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.