Guest lecturer tells of little known French Canadian and New England history

It is a little known fact that the Ku Klux Klan terrorized French Canadians when they moved to New England after farmland in Quebec became scarce, but that is something Professor Eileen Angelini, a Canada-US Fulbright Award Visiting Research Chair in Globalization & Cultural Studies at McMaster University, knows much about.

As a guest lecturer at Glendon last week, Angelini delivered her talk, titled “A Little Known History of Discrimination in New England: The Ku Klux Klan’s Attacks on Franco-Americans in the First Half of the 20thCentury”.

From left, Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts, Geoffrey Ewen, coordinator of Glendon's Department of Canadian Studies, Eileen Angelini and Radha Persaud, political science course director at GlendonRight: From left, Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts, Geoffrey Ewen, coordinator of Glendon’s Department of Canadian Studies, Eileen Angelini and Radha Persaud, political science course director at Glendon

Angelini, professor of French at Canisius College in Buffalo, outlined the historical connection between the French Canadians and New England, with particular attention given to Ben Levine’s documentary, Réveil – Waking Up French: The Repression and Renaissance of the French in New England, and the KKK in New England. Angelini’s forthcoming article, “New England and Canada: Understanding the Language, Cultural and Historical Connections” will be published as part of the McMaster University Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition Working Papers Series.

“By 1900, the population of Quebec had grown substantially. However, this large population now strained the available farmland. At the same time, New England was harnessing water power from large rivers for bigger and bigger textile mills that needed workers,” Angelini wrote. “Over one million French Catholic Quebecers flooded from Quebec into largely English Protestant New England towns, creating so many petits Canadas, French neighborhoods, that New England was called Québec en sud, ‘Lower Quebec’.

“Unlike European immigrants of the same period, these Quebecers lived just a day’s train ride away from their destination, and only wanted to stay long enough to save a sufficient amount of money to return to Quebec, re-start their farms and the lifestyles they had left behind, she says. They were extremely loyal to their French-Catholic way of life, which emphasized community, cooperation and devotion over the individual, competitive and materialistic life prevalent in the United States. They were so loyal, in fact, that they maintained their culture despite extraordinary obstacles.

“English Protestant towns became fearful of this influx of people, who spoke a different language and practised a different religion. They blamed priests for encouraging Quebecers not to assimilate, not to learn English, says Angelini. In towns all over New England, tensions rose. English-speaking Protestant elites formed branches of the Ku Klux Klan, threatened and attacked many French communities from Massachusetts to Maine. There were more Ku Klux Klan members in New England than in the nation’s South, and they were powerful and well entrenched. Several were civic leaders and one was governor of Maine. There was even a ‘women’s auxiliary’.”

Angelini came to Glendon at the invitation of course director Radha Persaud of Glendon’s Department of Political Science and Professor Geoffrey Ewen, coordinator of Glendon’s Canadian Studies Program.

Submitted by Marika Kemeny, Glendon communications officer