Maine’s looming anniversary as a distinct state presents an opportunity to celebrate two hundred years of accomplishments. In coming months, state leaders will stir up local patriotism and call their constituents to rally around their shared identity and experience. In that official boosterism lies the very real risk of forgetting that Maine’s rupture from Massachusetts enhanced divisions within the state, with French Canadians in particular bearing witness to exclusionary practices.

Patrick Lacroix

Maine’s accession to statehood in March 1820 was of little concern to Lower Canada (present-day Quebec). The Canadiens and their British neighbors in the St. Lawrence River valley paid much closer attention to local legislative elections sparked by the death of the venerable George III. It is little wonder: Lower Canada and Maine were then connected by a single trail that hardly hinted at sustained exchange.

Yet, as economic opportunities narrowed in Lower Canada in the 1820s and 1830s, that cow path became the Canada Road — a major international artery. French Canadians sought employment in central Maine, but also found their way to Biddeford and joined the old Acadian families in the Madawaska region. The linking of Montreal and Portland by rail in 1853 proved decisive. Migration increased rapidly. Elites in Quebec observed this “demographic hemorrhage” with deep consternation; Maine’s native-born residents worried about the fate of their own culture and institutions.

Early French-Canadian migrants were “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” That did not spare them the invective of some American nativists. Historians have brought attention to the sometimes subtle, sometimes violent manifestations of that xenophobia. There is, in addition, oral testimony that has never made it into the archival record or found the written expression that would earn it our full recognition.

The influence of the northern Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s proves that the marginalization of French Canadians was not a mere knee-jerk reaction to the first wave of migrants. Although many different anxieties nourished Maine nativism for much of those two hundred years, French Canadians were a recurrent target.

A bill on exclusive English-language education passed by the state Legislature in 1919 has often served as the case in point — a point of particular infamy in Franco-Americans’ historical memory. A similar bill was introduced in Vermont. Both states had a large rural population; Franco-Americans were assured political power only in a few key urban centers. “Francos” formed the largest minority ethnic group in both locations and found little opportunity to forge alliances with other immigrant communities. The Vermont legislature ultimately dropped the measure; Maine’s French-speaking population was not so lucky.

In Massachusetts, Franco-Americans experienced their share of street fights, of clashes on the picket lines and in the pews. But as “one-hundred-percent Americanism” reached its strident apex a century ago, Bay State Francos suddenly found that beyond the porous walls of their Little Canadas lay other ethnic groups with whom they could vote out nativists — including the Irish, with whom they could warn out the KKK.

Counterfactuals can only say so much. Still, French Canadians in Maine would likely have fared better under the enduring tutelage of a Boston legislature. They would thus have been joined politically with a state that held nearly half of New England’s Franco residents in 1910.

But, as a result of the “Massachusetts divorce,” Maine Franco-Americans were orphaned and isolated.

A turning point came in the 1960s and 1970s. As traditional institutions collapsed, the seeds of an ethnic revival sprouted — in Orono, but also in Biddeford, under mayor Gilbert Boucher, and in other locales where this genealogical association or that heritage society popped up. At last, Franco-Americans could recognize remarkable resilience and accomplishments despite the formidable barriers raised in their path.

When left unexorcised, the ghosts of a painful past can perpetuate social wrongs. Resentment may be directed toward other ethnic groups, or lead to dubious comparisons to visible minorities’ experience.

As Mainers navigate their bicentennial celebrations, they should acknowledge the lonely struggle of minority groups, past and present, for from that dark history may also sprout reconciliation.

Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire. His work on Franco-Americans has appeared in numerous scholarly journals, including the Catholic Historical Review, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, and Québec Studies. He tweets from @querythepast.

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