The French-Canadian Conspiracy to Invade the United States

Between 1840 and 1930, a million French-speaking Canadians crossed the U.S. border, many seeking work in the textile mills of Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island. This wave of migration scared the United States, argues researcher David Vermette, a Massachusetts native, in his book, A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco‑Americans. Newspapers ran violent articles against French-Canadian Catholics, schools and churches were threatened, the Klan was revived, and a wild conspiracy theory started to take form.

France-Amérique: What was the political atmosphere in the United States when the first French-Canadians migrated to New England in the mid-19th century?

David Vermette: Anti-Catholicism has deep roots in the United States. In the Revolutionary War era, some Americans feared that King George would send the Catholic French-Canadians to slit the throats of good Protestants. In the mid-19th century, the Know Nothing movement — an anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant political party and secret society — led attacks on Catholic neighborhoods and burned churches across the country. The arrival of unskilled Catholic migrants from Quebec coincided with a new phase of anti-Catholicism in the later 19th century. Into the early 20th century, Catholics were often depicted as terrorists or disloyal citizens.

How did the situation escalate?

In 1881, an official report published by the Massachusetts Bureau of Labor Statistics claimed that the French-Canadians were “the Chinese of the Eastern states.” This was an explosive declaration at this time. The U.S. Congress was contemplating restricting all Chinese immigration to the country, which it ultimately did in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The report also claimed that French-Canadian workers had no interest in democratic institutions, were ignorant, and refused to educate their children.

What were the consequences of this report?

These accusations were picked up by many publications, including the New York Times, and a conspiracy theory started to take shape about the French-Canadians. It said that the Catholic Church had sent French-Canadian workers into New England to seize political control of the region. Quebec would then declare its independence, annex the U.S. Northeast, and revive New France!

Were any of these allegations founded?

The pundits and so-called reporters spinning these theories were doing so based on their own presuppositions. They knew very little about French-Canadian culture and frequently mistook things that were innocent for something nefarious. For instance, many French-Canadians belonged to church-related benevolent societies, similar to the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Sacred Heart League, but they were not secret political organizations.

You wrote that language was another cause of discrimination. Migrants spoke French, which many Americans saw as a disloyalty to Washington.

Even after the British took over Canada in 1763, French-Canadians preserved their language; they didn’t know why it should be different in the United States. For them, it was possible to speak French and still be loyal to the U.S. government. They saw the United States as a mosaic, a number of nationalities that all lived under the same flag and enjoyed the same rights. The French-Canadians of New England were among the first groups to challenge Anglo-conformity and raise the question, what does it mean to be an American?

How did the American majority respond to this declaration of cultural independence?

The Ku Klux Klan, which was revived in 1915 and wanted to become a nationwide organization, started to harass French-Canadian Catholics in New England. They intimidated migrants and attacked targets including churches, even setting fire to a French Catholic school in Massachusetts. In Lewiston, Maine, the KKK blew off bombs and burned a cross when its candidate, Ralph Owen Brewster, was elected governor in 1924. The KKK was not as lawless and violent as it had been in the South, but it was powerful and perhaps more visible. They had big parades in broad daylight; some Klan members did not even cover their faces when they marched. In response, the French-Canadians started a counter-group called Les Vigilants, also known as the PPP (Progrès, Protestation, Punition). Local Catholics battled Klansmen throughout New England!

In your book, you draw a parallel between French-Canadian migrants a hundred years ago and Hispanic migrants today. Could you develop?

In both cases, alarmists saw immigrants as a threat to Anglo-Protestant culture, which is understood as the cornerstone of American identity. English-language conformity and bilingual education attracted debates. There were concerns about the cultural cohesion of French-Canadians and Mexican-Americans and their geographical concentration at the border. And in both cases, there were fears of an attempted reconquest of U.S. territory by a neighboring country.

A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco‑Americans by David Vermette, Baraka Books, 2018. 394 pages, 25.95 dollars.

  • Thank you so much for this article! My great grandparents came to work in the textile mills of upstate New York. I have ordered the book, and can’t wait to read it!

  • I absolutely love this book! I recommended it to several friends and family members and believe it should be required reading in history classes. George Santayana said, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” If we do not learn from that valuable piece of our history we will replay this prejudice over and over.

  • I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book! It helped me to gain understanding and knowledge of my own ancestors’ living conditions and struggles upon leaving Quebec. Mr. Vermette includes many fascinating details about factory life in New England in the late 19th and early 20th century. Researching my ancestors, this book has helped me gain perspective when working on genealogy.

  • Peut-être le livre de M. Vermette en parle-t-il, mais les Canadiens (c’est le nom qu’ils se donnaient et non Canadiens-Français) immigraient vers les Etats-Unis parce que l’ouest canadien leur était fermé. Le gouvernement fédéral canadien ne voulait pas de Canadiens dans l’ouest mais plutôt des immigrants anglo-saxons venant d’Ecosse, d’Angleterre, d’Irlande et d’autres pays européens plus anglophiles.

  • Bonjour, Hi ! As you may know the Tremblay family is the largest family in the Quebec province. We are more than 80,000 descendants of our french ancestor Pierre Tremblay from Normandy. In North America we count around 150,000 of us. Many Tremblays have migrated in the North East states as mentioned in the article. Some came back and some stayed. After 3 or 4 generations, French language is almost lost except for elders. Tremblays are gathered into a family association: http://tremblay.genealogie.org/index.htm

  • Hello Belanger cousin. My grandfather, Israel Belanger, managed woolen mills in Vermont, Massachusetts and Upstate New York. My father, Achille Joseph Belanger, was an oiler at the age of eight.

  • Très interessant pour un Français, Breton, qui depuis une dizaine d’annees découvre les USA. Amoureux de la Louisiane, et surtout de ses musiques je reste, depuis Paris, en contact le plus possible avec quelques amis cajuns. Si je rejoins ce groupe c’est pour développer ces contacts et aussi pour signaler aux participants americains que je suis a leur disposition pour faciliter leurs contacts avec leur autre “mère patrie”.

  • A la suite de l’article sur les “peurs” des protestants anglais a l’égard des “horribles” catholiques canadiens, je souhaite rejoindre votre groupe.

  • “Ces accusations furent reprises par de nombreuses publications dont le New York Times et une théorie du complot visant les Canadiens-Français commença à prendre forme.” Pourquoi ne suis-je pas surpris ? Le NYT a décidément un très lourd passif.

  • Superbe article apprecie d’une descendante de l’mmigration de 1902, a Woonsocket et ensuite à New Bedford, tout près. J’ai fait des recherches généalogiques remontants jusqu’a 1642 à La Rochelle, France de l’immigre Robert Cormier et sa famille.
    Denise Cormier Enderle

  • Moi aussi, je suis né à Woonsocket. J’habite à Portland, OR maintenant. Pendant un voyage à Québec j’ai appris qu’il y a un musée dans Woonsocket qui enseigne a propos de notre expérience. Je vais le visiter pendant mes vacances de Noël.

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