Networks, neighbourhoods, and migrations in two generations: French Canadians and Franco Americans (1895-1950)

Chris Minns (London School of Econcomics and Political Science)

French Canadians made up one of the largest immigrant groups in the United States in the early 20th century, with almost 750,500 individuals of French Canadian parentage residing in the United States in 1930. French Canadian migrants were disproportionately concentrated in industrial towns in New England, where significant Franco American communities were established, and remained a major component of the urban landscape until at least the 1950s. Their social and economic experiences in the US drew much comment from both Canadian and American observers. Due to low rates of literacy, language barriers, and a tendency to concentrate in ethnic enclaves, many contemporaries debated whether or not French Canadians would successfully assimilate into American society. For first generation French Canadian arrivals in the US, economic potential depended in large part on self-selection in migration: was it the best and brightest who chose to move south, or did relatively low costs of emigration, the availability of family and kin contact already in the US (and the ease with which it could be reversed) mean that the relatively unskilled and least adaptable were prominent amongst the flows? For the second generation, the character of the communities in which Franco Americans reached adulthood were key. Recent research by Mackinnon and Parent  suggests that French Canadians assimilated relatively slowly once in the US: the educational attainment of the second generation (first generation American-born) lay well below that of native-parentage Americans and other immigrant groups until after the Second World War. The prevalence of parochial schools in parts of New England with large numbers of Franco Americans appears to have been closely connected to limited educational attainment.

Did patterns of self-selection play a large role in shaping the character of the French Canadian population in the US? While the broad outlines of who went South are fairly well known, whether migrant selection was shaped by strong cross-border networks (as in the case of other international migration flows) is unknown. For the second generation, the existing evidence on educational attainment and conscription is suggestive, but does not provide direct evidence that Franco-Americans were less mobile in response to economic opportunities, or that this changed before and after 1950.

The first part of the project proposes to draw a sample of the US border crossing records for New England (St Albans, Vermont) between 1895 and 1925 to assess emigrant selection among French Canadian migrants. The records include details of occupation and physical stature (height); both of these can be compared to the occupational profile of stayers and the height profiles of other samples of the French Canadian population to assess what part of the distribution migrants to the US were coming from. The border crossing records also usually report intended destination and a contact at this place. This information will allow us to discriminate between migrants who were “networked” and those who were not; other studies of emigration to the US for different migrant groups and different time periods have found substantial differences in economic potential between those drawing on a network and those who did not. This part of the project will offer an important contribution to Canadian economic history through better estimates of migrant selection (physical as well as economic stature) and a first look at how networks shaped this selection.

The second part of the project turns to the mobility of the next generation – Franco-Americans born in the US to French Canadian parents. An existing narrative argues that this generation was often stuck in their “Petits Canadas” prior to conscription and the Second World War. The implicit argument is that the character of the destinations chosen by their parents are a large part of what held the second generation back. The prevalence of parochial schools for the children of French Canadian migrants is well established, and it has been argued that parochial schools reduced both the quality and quantity of education received by the children of French Canadian migrants. Social scientists have argued that growing up in an ethnic enclave could affect the assimilation of the children of immigrants for a host of other reasons as well, which could also have effects on the ability to seize economic opportunities inside and outside of the enclave. Beyond the ethnic character of the environment in which Franco American children were raised, their broader economic characteristics could also affect the onward mobility of the second generation. While New England’s mill towns offered ready employment for migrants from Quebec in the late 19th and early 20th century, by 1920 many of these destinations were declining relative to larger urban areas and similarly-sized locations elsewhere in the US. Poorer opportunities where many Franco American children came to adulthood should have made emigration attractive in principle, but a large literature on the economics of migration has shown that poverty traps are also a common feature in such locations; would-be migrants may have had little capital to finance the move, and for second generation populations, lower and/or less transportable human capital can also blunt the incentives to move. Discrimination against an ethnic group that was often presented unfavourably could also limit the ability to successfully move outside of the enclave.