YORKwrites: History professor studies migratory patterns

YORKwrites, a joint presentation of York University Libraries and York University Bookstores, showcases and celebrates the breadth and depth of York’s scholarly publications, research and creative work. From now until Nov. 3, YFile and YORKwrites will shine a spotlight on various University innovators and creators.

Yukari Takai, professor of history at Glendon College, is establishing herself as an expert on the history of migration and demographic change. Her most recent study of migratory patterns into and throughout the Quebec/New England region in the 19th and 20th centuries offers a new framework for examining the immigrant experience. Having studied and taught in Canada and Japan, and as a Fulbright Research Scholar at the Center for the Study of Ethnicity & Race at Columbia University in New York City, Takai brings a personal perspective to her research.

Left: Yukari Takai

In her most recent publication, Gendered Passages: French-Canadian Migration to Lowell, Massachusetts, 1900-1920, Takai focuses on two distinct aspects of the French-Canadian experience in New England – the nature of mobility, and the family dynamics that changed and grew in response to the many pressures of an immigrant’s life.

In her view, French-Canadian culture, with its tradition of very high mobility and colonization, played an important role in establishing a presence in New England, “but I emphasize more the economic needs of the French-Canadian families, and also the labour demand of the textile industry in a dozen of mill towns in New England.  

“After the US Civil War, immigration became more important in Lowell. It was mostly women that provided the labour in that city’s cotton and wool factories. By the early 1900s, French-Canadians became the largest foreign-born population in the city. Because, geographically, they were very close to Quebec, it was relatively easy for French-Canadians to travel; it was not the same experience that was had by Asian or European immigrants,” said Takai. “It was easier for French-Canadians to keep their cultural connections intact. French-Canadians recreated whole neighbourhoods, including their churches, French-language newspapers, Catholic schools and a ‘Little Canada’, where commerce was mostly run by Canadians.”

Takai goes on to emphasize the importance of the “family network – French-Canadian women and men created human networks across the border. There were villages in Canada that would send many families to work in Lowell, so they recreated neighbourhoods in the new cities and built a very close-knit network.”

It was these family networks, and how they adapted to fit the socio-economic challenges, that most informs Takai’s work. “In the last third of the 19th century, one of the reasons whole French-Canadian families would migrate to a textile city in New England is that the children could work at textile factories, and provide an income,” she said. “But with anti-child labour laws more strictly implemented in the 20th century, this became more difficult. While the male family heads, husbands and fathers tended to get more stable, higher-paying jobs, it was still difficult for them to be the sole wage earner, so more wives and mothers were working for wages.

“This resulted in a situation comparable to many immigrant working families today, where the women work for wages, and once finishing their day work would return home and do all their unpaid, home work. Increasingly, in early-20th-century Lowell, as French-Canadian wives and mothers entered the labour market, they had to juggle many responsibilities,” explained Takai. “The historical context makes it very different from today’s working mothers – there was no paid leave, there was no maternity leave, they had fewer options. Some brought their children to the factories, and they sat next to their mothers, with the ear-breaking noise and humidity – not an ideal place for children to be, but at the time it was possible to do this. There was a different working dynamic among the families and in the industry.”

Takai also emphasizes that migration is not strictly linear, in which immigrants settle into their new home and become assimilated and “Americanized”; rather, populations move across borders and back again in a more circulatory journey. She stresses the idea of a more continuous movement in adapting to meet socio-economic needs – that “high mobility is a way of life for many people. It’s still playing itself out today.”

Takai continues her examination of migration, both past and present. Her next book will be about Asian migration into North America, and the movement of Japanese, Chinese and South Asians across the Canada-US border and the Mexico-US border.

“It’s not a story of migrant settlement, but about moving. Looking at the Canada-US border and the US-Mexico border, I want to find out what motivated Asian migrants to cross these borders after they arrived in North America, how they did so, and what their mobility meant at a time when Canada, the United States, and Mexico came to impose more and more restrictive and exclusionary immigration laws across the continent.”

Do you want your work included in the YORKwrites database? Visit the YORKwrites Web site and let organizers know about what you’ve published or created in the past year. The third annual YORKwrites reception takes place Nov. 3 at the Steacie Science & Engineering Library on York’s Keele campus.