French Immigration to Canada (1760-1914)

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In the early 18th century, the French started to immigrate to Canada. Until the British conquest in 1760, 35,000 did so. Perhaps fewer than half came to stay. Of them, about 9,000 left behind lineages that today include some fifteen million people on the North-American continent.

During the following century, only a few thousand French immigrants headed for Canada, above all setting up home in Ontario as farmers. They came from the German-speaking regions in the east of the country. The others chose Quebec. From all over France, they were craftsmen, clerks and farmers. A large number were former soldiers. But there were also schoolteachers, artists, lawyers and doctors, professions which were much sought-after in societies with a low level of literacy. In British Colombia, there could be found adventurers who, in 1858, were attracted by the discovery of gold. They formed a little community in Victoria, on Vancouver Island, before the great majority returned home. On the other side of the continent, a few hundred French sailors and fishermen deserted from their ships and melted into the local populations.

In Quebec, a quarter of the French were churchmen. For example, 51 refractory priests emigrated to Canada, 40 of whom stayed. They were not numerous, but they played a vital role, by increasing the clergy by 25% and giving the Canadian church a fresh vigour. But they were not the only French that came to Canada during the Revolution and the Empire. In 1798, Count Joseph-Geneviève de Puisaye and a good forty of his compatriots founded a colony of aristocrats in Ontario. Little prepared for a life as pioneers, they returned home after a few years, or even a few months.

The French immigrants kept up close relationships with the local populations, particularly the Acadians and the French Canadians. They married and occupied symbolically important posts. The literate were appreciated in high society. As for the priests, they were generally esteemed by their bishops, the British authorities and their flocks. However, there were some dissensions between the French and Canadian clergies. The latter feared that these immigrants would be favoured for the best parishes and administrative positions. 

In 1870, a new wave of immigration began, which was to continue until 1914. About 50,000 French crossed the Atlantic for Canada; half of them remained there. They could be found in all the provinces and territories, but in particular the prairies of the West, which had just been opened up for colonisation. Another group chose Quebec, essentially Montreal. At the time, Canada seemed like a promised land for many of the French, who arrived in a quest for better conditions of life and a favourable environment for the thriving of Catholicism. They were encouraged by Canadian immigration agents, members of the clergy and a French network of “friends of Canada”. 

Thus, migration continued to have close relationships with the Catholic religion. The policies of republican governments incited many French to emigrate to a country which was seen as being tolerant from a religious point of view. This connection was especially strong on the Prairies, where Catholic colonies were set up, but also in the large centres of Eastern Canada. The great majority of these French were Catholics. Furthermore, many priests, monks and nuns emigrated. Just in the province of Quebec, there were 2,600 of them, or one fifth of the French population. Most of them came to stay, with some becoming well-known figures.

The largest and most diverse French community in the country was in Montreal. It was there that the festivities of 14th July had the greatest impact and where community institutions that had no equivalents elsewhere were set up. However, all was not union and harmony. In the cities as on the Prairies, some immigrants had brought with them unbending conservative or republican ideas.

Whatever their ideological convictions, the immigrants remained attached to their mother land, where they had left behind their family and friends, with whom they kept up a regular correspondence by letter. In 1870-1871, they answered with enthusiasm to the appeal by Consuls to come to the aid of the victims of the Franco-Prussian War and contribute financially to the reparations after the conflict. Forty years later, their patriotism was shown even more ardently when France called its citizens to arms; in Canada, 5,000 Frenchmen hurried across the Atlantic.

During the century and a half that separated the British conquest of 1760 from the outbreak of the First World War, many French shared both rural and urban spaces with other Francophones. Their presence thus contributed to the maintenance and development of Canadian Francophonie. In demographic terms, their effect was limited, because the country was so vast and the immigrants dispersed. At a local level, however, their presence mattered, often allowing for the rise of small francophone communities. But their impact came less from their numbers than the contribution they made to certain fields.


Published in september 2020
Picture caption : Carte des Environs de Quebec en La Nouvelle France Mezuré sur le lieu très exactement en 1685 et 86 par le Sr Devilleneuve Ingénieur du Roy. R. de Villeneuve. 1685-1686

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