Wednesday, August 1, 2012

La Survivance and Revolution: The Ideological History of a Remnant (Part 2)

However, this conservative version of the ideology of la survivance was but one interpretation. The early 19th century witnessed the growth of a liberal movement in French-Canada, culminating in the abortive Rebellions of Lower Canada (Québec) in 1837 and 1838. Though these Patriotes took French North American survival as a datum, a self-evident premise, they seem to have been influenced by the republican currents streaming across from the southern frontier, accompanied by the influence of the more moderate, earlier phases of the French Revolution, as well as the nationalist movements of early 19th Century Europe. Consequently, the Patriote movement borrowed symbols from both the American and the French Revolutions.

Somewhat anti-clerical, or at least favoring some form of separation between throne and altar, as well as the abolition of seigniorial privileges, this republican Patriote movement represented a different flavor of survivance, when compared with the ultra-Catholic, ultramontane alternative.

The failure of these Patriote Rebellions to establish an independent French-speaking nation-state in North America resulted in a strategic retreat for the liberal interpretation of la survivance. Through much of the remainder of the 19th Century, Québec nationalism came to be identified with the vision of a French, Catholic, and rural future for our people. This seems to have been largely an anachronism by mid-century, since, by this point, over-population and a lack of economic opportunity within the traditional socio-economic framework started to drive a significant percentage of the population across the border into the mills and factories of New England or into the growing Western Provinces of Canada.

In all of the stories about the great migration of Québécois into New England there is at least one common denominator – poverty. In many cases the Québécois who came to New England in the migrations of 1870-1930 came, not because they wanted to, but because they had to. Most of them came from the growing class of journaliers – landless day-laborers who either found themselves in remote regions of Québec, living among a “foreign” Anglophone population such as in the Eastern Townships, heading to the metropolis of Montréal, or venturing south into the New England mills.

Anecdotally, all of my Québécois forbears who came to New England were from this journalier class. None of them seems to have owned a farm in Québec to which they could return. Their economic situation is evident from the descriptions of conditions in the mill-operated tenements which I have described elsewhere. Who would endure such an existence unless it was a dire necessity?

Little known or remembered among contemporary Québécois is that our ancestors who came to the States did not become Anglo-Saxonized overnight. On the contrary, this demographic revolution ushered in a new, Franco-American phase of la survivance. The French language, the Québec Catholic parish, and the traditional folkways of our people survived the border crossing intact, and, in many cases, for several generations. A very strong current of la survivance ran through the New England petit Canada.

It has been suggested that part of the motivation behind this Franco-American survivance was a continuation of the Catholic messianism in certain strains of 19th Century Québec nationalism. Another explanation is that the New England Franco-Americans were trying to prove to the elite back in Québec that they weren’t the scoundrels or sell-outs that conservative Québécois propaganda had portrayed.

Whatever its motivation, most Québécois would be surprised to discover the extent of la survivance in New England. Even to the present day, families where French is no longer spoken will, in many cases, maintain the foods, the musicality, the folkways and the traditional outlook and concerns of an earlier Québec; this is in a family, such as mine, whose ancestors left Québec as long ago as the 1870s-1890s.

Part 3


  1. David.. absolutely love your blog!! Thanks for sharing.


  2. What Lucie said! I can't believe the lack of comments. I'm reading through all of this. It's good stuff.

    1. Thanks, Charles. Much appreciated. Please keep commenting if the spirit moves you. Maybe we can get a conversation started over here.