French Canadian Americans are Americans of French-Canadian descent. About 8 million U.S. residents are of this ancestry, and about two million Americans speak French at home. Americans of French-Canadian descent are most heavily concentrated in New England and the Midwest. Their ancestors mostly arrived in the United States from Quebec between 1840 and 1930, though some families became established as early as the 17th and 18th centuries.
The term Canadien (French for "Canadian") may be used either in reference to nationality or ethnicity in regard to this population group. French Canadian Americans, because of their proximity to Canada and Quebec, kept their language, culture, and religion alive much longer than any other ethnic group in the United States apart from Mexican Americans. Many "Little Canada" neighborhoods developed in New England cities, but gradually disappeared as their residents eventually assimilated into the American mainstream. A revival of the Canadian identity has taken place in the Midwestern states, where some families of French descent have lived for many generations. These states had been considered part of Canada up until 1783. A return to their roots seems to be taking place, with a greater interest in all things that are Canadian or Québécois.
In the late 19th century, many Francophones arrived in New England from Quebec and New Brunswick to work in textile mill cities in New England. In the same period, Francophones from Quebec soon became a majority of the workers in the saw mill and logging camps in the Adirondack Mountains and their foothills. Others sought opportunities for farming and other trades such as blacksmiths in Northern New York State. By the mid-20th century French Canadian Americans comprised 30 percent of Maine's population. Some migrants became lumberjacks but most concentrated in industrialized areas and into enclaves known as 'Little Canadas.'
Driven by depleted farmlands, poverty and a lack of local economic opportunitunities, rural inhabitants of these areas sought work in the expanding mill industries. Newspapers in New England carried advertisements touting the desirability of wage labor work in the textile mills. In addition to industry's organized recruitment campaigns, the close kinship network of French Canadians facilitated transnational communication and the awareness of economic opportunity for their friends and relatives. Individual French Canadian families who desired dwellings developed French Canadian neighborhoods, called Petit Canadas, and sought out local financing. Most arrived through railroads such as the Grand Trunk Railroad.
French Canadian women saw New England as a place of opportunity and possibility where they could create economic alternatives for themselves distinct from the expectations of their farm families in Canada. By the early 20th century some saw temporary migration to the United States to work as a rite of passage and a time of self-discovery and self-reliance. Most moved permanently to the United States, using the inexpensive railroad system to visit Quebec from time to time. When these women did marry, they had fewer children with longer intervals between children than their Canadian counterparts. Some women never married, and oral accounts suggest that self-reliance and economic independence were important reasons for choosing work over marriage and motherhood. These women conformed to traditional gender ideals in order to retain their 'Canadienne' cultural identity, but they also redefined these roles in ways that provided them increased independence in their roles as wives and mothers.
The French Canadians became active in the Catholic Church where they tried with little success to challenge its domination by Irish clerics. They founded such newspapers as 'Le Messager' and 'La Justice.' The first hospital in Lewiston, Maine, became a reality in 1889 when the Sisters of Charity of Montreal, the 'Grey Nuns,' opened the doors of the Asylum of Our Lady of Lourdes. This hospital was central to the Grey Nuns' mission of providing social services for Lewiston's predominately French Canadian mill workers. The Grey Nuns struggled to establish their institution despite meager financial resources, language barriers, and opposition from the established medical community. Immigration dwindled after World War I.
The French Canadian community in New England tried to preserve some of its cultural norms. This doctrine, like efforts to preserve francophone culture in Quebec, became known as la Survivance.
^l’Actualité économique, Vol. 59, No 3, (september 1983): 423-453 and Yolande LAVOIE, L’Émigration des Québécois aux États-Unis de 1840 à 1930, Québec, Conseil de la langue française, 1979.
^Harvard encyclopedia of American ethnic groups,Stephan Thernstorm, Harvard College, 1980, p 392
^Mark Paul Richard, "From 'Canadien' to American: The Acculturation of French-Canadian Descendants in Lewiston, Maine, 1860 to the Present", PhD dissertation Duke U. 2002; Dissertation Abstracts International, 2002 62(10): 3540-A. DA3031009, 583p.
^Hudson, Susan (2013), The Quiet Revolutionaries: How the Grey Nuns Changed the Social Welfare, 1870–1930, Routledge
^Waldron, Florencemae (2005), "The Battle Over Female (In)Dependence: Women In New England Québécois Migrant Communities, 1870–1930", Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies26 (2): 158–205, doi:10.1353/fro.2005.0032
^Ralph D. VICERO, Immigration of French Canadians to New England, 1840-1900, Ph.D thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1968, p. 275; as given in Yves ROBY, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle Angleterre, 1776-1930, Sillery, Septentrion, 1990, p. 47
^Leon TRUESDELL, The Canadian Born in the United States, New Haven, 1943, p. 77; as given in Yves ROBY, Les Franco-Américains de la Nouvelle-Angleterre, Sillery, Septentrion, 1990, p. 282.