The Great Northern Migration: Rural French-Canadian Immigrants in New England Industrial Cities

Between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries, almost a million people emigrated from rural Quebec in Canada to urban centres in New England, many with roots in the Appalachian mountain areas of eastern Quebec, many others from Quebec's Laurentian mountains. An officer wrote, in 1871, that "[s]carcely a single day goes by that whole families are to be seen setting out for the United States" (quoted in Roby 2004, p. 11). They migrated for reasons similar to those of rural southern Appalachian peoples who moved northward in the mid-20th century – hoping to escape poverty and to find jobs in manufacturing cities (Brault 1986). In Quebec, rural poverty resulted from overpopulation, crop failures, and unpredictable employment in mining and forestry. French speakers were marginalized at that time by the English-speaking elite; and like Southern Appalachian peoples, they found themselves further marginalized in the cities where they settled. But French-Canadian migrants maintained their cultural identity in New England, even if they mostly shifted to English, and they continue to be a major demographic component in many of the region's cities. In recent years, some descendants of migrants have been re-establishing connections between Quebec and New England. This paper will discuss the history of the migrations, compare these migrations with those of southern Appalachian peoples, and focus on two manufacturing cities: Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where almost half of today's population is of French-Canadian heritage, and Lowell, Massachusetts, birthplace of Jack Kerouac, whose family was from the Bas-Saint-Laurent region in Quebec's Appalachians.