Let's go to Little Canada!
August 31, 2009 1:15 PM   Subscribe

A few months ago I read about French-Canadian immigration into the U.S. from the 1840s to 1930s. Evidently, some of these immigrants established "Little Canadas." I'd like to learn more about them.

Are they still established in some form, like Little Italys or Chinatowns? How did their culture change from when they lived in Canada to living in the U.S.? What resources cover this topic? (there are some sources mentioned on the page I read)

I had never heard about this type of immigrant community, and hadn't ever considered their existence. What other little covered, niche, or surprising immigrant groups came/are coming to the States?
posted by Korou to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Being an French Canadian myself, I find this also interesting. However, I do not have more insight to offer other than the deportation of Acadians to Louisiana in the 18th century.
posted by remi at 1:37 PM on August 31, 2009

The University of Maine's Franco-American Cultural Center is a wellspring of resources on French-Canadian communities in the US.

Having grown up in Massachusetts, the idea of "little Canada" doesn't seem at all surprising to me, because when I was a kid there were French-Canadian neighborhoods in lots of local towns and cities.

The Hmong communities of Minnesota, the Somali communities of Maine, and the Armenian communities of Fresno, California and Watertown, Massachusetts are some lesser-known immigrant communities that come to mind.
posted by Sidhedevil at 1:57 PM on August 31, 2009

I'm interested in this, too. The only thing I have to offer is that many French Canadians relocated to Lowell, Massachusetts to work in the mills. That might give you somewhere to start your research.
posted by synecdoche at 1:57 PM on August 31, 2009

What you really want the New York Times' Immigration Explorer. Did you know, for instance, that 10% of Suffolk County, Massachusetts (Boston) and Wayne County, Michigan were of Canadian origin in 1900?

Kingsburg, California, founded by Swedes, and 94% Swedish in the 1920s, is now full of their descendants, and also features a dala horse, a giant coffee-pot water tower visible from Highway 99, an annual Swedish festival, a few Swedish bakeries, and an amazing mural downtown from one of the local schools, painted with messages in English, Swedish, Spanish, and Nahuatl.
posted by mdonley at 2:37 PM on August 31, 2009

Maine is a state very heavily influenced by Franco-Canadian immigration. I'm familiar with two towns that had "Little Canadas." Neither exist in any meaningful way.

Lewiston, Maine was/is the "Frenchest" of the towns in the southern portion of Maine (it's politically considered "Central Maine" but it's not too far from Portland and the Mid-Coast.) It has a neighborhood referred to as "Little Canada" which was traditionally the home of french-speaking mill workers. As the link states, today it's not particularly French. Lewiston still has a french presence, basically evidenced by peoples' last names and Catholic faith. But if you visited Lewiston today, you'd be hard pressed to see how French the area is without looking at a phone book.

The town that I know best is Brunswick, Maine. It was settled by people of English extraction (mostly congregationalists) in the 1700's, but a big mill sprung up on the banks of the Androscoggin River and many people from Quebec moved to the town to work in the mill starting in the 1890's. There was an area within walking distance of the mill that was referred to as "Frenchville." There were lots of shops that catered to French Canadians-- grocery shops that made their own salt pork beans, cretons and salmon pie and touquay. And there were shops that sold hardware etc that were French run and largely French patronized.

As the French population integrated and the mill slowed down, the distinctly French flavor of the neighborhood and the town melted away. There were only a few shops that specifically catered to French people when I was a child in the early 80's, and the last one (Tetraults Market) closed around 2004.

When I was a kid it was common to hear French spoken on the street by people of the World War II "Greatest" generation. They're all dead or rather elderly. I don't get back much, but I don't think I've heard french on the street since the early 90's. Baby Boomers of french extraction often know french well enough to converse in it and probably didn't speak english until they started (catholic) school at age 6, but english is their primary language now. They speak French only to elderly people or to be nostalgic with their siblings. There was a stigma associated with speaking French, unfortuantely. It meant you were a poor millworker, and thus French Canadian culture wasn't preserved as well as it should have been in towns with mixed populations. People my age of French ancestry know a few nouns that their grandparents taught them, but if they speak French it is standard European French taught in schools and not the Quebecois dialect that their parents and grandparents spoke.

If you go to New England looking for a Little Canada, you won't find it except as little bits of grass growing tenaciously through pavement cracks. You may find people who speak French and you might still find prepared cretons and salmon pie at the Lewiston Hannaford's Supermarket. But that's about it.

Some people might point out that French culture is very strong and lively in the areas of northern New England near the Quebec border, and they're right. But those aren't enclaves-- everyone's french. You're looking for a "French ghetto" (without the negative stigma) and you'd be hard pressed to find one. French Canadians are too well integrated now.

There are (or were) French culture festivals too (Le Cremesse or something in Biddeford, Maine) but those are more concentrated, get-your-french-on temporary events.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:50 PM on August 31, 2009 [2 favorites]

There's a Little Canada outside of the Twin Cities that is an actual suburb. The only thing I've noticed they do differently is that they have an independently run steakhouse, but I haven't spent much time there really.
posted by medea42 at 2:50 PM on August 31, 2009

I meant to add that if you were to go to Brunswick and ask where Frenchville is, many people wouldn't know what you were talking about. The ones that did recognize it would say "I haven't heard that term in ages!"
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:55 PM on August 31, 2009

Hartford, CT has a neighborhood called "Frog Hollow," which—depending on who you ask—was either named for the high population of amphibians, or the Québécois. Several years ago I did an interview project where I spoke to a gentleman who had immigrated from Quebec in the 1930s to work in the then-booming construction industry, and had stayed the rest of his life in the neighborhood. (He was not OK with calling it "Frog Hollow," believing it to be a slur. Opinions on this vary.)

There are still a few Quebec French speakers in and around Hartford, but the original neighborhoods are now mostly associated with newer immigrant groups. The biggest evidence you'll now find is the names of various churches. Unlike Lewiston, I don't even think there are even any churches with French-language masses in Hartford anymore; in Lewiston there still was at least one as of 2003 IIRC.

If you're interested, I'll see if I can find the interview transcript; his experience was (based on my limited research, anyway) fairly typical of the last major wave of Quebec-US immigration in the early 20th century.
posted by Kadin2048 at 3:49 PM on August 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

Last thing-- the "touquay" I mentioned in my first comment is, according to Internet sources, spelled "Tourtière." Had to google "quebec meat pie" to find the spelling.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:58 PM on August 31, 2009

You might be interested in learning about Le Grand Dérangement, which explains why there's a sizable Acadian (Cajun) diaspora in places like Louisiana.
posted by futureisunwritten at 4:09 PM on August 31, 2009

If you go to Marlborough, Massachusetts and ask where "French Hill" is, anyone over 50 will be able to tell you. Or until very recently you could have gone to the French mass at St. Ann's Church.

One of the interesting things about immigration patterns in New England is that non-European immigrant groups have often followed the European immigrant groups whose language was that of their former colonial powers. So there are big Brazilian and Cape Verdean immigrant populations in Cambridge, Hudson, Framingham, Fall River, and New Bedford, Massachusetts, which formerly had big Portuguese immigrant populations, and there are big Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrant populations in Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts, which formerly had big French-Canadian immigrant populations.
posted by Sidhedevil at 4:29 PM on August 31, 2009

Jack Kerouac is an example of a famous person of French-Canadian descent who came out of Lowell, MA.
posted by Jupiter Jones at 4:29 PM on August 31, 2009

A New Hampshire paper had some articles on French-Canadian immigration earlier this summer. They're now pay-to-view ($2.50 a pop, looks like):
Parlez-vous français? Probably not
We are one piece in the great American mosaic
The new French speakers
posted by zadcat at 7:21 PM on August 31, 2009

I grew up in Manchester, NH and parts of it have a distinctly French flavor. There was at least on French language bookstore in town as well as many businesses with French sounding names (i.e. Moreau's Hardware). The nations first credit union is in Manchester as was up until ~'90's was called La Caisse Populaire, Ste-Marie.

My mother grew up in Fall River, Mass and only spoke French until she was about five, she still swears in it.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:53 PM on August 31, 2009

There are lots of French Canadians in Rhode Island: Woonsocket has a French quarter (or at least a sign for one). The Providence area also still has, I believe, a number of French-language schools.
posted by goingonit at 7:26 AM on September 1, 2009

Seconding goingonit--I grew up in West Warwick, RI and there was a "French" part of town, along with Portuguese, Italian, Polish, and Irish sections. My grandfather's family had lived in that town for several generations, but he still didn't learn English until he went to school (in the Depression). My mother grew up speaking English but her baptismal certificate is in French. By the time I came along things had diffused, but each neighborhood still had it's older folks who still held onto the old ways. I think if you were to go to any mill town in New England about 75 years ago you would find little pockets of French Canadian people/culture, but like someone else said, there was a stigma about being "Ethnic" so most people abandoned the language and customs in the 50's & 60's. Kinda sad....
posted by weesha at 8:29 AM on September 1, 2009

I was reading yesterday about Kalmykia. There are a few communities of Kalmyk Americans.

A number of Eritreans have come to Rochester (NY), but I can't find much about them online, not even a page for the Center of Eritrean Community of Rochester. Gee thanks, now I'm going to be lost in the wiki category of ethnic groups of the United States for the rest of the afternoon!
posted by knile at 1:08 PM on September 1, 2009

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