Nineteenth-Century French Canadian Immigration. Encyclopedia Of American Folklore

So many French Canadians left Quebec Province for the United States between the 1840s
and the 1920s that La Belle Province was said to have lost one-third of its population, and
communities in the United States dating from colonial New France were designated “Old
French” to distinguish them from the new. As indicated above, many Quebecois came to
work in the white-pine lumber industry in New England and the Upper Midwest. Folklore
researchers have noted French Canadian traditions in the lumber camps and towns from
Maine to Michigan, reminiscent of the voyageur traditions two centuries before and
connected to the folklife in contemporary Quebecois camps. Loggers shared similar
contes and légendes at des veillées d’cahiers (evening gatherings in the camps) and often
brought them home to kitchen hearths through the 1940s. Dorson, with French folklorist
Ariadne Felice in Michigan, French Canadian folklorist Jean-Claude Dupont in
Michigan, Vermont, and New York, and American folklorist Horace P.Beck in Maine,
found, for example, that loggers supplemented the older stories and songs with newer
genres of tall tales about extraordinarily strong men. Dorson also recorded a new genre of
dialect stories performed by French Canadian and Franco-American raconteurs in
Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the 1940s that commented humorously on language
differences and issues of acculturation and identity (Dorson 1948).
Even more Quebecois (many, but not all, farm families) emigrated to work in New
England industrial centers, especially in textile mills, shoe factories, and construction
companies. French-Canadian sections of towns and cities, called Petits Canadas (Little
Canadas) spra ng up in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode
Island, and Vermont. Researchers at the French Institute at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts (cf. Quintal 1983), and at the Franco-American Resource
Opportunity Group at the University of Maine at Orono, for example, have documented
the social, political, and historical dimensions of these diverse communities. They have
found that Little Canadas had fluctuating populations since many residents moved freely
back and forth between the United States and Canada. Some residents repatriated; others
moved out as they acculturated to American life. Although Little Canadas no longer exist
geographically, a great percentage of New Englanders are of French Canadian descent so
that folk-cultural matrices remain within Franco-American contexts.
Folklorists and folklife specialists have documented French Canadian folk cultures
and Franco-American folklife in mill towns and former mill towns. Brigitte Lane’s
comprehensive study Franco-American Folk Traditions and Popular Culture in a
Former Milltown, based on her fieldwork in the 1980s, traces aspects of ethnic urban
folklore and the dynamics of folklore change in Lowell, Massachusetts (Lane 1990).
Lane finds, as Dorson did earlier for Michigan’s Upper Peninsula lumber towns, that the
older French Canadian genres, often Quebecois cultural survivals, are memory culture
with symbolic implications, while the newer joking forms as well as immigrant stories
and personal-experience narratives are current in Lowell. These newer narratives have a
self-reflexive quality, playing on Franco-American understandings of language
maintenance and change.
The Lowell Folklife Project, sponsored by the American Folklife Center at the Library
of Congress in 1987–1988 with folklorists Peter Bartis as director and Doug DeNatale as
field coordinator, was designed to document Lowell ‘s then-current cultural traditions (cf.
Bartis 1988; DeNatale 1988). Researchers found that Franco-Americans, one of the
oldest groups represented in the study, negotiated their own ethnic awareness juxtaposed
with Irish, Greek, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, and Cambodian communities in a folklore of
ethnicity. The fieldwork data are available at the Library of Congress.
The American Folklife Center’s 1979 Rhode Island Folklife Project included a
Franco-American component as well. Folklorist Jerry Johnson focused on folksinger and
tradition bearer Roméo Berthiaume, then living in the former mill town of Woonsocket.
Berthiaume, whose family had moved back and forth between Quebec and Rhode Island
and who had worked in the mills, recalled the family veillées in both countries as
instrumental in developing his love of French Canadian cultural traditions. He once said
that his repertoire of 350 songs helped him express feelings that were “dear to those who
are interested in our ethnic background.” He also wrote his own songs, short stories, and
plays, which extended his Franco-American cultural expression. Field research material
is also available at the Library of Congress (Lane 1990:145–148).
Franco-American storyteller Michael Parent draws on his memories, personalexperience narratives and family stories of growing up in Lewiston, Maine, for his
performances and writing as well. His award-winning audiotape Sundays at Grandma’s
House (Dimanches chez memère) (1988) evokes memories of family life within a
bilingual-bicultural mill town, as does his piece “Olive and Bidou” in Lives in
Translation: An Anthology of Contemporary Franco-American Writings (1991) edited by
writer Denis Ledoux. Both Berthiaume’s and Parent’s work confirm what folklorist
Julien Olivier told Lane in a 1982 interview: “Qu’il y ait une culture qui est surtout une
culture orale, pour moi c’est du folklore aussi.” (“Where there’s a culture that is
completely oral, then, for me, it’s also folklore”) (Lane 1990:154). Olivier’s work on Franco-American traditions in New England, directed toward education of young people
in confirming their ethnic and regional identity, is a relatively early example of putting
folklore to use (cf. Olivier 1979).