French Canadian Migration

Questions to ask yourself:

Why do people migrate? Is historical change caused more by individuals or the conditions of society at the time? Did the lives of people in the 19th Century get better or worse?

What you will be able to do:

Identify the demographic situation in Lower Canada.

Explain the causes and consequences of the emigration of the French Canadians.

Why do people migrate?

Throughout history the migration of numerous groups has shaped our present day. Today, many people continue to move from country to country, region to region, and city to city. Many do so voluntarily, but others do so out of necessity.

When we discuss the migration of people we can classify the factors that led to their migration as push and pull factors. Push factors are those that force people to move away. Pull factors on the other hand, are ones that attract people to a new location.

As you investigate the migration of French Canadians in the period of 1840-1896, think of which factors pushed them away from their homes and which other factors pulled them to their new homes.

Wedding party, Lewiston, 1897. "This photograph not only illustrates the large size of Franco-American families, which could typically include more than twelve children, but also the tight living conditions endured by many early immigrants." https://www.mainememory.net/artifact/18378 for educational purposes.

Demographic pressure on Lower Canada

Demographics of Lower Canada 1820's - 1850's

  • 427,465 (1822)

  • 553,134 (1831)

  • 650,000 (1841)

  • 890,261 (1851)

The demographic pressure on Lower Canada in the 1840's and 1850's was growing. In twenty years the population had grown by around 60%. A combination of natural increase and migration from Great Britain accounted for this dramatic growth. Most French Canadians continued to live in the St. Lawrence Valley, between Montreal and Quebec City. While some had settled in the Eastern Townships and in Western Quebec around Hull (present day Gatineau), these areas were predominantly Anglophone. A lack of farming land required many people to look elsewhere for opportunities.

Industrialization was slow to take hold in Canada. In the 1840's and 1850's Canada was a rural colony with an economy based on agriculture. Industrialization had taken hold in Great Britain in the late 18th Century, spread to other parts of western Europe and to the United States by the 1830's. While the nascent industrial sector was beginning in cities like Montreal in the 1840's, many French Canadians looked further south for better opportunities.

Activity idea: Create an infographic

Create an infographic of the population makeup in Lower Canada, that also includes Upper Canada, and the US population. Use a site like Piktochart or Easel.ly. See resources available in the document collection here.

Opportunities to young French Canadians

Boy leaving work at Amoskeag Mills, Manchester, N.H. 1909.
Boy leaving work at Amoskeag Mills, Manchester, N.H. 1909. Other images at www.tfcg.ca/history-french-canadians-manchester-nh

The rapidly industrializing United States offered opportunities to young French Canadians. New factories, especially cotton mills, were opening in the New England states (Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Rhode Island and Connecticut) and required large amounts of unskilled labourers. These factories offered higher wages than those in Canada. The geographic proximity to Canada was another factor that led to many French Canadians emigrating to the United States. Not only were the New England states close to Lower Canada, but a major technological change helped facilitate this migration.

Railways were an important part of industrialization. Railways linked the countryside to cities and cities to other cities, which made trade and communication easier. Montreal was quickly linked with American ports because even though Montreal was a port city, the St. Lawrence froze in the winter, but American ports could be accessed year round. These railways also made it easier for people to move to the United States in search of work.

The migration of French Canadians to New England was not a small or short phenomena. Indeed, it represented a mass migration of people, over a long period of time. It has been estimated that in a period of ninety years, from 1840 to 1930, around 900,000 French Canadians moved to the United States in search of work! They established French Catholic neighbourhoods, called Little Canadas, in cities like Lowell, Massachusetts; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Lewiston, Maine. A particular dialect of French called New England French continues to be spoken in parts of the region today.

Activities to Explore Immigrant Realities

Explore the realities of migrant and factory life in Canada and New England. Use an organizer like this to react to and observe and analyze images, and also to note what you notice in some key films about the times.

Map of St. Jerome by P. F. Soucy. Available at www.virtualmuseum.ca/

Colonization

Initially there was not much concern about the emigration of thousands of people to the United States. Despite the migration, the population continued to increase. Elites looked down upon the emigrants whom they saw as lazy and weak. Some nationalists even saw the emigration as an opportunity to increase the French Canadian nation into the United States and increase the Catholic presence in America.

However, as the 19th Century progressed, elites, nationalists and the Catholic Church became more and more concerned about the continued migration of people and the establishment of vibrant French communities in New England. Businessmen realized that the loss of agricultural and industrial workers to New England threatened the sustainability of factories in Canada. Nationalists were worried that despite the establishment of Little Canadas in New England, that eventually they would be assimilated into American society. The Clergy (many who were also nationalists) were afraid that industrialization along with the growing settlement of English speaking Canadians in parts of Lower Canada (later Quebec) were imperilling the French Catholic nation.

The solution was a back to the land movement. Often supported by the federal and provincial governments, the clergy promoted colonization of the Laurentians, Laurentides and other regions north of the St. Lawrence as a purer way of life than that of the cities or the United States. They were aided by government promises of land and with the construction of new railways.

The main proponent of this colonization movement was Curé Antoine Labelle of the parish of St. Jerome. The priest was concerned about the growing number of protestant settlers arriving to the northwest of Montreal. His grand scheme was to build a railway from Montreal to St. Jerome and then west through the Outaouais and up to Temiskaming. Under his leadership, he did bring around 5000 settlers to the area, but his efforts did little to stem the tide of migration to the United States. One often unmentioned consequence of this colonization movement is the effects on the indigenous people who tried to maintain a traditional way of life on the land. Faced with the loss of hunting grounds, the Algonquian peoples sent a number of petitions to the government asking for the protection of the land guaranteed under the Royal Proclamation of 1763.

All texts by Matt Russell | © LEARN under CC license BY-NC-ND

Click to view a video tutorial on QEP program elements and examples of the "Explore" phase of an inquiry process in action and using the content available in this section.

! LIVE - Explore Example - Irish and French Immigration - PIcs and Vids


Teachers in Quebec can access these and many other large document collections on the "Communauté Histoire du Québec et du Canada database" via LEARNquebec.ca/histquecan_resource ➦