A Distinct Alien Race: Book Review

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.

A Distinct Alien Race, by David Vermette. Baraka Books, 2018
A Distinct Alien Race, by David Vermette. Baraka Books, 2018

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.

9 thoughts on “A Distinct Alien Race: Book Review”

  1. What about the Acadians who became Louisiana’s Cajuns? Weren’t they French-Canadians, too? Well, as they say in the movie “Team America”, might as well “blame Canada”….

    1. This book is specifically about French-Canadians who migrated from Quebec to the New England states. The Cajuns in Louisiana are descended from French settlers of Acadia (now Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island) who were expelled from Canada by the British at the start of the French and Indian War in 1755. Some, but not all, ended up in Louisiana. I understand that using the terms “French-Canadians” and “Franco-Americans” can sometimes be misleading, but it’s all we have. As for the movie “Team America,” I’ve never heard of it before now.

      1. Yes! I am so excited for this book. My grandmother gave me my family tree which traces her Acadian French roots back to Port Royal, via an ancestor from Loire Valley and one from Dijon. My great-grandparents were born in New Brunswick and migrated down to Massachusetts to work in the mills. They were all Acadian French and my grandmother (just passed at age 99, spoke Acadian). My father’s family is from Three Rivers, outside Montreal. They are French Canadian and their language is difference. I just inherited a French bible and a journal by my great-grandmere Premilia Leger Belliveau!

  2. Interesting review! I have historically heard about the silk/woolen mills in New England but did not know about the ethnicity of the workers. It appears that job and social discrimination was the rule for the Franco-Americans. The fact that some tried to keep their heritage and language but were discriminated against and targeted by the KKK is so typical of the immigrant American experience. It seems that history repeats itself! I have to admire the French who cling to their heritage and language when they moved to NE or Louisiana!

  3. While it is possible to compare what is happening today to what happened a century ago, there is a big difference between these migrations. David Vermette does describe very well the evolution of the social and economic environment of the migration of over a century ago. It started before the Civil War in the US and a few years after the violent repression of the French-Canadian rebellion against the British in the late 1830s. New England industrialists hired recruiters to encourage that migration which lasted for about 60 years. The borders were very porous in that era. It was easy to cross the borders. The nativist response to this migration occured long after the start of this migration, at the end of WW1, Otherwise, the (French) Canadian workforce was “cheap labour”, included child labour, and did raise concerns later at the end of the 19th century.
    I made a point of ordering the book directly from the publisher, before it came out in bookstores and read it thoroughly right away. I found it to be well researched and a most complete story of this historical event. It does address why this (French) Canadian migration did not head to Western Canada, instead of heading down south in the same period, when the federal government was financially supporting immigration from East European (mainly from Ukraine) countries at the same period.

    It is a complex story, most interesting. It touches a large number of families from Québec who have kinship who have migrated over a century ago. It addresses also the question: why is it that the descendants of a million people have become invisible since then. Some 30 years ago, the franco-ontarian culture magazine Liaison published the text of a presentation the franco-american writer Ernest Hebert that explains this development (https://www.erudit.org/en/journals/liaison/1985-n36-liaison1170721/43168ac.pdf). This text was a translation of the original in English. I don’t have the original.
    Annie Proulx also told the story of her own experience, through that of her father, in one of the first chapters of her book Birdsong. Then there is Jack Kerouak, the most well-known among Franco-Amerian writers. Very few people know that he wrote some first drafts of On the Road in his Canuck French.
    I hope this book will raise consciousness among Franco-American, and also pride of who they are.

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