The following is a book review of A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans: Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife by David Vermette. Vermette is a researcher, writer, and speaker on French-Canadian and Franco-American identity. His book was recently published by Baraka Books.
In writing about the migration of French-Canadians to New England, Vermette has chosen an excellent example of how a feared ethnicity once labeled “Other” became assimilated citizens of the United States. One of the reasons this story is compelling is that it happened so long ago; another is that it is so similar to what is happening now at our southern border. Because it is the story of an underclass, it is has been ignored in American history books and courses which tend to lionize the rich and powerful — that is, men who became rich and powerful on the backs of this underclass.
Between 1840 and 1930, 900,000 French-Canadians crossed the border between Canada and the U.S. Most of them settled in the New England states and toiled long hours for little pay in textile mills. Mill owners paid little attention to the lack of safety in the workplace or sanitation in the company-owned housing. Vermette recounts almost too vividly the horrific conditions of the tenements of Brunswick, Maine, where mill workers lived. In 1886, typhoid fever and diphtheria were rampant and mill owners were apathetic to their plight. I recommend readers avoid perusing this chapter while trying to eat.
French-Canadians were viewed with suspicion by their Anglo-American neighbors because they hoped to maintain their language, religion, and culture by keeping to themselves in enclaves known as “Little Canadas.” Conspiracy theories by Anglo-American Protestants stirred up fears that as Catholics, these immigrants were in New England to do the Pope’s bidding or that they were part of a scheme to annex New England into Quebec.
Vermette also exposes the role of the Ku Klux Klan in the New England states, where they sought to intimidate Catholics in general and French-Canadians in particular. He reports on a little-known incident in which the KKK burned down a French Catholic school in Massachusetts. It is just one example of the bigotry these immigrants endured in their new country.
This is all the more surprising now that people of French-Canadian descent are considered “white,” and their culture somewhat diluted by assimilation. The story of French-Canadians in New England has faded so much into the background of whiteness that many of their own descendants are unaware of their heritage. Vermette’s book makes the case that the role of French-Canadians should be given more attention in the history of New England, not to mention the United States.
All of Vermette’s assertions about what happened to the French-Canadians are backed up by exhaustive research. In our current climate, with unsubstantiated conspiracy theories whirling around us and outside forces scheming to mislead the American public, Vermette’s academic rigor is more than just refreshing. It is a reminder of our moral responsibility to think — and listen and learn and show empathy — before we cast aspersions on an entire ethnic group.
When we, as American citizens, forget who our ancestors were, where they came from, and the trials they endured while trying to make a life for themselves in the United States, we diminish whatever greatness we imagine this country has.