Revisiting the History of Little Canadas in the US: Identity and Spatial Organization in the 19th and 20th Centuries

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We are delighted to bring together some of the most inspiring researchers in Franco-American Studies, and we would like to extend an invitation to all of you. “Revisiting the history of Little Canadas in the US”, that is the topic Robert Forrant, Ph.D., Distinguish Professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., Director of the Acadian Archives at the University of Maine, Fort Kent, James Paul, former Professor of History at the Kankakee Community College and President of the Bourbonnais Grove Historical Society, Illinois, David Vermette, a Franco-American from Massachusetts and an eminent scholar, whose A Distinct Alien Race is “the best synthesis of Franco-American history written to date” (L. Choquette), Robert B. Perreault, a prominent Franco-American, a public speaker, a researcher, a writer and a lecturer at Saint Anselm College, New Hampshire, and Mack Brza, a very promising young scholar, who serves as Collections Manager at the Kankakee French Heritage Museum, Illinois. Over the course of two days, we will hear from them about Little Canadas and the direction and future of the Franco-American identity.

During the 19th century, European and Canadian immigrants to the US and beyond have tried to reconstruct symbolically and geographically in countries of exile their countries of origin in miniature (“Little Canada”, “Little Italy”, “Little Spain”, “Frenchville”, etc.). These ethnic enclaves were the result of the inhabitants consciously establishing a dynamic relationship of appropriation of their own place. We all know that the modes of location as spatial organization are kinds of translations of cultural models of social life. Habitat is a significant component of material culture, conveying the occupants’ mentality and their relationship to their surroundings. Spatial appropriation is a collective expression, which is contingent upon the inhabitant’s statement of identity.

Day 1 — Thursday, October 19, 2023                           4 pm —6 pm  Online


4:00 pm —4:30 pm     Online via zoom

Où est le Canada? Rediscovering the Rural Franco-American

For generations, the urban ethnic clusters known as Little Canadas have served as the primary lens through which we understand Franco-American history in the U.S. Northeast. Survey works and countless articles and theses in the field of Franco-American studies have supported and echoed a dominant paradigm organized around national parishes and textile factories. As a result, at a scholarly level, we know a great deal about these urban communities. Comparatively, we still know little about Franco-American life outside of a handful of large cities in Boston’s hinterland. Outlying centers of French-heritage population represent one of the next frontiers of research in this field. The study of rural areas and “mini mill towns” promises new insights about the social, cultural, and economic universe of French-Canadians immigrants to the Northeast and their descendants, not least by highlighting the diverse experiences hidden in a seemingly singular and monolithic Franco-American identity. Combining statistical data and vignettes from lesser-known “Franco” communities, this paper systematizes existing research and proposes ways of thinking through the problem of invisible Franco-Americans—invisible in existing works rather than in original primary documents. From northern New York State through the rural areas of Vermont and New Hampshire to central Maine, abundant sources invite new research and raise new questions about supposedly normative Franco-American experiences.

Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., is a former Fulbright fellow and a former instructor at Phillips Exeter Academy. He has also taught at postsecondary institutions in New Hampshire, Quebec, and Nova Scotia. As a scholar of U.S. religious history, Dr. Lacroix studies faith-based activism and its role in twentieth-century political realignments. His first monograph, John F. Kennedy and the Politics of Faith (University Press of Kansas, 2021) finds in the early 1960s a rapid shift in religious discourse that produced a new political and ideological landscape. Dr. Lacroix has brought historical perspective to the current state of religious activism in a number of outlets, including the History News Network, the Washington Post, and the Concord Monitor. Dr. Lacroix is also a leading scholar of Franco-American history. He has authored articles in numerous peer-reviewed journals as well as “Tout nous serait possible”: Une histoire politique des Franco-Américains, 1874-1945 (Presses de l’Université Laval, 2021). A native of Quebec, he studies points of intersection in Canadian and American “national” histories by studying migration and other encounters across the international border. He currently serves as director of the Acadian Archives in Fort Kent, Maine.


 4:30 pm — 5:00 pm    Online via zoom

The French-Canadian Heritage Corridor in Northeastern Illinois

“On Monday November 4, 2013, the Kankakee County Historic Preservation Commission supported a proposal to contact Illinois State Representative Kate Cloonen about introducing to the state legislature a resolution to designate a section of Interstate 57 as the “French-Canadian Heritage Corridor”[…]. Those settlements included Bourbonnais Grove (now Bourbonnais), Le Petite Canada (sic) (gone now, but the site is located in the Davis Creek area of Kankakee River State Park).

 ( Dr. Paul will share with the audience the rich and edifying adventures of French-Canadian immigration in the Midwest.

Dr. James Paul is a retired Professor of History at Kankakee Community College. He has been the president of the Bourbonnais Grove Historical Society since 2016 and has served as a Secretary on the Kankakee County Historic Preservation Commission. He recently received an Award of Excellence for his role in teaching history and helping to preserve it.


5:00 pm — 5:30 pm Online via zoom

Cultural Fusion in Frontier Petit Canada: The Rise and Fall of Potawatomi and French-Canadian Relations in Bourbonnais, Illinois

The concept of Petit Canada is traditionally associated with the migration of French Canadians to locations within the eastern half of the United States. This remains fairly well-established information with regards to the infancy of the United States. However, what did Petit Canada look like for those who elected to settle territories largely undiscovered or unexplored during the early portions of the 19th century? Looking deeper at the establishment of Bourbonnais Grove, once described as “delightfully French”, and its founder, one uncovers some strange friendships and some practices steeped in French-Canadian tradition. This project seeks to examine the interplay and exchange between the Native Potawatomi of Northeast Illinois and Noel Levasseur, founder of Bourbonnais, Illinois. It will take a deeper dive into Levasseur’s early career as a Coureur de Bois and his display of leadership in founding a settlement along the Kankakee River. Additionally, it will provide a detailed look into the everyday life of the Potawatomi and French-Canadian villagers and the perceptions of the forced migration west into Iowa that followed the growth of Kankakee County. The intent of this presentation is to bring light to some of the nuances of westward expansion, indigenous relations, and French-Canadian migration.

Mack Brza is a  very promising young scholar, who graduated in History and Creative Writing from the Olivet Nazarene University, Bourbonnais (Illinois). His research interest is in relationships between French-Canadian fur traders (coureurs de bois), Native American nations, and missionaries in the Midwest. He has been passionate for history and anthropology from a young age. He is a member of the Society for the History of Discoveries. He is currently serving as a curator at the French Heritage Museum, Kankakee (Illinois).

Day 2 — Friday, October 20, 2023                4:00 pm — 5:00 pm  Online


4:00 pm — 4:30 pm Online via zoom                   

La Survivance and the Little Canadas

This presentation will explore the ideology of cultural survival (la survivance) in the Little Canadas of New England in the 19 th and early 20 th centuries. It will discuss the circumstances in Canada under which this ideology of cultural survival developed, one in which the French-Canadians were a minority increasingly surrounded by an English-speaking majority. The emigrants from Quebec brought their political and social conceptions with them as they established their own French-speaking towns and neighborhoods (Little Canadas) mainly in the industrial areas of the Northeast U.S. The Little Canadas of New England then became new centers for the dissemination of the ideology of French-Canadian cultural survival. Some elements in the U.S. press misinterpreted statements of the clerical elite in Quebec and peddled a conspiracy theory which cast the Little Canadas as a danger to the political integrity of New England and therefore of the United States. However, the motivations of the emigrants were economic rather than ideological. This presentation will look at the Little Canadas in light of the struggles between competing religious ideologies on the two sides of the border.

David Vermette is a researcher and writer who studies the history and identity of the descendants of French North America. He has been an invited speaker at universities and historical and genealogical societies. Vermette is a third generation Franco-American from Massachusetts. He is the author of A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans: Industrialization, Immigration, Religious Strife (Baraka Books, 2018), “a terrific book, the best synthesis of Franco-American history written to date” (Leslie Choquette, Professor, Assumption University).


Closing Keynote Speaker

4:30pm — 5:00 pm   Online via zoom

The Rise and Demise of Lowell’s Little Canada Neighborhood

From the late 19th century through the 1960s, a thriving Little Canada neighborhood existed within a short walk from Lowell’s downtown, library, City Hall, and high school. Numerous markets, social clubs, a hospital that delivered care in French, Catholic Churches, and parochial schools filled the physical spaces. If desired, you could be born and die in Little Canada and conduct your daily business in French. Outright prejudice against neighborhood residents existed, as did disdain across Massachusetts for growing French-speaking populations. As the factory jobs that drew people to the city disappeared, the neighborhood fell on hard economic times. City leaders were determined to destroy the neighborhood and evict families from their apartments, homes, and businesses to make way for a high-tech industrial park. For the longest time, many Lowellians have refused to come to grips with this history, especially the brutality of the neighborhood’s destruction. This is the story I will tell using neighborhood photographs, oral histories, and archival research.

Robert Forrant is a Distinguished Professor in the History Department and a Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Lowell History, Archives & Special Collections at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He teaches courses on global labor issues, labor history, immigration, and international development. He is the director of the department’s graduate program. He has been a consultant to the United Nations Industrial Development Organization, the International Labour Organization, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the International Metalworkers Federation, and several trade unions. His research activities have been funded by, among others: the International Metalworkers Federation, the International Labour Organization, the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Russell Sage Foundation, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the cities of Lowell and Leominister, Massachusetts. He published extensively on mills and deindustrialization in New England. He is the editor of three volumes on sustainable regional development, the author of numerous published articles and reports and a forthcoming book on industrial development and decline in the Connecticut River Valley and New England. He received the University of Massachusetts President’s Award for Public Service in 1998 and an American Antiquarian Society Kate B. and Hall J. Peterson Fellowship in 2001 and during that year began research on Worcester Massachusetts-area machine tool firms in the period 1830-1875.

ROBERT B. PERREAULT                                   

In-Person Presentation: University of Southern Maine, Portland Campus, Glickman Library, 7th Floor.

5:00 pm — 6:00 pm    In-Person

A Taste of the Old Country in the New: Franco-Americans of Manchester

Manchester is one example of the many industrial cities that attracted immigrants from Quebec in numbers large enough to warrant the creation and maintenance of an infrastructure of religious, educational, social, cultural, and commercial institutions that helped preserve this community’s language and traditions. Robert Perreault shares stories about life in one of America’s major Franco-American centers.

Robert B. Perreault has worked as a research assistant/oral history interviewer, librarian/archivist, freelance writer, historical tour guide, public speaker, photographer, and conversational French teacher to promote Manchester’s history and New England’s Franco-American culture since 1973. His works of nonfiction and fiction, written in French, in English or in both languages, include seven books and more than 150 articles, essays, and short stories published in the US, Canada and France. Perreault holds an MA in French with specialization in New England Franco-American studies from Rhode Island College and an MFA in Creative Writing/Fiction from SNHU. In June 2012, Manchester’s Centre Franco-American named him “Franco-American

of the Year.”

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