French Canadians, those “not quite white” migrants

October 20, 2021

Within English speaking North America, and until the middle of the Twentieth Century, French Canadiens were considered “not quite white” and exploited accordingly. Jason Newton, an American researcher and forest historian, describes the use of pseudo-scientific racism to justify prejudices against migrant workers.

By Sarah Champagne,

Le Devoir  October 20th, 2021

Original French text here :

“Half-wild,” “of questionable whiteness,” “bold” and with “the lure of the woods that has run in their blood for generations,” or even “primitive”: logging company and U.S. government records describe the French Canadians who migrated between 1840 and 1955 in these terms. Through these documents and philosophical or anthropological writings, researcher Jason Newton demonstrates how the exploitation of these immigrants was justified by attributing intrinsic racial characteristics to them.

At the turn of the twentieth century, approximately one million French Canadians headed to the United States in search of a better future. These migrations continued until recently, sometimes on a more seasonal basis, to take up better paying jobs. This memory is still alive, as evidenced by several stories of Quebecers who left between the 1950s and 1970s published in our pages last Saturday.

These immigrants, who came mainly from the province of Quebec, were seen as “racially suited” to lumberjack work, Newton said in an interview. A forest industry historian, he is currently completing a post-doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. These skills were thought to be “innate” and were used to legitimize the use of this labor force as early as the 19th century.

Today, the “whiteness” of the French Canadians who went to work in the forests of the Northeast seems indisputable… and obvious to the naked eye. “You think you know a white person when you see one,” says Newton. Like Irish, Italian and Jewish immigrants, Quebec lumberjacks were nonetheless “white and non-white” at the time, he writes in an article published in the academic journal Labour.

Historically – and often erroneously – perceived as “more mixed blood” with First Nations people and as remote country dwellers, French Canadians were described as “swarthy” in 19th-century American literature.

Henry David Thoreau’s writings, especially Walden, published in 1854, already hinted at the stereotype of the strong French Canadian with iron stamina at the expense of an advanced intellect.

On the other hand, the imperatives of colonizing Quebec were sometimes used to explain this particular inclination, as the need to clear land and live in the wilderness had made them “half-wild”. Their deep devotion to Catholicism also kept them in “innocence” and “deference”: in short, they were made to be governed rather than to govern themselves.

A “science” of prejudice

This idea that French Canadians lacked the ability to govern themselves persisted through subsequent intellectual developments, says Jason Newton on the phone. The brave men from the North had the strength and familiarity with the forest necessary for the great enterprise of “civilizing the savage world,” but not the independence of mind to “be in a position of authority. They were therefore inferior, according to the racial thinking of the time.

The development of “race science,” including eugenics in the early twentieth century, indeed continues to support this view. “You have to understand that with the industrial revolution, old prejudices are transformed into modern prejudices,” describes historian Martin Pâquet. A specialist in the French-Canadian diaspora and professor at Laval University, he confirms that a “scale” of whiteness persists even within Caucasian groups. “And in the eyes of the people of the time, it is seen as objective, because it is based on an observation of nature,” he says.

The racial gaze is also based on a different language, religion and socioeconomic condition, he adds: “You’re poor and you’re from somewhere else.”

It’s a time when capitalism and the logging industry are growing rapidly, the American researcher notes. “We’re going to want to hire these workers who know how to manipulate the natural world more efficiently, according to our assumptions. We want to make more money, essentially.”

“The instinct,” or “affinity,” of French Canadians for life in the deep woods can thus be put to work, forestry companies are quick to note. The success of many of these companies is directly attributable to this indentured labour force, which is willing to be paid less, which can be “left to its own devices and which will build its own camp,” Newton says wryly.


“The capitalist system needs a workforce that allows it to increase its profit margin,” adds Martin Pâquet. It is therefore convenient to consider Canadians more talented for this type of activity, since they are paid less, he notes. This competition fuels “racial and racist” sentiment, he says. Tensions arise.

“We think they are different from us, that they are not our equal partners in the work. So they’re our competitors and they’re stealing our jobs,” sums up Jason Newton.

Maine’s large diaspora was targeted by the supremacist Ku Klux Klan during its second resurgence in the 1920s.

In response to tensions between American and Canadian workers, Washington also formalized this system of temporary immigration in the 1930s under a “bonded labor” program. Each worker was then “bonded” exclusively to a company, in the sense that a worker received a permit bearing the name of his employer and the limited dates of his contract.

Finally, history is repeating itself today in some respects with other immigrants, the two researchers believe. The phenomenon of temporary foreign workers from Mexico or Guatemala in Quebec’s agricultural sector is also part of a model where they accept to be paid less than Quebecers.

Like Quebecers in the 19th and 20th centuries, these men, or sometimes families, leave their home countries after going into debt or losing their own access to land. They are attributed with “cultural” or “ethnic” qualities, for example by referring to their ability to withstand the heat better or to work faster than Canadian-born citizens, says Newton.

Finally, all of these findings can “help us question our own assumptions about race today. The categories we call ‘race’ today are socially constructed and are subject to change because they have changed before,” he says.

We still need to keep in mind that we ourselves are immigrant-emigrants, Pâquet concludes. “There is a certain family memory of these events. But leaving was often equated with a form of failure. We said to ourselves, “They’re not real.” So maybe there was a tendency to keep those elements quiet.”

Translated by DeepL and validated by Michel Virard.

Michel Virard