French Canadian Emigration to the United States, 1840-1930


Damien-Claude Bélanger,
Département d’histoire,
Université de Montréal

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Between 1840 and 1930 roughly 900 000 French Canadians left Canada to emigrate to the United States. This important migration, which has now been largely forgotten in Quebec’s collective memory, is certainly one of the major events in Canadian demographic history. According to the 1980 American census, 13.6 million Americans claimed to have French ancestors. While a certain number of these people may be of French, Belgian, Swiss, Cajun or Huguenot ancestry, it is certain that a large proportion would have ancestors who emigrated from French Canada or Acadia during the 19th and 20th centuries. Indeed, it has been estimated that, in the absence of emigration, there would be 4 to 5 million more francophones living in Canada today. Around 1900, there would scarcely have been a French-Canadian or Acadian family that did not have some of its members living in the United States. While similar patterns of emigration affected English Canada, Canadian historians have more or less ignored this phenomenon, largely because it was far more diffused, did not affect their society as much as Quebec was affected as it was more used to migration than French-speaking Quebec where “la survivance” was always a major concern, and, lastly, did not leave the enduring traces that French-Canadian emigration did. Simply put, English Canadians were less noticeable and assimilated far more rapidly into American society than did French-speaking Catholics. (the rest of the article is here)

Bruno Ramirez,
University of Montreal


As a new interdisciplinary field, ‘Borderlands studies’ have not benefited as much as they could from the contribution historians can make– at least in Canada. Yet, historical studies can play an important role in enriching our knowledge of this field, to the extent that trans-border regions are the result of dynamic forces unfolding over a medium and long period–however unequally– on both sides of the dividing line.

One contribution historians can make is through the study of migration movements occurring between Canada and the USA. During the period from 1840 to1940 this movement resulted in a net migration from the former to the latter country estimated at 2.8 mill ion. This movement was truly continental in scope involving practically all sections of the Canadian southern territory.

The paper presents some original findings drawn from the Index to Canadian Border Entries (US Nat. Archives, RG M1461 and M1463), and in particular, from a random sample of about 42,000 individuals who entered the USA from various points along the Canada/ US border from 1895 to 1952 (An annex, in French, describes the source and the methodology employed). The data drawn from this sample have allowed us to observe the entire North American space encompassing Canada and the USA, and study the physiognomy the movement took (focusing on the 1900-1930 years) at the continental, regional, and micro-regional levels .

One key result of this research has been the identification of a multitude of ‘migration fields’ marked, among other things, by short to medium distance. This has led to one major conclusion: i.e., that much of the Canada/US migration must be viewed in relation to patters of regional trans-border development. The paper also shows the extent to which the macro- and micro-historical study of this migration movement allows us to throw new light on the formation of borderlands areas, as well as on their development and/or decline over time. Finally, by adopting an inter regional comparative approach, the paper highlights the historical significance of ‘borderlands’ in the history of Canadian/US relations, and in particular, the role played by labour migrations.

With rare exceptions, Canadian emigration to the USA has been of an essentially economic character. Push-pull factors, which traditionally have served to identify zones of out-migration and destination, and have frequently helped supply explanations of a Malthusian and neo-classical nature, acquire new meaning when inserted into a historical study of the socio-economic space within which migration phenomena unfold. Such a study brings to the fore the historical formation of poles of economic development, areas of underdevelopment and stagnation, and their place in relation to the border.

In the US/Canada case, poles of development have emerged in areas that are contiguous to the border, and have involved zones which include important urban agglomerations on both sides of the borderline (ex:, Detroit/Windsor; Sault Sainte-Marie; Niagara). These poles, however, have also emerged in areas quite distant from the border, and marked by an economic development resting on one or more industrial sectors; their characteristic has been also that of engendering a strong demand of labour power, one that could not be filled by the human resources available in the area. In such cases, the concept of ‘borderlands’ looses much of its explicative value unless it is re-conceptualized as ‘trans-border region’: a region more or less vast on a spatial level, but marked by one or more corridors which cross the boundary, channelling labour and populations.

By adopting a case-study approach, the paper provides data and analysis concerning two such trans-border regions, i.e., the Ontario-Michigan region, and the Quebec- New England one.
In the first case, the paper focuses on what Victor Konrad has termed ‘cross-border communities’ (i.e., “communities paired across the boundary between Canada and the United States”), and in particular, Windsor/Detroit and Sault Saint-Marie, Ontario and Sault Saint-Marie, Michigan. The extent and the occupational character of the Canadian out migration within these two cross-border communities is analysed. However, when focusing on the wider Ontario-Michigan region, the data show the extraordinary importance of the Detroit labour markets for the majority of Ontarians out-migrating from a variety of locations as well as from a variety of socio-economic local contexts. Thus, the trans-border region encompassing one of the most industrialized States and the most industrialized Canadian Province acquires its complex physiognomy thanks, among other things, to the role that migration played within it.

The ‘pull’ that the Michigan economy exerted on Canadian human resources looses its abstract paradigmatic character, taking on the concrete form of people on the move, guided by logistic considerations, who followed specific geographical paths, aware of what they left behind and what they expected to find on the other side of the border. Their collective move, whether at a regional or micro-regional level, translated into the channelling of specific kinds of labour resources, thus engendering processes of selection that reveal the importance of economic geography, social and spatial distance, as well as the structural and conjunctive realities that marked the sending society at various moments of its history.

As to the history of the trans-border region encompassing Quebec and New England, our migration analysis shows the dramatic transition from short distance migration fields extending southward to Northern New England, to medium-distance ones converging toward the highly industrialising sections of Southern New England. This transition in trans-border labour migration patterns is part of a wider historical transition –i.e. from an agrarian to an industrial economy. If during much of the 19th century , the Quebec/New England trans-border region had been marked by the working of commercial circuits alimented by the timber trade and other agricultural activities, starting from the post-Civil War period, the relation between the two regions becomes increasingly marked by the growing flow of Quebec labour toward industrial capital, as the New England (in particular Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and southern New Hampshire) textile industry provides one of the country’s most dynamic labour markets.

In such a case, the border became a legal line that had to be crossed in order to pursue one’s migratory project, a line that one left behind at the greatest speed made then possible by technological progress. Once in the heart of one of America’s most urbanised and industrialised regions, some 200 to 300 miles from Quebec, the ‘line’ must have continued its existence less as an unmovable geographical site and more as an element in the migrant’s imagery: for some, a gate enclosing a life of economic oppression; for others, the door leading to forced exile, still for others a simple stop in a voyage that had ended in an unforgettable embrace with kin and relatives anxiously awaiting at the final rail terminal.

This kind of migration, occurring over a medium distance, made up of human chains, linking remote Quebec rural parishes to smokestack-filled towns and cities, demands that we enlarge the notion of ‘region’ by reassessing the role of the border and by stressing the reality of a space crossed by human corridors where much of the drama occurred at their terminal points.