Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Franklin Roosevelt’s Plan for Franco-American/French-Canadian Assimilation

The President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, addressed a letter to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King on May 18, 1942 the bulk of which reads as follows:
When I was a boy in the ‘nineties’, I used to see a good many French Canadians who had rather recently come into the New Bedford area, near the old Delano place, at Fair Haven. They seemed very much out of place in what was still an old New England community. They segregated themselves in the mill towns and had little to do with their neighbors. I can still remember that the old generation shook their heads and used to say, ‘this is a new element which will never be assimilated. We are assimilating the Irish but these Quebec people won't even speak English. Their bodies are here, but their hearts and minds are in Quebec.’

Today, forty or fifty years later, the French-Canadian elements in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are at last becoming a part of the American melting pot. They no longer vote as their churches and their societies tell them to. They are inter-marrying with the original Anglo Saxon stock; they are good, peaceful citizens, and most of them are speaking English in their homes.

At a guess, I should say that in another two generations they will be completely Americanized and will have begun to distribute their stock into the Middle West States, into the Middle states and into the Far West.

All of this leads me to wonder whether, by some sort of planning, Canada and the United States, working toward the same end, cannot do some planning -- perhaps unwritten planning which would not even be a public policy -- by which we can hasten the objective of assimilating the New England French Canadians and Canada's French Canadians into the whole of our respective bodies politic. There are of course, many methods of doing this, which depend on local circumstances. Wider opportunities can perhaps be given to them in other parts of Canada and the U.S.; and at the same time, certain opportunities can probably be given to non French Canadian stock to mingle more greatly with them in their own centers.

In other words, after nearly two hundred years with you and after seventy-five years with us, there would seem to be no good reason for great differentials between the French population elements and the rest of the racial stocks.

It is on the same basis that I am trying to work out post-war plans for the encouragement of the distribution of certain other nationalities in our large congested centers. There ought not to be such a concentration of Italians and of Jews, and even of Germans as we have today in New York City. I have started my National Resources Planning Commission to work on a survey of this kind.*

Roosevelt’s letter blithely assumes that the assimilation of the French-Canadians is a worthwhile objective. There’s not a hint of doubt that cultural homogeneity is good and this assessment applies not only to the French-Canadian element but to others as well.

However, Roosevelt also anticipates resistance to efforts to achieve this end. Why else would he stipulate that his assimilation plan might be “unwritten” and “not even…a public policy”? While his hidden assimilationist policy was in its infancy he had already taken steps to implement it, beginning with a survey.

The President also assumes that Prime Minister Mackenzie King shares his unquestioned objective of assimilating the French-Canadians. Doubtless the Prime Minister was aware of the viewpoint that the 1867 Confederation of Canada asserted a union of deux peuples fondateurs: French and English.

FDR to Canadian Prime Minister:
"We can hasten the objective of assimilating
the New England French Canadians
and Canada's French Canadians."
However one may judge the integrity with which the English-Canadians lived up to this bicultural ideal, even a tacit policy of homogenizing and anglicizing Canada in its entirety would face the resistance of Québec to say the least. Roosevelt had touched the raw nerve of Canadian nationhood. The Prime Minister appears to have sidestepped politely the quagmire into which the President dips his toe.

President Roosevelt seems to have had a measure of diffidence on this score since he avers in an introduction to his remarks that his comments might seem “amateurish” to the Prime Minister.

The crude bluntness of his statement that the French-Canadians have been “two hundred years with you” and “seventy-five years with us” is indeed amateurish since it conflates a purported peuple fondateur of a neighboring country and ally with a poor minority group in New England.

The letter fails to recognize a fundamental difference between Canada and the U.S. While Canada at least struggled with the possibility of a bicultural state, the United States adopted the melting pot theory in which all other nationalities were to be dissolved into a homogeneous solution based on Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. 

President Roosevelt’s letter merely makes explicit, at the highest level of government, what was the tacit or overt American policy of the first half of the 20th century – and perhaps beyond. Immigrants were welcome as cheap labor for farms and factories as long as they eventually intermarried with “the original Anglo-Saxon stock,” spoke English in their homes, and exhibited no pesky linguistic or cultural “differentials.”

*A facsimile of Roosevelt’s typewritten letter appears in Jean-François Lisée, Dans l'oeil de l'aigle: Washington Face Au Québec (Montréal: Boréal, 1990) 454f.

Je remercie Mathieu Gauthier-Pilote pour l'aide bibliographique.

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