by Angèle Alain and Sylvie Tremblay, Library and Archives
The repatriation movement, led by the Quebec and Canadian governments, reopened the question of French-Canadian identity. Was it possible to live in New England and still maintain your culture? For the governments, the answer was obvious and indisputable. The repatriation officers, clergy and even the Francophone newspapers hammered home the same urgent message: the French-Canadian majority had to return to Canada or risk losing its culture, way of life and religion. America's moral code, they said, was corrupt and godless, and would rob French Canadians of their identity.
It was not easy for the emigrants to return. Their decision
was made all the more difficult because the repatriation movement went along with
a back-to-the-land campaign; while the "exiles" valued their French-Canadian heritage,
they still enjoyed the wages and easier way of life offered by the United States.
In fact, many who returned to Canada to farm quickly gave it up and crossed back
over the border. In a letter to a repatriation officer, a Sherbrooke colonization
officer observed that the colonists missed their creature comforts somewhat. He
remarked that "cutting wood from morning to night, and living on bacon and pea
soup was quite difficult for people who had grown accustomed over the years to
weaving and spinning, and living on pudding and Boston crackers [unofficial translation]."
(Roby, p.10) (Their French-Canadian identity seemed to have little to do with
land, a way of life or even a homeland.)
However, in the 1880s, at the height of the French-Canadian exodus, the emigrants increasingly began to group together in an effort to recreate "Little Canadas" with French Catholic churches, schools, hospitals and newspapers. Many members of the Canadian elite began to rethink their ideas about emigration southward and decided to advocate naturalization to ensure the survival of French Canadians in the United States. Even Father Labelle admitted that "despite my fervent wish to see the repatriation project succeed, I have reached the conclusion that the movement will not be as successful as I had hoped [unofficial translation]." (Labelle, p. 17) Even Ferdinand Gagnon, a Quebec government officer and ardent defender of repatriation, became an American citizen in October 1882.