Academic journal article The Historian

Parish and Nation: French Canada, Quebec, and Providential Destiny, 1880-1898

Academic journal article The Historian

Parish and Nation: French Canada, Quebec, and Providential Destiny, 1880-1898

Article excerpt

From 1840 to the Great Depression, approximately 900,000 French Canadians left their homes along the St. Lawrence River in hopes of bettering their lives on American soil. (1) Initially, the stream of migrants was small and seasonal, with most working as farm laborers, loggers, and rail workers. In the three decades that followed the U.S. Civil War, the exodus reached deluge proportions as the lure of steady income from mill work in Boston's industrial hinterland proved irresistible. Albert Faucher described this mass exodus from Quebec as "the landmark event of nineteenth-century French-Canadian history." (2) More recently, J. I. Little characterized it as "[t]he most traumatic development of the latter half of the nineteenth century, in the eyes of Quebec's lay and clerical leaders." (3) This migratory movement informed Canadian trade policy, discussions of national economic development, and the campaign for domestic colonization. It fueled the litterature du terroir, a genre that celebrated the traditional agrarian lifestyle, Catholic values, and French customs of the old parishes in the St. Lawrence River valley. Few observers were willing to state, as one political figure allegedly exclaimed in Parliament, that only the rabble was leaving, and that Canada was the better for the exodus. (4)

Contemporary responses to this "demographic hemorrhage" were, to be sure, inconsistent. Scholars of Franco-American history have argued that prevailing views in Quebec about emigration flipped around 1880. Previously, elites had seen emigrants as either lazy or avaricious, seeking in a foreign land the luxuries they could not afford in Canada. They worried that, living under the "Great Republic," emigre Canadiens would inevitably lose their faith, language, and customs. According to the conventional narrative, this changed after 1880, when leading prelates and government figures in Quebec ceased portraying French Canadians abroad as a dissolute rabble or as traitors. Unable to hold back the demographic tide, they began to view the expatriates as providentially destined to expand the homeland. Indeed, certain elites saw the will of God at work in the migration: French Canada was fulfilling a religious and national mission. This position, a kind of hopeful fatalism, collapsed in the early twentieth century as a result of sustained efforts to assimilate francophones in the United States and in response to assaults on minority rights in other Canadian provinces. On the strength of constitutional guarantees and a clear French and Catholic majority, Quebec was thus restored as the bastion of French-Canadian life and values in North America. (5)

The ideology of providential expansion did gain currency in the 1880s, but there is reason to reconsider its alleged pervasiveness. Its ascendency was never fully secured, as policymakers in Quebec continued to battle depopulation through the end of the century. The twin projects of repatriation and colonization survived failures in the 1870s, as we see in the remarkable influence exerted by the cure Antoine Labelle into the 1880s. Labelle was an "apostle" of domestic colonization--the development of the province's uncultivated areas to retain or repatriate French-Canadian families--and he was not alone. The press devoted constant attention to emigration as an existential problem and support for colonization spanned the party spectrum. Even those with friendly ties to Franco-American communities saw French Canadians' destiny as inextricably linked to the ancestral homeland stretching along the St. Lawrence. Providence, it seemed, was more inscrutable than certain proponents of extra-provincial expansion made it seem. (6)

Perceptions of French Canadians' geographical destiny matter not merely on account of the scale of emigration. They hold an important place in a greater arc of national self-definition. The sustained opposition of Quebec's elites to emigration was practical and self-interested. …

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