Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Repatriation Revisited

You are tired of life in the mills. You have told me so. Many among you have written me to that effect and I have seen it with my own eyes. Your financial status is not what it should be. For a long time you have served masters without hearts. For too long you have built fortunes for rich Americans. It is time to think about yourself and your children. Your fifteen to twenty-year experience in the United States shows you that there is nothing but the life of a mercenary here. Do you want to be truly free?…Do you want your independence? 

These words were spoken in 1910. Were they the exhortations of a Union organizer?  A Communist agitator? A demagogue running for office? No. They are the words of a Roman Catholic curé and repatriation agent Albert Bérubé speaking to Franco-Americans in my maternal grandfather’s hometown of Biddeford, Maine.

Michael Guignard, in his well-researched article “The Franco-Americans of Biddeford Maine”,*  quotes Father Bérubé in his discussion of the partial successes enjoyed by the movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to encourage Franco-Americans to return to Québec to colonize frontier regions.

In a previous post I discussed an article from a 1900 edition of the Brunswick (Maine) Record attempting to discredit the work of repatriation agent René Dupont. Guignard’s essay reveals that Dupont was a native of Biddeford. Dupont himself was a retourné, a repatriated Franco-American, and therefore well suited to advocate repatriation.
Are They Leaving or Staying?

That 1900 article from the Record bore the headline “French to Stay.”  Nine days prior to this article’s publication, the New York Times had published an article regarding Dupont’s efforts, based on the very same information, under the diametrically opposed headline “French-Canadians To Leave.”  The Times piece, however, adds a detail which the Record omits – the reason why Dupont expected many Franco-Americans to heed the call to return to Québec.

One of the reasons why the French-Canadians desire to leave Maine is that the Roman Catholic Churches in several places in the State have denied them the privilege of having priests of their own race. The dispute has caused bitter feeling, and the matter has finally been referred to Rome for adjustment.
[New York Times, December 22, 1900]

The New York Times had been covering the repatriation movement since at least 1883 when the following item appeared.

OTTAWA, May 1. – In moving for a statement in Parliament last night showing all the sums of money expended since 1875 to secure the repatriation of French Canadians who have emigrated to the United States, Mr. Tasse stated that it was done with a view to regaining to Canada thousands of French Canadians who have sought in less favorable times employment in the neighboring Republic. There are at present, it is estimated, 300,000 French Canadians in the United States, and the subject of repatriation has on more than one occasion engaged the attention of Parliament…In 1881 10,000 Canadians returned from the United States and in 1882 20,000. 
[New York Times, May 2, 1883]

These figures might have been a cause for optimism on the part of repatriation advocates. However, they do not take into account the number of Canadiens who departed Québec in 1881 and 1882. The rising tide of returnees may be a lagging indicator of the growing number of emigrants leaving the Province.

A more detailed article regarding a specific case of repatriation appeared in the same newspaper three years later.

MONTREAL, Quebec, Sept. 12. – Negotiations have just been concluded here with the Government of this Province and the Montreal Colonization Society, at the head of which is Archbishop Fabre, by Dr. Johnson La Paline of Lawrence, and Camille Roussin, a merchant, of Lowell, Mass., who were duly appointed delegates of 105 heads of French Canadian families in those towns and the neighboring country to make arrangements for their return to this Province. These French Canadians wish to return to Canada and settle on land in their native Province, as many others have already done. A contract has been entered into by the delegates by which 50,000 acres of land in the La Lievre and La Rouge Valleys, in the Ottawa district, have been secured for the settlement of families whose intention it is to come when the clearing of the land and the building of houses is completed, a special fund having been subscribed for these purposes. They will come in an organized body and take possession, provided with implements to till the land. Many have already returned through the exertions of Father La Belle, who has been a pioneer in colonizing the district in question, which is of great extent. Those who have come have been very successful, being more progressive than before they left their own Province. The present movement is expected to be the beginning of an extensive repatriation of the French element.
[New York Times, September 13, 1886]

The region to which the Lawrence and Lowell families were to be repatriated, described as “the Ottawa district,” is in Western Québec. La Lievre River is directly north of Ottawa, while the river La Rouge is to its east, situated northwest of Montréal.

The terms of the contract were quite favorable. The land would be cleared and houses built prior to the arrival of the repatriated families. Agricultural tools would be provided as well. It is most likely that these 105 families came, as did my forebears, from the class of landless journaliers or day-laborers. If they had owned lands in Québec it stands to reason that they would have returned to those.

The article also claims that, “many others have already” returned to Québec, confirmed by the earlier piece from 1883, and that these prior returnees had been “very successful.” They are characterized as “more progressive than before they left their own Province” and high hopes are expressed for “an extensive repatriation” of Franco-Americans.

All of these assertions contradict the spirit of the 1900 article from the Brunswick Record, which seeks to debunk the entire repatriation enterprise as unnecessary and based on unsubstantiated facts.

The above research suggests that there was some legislative corpus under both the Ottawa and the Québec governments regarding the repatriation of Franco-Americans. Are these laws and policies still on the books? Could freshly cleared land await us in Western Québec or the Lac Saint-Jean regions?  Does any Franco-American lawyer wish to press a claim for repatriation?

I am only half joking.

*Michael Guignard's essay appears in Steeples and Smokestacks: A Collection of Essays on the Franco-American Experience in New England, ed. Claire Quintal, Worcester: Assumption College, 1996, pp 122-144. The passage from Fr. Bérubé cited above appears on page 133.


  1. The Canadian government financed/sponsored immigrants to settle Western Canada whereas French-Canadians did not benefit from this policy.

    The catholic church and the Québec government favoured the return du to the efforts of the Curé Labelle to settle the Laurentiens, north of Montréal. Land was granted in the La Lievre and La Rouge Valleys for the settlement of these families.


    Antoine Labelle (né le 24 novembre 1833 à Sainte-Rose, mort le 4 janvier 1891 à Québec) est un homme d'Église québécois, le responsable de la colonisation des Laurentides. Il est mieux connu simplement comme le curé Labelle. Il a aussi parfois été surnommé le roi du Nord.

  2. “The Roman Catholic Churches in several places in the State have denied them the privilege of having priests of their own race.”
    The same thing happened in Canada outside of Québec, where Irish bishops were usually named.
    Le role de l’Église catholique pour les Orangistes!!!
    Je vous rappelle le rôles des évêques catholiques , surtout irlandais, dans toutes les régions du Canada. Ex. les Acadiens sous le contrôle d’Halifax, la Trahison des Métis à Bâtoche, le rôle du clergé lors des excommunions des patriotes, sans parler de l'évêque FALLON de London, ON qui a appuyé les Orangistes pour implanter le règlement 17, qui interdisait l’enseignement en français en Ontario.
    Je vous suggère « Les Sacrifiés de la bonne entente » qui raconte l'histoire des francophones du Pontiac Québécois, où l'anglicisation a fait des ravages, grâce aux services de leurs évêques anglais de Pembroke en Ontario.