This May Day, “Je Me Souviens”
On this May Day of Action, many of my family and friends of French-Canadian descent should remember this:
At the turn of last century, our ancestors were part of a huge migration into the United States, with Canada losing a near-third of its population in the process. (Our branch of Pothiers came from the Trois-Rivières area in Quebec.) And when we poured into the pulp, textile, shoe, and other manufacturing mill-towns of New England (Chicopee, Mass., in our case), the established citizens were none-too-welcoming, due in part to our loyalty to church, language, and family. Cheap labor, everybody likes; but our growing numbers and différence were soon seen as just another threat to the existing order.
The New York Times published a piece to this effect on July 5, 1889, including the following:
“…In those New-England States that adjoin Lower Canada, the influx of French-Canadians … tempted by a more genial climate than their own and a higher rate of wages, have swarmed the factories and taken up the farms abandoned by the natives as unprofitable. They are so much more prolific than their neighbors that the proportion of them to the whole community, whenever they have established themselves, tends to increase with surprising rapidity…
“Whether this immigration is a good thing or bad thing for the country is a question the answer to which depends upon the same considerations that determine the character of any other immigration. It may be summed up in the general statement that immigration is a source of strength to the country insofar as it is capable of being readily assimilated and Americanized… Tried by this standard, it must be owned that the French-Canadians do not give promise of incorporating themselves into the body politic…
“The French-Canadians mean to retain in this country, as for two centuries they have succeeded in retaining in Canada, the religions and language of their ancestors, as distinctive badges of their separation from their neighbors. Comparatively few of them become citizens at all, and those who do rate their citizenship so low and understand its duties so little that the power of voting renders them much less acceptable members of the community than they would without it…”
That public alarm mushroomed a few years later in another New York Times editorial (June 6, 1892), after recent statistics showed that 400,000 of our ancestors were affecting the “balance of power” in New England’s “principal cities.” They weren’t assimilating as well as the editors might have hoped, due to “Notre religion, notre langue, et nos moeurs” (“Our religion, our language, and our mores” was the motto of the more organized). That editorial goes on to say:
“Mr. Francis Parkman has ably pointed out their singular tenacity as a race and their extreme devotion to their religion… It is next to impossible to penetrate this mass of protected and secluded humanity with modern ideas or to induce them to interest themselves in democratic institutions and methods of government… No other people… is so persistent in repeating themselves… Where they halt and stay, they multiply and cover the earth… the migration of these people is part of a priestly scheme now fervently fostered in Canada for the purpose of bringing New-England under the control of the Roman Catholic faith….
“It has been hoped heretofore that the free pressure of American life upon our foreign populations was sufficient to change all new-comers, no matter what might have been their previous affiliations, into interested and enthusiastic Americans in the course of one or two generations, but when an immigration like that of the French-Canadians in New-England takes possession of the centers of population and has the power to crowd out the less productive race in the struggle for the survival of the fittest, the free action of American institutions is not strong enough to counteract these designs, and it is only by national legislation that the difficulty can be reached.”
That phrase — the “free pressure of American life” — makes the old “melting pot” sound downright homey and savory by comparison. To be sure, editorials such as these two, a century ago, were part of that pressure-cooker. But, thankfully, today’s marchers are too.
Vive la difference!
(I am grateful to the writer Clark Blaise, whose excellent I Had a Father: A Post-Modern Autobiography taught me a great deal about my own parentage. These clips are some of his research.)