe nation.” In 1911 the clergy founded the École Sociale Populaire, whose role was to provide Catholic solutions for social problems.
According to historian Jean Hamelin, in the Church’s eyes French Canada was “a hierarchical Christian society based on natural order, made up primarily of farmers flourishing in line with its Catholic and French destiny.” The ultramontane Church believed that the terrestial City is subordinate to the City of God. And so while it advocated respect for authority, it did not hesitate to influence governments, which it considered subject to its concerns. It was in this perspective that the Church intervened in Quebec politics, especially in the 1870s. In elections and on other occasions, the clergy fought to ensure that their enemies, the Liberals, did not win power or influence legislation. Some ultramontanes even launched an election manifesto in 1871, the Catholic Program, in an effort to persuade people to elect candidates who were faithful to ultramontane doctrine. Although Archbishop Elzéar-Alexandre Taschereau of Quebec and other members of the hierarchy vigorously denounced the program, Quebec bishops joined forces four years later to attack “Catholic liberalism” – an overt condemnation of the Liberal Party. That same year they also succeeded in shutting down Quebec’s Ministry of Public Instruction after an eight-year battle.
For several years, zealous priests went so far as threatening Catholics who dared support the Liberals, thundering from the pulpit that “heaven is blue, hell is red” in reference to the colours associated with the Conservative and Liberal parties. Following Rome’s intervention and civil suits against their “undue influence,” the ultramontanes were forced to abandon direct interference in election campaigns and use lobbying tactics instead. In this way they mounted a successful campaign between 1897 and 1899 to kill a bill that would have revived the Ministry of Public Instruction. Outside Quebec, however, French Canadians’ minority status and lack of political influence prevented even the most zealous priests from realizing their ultramontane goals.
Family, kin, and parish structure made it possible for French-Canadian migrants to survive all kinds of misfortunes and adapt without too much difficulty to new environments, especially to the harsh conditions prevalent in Canadian and American cities. More often than not, they were crammed into disease-ridden slums where municipal services were inadequate and the first task of public hygiene services was to gather animal carcasses and other refuse that might compromise people’s health. Draining dirty water was a constant concern and a periodic danger. Most dwellings had, at best, one toilet per floor, shared by at least two families. People threw their refuse out the window into piles that accumulated below.
In this environment, disease was rampant and epidemics were frequent. During the 1840s, poor Irish immigrants arriving in Quebec brought typhus with them, which spread throughout the local population. From the 1850s on, smallpox became the primary killer. In Montreal in 1885, smallpox killed 3,000 people, although this epidemic was unusual in that it spared the “Little Canadas,” the French-Canadian neighbourhoods of New England. At the end of the nineteenth century other contagious diseases such as tuberculosis, diphtheria, and scarlet fever were widespread and caused the majority of deaths in both rural and urban areas. Young children ran the risk of dying from gastro-intestinal infections as a result of contaminated water and milk. At the turn of the century, Montreal was an extremely unhealthy city. The same situation existed on a smaller scale in the French-Canadian neighbourhoods of many other towns, as well as in rural areas. The lower St Lawrence, for instance, was struck by epidemics in 1846, 1867–68, 1872–75, and 1879.
In the factories, French Canadians, like other workers, were subjected to the demands of the industrial machine. The bosses fined them for being late, inattentive, or disorderly. In the textile industry, the practice of hiring entire families made discipline easier. Sometimes force was to used to teach young people a lesson, and paltry wages contributed to labourers’ docility. Miners in Sudbury, in northern Ontario, earned between $1.50 and $2 a day in 1893; day labourers in Lewiston, Maine, were paid a similar amount. The first reflex of a great many bosses aiming to cut costs and be competitive was to reduce wages. The piecework system, widespread in Canadian factories, was a guarantee for factory managers that labourers would produce rapid, regular work. And managers intimidated men by threatening to replace them with women, children, or recent immigrants.
Everywhere, the work day was long, and the work week was between sixty and seventy-two hours. In the textile mills, workers suffered from humid air, tenacious dust, and strong odours escaping from most of the machines. They had to endure inadequate lighting and were sometimes treated poorly by their foremen. It was too cold in winter and too hot in summer. Some factories had no running water, toilets, or even emergency exits. In his book Jeanne la fileuse (Jeanne the Spinner), the journalist, novelist, and future Montreal mayor Honoré Beaugrand immortalized a deadly 1874 fire in a mill in Fall River, Massachussetts. The machines had no safety bars and often swallowed the fingers, arms, or legs of their victims, turning them into invalids for life. Working conditions were no less dangerous in the mines. In Ontario, no fewer than fifty French-Canadian miners had serious accidents between 1893 and 1907.
Working people, especially labourers, also constantly faced the danger of being laid off. This danger was part of the reason the family economy was so important. A family could set aside money only when the children were old enough to work but had not yet left home. If a father and two children worked, the family could probably buy meat for Sunday dinner and even so-called luxury items like a carpet for the living room or a sewing machine. However, the smallest accident put the delicate balance at risk. Living in difficult conditions, French Canadians often moved from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, if not to a new area altogether. They looked for a place that was not as dirty, that was bigger, that had a toilet on the same floor, that was closer to their jobs, or that got them away from the gossiping neighbour or the shifty-eyed old bachelor.
Much has been written about the docility of French Canadians and their readiness to work at any price and under any conditions. In New England, what were seen as their negative and undesirable character traits were highlighted with the epithet “Chinese of the East.” Their Catholicism and ancestral respect for authority were blamed for their docility. There is some truth in this characterization, but it is too simplistic. To understand French Canadians’ attitude towards union activity, we need to look elsewhere. It is important to remember that French Canadians were unskilled or low-skilled workers, a category that was of little interest to labour activists. Furthermore, the first generation that gathered in the disease-ridden districts of industrial towns had no experience of collective resistance.
Family and individual concerns determined the ways in which French Canadians adapted to or resisted industrial discipline. If conditions permitted, a worker might not go in to work one morning and go hunting in the neighbouring forest instead. Employees often deserted factories in the summer to work on the family farm. Depending on the economic situation and the local job market, they could be rehired in the fall or find work with a competitor. In some New England towns, factories reluctantly closed their doors on New Year’s Day because French-Canadian employees did not show up for work. The same thing happened on the day of the funeral of a parish priest or other important figure. To take revenge on a boss or foreman, workers might help themselves to good pieces of fabric for their curtains at home. Furthermore, the presence of family and neighbours in the same workplace no doubt delayed union activity. Individuals apprenticed with people they knew and were covered if they got to work late. A folk song might be the signal for an entire floor to slow the pace of work if they were being harassed by the foreman – who at the end of the day would have to account to his boss for the lack of productivity.
It was no accident that, in a number of places, it was when the population became more stable and a second generation of urban dwellers emerged that French Canadians developed an interest in union activity. Unlike other immigrants, French-Canadian workers did not tend to see union activity as an appropriate strategy as long as they viewed their stay in the town as temporary and their goals were focused on the farm in the Quebec countryside that they would buy or expand. As soon as a strike was called, they took to the road in search of a situation that would better suit their goals.
On the other hand, once they decided, sometimes unconsciously, to settle somewhere, union activity became a necessary instrument – one they even began to seek out. This change can be seen in the case of a young man from the Montreal region who was recruited as a strikebreaker in the granite industry in Barre, Vermont. He decided to settle in the small town after the strike and soon became active in the union. Several years later, during another strike, he was surprised to see his own cousin, freshly arrived from Quebec, breaking the strike and taking his job. Outside Quebec, the ideology of the living wage and compulsory education also began to shake the structure of the family economy. At this point as well, French-Canadian union leaders began to emerge who, for the obvious linguistic and cultural reasons, were better able than anglophones to transmit the union message.
In Quebec, workers’ mutual-benefit societies and small craft unions operated in isolation in the pre-Confederation era. In 1867 a branch of the Knights of St Crispin was founded in Montreal. Imported from the United States, this organization of shoemakers sought to hold back mechanization and the related influx of unkilled labour. After 1886 the Canadian Trades and Labour Congress (later the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada) espoused similar goals. The Grande Association in 1867 and the Ligue Ouvrière in 1872 represented the first attempts to bring together workers from all occupations, an idea that was given impetus in the 1880s by the Knights of Labor, another American organization. Like unions established on a craft basis, the Knights aimed at improving working conditions by pressuring employers and gradually became politicized. Workers went out on strike as the need arose, and some 200 strikes between 1851 and 1896 have been documented. In the early twentieth century, almost all Quebec factories experienced work stoppages. Since the employers’ means and solidarity were more than a match for the workers, most strikes ended to the employer’s advantage. Moreover, it was not uncommon for the militia or the police to intervene.
The Church, as represented by Archbishop Taschereau of Quebec, threatened to excommunicate the Knights of Labor and publicly condemned the organization, but his threats did not stop the Knights’ growth. By 1887 they had 17,600 members in Montreal alone. During the 1890s, the Knights of Labor continued to gain members, but they lost ground in inter-union rivalries as the number of locals of international unions grew significantly. In 1902 the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, dominated by the internationals, expelled the Knights of Labor and all Canadian unions operating in the same industries as existing international unions. The expelled unions, most of which were in Quebec, gathered into a new organization, the National Trades and Labour Congress of Canada, which in 1908 became the Canadian Federation of Labour. These unions were especially active in the shoe industry, construction, and textiles, and had their headquarters in Quebec City, where they dominated the union movement. But after an initial period of growth, their numbers ebbed quickly in the years just before World War I. In Quebec City internal dissension weakened the unions, while in Montreal the growth of the internationals led to the elimination of several Canadian unions.
In 1920 the international unions, almost all of which were affiliated with the American Federation of Labor, had 32,400 members in the province of Quebec. The Church was alarmed at the growth of these non-denominational unions, which it considered socialist. Even Quebec’s earliest national unions were not above clerical suspicion. Inspired by the encyclical Rerum Novarum in 1891, however, the Church started its own Catholic union movement. Taschereau’s successor as archbishop of Quebec, Louis-Nazaire Bégin, launched the Catholic union movement while acting as arbitrator in a strike in Quebec City’s shoe industry in 1901. Priests such as Father Eugène Lapointe of Chicoutimi became effective promoters of the movement from 1907 on. Fourteen years later, at the founding convention of the Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour, the CCCL could boast 26,000 members.
Catholic unions were successful to a point, but they tended to be more active in small businesses and small towns where they replaced the secular Canadian unions. Their denominational character, their insistence on social accommodation, and their tendency to focus more on moral than on occupational concerns all impeded their growth in larger businesses dominated by foreign capital and employing workers of differing origins and beliefs. The Catholic labour organizations never achieved the power and size of the international unions, and they did not succeed in becoming solidly rooted in the Montreal area or the French-Canadian diaspora. Thus, when workers in eastern Ontario became unionized, they tended to prefer unions that had no Catholic or French association.
As French Canadians emigrated to different parts of North America, their relations with other groups, especially the anglophone majority, became hostile. Fearing a French-Canadian invasion, many anglophones revived old stereotypes or created new ones. A minority of them, true heirs of Lord Durham, advocated a form of quiet assimilation, on the theory that if French Canadians were not attacked directly they would come to understand the superiority of British institutions and culture. Everywhere, anglophones saw French-Canadian migration as occurring in two stages. In the first stage it was seen as the wanderings of groups of vagabonds, birds of passage. Later, however, people feared that an influx of large families would threaten Anglo-Saxon supremacy.
In the late nineteenth century, the rise of social Darwinism helped convince English-speaking Protestants of their superiority and comforted them in their rejection of French-Canadian distinctness, which they treated with condescension. French Canadians were excellent manual workers, but they lacked the initiative to start a business. Despite their virtues, they were dominated by a clergy that killed any form of independence they might harbour. They were clean, polite, even likeable, but remarkably ignorant and narrow. Generously but firmly, they had to be kept in their place. In this view, the only true standards were those of the anglophone majority, and their validity was self-evident. Francophones simply had to accept them and remain unobtrusive.
Newspapers, which whipped up public opinion by playing on the traditional fears and animosities of the anglophone community, expressed this xenophobic and francophobic vision of the world. In 1889 the Evening Telegram (Toronto, 1876–1971) printed this comment on a French-Canadian enclave in eastern Ontario: “The traveller passing through this God-forsaken hole late at night might easily pale with fear at the thought of sleeping in any of the dilapitated houses before him. If the houses themselves were not repugnant enough, a glance at the inhabitants would certainly convince him to run to the woods for shelter. Dirty, grimy, rheumy-eyed, these specimens no more resemble the average farmer in central Ontario than South-African Hottentots resemble educated and civilized Europeans.” In the prairie provinces and in Ontario, the Orange Lodges and the Equal Rights Association, founded in 1889 by federal Conservative MP D’Alton McCarthy and a few fanatics, were particularly vehement in their denunciation of the French presence in Canada. They advocated shutting down the separate school system and making English the only language used in all Canadian schools.
French Canadians’ relations with Irish Catholics were not much better, but the animosity had different sources. The two groups continued to compete for jobs in urban areas, and outside Quebec they sometimes had to share the same schools and churches. Like the Protestants, the Irish did not like to see French Canadians expanding outside Quebec. Having suffered from xenophobic attacks, the Irish in the United States wanted to Americanize the Catholic Church. They had little sympathy for immigrants who wished to set up “national” parishes and who demanded priests and sometimes even bishops of their own nationality. After 1850 ethnoreligious conflicts between French Canadians and Irish were common in New England. As a form of compromise or out of necessity, French-Canadian parishes were sometimes assigned nominally bilingual French or Belgian priests. These priests had the thankless task of cooling tempers while their parishioners saw them as assimilationists in the pay of the Irish bishops. An Alsatian priest who had just taken up his duties in Detroit was even threatened by masked men at gunpoint. On the other hand, when the bishop was conciliatory, as in Chicago, relations were harmonious.
North of the border, anglophone Catholics were afraid that as numbers of French Canadians increased they would be reduced to a minority in the Church, their relations with Protestant-dominated provincial governments would be compromised, and separate schools would be closed. Conflicts abounded. In Ontario, anglophone and francophone Catholics quarelled within school boards about the number of commissioners each ethnic group should have, about how commissioners should be elected, and about the teaching of French to anglophones, among many other issues. The ecclesiastical province of Toronto also initiated a move to annex the Ontario portion of the Ottawa diocese, which since its foundation had been part of the ecclesiastical province of Quebec.
The leader of the anti-French movement in the Ontario episcopate was Michael Francis Fallon, who was consecrated bishop of London, Ontario, in 1910. Allying himself with the Ontario Orangemen, Fallon loudly denounced bilingual schools, which taught neither English nor French well and which he felt confined French Canadians to becoming hewers of wood and drawers of water. When French-Canadian parishioners resisted his imposition of an unacceptable priest, the bishop even called in troops, which led to violence. Fallon found support among his Irish-American and British colleagues. In September 1910, during an international Eucharistic Congress in Montreal, Cardinal Bourne, archbishop of Westminster in England, gave a speech advocating the complete anglicization of the Canadian Church in order to evangelize Canada. French-Canadian nationalist leader Henri Bourassa responded by reminding the prelate that Christ “never made denying one’s race a condition of following him.” Rome eventually reprimanded Fallon for his hateful and destructive declarations.
On the political scene, there was both collaboration and conflict between francophones and anglophones throughout North America. In Prescott County in eastern Ontario, the growth of the francophone population forced anglophone Conservatives to adopt conciliatory tactics. In the 1870s the lumber entrepreneur John Hamilton came to a political agreement with Father Antoine Brunet of East Hawkesbury. The priest was to ensure French-Canadian support for an anglophone candidate running for the provincial legislature, and in return Hamilton promised to use his great influence to rally the anglophone vote for francophone candidates at the federal level. In practice, Hamilton resisted any francophone candidate, but he could not stop francophones from being elected. Sometimes local political fights also became ethno-cultural battles, with anglophones voting massively for one party and francophones voting massively for the other.
Between Confederation and World War I, conflicts between French and English Canadians turned into great national battles that tore the country apart. When a Metis revolt under Louis Riel broke out in Manitoba in 1869, the French-Canadian press intitially treated the rebels as semi-barbarians. However, the fact that most of the Metis were francophone Catholics gave the rebellion symbolic value, and they came to represent the very survival of the French presence in North America. After a second uprising was crushed in 1885, this time in Saskatchewan, Riel became a martyr when he was hanged for treason.
According to a newspaper in eastern Ontario, the only reason Riel was found guilty was that “his name was not Rielson.” Along the same lines, the French-Canadian press described Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald and his Conservatives as murderers, the party of “Orange pendards” (rascals, containing a play on pendre, the French word for “hang”). Memorial services were held everywhere to honour the martyr. The Riel affair seriously damaged the Conservative Party’s standing in French Canada. The Conservatives did not even run candidates in some Quebec and eastern Ontario ridings.
Another consequence of the Riel affair was the election of Honoré Mercier as premier of Quebec at the head of the Parti National, a coalition of Liberals and dissident Conservatives. Mercier believed that French Canadians had to use their provincial institutions to express their dissent as a nation and, from a more partisan standpoint, get rid of the Conservatives in both Ottawa and Quebec City. In 1888 he brought in a bill aimed at resolving the complicated question of the Jesuit Estates, a controversy left over from the suppression of the Jesuit order by the pope in 1773. Although Mercier’s bill contained provisions designed to satisfy all parties, from Protestants to ultramontanes, it raised hackles in Protestant Ontario. D’Alton McCarthy demanded that Ottawa disallow the Jesuit Estates legislation. Public opinion became inflamed.
In 1890 the Manitoba legislature repealed an 1871 act that had established a public denominational education system. The use of French in the legislature and in the courts was also prohibited. Federal Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier and Manitoba Premier Thomas Greenway agreed to a compromise in 1897 that authorized religious teaching after class hours if enough parents requested it. Catholic teachers could be hired accordingly. And if ten students in a school district spoke a language other than English, the school had to provide bilingual classes. But in 1916 the Manitoba government abolished this clause because too many immigrant groups took advantage of it.
The same trend towards unilingualism prevailed in the Northwest Territories, which included Saskatchewan and Alberta until they were organized into provinces in 1905. Charles Nolin argued eloquently against this trend, citing the 1875 legislation creating the Territories, which granted minority denominations the right to administer their own public schools. His pleas fell on deaf ears, however, and the Territories legislated restrictions on the formation of new Catholic schools and religious teaching in general. The Territorial legislature also abolished the use of French, so that English became the language of teaching in the Catholic school system. The one exception involved elementary students who spoke only French.
Legislation in the new provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta contained roughly the same measures, despite Laurier’s opposition. In 1916 English became the only language of teaching in Alberta, and three years later Saskatchewan restricted French classes to one hour a day. French Canadians had to learn how to get around or act in opposition to the school regulations. The Church set up private schools in a number of parishes. Elsewhere, whenever French Canadians were in a majority they simply ignored the law. In Saskatchewan, the Association catholique franco-canadienne organized its own French high school program.
Not to be outdone, Ontario initiated a program of standardization and centralization in the late nineteenth century, in the context of which it introduced laws that were oppressive to French Canadians. With the support of earlier government authorities who had promoted voluntary assimilation, French Canadians had built up a system of French schools in areas where they were concentrated. But after 1885, all teachers, regardless of their mother tongue, had to take an English competency test. In addition, they had to teach English a minimum number of hours per week. In 1889 a commission set up by the Ontario government discovered that almost all the teachers in Prescott and Russell counties had themselves not gone beyond elementary school and that French was still the language of teaching. Following this report, the government withdrew all French-language textbooks from its authorized list for provincial schools.
In 1893 the education minister brought back the three 1889 commissioners to assess the state of English in French schools. Their findings showed impressive progress: 98 percent of children now learned a little English compared with 77 percent four years earlier. Moreover, the quality of teaching had improved. A few years later, however, observers noted that Ontario’s Liberal government had not resolved the language question. The “natural effects” of English institutions were not evident since the francophone presence in eastern Ontario was still growing. After the turn of the century the Conservative Toronto Daily Star sent reporters to investigate the situation in Prescott-Russell. Their inquiry again concluded that French was used exclusively in some schools and that overall the schools were of poor quality. Following this report, the government decreed that English would become the language of communication in all schools, “except where ... it is impracticable by reason of the pupils not understanding English.” This escape clause allowed teachers to continue teaching in French. But harassment continued, especially on the issue of recognizing teaching certificates granted in Quebec.
To defend their rights, francophone elites established the Association Canadienne-Française d’Éducation de l’Ontario (ACFEO) in 1910. However, the Conservatives were now in power, and they had support for a tough school policy from the public, the Orange lodges, and the Irish bishops, who were disappointed by the failure of their efforts to anglicize the Church. The government announced its new policy on 13 April 1912: “Instruction shall commence at once upon a child entering school. The use of French as the language of instruction and of communication vary according to local conditions upon the report of the supervising inspector, but in no case to continue beyond the end of the first term.” A circular known as Regulation 17, issued by the education ministry on 25 June, confirmed this policy. Without knowing it, the Ontario authorities had provoked a crisis, which in the short term had vast repercussions across the country and in the long term contributed significantly to the birth of a Franco-Ontarian identity.
The ACFEO responded by asking the francophone commissioners sitting on the Ottawa separate school board (CESO) not to put Regulation 17 into effect. The government in turn passed Regulation 18, which legislated penalties for failing to comply with the law, including withdrawing school subsidies and transferring income from separate school taxes to the public school board. When the Ontario government actually stopped all payments to the separate school board in September 1913, people responded with civil disobedience. In April 1914 the government replaced the board with a commission made up of three people, only one of whom was francophone. But this new commission was no more successful at enforcing the school regulation. When it fired two recalcitrant teachers, they simply started private classes in a neighbourhood home, and all their students followed them. Tempers flared. In February 1916 a crowd of 5,000 gathered on Parliament Hill and called on Prime Minister Robert Borden to use his constitutional power to disallow the provincial law. The prime minister refused. And when Wilfrid Laurier, leader of the opposition, agreed to sponsor a bill asking the governor-in-council to disallow the Ontario school law, the bill was defeated.
The conscription crisis, another symbolically charged event for French Canadians, came on the heels of the school crisis and exacerbated tensions between anglophones and francophones. At the start of World War I in 1914, there was unanimity in both communities about Canada’s participation in the war effort and support for Britain. Throughout French-Canadian towns, large crowds expressed their support for the Allies, and the archbishops of Quebec and Montreal revived the old theme of Canadiens’ sacred duty towards England. But as the language crisis in Ontario became more poisonous, French Canadians increasingly linked it to Canadian participation in the war overseas. At Laval University, a student newspaper declared that the real danger to French civilization was not in Flanders but in Ottawa schools. Moreover, a number of Conservative politicians criticized French Canadians’ lack of participation in the war effort.
The conscription question tore Canada apart. The anglophone majority favoured conscription, while francophones opposed it. When a law was passed in 1917 instituting compulsory military service, it provoked a passionate response that lasted throughout the summer and fall. On one side Henri Bourassa spoke of national suicide for a foreign cause; on the other the Globe (Toronto, 1844–) called on Canadians to make a new commitment for the sake of liberty. Protest marches were held. Young people fled to the woods or hid in basements. Recent classical college graduates suddenly discovered they had a vocation and entered the Church. A desperate bid to recruit volunteers in Quebec turned up a meagre ninety recruits.
During the 1917 election campaign, the English-language press accused Bourassa of treason. No French-language newspaper would support the Conservative Party. Quebec crowds set upon members of the new Unionist Party, a coalition of Conservatives and disgruntled Liberals, with rotten eggs and even guns. The vote split along ethnic lines. French Canada voted massively for the Liberals, and English Canada, with its larger population base, voted the Unionists into power. In the spring of 1918 riots broke out in Quebec City and lasted three days. The army fired on the crowds, killing five civilians and wounding dozens more.
The fight for French-Canadian cultural survival had traditionally been led by an alliance of the clergy and lower-middle- and middle-class lay people, based on shared ideology and dating back to the 1840s. Wealthy entrepreneurs, like Louis-Adélard Sénécal, Rodolphe Forget, Alfred Dubuc, and F.L. Béïque, were generally lukewarm towards these movements, probably because of their close commercial collaboration with the anglophone community. Smaller entrepreneurs and developers throughout the French-Canadian archipelago, with interests in industries such as lumber, property development, commerce, and to a lesser extent manufacturing and finance, were often too busy climbing the social ladder to think about cultural survival. This was especially true of general merchants, who constituted a large part of the rural elite and whose pursuits included mortgaging, land speculation, small industry, construction, and shipping.
In cities and the suburbs just beginning to grow up around them, urbanization gave thousands of merchants and entrepreneurs an influential role in their communities. A few hundred of these individuals gained importance at a regional level. They invested in the wholesale trade, built factories, founded banks (often with the express intention of servicing a French-Canadian clientele), supported a new French-language business press, and in the early twentieth century persuaded the Quebec government to develop a technical education program.
Another avenue of social advancement was through political and administrative posts, and these were largely monopolized by the “noblesse de robe,” the elite of judges, lawyers, notaries, doctors, surveyors, and engineers, which also extended its hold and became much more organized. Over time, genuine political dynasties emerged. These professionals participated in all the debates relating to French-Canadian society, and as a political class they were forced to take a position on cultural survival.
Outside Quebec, large sections of the francophone middle class were quickly assimilated. Essentially turning their backs on their compatriots, they scarcely participated in the network of French-Canadian cultural institutions. Others preferred to maintain a more ambiguous stance. Among these were Liberal Senator Philippe Roy, an Alberta French Canadian who became Canada’s commissioner general in Paris in 1911, and Alfred Evanturel, the great nationalist leader of Prescott County, who hardly opened his mouth in the Ontario legislature during the impassioned debates on the school question that directly affected his riding.
This approach differed greatly from the stance of leaders who had emigrated from Quebec more recently and tried to preserve their cultural and social connections to their native province while establishing themselves in their new communities. Thus, Ferdinand Gagnon in New England and Napoléon-Antoine Belcourt in Ontario made cultural survival their profession and vocation. Belcourt held a seat in the House of Commons between 1896 and 1907 before becoming a senator. As a lawyer he defended French Canadians’ education rights in the Ontario courts, and he became the ACFEO’s first president. Thanks to his conciliatory temperament, he played a key role in the eventual annulment of Regulation 17 in 1927.
To help them do battle, clerical and lay elites created their own associations and newspapers. After Ludger Duvernay founded the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Association in Montreal in 1834, local Saint-Jean-Baptiste societies sprang up across the continent. These early associations played a socio-economic role as mutual-benefit societies, but they also promoted cultural activities and acted as guardians of cultural survival. Over time many of them gave birth to more specialized societies. Thus, an Ottawa chapter of the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society, founded in 1852, almost immediately changed its name to the Institut Canadien-Français and soon became an important cultural centre, erecting its own building, founding a library, offering lectures and concerts, organizing recreational events and parties, and holding numerous recitals, plays, and speaking contests. At the same time, mutual-benefit societies, like the Union Saint-Joseph, were founded to help labourers and their families in illness and death. Although started by workers, the mutual-benefit societies were quickly taken over by the lower middle classes, sometimes after bitter struggles.
In the early twentieth century, community leaders felt the need to regroup the local Saint-Jean-Baptiste societies into provincial federations in Canada and regional ones in the United States. This happened in Manitoba in 1908 and in Saskatchewan the following year. But because francophones who had more recently emigrated from Europe did not see their own culture reflected in these groupings, the societies did not last and were replaced by other associations, like the Association d’Éducation des Canadiens-Français in Manitoba and the Association Catholique Franco-Canadienne in Saskatchewan, which more fully represented all the elements of the francophone population in these provinces. In Alberta, two organizations were merged to form the Association Canadienne-Française in 1926. Alongside these associations, militants fighting for French-Canadian cultural survival also founded a plethora of newspapers.
Each group that came under threat – the Metis in the west, the “wounded of Ontario,” or French Canadians in Maine – evoked feelings of solidarity among militants throughout the French-Canadian archipelago. Many nationalist journalists learned their trade outside Quebec, like the fiery Olivar Asselin, who started his career in Massachusetts with the Protecteur canadien (1892–95) in Fall River and La Tribune (1895–1934) of Woonsocket. Activists like Asselin stirred up public opinion, visiting francophone minority communities throughout the continent and bringing reports of these communities’ achievements or struggles back to Quebec. During the Regulation 17 crisis, Henri Bourassa often spoke in Ontario, and the Montreal newspaper he founded in 1910, Le Devoir (Montreal, 1910–), wrote in support of French Canadians in the neighbouring province, as did L’Action sociale catholique (1907–73) and Le Soleil (1896–) in Quebec City. Quebec nationalist associations gathered funds to help their Ontario comrades in their struggle. Bourassa believed that strengthening francophone minorities elsewhere would solidify Quebec’s position as well. During World War I, he went as far as to call the enemies of French Canadians the “Prussians of Ontario.”
Quebec bishops also encouraged collections for French Canadians across the Ottawa River and supported priests’ campaigns from the pulpit. In the diocese of Sherbrooke, Bishop Paul LaRoque’s urgent appeal on 19 February 1916 brought in $2,132.08 – at that point the largest sum collected in a special campaign in the history of the diocese. Before public gatherings of 10,000 people, religious leaders and political figures from both major parties reiterated the supremacy of French-Canadian national interests. Quebec’s Legislative Assembly even passed a motion in 1915 inviting Ontario to show signs of greater generosity and openness of spirit. The premier, Lomer Gouin, sent Ontario Premier W.H. Hearst a letter to this effect. Later, by a near-unanimous vote, the assembly passed a law allowing municipalities to contribute financially to the struggle of Ontario francophones. Even school children sent the money they received from their end-of-year prizes to Ontario. A popular four-act play, Le petit maître d’école, was performed in Ottawa on 6 June 1916 and then presented throughout the Ottawa valley and in Montreal. French Canadians in Quebec provided the same kind of outpouring of support for their fellow francophones in Ontario that they had given the Metis of the west during the Riel rebellion.
Some bishops, such as Paul Bruchési in Montreal and Joseph-Médard Émard in Valleyfield, Quebec, were much more conciliatory than their colleagues. During World War I, these prelates feared being acccused of lacking loyalty towards Britain. In late October 1916 Pope Benedict XV issued an encyclical calling for compromise, which only widened the gap between militants and conciliators. Some, including Philippe Landry and Napoléon-Antoine Belcourt who had led the great ethnolinguistic battles in Ontario, accepted the papal directives. Some younger nationalists, on the other hand, challenged the pope’s judgment on political issues.
When a particular group or person achieved success, this too was appropriated by the French-Canadian militant elite as a whole. In December 1914 the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Society of Montreal organized a ceremony to honour the governor of Rhode Island, Aram-Jules Pothier, and invited “all the most outstanding French-Canadian figures.” When he arrived in Montreal, Pothier was welcomed by none other than the former prime minister, Wilfrid Laurier, along with the city’s mayor, Médéric Martin. Henri Bourassa also took the opportunity to highlight the endurance, perseverance, and “patriotic acts” of French Canadians in the United States as models to be imitated north of the border.
Interest in cultural achievements and losses throughout North America also extended to ordinary French Canadians. Identification with these struggles came easily to people who generally had a sense of connection with various areas of the French-Canadian archipelago and felt victimized by similar injustices.
The leaders worked hard to instil their vision of the world in the people. However, the people’s commitment to or enthusiasm for cultural survival is difficult to evaluate. Militants likely exaggerated the cohesion that they claimed existed around their cause, and Honoré Mercier’s dream of French-Canadian national unity never materialized, despite the large popular demonstrations after the hanging of Riel. French-Canadian voters remained divided between the Liberal and Conservative parties, at least until the conscription crisis. In Ontario, more than a quarter of French-Canadian voters remained loyal to the Conservative Party, despite its authorship of Regulation 17. Nor can the strength of national feeling be established from the anti-conscription riots. Many feared losing their loved ones in the war and were tired of inflation and rationing. And the million or so people who participated year in year out in the Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day parades in Montreal may have regarded them more as social occasions than as expressions of respect towards their patron saint.
Across the continent, but especially in the United States, French Canadians quickly became culturally assimilated. They were deaf to the exhortations and repatriation policies of the Canadian and Quebec governments. Even in Bourbonnais, Illinois, considered the French-Canadian mecca of the American midwest, French was in decline as early as the 1860s. A few people protested more actively against the authority of the elites. A handful defected to Protestantism. Others refused to send their children to parish or separate schools – considered compulsory in many parts of the French-Canadian archipelago – at the risk of being refused the sacraments by the Church. Finally, according to Fernand Ouellet, there was an ever-widening gap in Ontario between the socio-cultural elites and the masses.
Whatever the state of national unity among French Canadians across North America between the middle of the nineteenth century and the end of World War I, the war brought about an important break in the evolution of the French-Canadian archipelago. After 1918 new identities clearly emerged out of the old. This happened in different ways in different geographical regions, although there were common elements that transcended regional distinctions.