Friday, April 15, 2016

Louis Riel: A Franco-American?

“Father Jean Baptiste Bruno, the priest of Worcester, who was my director of conscience, said to me: 'Riel, God has put an object into your hands, the cause of the triumph of religion in the world, take care, you will succeed when most believe you have lost.” 1
-- Final Statement of Louis Riel at his Trial, Regina, July 31, 1885

This transcript records the name of the priest of Worcester incorrectly. The priest Louis Riel mentions at his trial was Fr. Jean-Baptiste Primeau, the curé at the parish of Notre Dame des Canadiens in Worcester, Massachusetts. It was to this same Franco-American priest that Riel entrusted “une bonne partie” of his papers.2

His close relationship with a priest serving in a New England Franco-American parish should come as no surprise since, by the time of his execution in 1885, Riel was a U.S. citizen. He became a naturalized citizen on March 16, 1883 at Helena, Lewis & Clark County, Montana Territory. As part of his oath of citizenship, he renounced his allegiance to all foreign powers and monarchs, including and explicitly Queen Victoria.3

Indeed, one might say that at the time of his death Louis Riel was a Franco-American. Canada executed a foreign national for alleged treason against a Queen and a government that he had abjured.

Riel in New England and New York in the 1870s
Worcester was not the only Franco-American center in the Northeastern USA that Riel visited in the 1870s. In the Summer of 1874, he addressed Worcester’s Franco-Americans at their St-Jean Baptiste Hall and then gave speeches rallying support for the Métis cause elsewhere in the region. During the 1870s he visited Woonsocket, RI, Manchester, Nashua and Suncook, NH and maybe other New England towns with large Franco-American populations as well. He also visited the Franco-Americans of Northern New York at Plattsburgh and Keesville.4

Riel spent a month-and a half in the region again between December 1875 and January 1876, again visiting Worcester and Suncook. This period coincided with a mental breakdown that led to Riel’s stay at the Beauport asylum in Québec.

After his release from Beauport on January 23, 1878, Riel returned immediately to the Franco-American centers of New York and New England. He visited the priests Fr. Fabien Barnabé at Keeseville, NY and Fr. Louis-Napoleon St-Onge at Glens Falls in that same state. He visited Fr. Primeau at Worcester and also visited New Hampshire. He then returned to Keesville where he settled for a time as a farmer and contemplated marriage.

Between his visits in 1875 and 1876, and his longer stay in 1878, all told, Louis Riel spent more than a year of his life among the Franco-American communities of New England and New York.

Riel’s activities on behalf of the Métis in the 1870s and 1880s coincided with the zenith of the movement from the Québec countryside to the industrial towns of New England and northern New York. Riel found in the Northeastern USA an audience eager to support Francophone communities elsewhere on the continent.

New England Franco-Americans demonstrated their support for Riel at a massive meeting called by the Saint-Jean Baptiste Society of Montréal for June 24, 1874. It was the Franco-American delegation, led by the indomitable journalist Ferdinand Gagnon of Worcester and his sometime partner Frédéric Houde, who pressed the convention to support Riel unequivocally.

The Québécois Liberals at the meeting, with their eye on the delicate politics of the newly minted Canadian Confederation, were more reticent about supporting Riel too vocally. The Liberals did not want to embarrass their own party’s government. Houde, in particular, however, was eager that the Society should make a strong statement of support for Riel.5

After his travels in the East, in November 1878 Riel moved westward to St. Paul, Minnesota, a city founded by a Canadien. He also spent time in the French-Canadian/Métis town of St. Joseph, Dakota Territory, eventually moving on to the Montana Territory where he became a U.S. citizen.

Riel, New England and New York in the 1880s
Persuaded to return to the lands north of the border, Riel led the resistance against the Canadian government in 1885 in Saskatchewan as he had led the earlier uprising on the Red River in 1869-70. During the period of his subsequent trial, leading to his execution, the voices of Franco-Americans in the Northeastern USA spoke again in his support.

The Franco-American citizens of Lawrence, Massachusetts petitioned U.S. Secretary of State Thomas F. Bayard on Riel’s behalf, on the grounds that Riel was a U.S. citizen and that his trial had been unjust.

The petition from Lawrence reads as follows:

August 17, 1885
Petition of the Canadian-French citizens of the United States of Lawrence, Mass.
SIR: Considering the partiality shown in the proceedings in the trial of Louis David Riel, in which the accused was sentenced to death for high treason towards Her Majesty, the Queen of Great Britain, for the more or less active part he has taken in the recent North-West Canadian troubles, and claiming that the said Louis David Riel is a citizen of the United States, we hope that the American Government will have him equitably treated.

In consequence, Mr. Secretary, we beg of you to be our interpreter to His Excellency the President of the United States requesting him to assist in preventing this abuse of justice, and that the Stars and Strips which are our safeguard, shall shield under its noble folds the unfortunate, who is the apparent victim of fanaticism.

Hoping that our request will be favorably considered, we are, Mr. Secretary, Your most humble servants, citizens and residents of Lawrence, Mass.,

JOSEPH BLANCHET, 
MAGLOIRE BOLDUC,
JAMES L. BOLDUC,
ERNEST A. DEMARS,
HECTOR DUCHESNE
And four hundred and five others.

The petition of American citizens “of French-Canadian nationality” from Rochester, New York is more pointed:

Petition of French-Canadian citizens of the United States residing at Rochester, N. Y.

To the Hon. T. F. BAYARD, Secretary, of State of the United States:
The undersigned, citizens of the United States and of French-Canadian nationality, respectfully represent, as they are credibly informed and verily believe: That Louis David Riel is, and was at the time of his trial, a naturalized citizen of the United States, and had for many years and up to the time of the troubles in which be became involved in Canada, resided at Montana, in the United States, where he was engaged as a teacher;

That while residing there he was prevailed upon to go to Canada to intercede for the oppressed inhabitants of the Canadian North-West territory.

That while residing temporarily there he was arraigned and indicted for high treason against Her Majesty the Queen of England;

That during the month of July last he was put upon his trial, which resulted in his conviction and sentence of death; That, all your petitioners are credibly informed, his trial was not only not impartial, but that he was deprived of giving evidence which might have shown him entirely innocent of the offense of which he was accused;

That under the then existing political excitement in Canada, resulting in a measure from questions bearing upon the rights of the people for whom he was contending, he was deprived of the means of making his best defense, and that his trial was unfair, partial, and unjust;

That, as your petitioners are advised and believe, the court before whom he was tried was without jurisdiction, and that his conviction was unsupported by the evidence and contrary to law.

Your petitioners therefore ask such interposition on the part of the United States government as may seem reasonable and just for the relief and protection of one of its adopted citizens, now languishing under the sentence of death by a foreign court. Rochester, N. Y., August 29, 1885.

A. E. MANSEAU,
PIERRE GAGNIER.
LOUIS G. LA FONTAINE,
and sixty-six: others.6

Secretary Bayard answered the petition of the Franco-Americans of Rochester politely but unsatisfactorily since he does not resolve the paradox that Riel was charged for treason against a Sovereign he had renounced explicitly.

Also among Riel’s friends and supporters was Edmond Mallet, one of the most famous Franco-Americans of his day.

Born in Montréal, and raised in northern New York State, Mallet was a hero of the Union Army in the American Civil War and rose to the rank of Major. Mallet was also one of the first historians of Franco-Americans, composing articles and books about the French and French-Canadian contribution to the United States. Appointed to a government position by President Abraham Lincoln, and subsequently enjoying other government jobs, Mallet had the ear of powerful individuals in Washington.7

Major Edmond Mallet
Source: Assumption College
It was Mallet who had most likely urged Riel to seek U.S. citizenship after the two met in Washington. It had also been Mallet who, when he had sensed that Riel’s mental state was crumbling in 1875, had led the Métis leader to Fr. Primeau in Worcester.

In 1885, Mallet contacted Secretary of State Bayard urging him to speak to President Cleveland and to prevail upon him to intervene on behalf of Riel. Ferdinand Gagnon also agitated in favor of Riel in 1885.In the event, however, Cleveland did nothing. 

Even the Anglophone, mainstream press in the States covered the trial, with a tone of sympathy toward Riel for the most part. However, none of the English-language coverage mentions his status as a U.S. citizen, although the Franco-Americans were well aware of it.9

Conclusion
We generally think of the story of Riel in connection with the Francophone Métis of the Prairie West, and this seems to be the area where he himself felt most comfortable. Although he visited New England and New York, his home in the USA was Montana, across the border from the midsection of today’s Canada, the area that Riel knew best.
Riel's Execution
1885

However, in Riel’s day one thought in terms of a French-Canadian nation that spanned borders: national, state and provincial. A Canadien(ne)-français(e) was a Canadien(ne)-français(e) whether his or her home was in Montréal, Manitoba, Montana or Maine. And Riel’s Métis had a place within this broad definition of “French-Canadian nationality.”

Although Riel himself identified as Métis, Riel was no foreigner to the Franco-Americans. His supporters from New England and New York, including the priest Primeau, the journalist Gagnon, the war hero Mallet, and the Franco-American people of Lawrence and Rochester, considered Riel to be one of their own.

Notes
1. For the quotation from Riel’s final statement see: http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/riel/rieltrialstatement.html

2. Glenn Campbell (Ed.) et al. Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel, (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press), 1985, xxvi. 

3. For Riel’s oath of citizenship see “Message From the President of the United States (Benjamin Harrison), In response to Senate resolution of February 11, 1889, a report upon the case of Louis Riel”
http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/riel/messagefrompres.html

4. For Riel’s activities in New England and New York see Mason Wade, The French-Canadians, 1760-1967, Volume 1, (Toronto: MacMillian & Co., 1968) 405. For Riel's moves see also the timeline of Riel’s life in Les Ecrits Complets de Louis Riel esp. 105-107.

5. Thomas Flanagan, Louis David Riel, Prophet of the New World, Rev. Ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996), 48f.

6. Full text of the petitions from Lawrence and Rochester are included in the  “Message From the President of the United States.”
http://law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/riel/messagefrompres.html

7. For a brief biography of Mallet see Edmond J. Mallet Collection, Manuscripts and Photographs, Held at Assumption College Library: Biographical Note.

8. Jeremy Ravi Mumford, “Why Was Louis Riel, a United States Citizen, Hanged as a Canadian Traitor in 1885?” The Canadian Historical Review 88, 2, June 2007, 256-258.

9. For the American press coverage of the Riel affair see Mumford, 251-253.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Franco-Americans And Public Health In A Gilded Age

I have written and spoken much about the poor public health situation in the Franco-American community at Brunswick, Maine during the Gilded Age. I have speculated that such problems were by no means confined to Brunswick and that further research would bear out this conjecture.

The Second Annual Report of the State Board of Health of the State of Maine for the year 1886 provides further information on the public health situation in the state's Franco-American centers in this period. Doctor Onésime Paré of Brunswick, the only Franco-American physician cited in this lengthy report, provides the State Board of Health with precise details about the health crisis in his town that occurred in that year corroborated by other doctors who visited the town. The priest at Saint John's Church in Brunswick provided to the Board of Health the names of the Franco-American children who died of infectious diseases.

No, It Wasn't Just Brunswick 
The 1886 Annual Report finds similarly depressing details elsewhere. For example, Dr. C.W. Bailey of Westbrook reports: 
“The diarrhoeal diseases of children have been very prevalent. These cases have been principally among the French population, and insanitary (sic) conditions, with overcrowding of families, seemed to enter largely into the causation. Much is needed to improve the sanitary condition of this village. Some of the things that need to be remedied are insufficient drainage, bad arrangements of water closets and privies. We have a water supply drawn from the river directly above the village, and but a few miles farther up there are large manufactories where all the wastes and excreta are dropped into the river, and still farther up a large powder manufactory with all its accompaniments of acids, saltpetre, soda and soot. It seems to me that this must render the water unfit for cooking purposes.” (p 120)
It was overcrowding, along with pollution of the drinking water by sewage, that were also at the root of the two main killers in 1880s Brunswick: Diphtheria and Typhoid. The brief description of conditions among the “French population” in Westbrook is quite similar to the more extensive account of conditions in Brunswick’s “French Quarter” that Dr. Paré provides in this same report.

Elsewhere in this 1886 Report, Dr. S.J. Bassford of Biddeford states:

“Whooping cough has been quite prevalent and a number of deaths have resulted from it among the French children, but none, I think, among Americans.

For the improvement of our city I would suggest better drainage, closing certain wells and the introduction of water into tenements. We have a good water supply lately introduced and already much has been done towards improvement. Two cases of typhoid fever, I feel sure, were caused by drinking water taken from polluted wells. The water was analyzed, condemned, and the wells were closed.”
(pp 72f)

As in Brunswick, per Dr. Bassford’s report, we find some diseases confined to “the French children” with no apparent effect “among Americans.”

Doctor Frederick Bacon, also from Biddeford, reports: “The diarrheal diseases have been somewhat prevalent among the French children. I have thought that one cause of these diseases has been due to bad drainage.” (p 73)

Moving northward to Winthrop, a brief account by Dr. A.P. Snow observes:
“There has not been a great prevalence of the diarrhoeal diseases of children. Two deaths from this cause resulted in the French population, where there was a want of cleanliness about the premises. The general sanitary condition of this town is good.” (p 135)
Doctor Snow, then, makes a distinction between the conditions among "the French population" and the "general sanitary condition" in the rest of the town. The findings of Dr. Daniel Driscoll, also practicing in Winthrop, differ somewhat from Dr. Snow’s account: 
“The diarrhoeal diseases have been moderately prevalent, most of the cases having been among the Canadian population from eating unripe fruit and from bad sanitary surroundings.” (p 134)
I propose that the “want of cleanliness” and “bad sanitary surroundings” the good doctors note were due to the generally poor circumstances in which the Franco-Americans were housed. The “want of cleanliness” in Winthrop was most likely due to the same causes that we see in Brunswick: people housed in a situation in which it would be illegal to quarter an animal today.

The following observations by Dr. A.M. Foster, practicing medicine in the Franco-American town of Lewiston, illustrate the nature of the “want of cleanliness” among the "foreign population" caused by the inadequate infrastructures of 1886: 
“A vast number of the houses in this city are not connected with the city sewers and have the old filthy privies, in many instances complete nuisances. Sufficient care is not taken to properly dispose of the city garbage. It is dumped in close proximity to a quarter where a large part of the foreign population reside.” (p 98)
Moving the Farm to the City
From Waterville, another major Franco-American center in Maine, Dr. S.H. Holmes reports the following: 
“Cases of the diarrhoeal diseases of children have been frequent. There is quite a large French population, and with them the well is often within twenty feet of hog-pens and cow-stalls, thus assuring the pollution of the water. I think this the cause of a large prevalence of summer complaint.” (p 131)
According to a July 1886 story in the Brunswick Telegraph newspaper, the tenement houses in that town had no yards, and the houses were built “in close contact,” but somehow pigs, cows and other animals were kept in pens near the houses, with the sink spouts and privies also nearby.
Tenements in Brunswick,
late 19th or early 20th c, 

As in Brunswick, the "large French population" of Waterville kept farm animals near the wells. Recall that the French-Canadians who came to New England were from a rural milieu. I offer that what little wealth they carried with them into the industrial towns of New England was in the form of farm animals. Life in the tenements did not have enough room for both them and their livestock.

Conclusions 
Taken together, these findings suggest that Brunswick’s housing and public health issues in this era were not unique to that community. It appears that unsanitary and overcrowded conditions in the Franco-American housing were more the rule than the exception in the Maine mill towns of the Gilded Age.

Before our deniers and apologists swing into action, let’s own that non-Franco communities in Maine in 1886 had their share of health problems as well. Child mortality in those days tended to take a higher toll for all nationalities and classes than it does today – at least for those of us who live a First World lifestyle. And yet the calling out of poor conditions among the“French population” in the mill towns is consistent throughout the 1886 Report. I invite anyone to read the report and judge for themselves.

Further, it is evident that the 19th century doctors didn’t know the causes of some of the diseases they treat. It is crystal clear, however, that they knew well the hazards of the conditions in which the Franco-Americans were living. And they flag them as exceptionally bad even by 1886 standards. 

It appears that mill owners throughout the State employed a large army of laborers from Québec with no idea where to put them. Where the housing was mill owned and/or operated, the local managers of the mills weren’t too finicky about creating livable conditions for their employees, least of all for the children.

And the lack of housing and sanitary regulations in this period allowed them to get away with it for as long as they could. Thankfully, Boards of Health and caring physicians were on duty to record, at least, the malfeasance they saw in their communities. 

Thanks to James Myall for drawing my attention to the Annual Report discussed in this post. The page numbers cited above refer to this report.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Are Franco-Americans So Invisible?

“Why are we so invisible?” I've heard this question wherever Franco-Americans gather, be it through my social media contacts, at conferences, or at my occasional speaking engagements. The history of Franco-Americans is all but left out of the historical accounts on both sides of the border. It couldn’t be more missing among the history of U.S. ethnic groups. And it is largely unknown in Québec.

For example, Maine is among the top three Francophone states but this fact is all but unknown outside its borders and to a large degree within them. I received an e-mail from a mover and shaker from that state who wanted to discuss the “lack of diversity” in Maine. When I responded that about one-quarter of the state was Franco-American/Acadian, and suggested that people with a unique linguistic and cultural heritage counted toward the diversity in the state, the conversation came to a screeching halt. A group that reflects the actual cultural diversity of the region has been subsumed into whiteness. They’re “non-Hispanic White” per the U.S. Census and therefore do not count towards diversity in 2016.

Our long history throughout North America is connected with various narratives of U.S. history: the “French-And Indian War,” the War of 1812, Westward expansion, Industrialization, Nativism, the story of the Roman Catholic Church in the USA, etc. Any one of these narratives should include either Franco-Americans or our Canadien and Acadien forbears. With the exception of the “French-And Indian War” narrative, where they figure as bitter enemies, they’re almost completely missing.

For example, one-third of the participants in the Lewis & Clark expedition were Francophones but one never hears of this. Sometimes they’re mentioned as a faceless, nameless herd: “the French voyageurs.” The fact is, Lewis & Clark couldn’t have managed without them.

The invisibility extends, in fact, to a history wider than the Franco-Americans in the Northeast USA. The cloak of invisibility falls over all of the descendants of the former Nouvelle-France. I use this term Nouvelle-France in the sense in which it embraces the entirety of the former 17th and 18th c. French sphere of influence in North America including l’Acadie, le Canada (both the St. Lawrence valley and the Great Lakes region) and la Louisiane (the territory roughly corresponding to the USA’s Louisiana Purchase south of the Great Lakes).

If one totals up these descendants of Nouvelle-France on both sides of the border they number some 20 million people. It’s hard to hide a population of 20 million under one's hat but so far the writers of history, beyond specialists in certain areas or topics, have performed the disappearing act.

There must be reasons for this invisibilty. Yes, our population tends to be localized in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast and a few other pockets. But other groups, such as Scandinavians in the upper Midwest, were also localized without becoming invisible. I don’t accept the explanation that this invisibility “just happened.” This is not an explanation.

How We Became Invisible
There are several reasons why I believe that the story of the Northeastern USA's Franco-Americans has become invisible.

1) We are associated today with Canada and therefore beneath the notice of most Americans.
The term most often used to describe us in American English is "French-Canadian" and both sides of this hyphen present obstacles in the minds of many Americans. Québécois of a nationalist bent make a distinction between Québec and Canada but that's a finesse of which most Americans are unaware. A "French-Canadian" is simply a type of Canadian for them.

To most Americans, Canada is the USA’s little brother: the USA can beat him up and fail to take him seriously, but they would defend him if a bully from another neighborhood came along. Most Americans are ignorant as to the geography and history of Canada. A current, photogenic Prime Minister notwithstanding, Canada represents little more than clichés about beer, hockey and people who say “eh.” When a presidential candidate arrives on the scene who scares one party or another the “I’ll move to Canada!” drumbeat begins, but most of that talk is fatuous.

This attitude, that Canada is nothing more than the 51st state, explains why I was laughed at by an (East) Indian-American when I suggested that one could emigrate from Canada. “That doesn’t count!” she laughed.
“It counted enough,” I answered, “when the Ku Klux Klan burned the ‘French-Canadian’ school in Leominster, Massachusetts in the 1920s. They were quite sure that we were ‘other’ enough to count back then.”
“Wow, I didn’t know about that,” she said quietly.
“No one does,” I replied.

2) Our Canadien/Acadien ancestors were in North America long before the United States and today’s Canada existed. 
This complicates matters because historians, thinking in terms of today’s political geography, want to tell the story of the USA or the story of Canada. But our people’s tale does not fit neatly into that geography. They settled large parts of the USA before it was the USA, as the numerous French place names throughout the USA’s midsection testify: Detroit, Des Moines, Vincennes, Terre Haute, Des Plaines, St. Louis, New Orleans to name just a few.

The English speakers who write the histories of the USA and Canada write them from the standpoint of today’s national borders. They write about these countries as separate entities while in fact the histories and populations of the two countries are intertwined.

For example, there were large and important exchanges of population originating from both sides of the border:
  • The Acadians deported and scattered among the 13 colonies in the 1750s.
  • The Loyalists escaping the nascent USA who settled in what is now Ontario and other future Canadian provinces in the Revolutionary War period and who were instrumental in the founding of English-Canada.
  • The Creoles of Louisiana whose homes were bought by the Americans in the Louisiana Purchase (including the descendants of the aforementioned Acadians who ended up there).
  • The Acadians in Northern Maine who became Americans when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the USA’s Northeastern border in the 1840s. (Hint to the geography challenged: there’s territory east of Maine; not everything east of Maine is Atlantic Ocean.)
  • The Canadiens and Acadiens who came in droves to the USA in the 1840-1930 period and whose descendants number some 10-12 million U.S. citizens today.
Since the story is told as two separate nations – either as Canadian History or as U.S. History – these interconnections are missed. North of the border, the need to emphasize a common Canadian nationhood, always a fragile construct, does not favor the story of a Franco-Canadien nation that crosses existing borders. While in the USA, the history of “French-Canadians” seems to be the history of a foreign country.

3) We do not fit into the existing narratives of U.S. settlement history.

The established narratives are as follows:

a)     Native Americans/First Nations – the original human inhabitants of this continent. The majority of Americans tend to know little about them but increasingly feel they ought to.
b)     Jamestown/Plymouth Rock – by this I mean the history of the 13 British colonies before and during the American Revolution. These colonies included a range of ethnic groups such as the Dutch, Germans, and Scots-Irish but this is generally told as an English history.
c)     Ellis Island – this is my shorthand for 19th-early 20th c. emigration from Europe, both before and after Ellis Island was established, including emigrants from Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Jewish populations from Russia and Eastern Europe and other peoples from many lands too numerous to mention.
d)     People of Color – this frame has emerged relatively recently in its current form. This narrative includes the African slaves who were brought to these shores forcibly. It includes the Hispanic peoples either those who settled parts of the USA before it was the USA, or those who entered the country from points south. It also includes East Asian immigration, mainly although not exclusively to the West. It also includes many other more recent emigrants from non-European countries. Native Americans are sometimes brought into the people of color narrative. Native Hawaiians and Native Alaskans might fit into this narrative but, sadly, their story is largely invisible as well.

There is simply no room for Franco-Americans in these narratives. Although many have First Nations ancestors, they don’t fit precisely into that narrative. They were the bitter opponents of the Jamestown/Plymouth Rock bunch. There was no Ellis Island, no Statue of Liberty to greet them when and where they crossed the border. They’re not people of color either.

When certain allowable, accepted narratives have been established, what doesn’t fit into these schemes becomes invisible.

4) Our national character.
The notion of a “national character” is old-fashioned but in fact culture exists. There is a difference between a generalization and a stereotype, and there are fair generalizations that can be made about coherent cultural groups. And generally speaking, the culture of the Franco-North American populations has emphasized tenacity, reliance on our own, and a certain insular quality. 

The anthropologist Horace Miner, studying a rural Québec parish in the 1930s, noted that someone from the next parish over was regarded almost as a foreigner. This tendency to fragment into smaller (and frequently squabbling) units has discouraged a telling of the story in its proper breadth. The history of Franco-Americans, when it has been told, tends to be parochial, i.e. the story of Woonsocket Francos, or of Maine Acadians, or even of individual families.

The national character also emphasizes humility, another old-fashioned notion. This anachronism is heard again and again in Franco-American conferences. A Maine Acadian wrote to me, “We were taught that you don’t speak well of yourself. You let others speak well of you.” In the USA of Donald Trump and Kanye West, this trait is radically counter-cultural. If we don’t speak our piece then who will speak it for us?

Raising a Franco Ruckus
In her book Moving Beyond Duality, psychologist Dorothy Riddle posits that making people invisible is a form of depersonalization. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that my family’s and my entire people’s experience is insignificant and beneath notice and that I should forget all about identifying as a Franco-American. The message here is, “People don’t know about you because you don’t count.” 

Addressed to any other ethnic group this notion would be insulting at the very least. It’s the invisibility, whether it’s our own doing or someone else’s or some combination of the two, that makes statements like this socially acceptable. In fact, the converse is true: we haven't counted in the eyes of the wider culture because the story has remained untold.

I’m tired of being called a “quiet presence.” I’m tired of blending into a pale, beige background labeled “non-Hispanic White.” It's un-Franco-American to do so, but perhaps it’s high time we raised what one of us called “a Franco ruckus.” Let the ruckus commence!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Yes, There Was A Conquest

It is a war with three names. For some it is the Seven Years War. In the USA it is the French and Indian War. For the Québécois it’s often known as the War of the Conquest. That this 18th century war entailed the conquest of Québec by the English forces, that left the Canadiens a conquered people, is a founding narrative for many of those we now know as the Québécois.

However, in recent years there has been some pushback, mainly from Anglophone Quebeckers, who claim that in fact there was no such Conquest. In a March 2016 article in the Montreal Gazette by Celine Cooper, calling for an overhaul of the history curriculum in Québec schools, Cooper epitomizes this revisionist view. She characterizes the events of 1763 as "the abandonment of New France by the French monarch and its surrender to the English." 

This sentence reframes a military conquest in passive terms. The agency is given to the French Crown rather than to the conquering English. It’s not the English who take the initiative to conquer the colony, but rather the French who "abandon" it, despite the fact that they had held it for the better part of a century and a half. It makes it seem as if France simply faded away without firing a shot. 

Some years ago, Brian McKenna’s film Battlefield Quebec: Wolfe and Montcalm was an extended treatment of the revisionist view. In a preview of the film in the Globe and Mail, McKenna announced a new discovery. He claimed that a few days before the climactic battle on the Plains of Abraham, General Wolfe “[wrote] out the terms of Quebec's capitulation in the event of a British victory, terms which centered on the protection of French institutions, notably the French language and the Catholic Church.”

But McKenna’s argument contradicts itself. Who dictates terms of surrender but a conqueror? Assuming McKenna is correct that Wolfe’s overtures were beneficent, the fact that Wolfe anticipated giving his terms to a defeated city tends to prove the opposite of what McKenna's revisionist thesis contends.

And the revisionist view must also account for other, far less conciliatory words that Wolfe addressed to the Canadiens in 1759 as his flotilla made its way toward destiny: “If by vain obstinacy and a misguided courage [the Canadien civilians] want to take up arms, they must expect the most lethal consequences; their habitations will be pillaged, their churches exposed to an exasperated soldiery, their harvests completely destroyed, and this most formidable fleet will prevent them from having any relief.”1 If these aren't the words of a conqueror then what are?
Québec City, 1759:
But don't call it a conquest!


Getting Real About History
Whatever name we give this mid-18th c. conflict, it entailed warfare in N. America involving tens of thousands of combatants. Wolfe’s fleet in 1759 alone included 30,000 sailors and 9000 soldiers.2 After years of warfare, the British forces sailed up the river that year with purpose. The colony’s political capital was taken and its commercial capital, Montréal, surrendered into the hands of the looming British military. Although fighting continued after that, the war was won for the British and lost for the French and the Canadiens when it was British rather than French ships that were seen coming over the horizon in the Spring.

In the negotiations following the hostilities, France opted to negotiate the return of the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, which Britain had taken from France, while she ceded her claim to Canada to the English. The decision to cede Canada was made as a result of strategic and/or economic calculations on both sides of the treaty negotiations. The British dealt from a position of strength since their military held the country. 

The notion that there was no Conquest does violence to history because it ignores the considerable pains the English had taken to seize the colony by force and it ignores the bargaining position that their military posture gave them. It also papers over the loss of life (about 10% of the Canadiens were killed) and property damage involved in that war. In fact it argues that the prolonged period of warfare was simply inconsequential since, revisionists pretend, the power was in the hands of the French who opted to “abandon” the colony.

Gaslighting the Québécois
In summary, there was warfare in N. America over a period of years; the capital of the colony of Canada was taken by force; there was an occupation; there was a military government; and there was what we now call “regime change.” And it was permanent. The British monarch is still officially the Queen of Canada. If that’s not a conquest then we’re equivocating on the meaning of the word. Invariably, Orwellian equivocations serve a political agenda.

The agenda here is clear. The revisionist view is intended to undermine Francophone Québec's sense of itself as a distinct society. It attempts to establish that the Québécois were always on an equal footing with their British-descent countrymen and it suggests that there was always a perfectly level playing field between the two groups. 

Another reason for the revisionism is that the Québécois do not fit prevailing N. American racial narratives. The Québécois are in the anomalous position in North America of being a white-identified people who had been subjugated by another white-identified people. In this, they resemble the Irish.

Even if the British conquest of Canada were the most benign conquest in the history of the world, to be conquered and occupied by a foreign power is humiliating and traumatic. In all such cases, the conquerors hold the cards and the conquered have no choice but to submit to their fate be it benevolent or the opposite. Today, the descendants of the conquered Canadiens face the further humiliation of having their historical memories, a memory of cultural survival and eventual prosperity in the face of defeat, denied by the revisionists.

And, no, the point is not to wallow in victimization regarding events that happened long ago. It's about telling the truth and understanding the basis on which Québec's sense of collective self rests. The narrative that today's Québécois are the descendants of survivors of the Conquest is justified by the historical facts. Revisionists must not succeed in manipulating history.

In psychology there is a term for such manipulations: gaslighting. This is a form of psychological abuse where one person causes another to doubt their perception of reality through manipulation, distortion and denial. It is time for the historical revisionists to stop gaslighting the Québécois. It is time they faced up to the past as it really was and not as their political counter-agenda wishes it to have been.
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Notes
1 Lamonde, Yvan. Histoire Social des Idées au Québec 1760-1896. Montréal: Editions Fides, 2000. Print. Cf. p 18. [The translation from the French is my own.]

2 Havard, Gilles and Cécile Vidal. Histoire de l'Amérique française. Paris, Flammarion, 2003. Print. Cf. p 442.

Picture credit
A. Bennoist, engraver, after Richard Short (fl. 1754-1766), A View of the Church of Notre Dame de la Victoire, built in Commemoration of the raising the Siege in 1695 and destroyed in 1759. Hand-colored copperplate engraving. London, 1761. Graphics Division, Prints B-7.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

New hashtag #AmFr Promotes French North America

I have been approached by an informal group of writers, bloggers, and artists who are promoting a new hashtag: #AmFr – Amérique Française or French North America.

The intention behind this new hashtag is to have a means of cataloging, finding and linking writings of interest to Amérique Française across all current international, state or provincial borders.

This approach is consistent with my interest in raising awareness, both within our cultures and outside of them, of what I have called les Enfants de la Nouvelle-France (the children of New France). I coined this term to include all of the descendants of the French 17th and 18th century colonial possessions in North America wherever they now live and whatever language they now speak.

In this context, I use the term Nouvelle-France in the broad sense in which it embraces all of the former French Colonial settlements in North America including l'Acadiele Canada (including the St. Lawrence Valley and le Pays d'en haut), and la Louisiane (both Basse- and Haute-Louisiane) and all of their diasporas and extensions.

By this definition, the term les enfants de la Nouvelle-France may include (but is not limited to) those who self-identify as:
  • Québécois(e) 
  • Acadien(ne)
  • Créoles throughout the former French la Louisiane 
  • Cadien(ne)s/Cajuns 
  • The Acadian diaspora in Canada outside of the Eastern Provinces 
  • French-Canadians in today's Canada and the USA which includes Franco-Ontarians, Franco-Manitobans, Fransaskois, etc. and also those who continue to describe themselves as French-Canadians in the U.S. Midwest and West 
  • Franco-Americans in New England and New York with origins in both Québec and Acadie 
  • Francophone and Franco-gene Métis 
I am quick to point out that the intent of the #AmFr hashtag is not to minimize the uniqueness of any of these cultures but to promote a greater understanding and communication between different groups that share a common historical root.

The promoters of the #AmFr hashtag intend it as a means of creating an alternative Franco media. This media will not operate from the top down but from the bottom up. There will be no editorial board setting policy, but the impetus will come from the writers and bloggers themselves.

If you are a blogger or participate in social media, we would like to encourage you to use the hashtag #AmFr to flag content that fits the description above.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Children's Strike In A Gilded Age Mill

“A little child shall lead them,” the Bible says. And so it was in Brunswick, Maine in 1881 when young boys not only participated in a strike at the Cabot textile mill – they caused the strike.

This curious tale is reported in the August 12, 1881 edition of the local newspaper, The Brunswick Telegraph (beginning on page 2). According to this report, drawn together from local sleuthing as well as from other newspaper accounts, a strike broke out among “the operatives in the spinning and mule rooms of the Cabot Company’s cotton mill…These strikes left the weavers short of working material and the mill was shut down.”

In response to the strikes that occurred on a Thursday in early August and again the following Monday, the Telegraph reports that the mill was closed apparently for the better part of a week, although the Telegraph’s account leaves the chronology uncertain.

The observation that young boys started the strike at the mill, extraordinary by modern lights, is tossed off at the end of the article in a single sentence. The strike began when “boys 8 to 14 years of age struck for higher pay, got it, and thus led to strikes in [the] spinning and mule rooms.” It was the success of the children’s strike that led the adults to hope for similar results.

The fact that it was the boys’ example that led the adult workers to strike is attributed to a report in the Bath Times “prepared by a reporter after careful enquiry.” However, “the operatives do not appear to have had any concerted action and moved apparently without leadership,” the Telegraph reports.
1894 Death Certificate of Adelard Duford
"Age: 11" "Occupation: Mill Operative"
Thanks Janine LaFleur Penfield

A.G. Tenney, the editor of the Telegraph and most likely the writer of the article in question, suggests a motive for the boys’ strike: “It is stated that the wages in the mill have been rather under than above the average of the cotton mills of this State, – that some of the young children work at $1.00 per week, and some as low as 8 cents per day, but this latter statement we are unwilling to accept.” Tenney gives no reason for his incredulity regarding the wages paid, although he attributes these figures to “outside talk.”

Tenney also reports that the workers demanded a ten percent raise, which they seem to have believed would put their pay in line with the wages at comparable mills in nearby Lewiston and Lisbon.

Don’t Call It a Company Store!
The Telegraph mentions that the grocery store “commonly known as the factory store” closed for at least one day in response to the strike. The proprietors of the mill, says Tenney, "denied all connection” to the store operated by “Messrs. Adams Bros.” The closure of the store in concert with the mill lock-out raised suspicions regarding this denial, notes Tenney.

The workers apparently had no doubt about the connection between the store and the Company since, reports the Telegraph, “some wicked wag…suspended [on the store] a red flag inscribed ‘Store closed,’ ‘Small pox.’”

The Telegraph also mentions “the payment of help through the system of orders” to the Adams’s grocery store, a system which, Tenney reports, many observers opposed. He attributes to the system's opponents “the general belief...that cash should be paid and the purchases made by the workman wherever he chooses to trade.” This “system of orders,” well-known enough to invite comment in the town, refutes the Cabot Company's denial of “all connection” between the store and the mill.

Another effect of the strike was that Benjamin Greene, the local agent of the mill, the face of the Cabot Manufacturing Company in the town, and the richest man in Brunswick, gave 30 day's notice to vacate to the residents in the company-owned tenements. Tenney justifies Greene’s action, stating that the notice to the tenants may have been “done as a measure of precaution if the strike holds on.”

As a rule, the mill workers in Brunswick in this period were housed in company-owned tenements. They were, to quote an 1885 New York Times piece about New England’s French-Canadians elsewhere in the region, “the despair of sanitarians.” This was due not to our ancestors’ slovenliness but rather to the failure of the likes of the Cabot Company to build an adequate infrastructure to house a population measured in four figures.

In fact, just a month before this strike, the Telegraph, generally a friend to neither Mr. Greene nor the Cabot Companyhad featured a lengthy piece about a Typhoid outbreak in these self-same tenements which was blamed on the Cabots' malfeasance. 

“French” = “Mill Worker”
The piece also makes clear that to be “French,” that is to say to be one of the French-Canadian immigrants in the town, is to be a mill worker in 1880s Brunswick. The paper reports that as early as the Wednesday following the Monday lock-out “several French families had left” implying that they did so in response to the strike. Tenney then states that on further investigation this report was shown to be untrue, but he notes that “some [French families] contemplate leaving.”

He also reports that, “no disturbance has occurred, the French people walking about the village, and lots going blue-berrying.” That was not an unwise move given the situation with the company grocery store.

The circumstances of the Franco-American workers in Brunswick in this period are by no means uncommon in the history of 19th c. Labor. Here we find an imported, foreign labor force housed by the same company that employs them, that then pays them, at least in part, not in cash but in orders from the company store.

The system of keeping the workers in a state of dependency appears to have faced some opposition within the town since it inhibited a potential market for local housing and retail trade. This was no small loss to the local economy since per the 1880 U.S. Census the Franco-American population of Brunswick comprised more than one-fifth of the town's headcount. But the Franco-American workers were in a closed circuit where the Cabot Company was their all.

It is not surprising that the French-speaking workers had recourse to the only tool at their disposal – the strike – but that they did not use it more often. Of course, strikes in that era came at great personal risk. Especially when the thirty-day eviction notice arrives at the worker's apartment as soon as the strike begins.

And in August of 1881, this risk was run because some eight-year-olds found out that the eight-year-olds over in Lewiston were pulling in perhaps a penny more than their measly dime a day.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Other Side of The Cotton: Franco-Americans in the Textile Industry

I saw a play a few years ago that touched on the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The playwright had her main character name-check the various ethnic groups in the town, German, Irish, Italian, etc. No mention was made of the French-Canadians who were the second major ethnic group to reach the Merrimack Valley mill town. According to Donald Cole’s book Immigrant City: Lawrence, Massachusetts, 1845-1921, by 1890 the French-Canadian population comprised one-fifth of the immigrants in Lawrence (p 42).

There’s a consensus that the French-Canadian element in New England tended to shy away from organized labor in that period and this might explain their omission from the play’s script. Nonetheless, the relative invisibility of the story of the exodus from Québec to the New England mills, among the narratives of U.S. immigration history, is hard to fathom.

The truth is that the New England textile business was one of the bedrock industries of the USA and labor from French-speaking Canada was the bedrock of this industry. One can't second-guess history. But I’ll indulge the speculation that but for a large supply of cheap labor from North of the border, that industry might not have grown as it did, with untold consequences for the economic history of the USA. Any treatment of this industry's history which does not give adequate coverage to the phenomenon of Francophone Canadian immigration tells a lie by omission.

The book The Belles of New England by William Moran gets it right. This history of the textile industry has an entire, dedicated chapter about the Franco-Americans in the mills. It's one of the best short treatments I've read of the subject. However, other accounts lump the French-Canadians in with various other groups, as if they were all of equal importance to the development of this industry in the post-Civil War era. But this approach is not borne out by sources from the period, which indicate that the French-Canadian workers made a disproportionate contribution.

Fibre And Fabric: A Window Into The Textile Trade
Consider a textile industry trade journal of the period called Fibre and Fabric, a weekly, established in 1885 and published from Boston. You can peruse a bound copy of a number of editions from 1907 and into 1908 here. The importance, if not the dominance, of French-Canadian/Franco-American labor in this industry is evident throughout.
Migrant Workers Return
September 7, 1907, p 3

For instance, the return of the French-Canadian workers to their jobs in the Connecticut mills, after they spent the season tending their farms, merits special mention (right). This article fits the narrative that many of the Franco-Americans retained farms in Canada that they worked seasonally. They were migrant workers. This is by no means the only profile for the French-Canadians who came to work in the mills but it is an established narrative in the literature about them.

Further, consider this item from the August 10, 1907 edition of the trade journal:
Fall River, Mass.—Many of the mills, especially those in the eastern section of the city, are complaining of a scarcity of operatives in the ring spinning departments. Until recently these hands, who are mostly French-Canadian girls and boys, have worked pretty steadily, but now they have been attracted by the open-air life and vacations. The scarcity of small help is likely to continue through August, and is keeping the production down (p 20).
The nerve of the "small help" to prefer “the open-air life” to continuing as child labor in noisy, hot, and dangerous textile mills! What were the managers in Fall River to do without those French-speaking 8-to-10 year olds pulling their load!

This next item from the November 9, 1907 edition of the journal hints at the ethnic tensions in the mill towns as various groups vied for industrial jobs. The repatriation movement, which attempted to lure the Franco-Americans back to their Québec homeland on a permanent basis, was largely unsuccessful. But in this piece there’s evidence of repatriation without direct government involvement.
Biddeford, Me.—It is stated that the establishment of a new cotton mill at Three Rivers, Quebec, is likely to prove a serious handicap to the mill industries of this city, as a large number of French speaking loom fixers and weavers have applied for positions in the new Canadian plant. With the present scarcity of help, the manufacturers are finding it hard to find enough operatives to run the mills, and if a large number of experienced textile workers should leave it would mean an extensive curtailment of operations. The operatives are making the change because of a desire to return to their own country, where the French language is spoken, and where they will not have to compete with Greeks, as they do here (p 16).
"Situations Wanted"
The classified advertisements in the journal also demonstrate the importance of French-Canadian labor to the textile trade of the period.

In stark contrast to today’s practice, it was de rigueur for job-seekers to state their ethnicity. I examined classified ads for line positions placed through the journal's “Overseers Bureau.” I chose at random three editions at two month intervals (August 10, October 19, and December 7, 1907 issues). Out of a total of 190 ads in these three issues, about three-quarters (74%) identified their ethnicity as either “American” or “English.”  Not surprising in an English-language journal published from Boston.

Of the remaining quarter, about one-half (47%) of the advertisements were from the French-Canadian/Franco-American cohort, followed by Germans (27%), Scotch (16%), and Irish (4%), with one person claiming Belgian origins, one Polish-American, and one person who did not specify an ethnicity. Note the very small number of Irish-Americans, a total of 2 ads, both of which appear in the December 7, 1907 issue, and the complete absence of Italians from the issues I examined.

French-Canadians Seek Work
(August 24, 1907, p 21)

There are also instances in the 1907-8 journals where non-Franco-American advertisers tout their ability to speak French as well as English. Mentions of any other language are rare. French/English bilingualism was an important skill for the early 20th century “mill man.” It was as important in the textile industry in the Northeast of the time as Spanish/English bilingualism is today in many parts of USA.

Bilingualism a Plus
(August 24, 1907, p 21)
We see another advertiser who identifies himself as “English” searching for a position as overseer of spinners who describes himself as “a good manager of French help” (November 9, 1907, p 20). In a sharp reversal of the “no Irish need apply” syndrome, one Help Wanted ad for a “second hand for 200 looms running on cotton warps and worsted filling” specifies that the candidate “must be French, a good manager of help, and a hustler.” (September 14, 1907, p 18). In all likelihood someone “French” was required to work with the plethora of French-Canadian labor in this operation (location unknown).

Franco-American Labor: Fortune-Maker
We Franco-Americans in the Northeast USA tend to take a parochial view of our role in history. We focus on a family, or a community, or perhaps on a portion of a state. We do not think in sufficiently expansive terms. The truth is that we were a front-end of the wedge of American Industrialism in the post-Civil War period. 

Many Americans are well aware of the supply side of the cotton, how it was grown in the South and the labor conditions under which it was produced. We tend to think less about what happened to those bales of cotton after the harvest. The truth is that Franco-American men, women and children were the other side of the cotton in the period from about 1865-1930.

It is our ancestors’ labor, in the main, that turned that raw material into finished product, making fortunes for the Boston Brahmins who controlled this industry through the Gilded Age. This was in addition to the fortunes these families had already made in previous generations and that afforded them the capital to import a large labor force from French Canada.

As the articles above make clear, labor was in demand and the Brahmin owners fretted about losing us to Canadian mills or to our ancestral farms. They needed our forebears very much, including "the small help." The existence of a large supply of cheap labor on the borders of New England made the textile industry possible.
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More about Franco-Americans in the mills: