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.

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