Monday, August 27, 2012

Nativist Rhetoric, Assimilation, and Cross-Border Immigration

A Romance-language speaking, predominantly Roman Catholic population crosses the border into the USA from a neighboring country. At first they come as migrant workers but some of them stay. Their customs are different from, if not odious to, their immediate neighbors who leave their homes to the growing tide of newcomers. Those immigrants who set up permanent residence in the USA bring their relatives and neighbors across the border to the growing enclave. This process replicates. Soon the newcomers represent a coherent ethnic presence.

Alarm grows over these newcomers. Hand wringing in the media begins over the issues of language, schools, and the political participation and leanings of the newcomers. Strategies for influencing them to assimilate to the American way of life are discussed. There’s an atmosphere of threat surrounding these people as stereotypes and misinformation are passed around like a basketball.

This scenario ought to have a familiar ring to any American with reasonably functional gray matter. It is little-known, however, that this drama is a repeat performance. What is now occurring on the USA’s southwestern border occurred on its northeastern border some 90-130 years ago and, remarkably, this parallel is almost never drawn, the lessons of the past never learned. The Québécois and Acadian immigration into New England gave rise to perceived threats and proposed solutions that are remarkably similar to what we hear today.

Consider this piece from the September 23, 1885 edition of the New York Times under the headline “Canadians in New England.”

In such towns as Fall River and Holyoke the French Canadians have nearly shouldered out the native American (sic) operatives, who a generation ago impressed foreign observers by their superiority to any persons engaged in similar occupations elsewhere. They have crowded the Irish very hard, and they form a much more intractable element in the social problem. Where they constitute an appreciable part they constitute much the most physically degraded part of the “tenement house population.” Their dwellings are the despair of sanitarians and themselves the despair of social philosophers. Nor is there any prospect of an improvement. They are the Chinese of New-England inasmuch as they seem rarely to strike root in our soil. Whatever may be the fate of the Irish immigrant, there is always the hope that his children and his grandchildren may be assimilated with the native population. He himself has at least come with the intention of remaining. His interest in the land of his birth is chiefly sentimental… But even if the French Canadian leaves his bones here his thoughts all lie beyond the Canadian border, and he cannot be brought to take any interest in the life around him of a community in which he regards himself as merely a sojourner. He maintains his own churches and no schools. Add to this feeling of alienism that he is absolutely unenterprising (sic), and it becomes evident that he must be a troublesome element in the population.

Here, as in later anti-immigrant and nativist rhetoric, the “good” immigrant of the past is contrasted with the “intractable” newcomer. The Irish are the foil for the threat of a cross-border incursion by a "troublesome element." Not long before this article’s publication, the Irish immigrant was met with anti-Catholic riots and signs reading, “No Irish Need Apply.” But after the nativist has turned his attention to a new target, the earlier wave of immigrants appears in a brighter light. 

The same forgetfulness of history applies today when a Leblanc or a Levesque disparages newer arrivals, along with the grandchildren of waves of emigration from Poland, Italy, or Greece. They imagine their forbears as the good immigrants who are somehow different from today's.

The unquestioned assumption in this 1885 piece is that cultural assimilation to American civilization is good in and of itself. It is not only the supposed unwillingness of the Canadiens to participate in civic life that irks the editorialist. It is that they refuse to accept the manifest superiority of the Anglo-Americans. The French Canadians have the temerity to prefer their own ways to his. That’s what is behind his calumnies, his tone of resentment.

If our editorialist had read his own paper he might have been amazed to find that these ignorant, “unenterprising,” “physically degraded,” “troublesome,” “tenement house population,” who took no interest in the community around them, had the self-awareness and organizational skills to choose delegates and hold an annual convention to discuss questions of national concern. Almost exactly a year before this 1885 editorial, the following item appeared in this very same newspaper (August 6, 1884).

ALBANY, Aug. 5. – The third National Convention of French Canadians assembled this morning, about 200 delegates being present, principally from the Eastern States and Canada…The object of the meeting…is to discuss subjects of universal importance and in which the French Canadians have a special interest. “Not the least among them [a delegate] said, “is the education of the growing generation. We also desire to impress upon our people the necessity of becoming citizens of this great Republic and to utilize the advantages and benefits to be derived from such citizenship; to remind the great family of French people of the United States not to forget their mother country by allowing the use of her beautiful language to be neglected; to inspire our people to have a sacred respect for our religion…” During its sessions the following topics will be discussed: “Establishment of French Catholic schools,” "The French Canadian Press,” “Naturalization,” “Emigration”…The last discussion of the convention will be, “Would it be to our interest to take part in the political affairs of this country?”

The 1884 article has the form of a news report while the 1885 piece is an editorial. The former, which reflects the genuine interests of the French Canadians in the USA, quite contradicts the latter.

Our editorialist complains about the lack of schools among the French Canadians. The leadership of the community was not at all unaware of this deficiency since it’s at the top of their agenda. The 1885 editorial suggests that the French-speakers fail to take any interest in their new community. Au contraire, the convention promotes not only the desirability, but, indeed “the necessity of becoming citizens of this great Republic.” These are not the words of the leaders of a community that wishes to remain aloof from its civic responsibilities. It also implies that the question appearing as the last item on the convention’s agenda is rhetorical.

The convention’s objectives are clear. Our community had every intention of educating its children, acquiring citizenship, and participating in American civic life but it also wished to preserve its language and religion.

The editorialist of 1885 sees cultural assimilation and civic participation as inseparable. The French Canadian leadership, however, had come from a country with an ideology of two peuples fondateurs with different languages and religions under the same national banner. For these leaders, there was no contradiction at all between the preservation of one’s culture and full participation in civic life. 

Is an American one who upholds the Constitution and the law of the land regardless of language, creed or culture or is it an Anglophone who is also culturally Anglo-Saxon and Protestant? The answer is no clearer today than it was in the 1880s.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Of Timber, Asbestos, and the Kings of Megantic County

When my great-great-grandfather Joseph Vermette moved his family from the ancestral parish near the St. Lawrence to the frontier land of the Eastern Townships, he purchased a plot of land. His purchase was a tiny section of one of the rectangular blocks laid out by English-speaking surveyors in what was then known as Nelson Township, Megantic County. The Vermette property on Range 12, Lot 7 was a 22-acre portion of a 200-acre lot. This portion had been purchased from an Irishman named Richard Neil who occupied the other 178 acres of Lot 7.

Nelson Township was split into two divisions. For the Roman Catholics, these two sections were associated roughly with the church one attended. Division One of Nelson Township was associated with the parish of Sainte-Anastasie called Sainte-Anastasie-de-Nelson or Sainte-Anastasie-de-Lyster. The second division of Nelson Township, where the Vermettes resided, was associated with the parish of Sainte-Agathe-de-Lotbinière, although this division was not part of the former seignuerie of Lotbinière but within the borders of the County of Megantic.

The Vermettes had the smallest plot of land in Nelson Township, Division Two. The 1871 Census of Canada reports that of Joseph’s 22 acres only eight were “improved” and of these eight, four acres were given over to pasturage. Although the family did grow wheat, oats, potatoes, flax, hemp and tobacco on their small farm, Joseph’s occupation is listed as “blacksmith” in this census. Farming was supplementary to other occupations.

Range 12, Lot 7 of the former Nelson Township (2005):
They're still farming here
Next door to the Vermettes lived the family of Michel Turgeon, a prosperous farmer and man of many trades. He originally hailed from Bellechasse, as did Joseph and many of the recent French-speaking arrivals in Nelson Township, Division Two. The Turgeons owned the whole rectangular lot of 200 acres (Range 13, Lot 6) of which 72 were improved. The Turgeon and Vermette families were to form a close alliance. Two years after the 1864 death of Joseph Vermette’s first wife, my great-great-grandmother, Joseph would marry Michel Turgeon’s 17-year-old daughter Rebecca.

The fact that Joseph had an 18-year-old daughter and other teenage children must have made for an awkward situation vis-à-vis his new wife. The family stories deriving from my great-grandfather, who was six years old when his father remarried, reflect that. The alliance between the Vermettes and Turgeons was confirmed when Joseph’s daughter Zoë married Michel Turgeon’s son Théophile. In one of those delightfully convoluted relationships typical of that age in rural Québec, Zoë’s stepmother was also her sister-in-law and her husband was also her step-uncle.

Michel Turgeon had both a gristmill and a sawmill on his property, one of three sawmills in Nelson Township. Although successful farms existed here (and still do) the real wealth of Megantic County was the old growth forests above the ground and the treasures beneath them. In Division One of Nelson Township lived the King Brothers, wealthy Anglophones who had arrived relatively recently from the British Isles. They were aptly named since the Kings were poised to become monarchs of the trade in timber and minerals.

The patriarch of this family, Charles King, was born in England and came to Québec in the 1830s. He evidently had access to considerable capital since he bought large concessions of land for the trade in lumber.  He purchased tracts of land in both the townships and in the lands formerly under the seigneurial system. His sawmill in Nelson Township, Division One was near the Grand Trunk Railway giving him access to faraway markets. His sons eventually took over his business and the King Brothers built up a huge concern in timber.

A comparison between Michel Turgeon’s sawmill and the King Brothers’ in the same township tells the tale. According to the 1871 Census of Canada, Turgeon’s mill had a fixed capital of $300 with floating capital of $70. In the year prior to the census, his mill processed 700 of “all sorts of logs” producing boards worth $420. By contrast, the King’s sawmill had a fixed capital of $5000, floating capital of $1000, and employed 31 men. It processed 11,000 logs, producing work valued at $16,000. This was but one of the King’s mills. They appear to have owned and operated at least two others.

There are family stories of my great-grandfather Charles Vermette and his brother François working in lumber camps as little boys. The story goes that when they were too small to help with the hard work of lumberjacking they assisted the cook in the camp. Their day as full-fledged lumberjacks would come soon enough. These stories fit well into what we know of the Nelson Township milieu. The stories may be connected with either Michel Turgeon’s sawmill or the much larger King holdings.

The King brothers weren’t finished building their empire. In 1876, a farmer named Fecteau who lived in the Township of Thetford, south of Nelson, discovered an unusual fibrous rock while digging on his farm. He had found asbestos, which was tantamount to striking gold or oil. The King Brothers already owned a number of lots in Thetford Township but they now swept down, purchased more lots, and by 1878 were in the lucrative asbestos mining business. Their new boomtown, known as Kingsville, was later re-christened Thetford-Mines.
Workers in the King asbestos mines (1896)
Within several years of the opening of the King asbestos mines, the entire Vermette/Turgeon clan, with old Michel as the vanguard, moved to Thetford-Mines. They left their farms and rustic trades in Nelson Township for the life of industrial wage earners. Joseph and at least two generations of his progeny would labor in the asbestos mines.

The period in Nelson Township in the 1860s and 1870s was transitional. When the Vermettes left the old parish of Saint-Gervais-de-Bellechasse around 1862, little had changed in the seigneuries in the St. Lawrence valley since the 17th c. When Joseph went to work in the asbestos mines in the 1880s, he was a harbinger of the 20th c. world of big business, large scale, international enterprise, in a cash economy. I have often wondered if Joseph Vermette, who died exactly 100 years ago, thought of this transition as an improvement.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Land Tenure, Seigneurie, and Social Systems: How We Look at Land and Life

Around 1862 my line of the Vermette family moved to a place then called Nelson Township, Megantic County. The family had lived for nearly two hundred years in the region of Québec known as Bellechasse, part of the settled, older regions of the country on the South Bank of the St. Lawrence not far from Québec City.

Their new home in Nelson Township was on the very edge of the Eastern Townships region of Québec. It was situated along a fault line between two languages, two religions, two social outlooks, and two systems of land tenure. The way we look at land is culturally determined and the portion of Nelson Township where they lived was the liminal space where two ways of looking at the land – and perhaps at life – came together.

The Eastern Townships is a large region stretching east of Montréal, filling in the area between the old parishes of the former New France and the USA border. Attempts had been made to settle Loyalists from the American Revolution in this area. Immigrants from the British Isles found a home in this rugged frontier in the early 19th century, but it became settled quickly when the area was opened to French-Canadian settlement by mid-century.

The old parishes along the St. Lawrence were established under the seigneurial system a development of the feudalism of medieval times. In brief, the theory was that the King held all land in his domain and he granted a tract (seigneurie) to a seigneur (lord) on the condition that he met certain obligations. The seigneur then granted measured portions of his seigneurie to settlers, known as censitaires officially but habitants colloquially, in exchange for certain payments and concessions. The seigneurial system was abolished in the 1850s but it left a deep mark on Québec to this day.

Along with this system came a way of dividing and distributing land. The plots granted to the habitants were about 1,600 meters deep and 150 meters wide. The narrow front of the property was along the river and the farmland was laid out in a long, narrow rectangular strip perpendicular to the water. The house was generally built on the riverfront portion of the property, which meant that the farmhouses attached to these narrow strips were close together and as many people as possible had water access. Since water routes were the main arteries, and the houses were built in relatively close contact along the river, this system facilitated transportation, communication, and mutual defense and assistance.

The rows of properties along a river were called a rang (range). Once the river front property was laid out more properties were granted inland. These properties were established behind the riverfront ranges. In these inland ranges, roads took the place of the river. Houses were built close to the road while the farmland stretched out in a long, narrow strip behind the road.

Place names in rural Québec were indicated by rang and parish. For instance, around 1815 my third great grandfather, Augustin Vermette, acquired the use of a farm en seigneurie in the Deuxième Rang Est de Saint-Gervais that is in the second range east of the parish of Saint-Gervais, Bellechasse. His descendants, my distant cousins who still live in Saint-Gervais were able to show me exactly where this farm was.

The Eastern Townships were originally intended as an Anglophone enclave in Québec. The land was held not according to the seigneurial regime but by freehold land tenure according to English law. In freehold tenure a property is owned “free and clear” and in perpetuity with few obligations owed to anyone else. The English way of dividing land was to lay it out in squares or compact rectangles. Square lots laid out along a river meant that only a small number of people had riverfront property. In the Francophone’s system, the logical place to build the home was on the portion of the lot closest to the river or the road. On a square lot there is no single, logical place to build a house. One can build a home on the lot wherever it seems most convenient given lighting, weather conditions, or aesthetics.
Nelson Township plan of rectangular lots
still called "rangs" by the French speakers.
The Vermette property, a small subsection of a lot
in "Rang XII", is indicated in red*

This Anglophone way of dividing, holding and occupying land encourages the proprietor to think of himself as the lord of his little domain surrounded by his own land on all sides of his house. The Francophone’s system of dividing land in narrow strips meant that someone else’s land was always close at hand. This would tend to encourage a sense of community, equality, and mutual dependence on one’s neighbor. The English sense of absolute ownership, entitlement, and individuality upon his “private property” is arguably both the strength and the weakness of his worldview. This is one aspect of the unconscious Anglo-Saxon assumptions that I find alien to my family’s culture despite the fact that we spoke English at home.

The English system of land tenure, however, also favored the development of a village at the center of the township where business could be contracted. The French system did not favor the development of such town squares or central villages. When I observed these two systems side-by-side in this part of Québec it dawned on me that in the older cities of the East Coast USA major neighborhoods are called squares, for example Union Square in New York City or Harvard Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This use of the word square here refers to the intersection of major streets, nonetheless in many small towns in New England the village square is still preserved.

While English speakers categorize location in terms of squares the French North American mind has a whole different set of connections. Even in modern, secularized Québec what an English speaker might call “a town” is often referred to as a paroisse or parish. And of course this French vocabulary also persists in Louisiana.

In Nelson Township, the Vermettes in the 1860s and 1870s were balanced on the line between these two systems. The parish of Ste-Agathe in the old seigneurie of Lotbinière was to one side of their small property. The County of Megantic with place names like Nelson, Inverness, Ireland and Thetford was on the other side. The Vermettes attended the Catholic Parish church of Sainte-Agathe but they lived in the township of Nelson. In old Québec, one’s parish was also one’s geography but not so in the Vermette’s new environment.

Here we find a collision of worlds. Here was neither the French parish system nor entirely the English township system. For the first time since his ancestor came from France in the 1660s a Vermette of my line would have to learn to live in a nouveau monde, a world where language, religion, social system, land divisions and tenure were in transition on the threshold between earlier and later developments. It’s uncomfortable to stand on a threshold. Nelson Township was a way station for the Vermettes, a transitional stage to new adventures.

Source for the picture above: A History of Megantic County: Downhomers of Quebec's Eastern Townships, Gwen Rawlings, Barry Evans Books, 1999, p 99. 

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Genealogy and Family History: Narcissism or Love?

Is it narcissism? Blinkered sentimentality? Is it nationalism of the exclusive and pernicious sort? Is this concentration on self, on my history, my family, my community anything worthwhile or am I self-deceived?

These are the questions, the doubts that trouble me in this family and social history project of mine. It is a project of self-discovery, self-recovery, and several other hyphenated descriptions beginning with the prefix self. It is a project about me and mine isn’t it?

A voice whispers, “Humble yourself. You’re not that important and your community’s struggles are not as weighty as those of others.” In our little known Franco-American subculture, humility is a family value, a value that serves us ill amid the din from today’s chorus of carnival barkers. 

I am sitting on the porch with a small group of my fellow French-Canadian descendants. There are about 20 of us and we’re attending a gathering in a remote conference center in Maine. Night has fallen after a day of presentations, readings, and discussions that leave us stimulated but exhausted.  This is our time to just hang out.

Franco-American Baseball Star
Napoléon Lajoie:
"Nap, comment dit-on 'can o' corn'?"
Jokes are told in French and English. Someone bursts into song for a moment only to be drowned out by raucous laughter following a muttered quip. Someone asks how you say “pinch hitter” in French. Another person grabs an iPad and looks it up, which leads to a quiz of baseball terms in French, each person talking over the other while everyone hears all that is said. “How do you say curve ball?” “How do you say grand slam?” I want to know how you say “can o’ corn” in French but I’m not quite sure what that means in English. Bilingual conversations and sidebars start, stop, dart, and scatter like aquatic insects.

This is the way Franco-Americans hang out. It is different from the way New England Yankees hang out, or Latinos hang out, or African-Americans hang out although if asked to define these differences I’d find myself on thin ice. I do know that it is as familiar as my own hand and as loveable as my best friend.

What are we doing in affirming this sameness, in basking in this familiarity? The obvious question to ask is whether this affirmation of sameness is about excluding the other. Are we building a Great Wall of self-identification in order to hold back the barbarians or is this something else?

“It’s about love. I love these people and they love me.” So said Cajun musician and poet Zachary Richard in the film about Franco-Americans, Réveil -Waking Up French. It’s about love, Monsieur Zachary, if we want it to be.

To recognize the sameness, to feel the love and familiarity we had with each other on the porch, is to build up a reservoir that we may take with us when we return to our multicultural world. Most of us no longer live in le petit Canada, the neighborhoods in pockets all over New England where French was spoken and our identity affirmed. On the porch, we recognize our humanity in a way that is easy so that we may build up a reserve of this rare form of energy in the moments when this recognition proves more difficult.

I can draw from these reserves in those moments when I perceive irreconcilable otherness, the irritating clash of competing, but closely held, values; when rage at our differences, at “how wrong you are!” covers over our sense of the humanity of the other. In these moments I may draw from the natural resource I mined on the porch.

It is in these difficult moments that I will resolve to draw from a time when it was very easy to affirm our humanity, our personhood, that oxymoronic unique-sameness that makes love real. This sameness may give us access to the other, access to the beauty in the diverse, the many, the multiple. Once our people milled cotton and wood and now we mill something else, drawing on another natural resource as essential to human life as wind or water. “It’s about love.” 

This conference I attended driven by an interest in our unique culture, our histories, the progress of our DNA contributors through history, need not be narcissistic or exclusive. This is not a Nuremberg rally telling the troops whom they ought to hate and why. A Christian teaching, almost never applied in practice, says, “Love your enemies.” I’m not the first person to ask how it is possible to love our enemies when we can’t even love our friends. 

What am I doing gathered with a handful of fellow Franco-Americans in this remote spot in Maine?  I’m learning to love my friends.

I won’t stop there.

A Distinct Alien Race, a book by David Vermette from Baraka Books, Montreal, 2018

Monday, August 13, 2012

Of How Many Does a French Canadian Family Consist?

The following item appeared in the Brunswick (Maine) Telegraph, May 28, 1875, page two.

Of how many does a French Canadian Family Consist?
A few facts will furnish a reply. There is a family at work in the cotton mill, which consists of a father and mother and twenty-four children, all the children large enough being at work. The woman is the fourth wife; a brother of the husband living with his fifth wife in Montreal, has twenty-five children. Three families arrived here last week to go to work in the mill and they numbered all told 37 persons. A lady friend of ours a few days since met a Frenchwoman, who, looking at the babe in the carriage said to our friend, “I have got fifteen of those.” The only possible reply of the lady with the one babe was, “Oh Lordie!” Ten and twelve and fifteen children are by no means uncommon in the French Canadian families, but twenty-four are a little above average.
My great-grandfather was one of 23 children by two wives. Another great-grandfather was one of 17, all born to the same woman. As astonishing at this seems by modern standards we might bear in mind that family size is conventional. There is no normal family size and customs vary.

The Ouellettes And Their Twelve Children
The picture on the right shows my great-great-grandparents Thomas Ouellette and Josephine (Racine), seated in the center, with their adult children in 1909. These are not their children accompanied by their spouses. All of these people are their children. One of the children, Thomas Ouellette fils, is not in the picture since this photo was taken in Maine and he had returned to live in his native Québec by this point. Another child seems to have died before this photo was taken. I can confirm that Josephine bore at least 14 children and there may have been others about whom I don’t yet know. (My great-grandmother Albina Ouellette Vermette, b. Roxton Falls, QC, 1868 is seated at the far right.)

I am often asked why they had such large families. The usual assumption is that the children were required to serve as the labor force on the family farm. This may have been one reason for the custom of large families, particularly in the earlier days when land needed to be cleared and more hands meant more axes chopping down more trees.

Another reason for the large families was political and involved what was known as la revanche des berceauxthe revenge of the cradles. The idea was that the Francophones would retake Canada from their English conquerors by out-reproducing them. I’ve heard some stories of priests in the confessional asking fathers (mothers seem to have had little say in the matter) why they were not producing more children.

The revenge of the cradle backfired. The rapid population growth outstripped the economic/agricultural development required to support it. This strategy, intended to bring about demographic dominance, led to the departure of a large percentage of the population. Historians will continue to debate the point but it seems to me that the flight from Québec in the later 19th and early 20th centuries, both to the States and to other Canadian Provinces, was the result of an underdeveloped economy.

Given the economic and personal risk, the emotional toll, as well as the social sanctions against making such a move, it seems unlikely that the rural poor would have left la belle province in such numbers unless they were under duress. Many families auctioned off all they had to finance their trip to the States. That’s a risky, desperation move.

Another reason for large families is that children were a farmer’s retirement plan, his and his wife’s Social Security. Life expectancy was considered to be about 65 years for those who survived childhood. In order to enjoy a few years of retirement after a long life of hard work on the farm, it was necessary to produce a son who could inherit the property and support the habitant and his wife in their old age. This son would need to be grown, established, and able to take over his father’s farm by the time his parents reached about 55 to 60 years of age.

About a third of the children born alive did not make it to adulthood. If a couple’s first children were girls, they had to keep reproducing in order to have a son ready to inherit at a suitable age. Since there was a one-in-three chance that any son produced would die in childhood, the couple’s insurance policy, at least up until a certain point in life, was to keep reproducing as long as they were able.

These practical reasons were probably not uppermost in the minds of the parents of these families, however. Once the custom of large families was established it persisted by the inertia characteristic of traditional societies. It was accepted and normal in their world that a woman would be pregnant most of the time between ages 20 and 40. 

Although large families continued to be a custom in the Québec Diaspora in New England, the birth rate began to drop slowly when these families moved into an industrial economy. In these New England Franco-American families, the “revenge of the cradle” factor and the motive related to the traditional socio-agricultural system lost their relevance. The Franco-Americans may have been influenced also by the relatively smaller family sizes of their Yankee neighbors. That said, large families persisted in many Franco-American communities well into the 20th century. The birth rate in Québec did not decline until about 1960.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Repatriation: "French To Stay!"

The elites of 19th and early 20th century Québec regarded the exodus of the poorer classes to New England with alarm. There appears to have been three responses: stigmatize the emigrants, co-opt them, or attract them back home. Pursuing the third approach, the Québec government attempted various schemes to repatriate the Franco-Americans. These policies dovetailed with the plans to populate the remote "colonization areas" of the Province which included the Saguenay–Lac Saint-Jean region and the Eastern Townships.

The following article from the Brunswick (Maine) Telegraph (December 31, 1900, page 1) provides a revealing contemporary perspective on the repatriation movement (click on the picture for a reasonably readable scan).

The article displays an undisguised zeal to debunk the repatriation scheme of "colonization agent" René Dupont and the entity he represents. The author paints the Franco-American experience in rosy colors. "Some of them," writes the author, "have accumulated fortunes" and he is eager to portray "them" as "prosperous and contented." This optimistic portrait is at odds with the evidence in this very same newspaper. Fourteen years before this article's publication, the Telegraph had deplored the atrocious conditions in the mill-owned housing, characterizing its inhabitants as "poor slaves...powerless to secure relief" from the source of a disease that was killing their children.

Granted, there had been economic and social mobility in the Brunswick Franco-American community in the interim. One finds a Franco-American student (exactly one) at Bowdoin College in 1900 and some had moved into the professional class. To point to some who had "accumulated fortunes" is journalistic reach, however, since the census reveals that the overwhelming majority of Brunswick's Franco-Americans still labored at low-skilled jobs in the Cabot textile mill. The Franco-American informant quoted in the article does not cite "fortunes." He does characterize his fellow Franco-Americans as "happy and contented people...who take a lively interest in public affairs."

The paper emphasizes the contentment of the Franco-Americans to counter Dupont's assertions otherwise. But there does seem to be the sound of whistling past the graveyard throughout. If the plan to repatriate the Franco-Americans in the Lac St-Jean region was based on bogus numbers, and if it was "a 'fake' story...utterly absurd on its face," why draw attention to it? Why debunk it on page one of the local newspaper? If no more than 100 families were likely to buy into repatriation why cover it unless the motive is to discredit Dupont and thereby the whole notion of repatriation?

The motive of this article appears to be to keep the Franco-Americans in their place, portraying them and their lives in a way that, again, was contradicted by the same newspaper, within the memory of its readers in 1900. The piece discredits the repatriation movement by disputing Dupont's facts and quoting an anonymous informant, while at the same time it dangles the carrot of the paltry few Franco-Americans who had "accumulated fortunes." The point is to staunch any alarm among the local Yankee business community and to encourage the Franco-Americans to stay right where they were.

And stay they did. The repatriation schemes were a failure and not because the mill workers had illusions about amassing fortunes but because most of them had come from rural poverty and crushing debt in Québec. Dupont was offering them a chance to return to a Northern frontier region where life was most likely to be somewhat worse than what they had already chosen to leave. They preferred a snowball's chance in hell to the certainty of the Hades they had already fled.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Culture Is More Than Language: Notes to a Québécois Cousin

This week I received an e-mail from a cousin in Québec. He had seen the genealogical data I had posted on a web site. His mother, the daughter of my great-grandfather’s brother, was on her deathbed. She knew little about her Vermette family and my cousin was happy to be sharing my research with her in her last days. This touching message was the beginning of an extended correspondence. Here I share some excerpts (edited and expanded in places).

Cousin: Your perspective is very illuminating because you could extract something of value beyond the language loss, an idea that in Québec we cannot comprehend because we think it is all about speaking French, and possibly this is not the case!

Me:  C'est ça. There is more to our culture than language alone. Culture may exist consciously or unconsciously. Consciously, my parents identified as American and spoke English. Unconsciously, they were very Québécois: in their outlook, in their concerns and the way they spoke of them, in the foods they ate or didn’t eat, in the way they worked and approached a task, in the way they arranged their home, in their musicality, in the way they raised their children, in the way they celebrated, in the way they watched a play or a performance, in the way my father stood when he talked to his brothers. All of this is culture.

You can do all of these things in a Québécois way and speak either French or English. How could my parents, the product of many generations of Québécois be any other way than deeply Québécois? This is what I might like to impress on our cousins in Québec: although I regret the language loss our culture is more than just speaking French.

Cousin: Why would one `choose' to be different? This is one question I have at times.

Me: It’s an excellent question. In the case of the Québécois immigrants in the USA there are a couple of reasons why they may have wanted to preserve their “difference.” One reason is that they were indoctrinated in la survivance ideology of 19th c. Québec. As you know, the Durham Report circa 1840 called for a fairly aggressive policy of assimilation of the Québécois.  It is when an identity is threatened that it asserts itself all the more. To the immigrants, there was no difference between being surrounded by anglophone Protestants in Canada or in the USA. In either case, the preservation of language and culture was an unquestioned premise.
Cartier: "It's the rabble who are leaving!"
Another reason why the Québécois immigrants wished to preserve their language and culture is because the elites in Québec, politicians, Church leaders and journalists, stigmatized the immigrants as vendus. They were considered sell-outs who were just interested in getting rich. Georges-Etienne Cartier reportedly said about them, Laissez-les partir, c'est la racaille qui s'en va.  It was to prove to the elites back home that they were not vendus or racaille that the immigrants in the USA were eager to preserve their culture. They would prove themselves to be more Québécois than the Québécois!

The truth is that they were not vendus. They were poor people who could not make a living in Québec. Whether or not there was an agricultural crisis in Québec is disputed among historians. It seems clear to me that, whatever the cause, the economic development of 19th c. Québec could not keep pace with the population growth.

In a family with 12 or 13 surviving children only one or two of the sons could find a suitable farm, according to the traditional socio-agricultural system. Although the idea of a single “inheriting son” is an oversimplification, nonetheless younger sons were often driven to frontier “colonization areas.” One of these younger sons was our forebear Joseph Vermette who moved his family to Megantic County in the Eastern Townships after his older brother inherited the farm in the old parish near the St. Lawrence. The real wealth of this area was timber and minerals. But these businesses require a large capital outlay, something beyond your average habitant.

Is it that the modern economic development of Québec was enabled by our ancestors’ exodus?  A point to ponder…

Saturday, August 4, 2012

A Monumental Discovery

 “We are not people who have their names on monuments.”

It was 2003 and my sister and I had taken a voyage to Québec. We were what she described aptly as genealogical tourists. We had traveled back in time, in reverse chronological order, to each of the towns where our paternal line had lived over a span of 200 years.  You can drive to all of these places in a morning and an afternoon. The final destination in our tour was Sainte-Famille, on the pretty island of Orleans, Île d’Orléans, near Quebec City. 

It was a beautiful summer evening. We had made this leg of our trip hurriedly, wondering if we could see Sainte-Famille before nightfall. Here, most likely on some other summer morning or evening in the 1660s, had landed a ship carrying our ancestor Antoine Vermet who had disembarked near here never to return to his native France.

Behind the church of Sainte-Famille, a structure from the days of the French Regime, we found a beautiful little park. In the park was a monument. At the top of the small structure, a human figure with branches for hands and roots for feet extended itself in a dance-like gesture. Below the figure was a list of names with the title “Les Familles Souches de l’Île d’Orléans” – founding families of Île d’Orléans. Among the names on the monument was Antoine Vermet. Among these names, my mother’s ancestor also appeared.

“We are not people who have their names on monuments,” I thought. But who are the people whose names are monumentalized, memorialized, carved in stone or engraved in metal, the hard surfaces that capture our collective memories?

I grew up in the Boston area, a place synonymous with storied American history. The place is so very monumentalized that each locality within Greater Boston has its local heroes and ours were the Adamses, Daniel Webster, and the Mayflower Pilgrims. These were the people who were remembered, this the cast of characters in stories told and retold.

The background of my family, textile and shipyard workers; railroad men and lumberjacks; machinists and factory foremen; farm women gathering and canning and sewing, these were not the people whose stories were told and there was, indeed, a vague embarrassment about them. They were “nobody special” and it was the “special” people, with names like Adams, Webster, Brewster, Cabot or Lowell whose names were monumental, worthy of commemoration and hence of admiration.

But here was evidence to the contrary. Here, at Sainte-Famille, was my story, our story, a story not so dissimilar to those Boston stories. It was a story of pioneers, sailors, soldiers, and voyagers. It was a story of women sent by the King of France with a mission to be the mothers of a new race. Through the violent death of the dream of a New France, with the slide of its habitants into the status of a conquered race, through rural poverty and hence ignominy, through a border crossing, the Vermettes and hundreds of thousands like them had entered the realm of Adamses, Websters, Cabots and Lowells.

What could be clearer evidence of the conquest of New France by New England than the fact that my great-grandfather Charles Vermette, eight generations after Antoine, came as a poor lumberjack to Brunswick, Maine to work in the Cabot Mill, a place whose principal partner was Francis Cabot, one of the famous Boston Brahmins whose surname is found on buildings at Harvard and monuments without end in New England?

The reddish gold of the setting northern sun struck the silver of the monument at Sainte-Famille, Île d’Orléans and shone on its list of names of the long dead but long remembered.   “We are not people who have their names on monuments,” I thought.

Here I stood in front of that thought’s incarnate contradiction.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Case of the Cabot Mill

In the manuscript United States Census for Cumberland County, Brunswick, Maine for the year 1880, I find the family of my great-grandmother, Albina Ouellette (b. February 1868, Roxton Falls, Québec). The census reports that Albina, age twelve, her father, and seven of her eleven siblings, including her ten-year-old younger brother, worked in the Cabot Manufacturing Company textile mill. The census for Brunswick in that year contains approximately twenty continuous pages of French names. Almost all of these individuals were born in Canada and were employed by the Cabot mill. There is little doubt that the area of Brunswick represented in these pages is what is referred to in contemporary newspaper accounts as “the French Quarter” or “the French locality.”

In 1886 a serious outbreak of Diphtheria would spread through the French Quarter of Brunswick. This disease, which is associated with overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, would spread to at least 142 individuals, mostly French-speaking children, between April and September of 1886. I estimate that somewhere between eight and ten percent of the French-speaking group in the town became infected with the disease.

Mr. A.G. Tenney, editor of the English-language newspaper, the Brunswick Telegraph, mounted a campaign in his paper against the Cabot Company, which lasted several weeks and detailed the poor conditions that prevailed in the company housing in the “French locality” at that time. I will quote one passage from this series at length:

The houses are built in close contact; there are no yards; the sheds and privies are near by; the drainage – the sink spouts are running only a few feet or so outside of the houses where all dirty water is poured out – falling on the surface of the ground, some of which drains into the cellar and leaves one of the most prolific sources of disease. The houses have from two to three stories, some of which are divided into eight tenements; the average number of people is about twelve in each tenement (96 to a house); the number of rooms in each is from five to seven; bedrooms are small, many of which have only one window where there are two beds. This will give you an idea of the amount of dirty water and slops that are poured out on the surface, close by the block – leaving the most offensive odor that can exist. These large blocks are accommodated with only four privies – giving about twenty five people for each privy – and those privies are cleaned only once a year, and this is done during this present hot weather of July. These places have overflowed since the month of May.

Swine, cows, and hens are kept in the sheds, pig-pens in close connection with wood sheds &c. – giving additional offensive odor. The wells are in the midst of this filth, some of which are not more than twenty feet distant from the sink spout and privies. Sandy soil as it is in this place there is no doubt that some of these wells receive the slops in a few days after their pouring out of doors.

The collection of refuse matter in or around the dwelling houses, such as swill, waste of meat, fish and decaying vegetables, dead carcasses are all present, giving or generating disease germs, affecting the purity of the air; – they should be considered the worst kind of nuisances. Such nuisances one should be compelled to remove or dispose of either by burial, burning or otherwise. Now then, summing up in a few words the above mention will show the favorable condition for any contagious disease to spring up.
[Brunswick Telegraph, July 30, 1886]

Doctor Onesime Paré (b. June 1854, St-Gervais-de-Bellechasse, Québec) provided the Telegraph with descriptions of these conditions, as well as other information regarding the extent and spread of the disease. Doctor Paré and Mr. Tenney should be remembered for the efforts they made to draw attention to the deplorable housing conditions in the tenements. In the newspaper, the evidence of other (Yankee) doctors is brought forward to corroborate the facts as presented by Tenney.

For further corroboration, we may examine the statistics for burials at St. John’s church. William N. Locke, in his article, “The French Colony at Brunswick, Maine: A Historical Sketch” (Les Archives de Folklore, 1 (1946, pp 97-111), provides statistics on burials from this parish in the years 1877-1895. There is a sharp spike in the number of deaths among the French-Canadian community in the years 1886 and 1887. That this increase in mortality is not a natural consequence of an increase in the French-Canadian population during these years is demonstrated by the fact that there were nearly half as many burials in 1888 (41 total) as there were in 1886 (81 burials).

The sad truth is confirmed by an examination of the handwritten vital records kept by the Town of Brunswick. Here I found that 35 children died between April and September of 1886. The records, in most cases, do not state the cause of death, but, in a few, Diphtheria is cited explicitly. That the majority of these children were the victims of the Diphtheria epidemic we may surmise, apart from the newspaper’s testimony, by examining child mortality rates in the years on either side of 1886. The records reveal that nine children died between April and September 1885. In 1887, 18 children died in this same span of months.

These records also show that Diphtheria, in that summer of 1886, was not an equal opportunity disease; without exception the children who died that spring and summer had French names.

In reading the Brunswick Telegraph’s increasingly shrill outcries against the Cabot Company and its directors, I can’t help but imagine my great-grandparents and my great great grandparents, Thomas Ouellette (b. March 1836, Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatiere, Québec) and Josephine Racine Ouellette (b. March 1842, St-Charles-de-St-Hyacinthe, Québec), or their relatives, friends, and co-workers living in such conditions. Did my great-grandmother Ouellette hear the cries of the children who had the disease? Or were the infected children too sick to cry out? Did she see the lesions caused by some forms of this disease? Did she attend the funeral of a neighbor’s child?

It’s quite likely that she did. Comparing the names of the children who died with the data provided by the 1880 census, and assuming that the cast of characters involved lived in the same places in 1886 that they did in 1880, I can confirm that children were dying all around the location where my great-grandmother lived.

The census enumerator in 1880 designated the Ouellette’s residence, in order of visitation, as dwelling 25. Two-year-old Marie Claire Ste-Marie and her eight-year-old brother, Alexis Albert, died on the same day, April 13, 1886. The census indicates that this family lived in dwelling 23“Cause of death: Diphtheria,” the town records report. Ten-month-old Joseph Desjardins died on August 26th; this family lived in dwelling 27. Nine-year-old Rosa Leblanc died on June 30th; her family resided in dwelling 29. The census also reveals that no less than thirty-one individuals lived in dwelling 29. On the assumption that these families stayed put between 1880 and 1886, I conclude that my 18-year-old great-grandmother was well aware of the dying children during these spring and summer months.

But when I recounted this history to others, even to my own family, the deflection mechanism went into full swing. The response was to try to justify the brutality our ancestors suffered.  What purpose does the deflection serve?

To answer some of these attempts at deflection, from the Telegraph’s account it is clear that Tenney had some confusion regarding the precise cause, but he was correct that overcrowded conditions are favorable to the outbreak and proliferation of the disease. The fact that the conditions in the tenements were not business as usual is attested to by numerous quotations from Tenney’s articles. For example, in the same article quoted above, Tenney describes the conditions as representing “a degree of brutality almost inconceivable in a civilized community.” Two weeks later, Tenney writes:

We only wish that the Boston Cabot gentlemen could listen to the biting denunciations of them as notorious (at least in the case under discussion) for their filthy greed, by gentlemen, we can tell them who, as manufacturers, are their equals in experience, perhaps in wealth, but infinitely their superiors in all that goes to make up the true man, regardful of the lives and health of the men and women whom they employ. Some of these manufacturers…are downright wrathy over the reflection cast upon all other manufacturers by the abominable neglect of Cabot company Directors, to remedy a state of things which no man here dares to deny exists.
[Brunswick Telegraph, August 13, 1886]
In the final article in the series, Tenney’s rhetoric against the Cabot Company and what he terms “the disgracefully neglected Cabot homes” reaches a crescendo leaving no doubt about how his newspaper viewed the Cabot Company and the condition of “the French operatives” of the mill:

[Its] record should consign to eternal infamy the management of this corporation, more heartless than the Fejees of old, who in hot blood, murdered their prisoners, then roasted and ate them. The Cabot Company has no such tender mercy for the poor slaves bound to it by the necessities of existence, they dying by slow poison germinated in the filth permitted by the company’s home management to flow over the soil in reeking streams from the vaults of the boarding houses, the poor people inhabiting them being powerless to secure relief.
[Brunswick Telegraph, August 20, 1886] 

From these passages it is plain that such conditions were not what was expected in those times since they were denounced as exceptionally bad even by those of the same occupation and “station in life,” as the “Boston Cabot gentlemen.” These extracts also show how at least one educated Yankee of that period regarded the French-Canadian/Franco-American mill worker of his day. The “French operatives” in the mill were, in Tenney’s view, “poor slaves” bound to the mill by “the necessities of existence”; they were “poor people…powerless to secure relief” from the disease and the conditions that contributed to it.

And the poor housing conditions had prevailed for years prior to 1886. Typhoid Fever – which is contracted through drinking water polluted by human excrement – had passed through the French Quarter in 1881 five years before the Diphtheria epidemic; it would have a return engagement in 1887. Tenney, in his 1886 series on the Cabot Mill, says that the same conditions had existed in the worker’s housing for 15 years, that is, since the early 1870s, when French-Canadians had started arriving in Brunswick in significant numbers. It was not a brief episode due, as was suggested to me, to the fact that the directors of the Cabot Company “didn’t really know what was going on.” I suspect they knew full well. Their local agents most certainly did. Their noses couldn’t lie.

The fact that French-Canadians continued to cross the border to work at the Cabot Mill, as they did during these years of the 1870s and 1880s, is more a statement about the desperate conditions in rural Québec in the late 19th century than it is proof that things “must not have been so bad.” Things were so bad. Necessity drove them into the mills anyway. Choices were few, and good choices were fewer.

For more on Franco-Americans in the textile industry please see my new book available here.

This post is excerpted and edited from my article called "French Pride and the Question of Repression" originally published in Le Forum mars-avril/March-April 2004.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Klan in the North: KKK Activity in Brunswick, Maine

Most Americans think of the Ku Klux Klan as a Southern institution, targeting mainly African-Americans. However, in the years following the First World War, the Ku Klux Klan enjoyed a nationwide revival wielding considerable influence in the North and Midwest, as well as the South. This so-called "Second Klan" aimed its propaganda not only at African-Americans, but also at Catholics, Jews and "foreigners." In 1920s Maine, the African-American and Jewish populations were quite small, where they existed at all. There can be little doubt that the Klan's main focus in Maine was Catholic "foreigners," the vast majority of whom were the relative newcomers from Québec.

The Second Klan was part of a wider Nativist movement representing a backlash against the wave of immigration, much of it from southern and eastern Europe, which was perceived as a threat to the Anglo-Saxon Protestant character of the United States. The Second Klan was also an opportunistic money-making scheme perpetuated by shrewd businesspeople exploiting the mood of a country seeking a return to "normalcy" following an unprecedented World War.

In Brunswick, Maine, the hometown of my father and his parents, Ku Klux Klan activity was reported in the society section of the newspaper. The first of our articles is from the Brunswick Record, November 29, 1923, page 7.

I have preserved the item concerning The Wide Awake Club to show the atmosphere surrounding reports of the Klan. Klan activities were recorded along with the other recreational and social clubs of the town. The estimate that 65 percent of adult residents belonged to the Klan applies only to the neighborhood of Orr's Island and not to the area as a whole, indicating that Klan activity was a phenomenon of the largely Protestant, rural districts. The 65 percent figure, and the fact that there were regular weekly Klan meetings, indicates that "the order" was well-established by 1923.

Following the newspaper articles in chronological order, the next item (Brunswick Record, December 20, 1923, page 1) reports on a large meeting held at Brunswick Town Hall featuring the regional Klan leader, F. Eugene Farnsworth.

If the figure of 800 attendees is reasonably accurate then it seems that a significant proportion of the town was at least open to considering Farnsworth's "Americanism," although it is unknown how many of them came from the surrounding areas. Despite the fact that the article notes that "everyone was admitted," I doubt that my bilingual, Franco-American, Catholic grandparents, although born in Brunswick and Topsham, were included in Farnsworth's vision of "Americanism."

The article above reveals a close connection between one local Protestant church and the Klan. The Klan attends the church event "in a body" and after the Church "sociable," supper is followed by a cross-burning to the strains of the hymn "Onward Christian Soldiers." Of course, the christian soldiers in question could be none other than the klansmen themselves.

The final item in our series (Brunswick Record, September 24, 1925, page 10) reveals the scope of Klan activities in New England. The field day covered in the news story attracted visitors from various Maine communities as well as from Massachusetts.

Note that a Protestant clergyman, the "former chaplain of the Maine state prison," is the Klan's spokesman at the event. The article makes clear that the New England chapters took their orders from Klan headquarters in Atlanta. Would the fathers of the 1920s New England klansmen, who fought a war to preserve the union and to end a system of race-based slave labor -- a war which, incidentally, destroyed Atlanta -- be surprised to find their sons taking their marching orders from the Georgia capital? The article also informs us that, after the hot dogs, the parade (through the downtown business district), and the speeches, yet another cross met a lingering, fiery demise.

After 1925, as far as the Brunswick Record is concerned, Klan activities in Brunswick came to an end. In the years that followed, the Second Klan's influence waned amid scandal and corruption. By the 1930s, the Depression and the widening war in Europe would bring to an end the era in which the Klan flourished.

How much of a chilling effect the Klan had on Brunswick's Franco-American community is open to question. The Klan does not seem to have had much of an impact on their public activities. For instance, five years after the final article cited above the same newspaper reported a large parade for St. John the Baptist Day (the national festival of Québec as well as the feast day of the local church's patron saint) celebrated with much pomp by the local Catholics. Large and very public Franco-American weddings and other events seem to have continued as they had before the Klan's brief heyday. Whether the Brunswick Klan ever went beyond singing songs and eating doughnuts is unclear. 

However, there is little doubt that the Klan was formed for the purpose of reinforcing the supposed Anglo-Saxon Protestant character of the region, with the intent of excluding other elements from its vision of "Americanism." Again, the French-speaking Catholics were the largest and most visible minority in Brunswick at that time and there can be little doubt that the manifest popularity of the Klan and its message was a reaction to their presence.

Whether the United States fully abides by its creed that "all men (and women) are created equal," regardless of religion, race, or national origin, or whether the country is fundamentally Anglo-Saxon and Protestant in character, is a continuing debate 90 years after fiery crosses burned over Brunswick, Maine.