Emigration and the (Un)Making of a Nation

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Railways afforded an easy connection to the United States in Central Canada. Similarly, the wharves of Nova Scotia, like this pier in Yarmouth, offered prospective migrants access to the “Boston States.” Author’s photo.

Patrick Lacroix

On March 11, author and former vice-regal consort John Ralston Saul called attention to the 175th anniversary of the formation of the LaFontaine-Baldwin government, which cemented in practice the principle of responsible government. Saul has expressed hope of a national commemoration of this moment—a hope unlikely to be met. Ours is not, in 2023, a country in search of pedestals. What’s more, in recent decades, historians have complicated the birth of Canadian democracy beyond the fateful day in 1848 when Lord Elgin called the reformers to power.

However, Saul’s longstanding call for a history that integrates the aspirations and experiences of Canada’s two largest national groups is well taken. Despite recurrent calls for dialogue, including Magda Fahrni’s 2009 invitation to write the history of English Canada with the history of Quebec, the field continues to bear the imprint of historiographies that are often deaf to one another. For instance, not until last year did a work covering the paths to rebellion in both Upper and Lower Canada appear in French. Distinct historiographical traditions amplify the sense of “two solitudes” that is felt culturally and politically. Deformed mythology, to use Saul’s term, has also nourished a politics of opposition.

Recognition of historical experiences shared by English and French Canadians promises to erode myths that perpetuate ideologies of conflict; it also provides an opportunity to highlight more tangibly than the LaFontaine-Baldwin partnership the shared challenges of nation-building. One such opportunity—situated at the crossroads of social and political history—is the question of emigration, of great significance in nineteenth-century Canada, but understudied by historians.

Tracing the Emigration Debate

“We who live on the borders do not require any statistics to tell us of the exodus of citizens of Canada to the United States,” declared Sydney A. Fisher, “because we have the lamentable fact before our eyes every day. Unfortunately, this exodus extends beyond the great Province of Ontario. From the Province of Quebec as well the people are going in shoals to the United States to-day.”

With these remarks, Fisher, the member of Parliament for Brome, expressed support for an inquiry into the “exodus” in the winter of 1890. His Liberal colleague John Charlton had asked the House of Commons to appoint a special committee to explore the extent and causes of Canadian outmigration and propose solutions.[i]

Charlton’s and Fisher’s remarks flip a common narrative on its head: the notion that, of all provinces, Quebec experienced an exceptional wave of emigration in the late nineteenth century. Few historians of Quebec and of Franco-American communities have extended their gaze to a similar movement among English Canadians. With notable exceptions—Betsy Beattie, Alan Brookes, and Randy William Widdis among other scholars—outmigration is a relatively unexplored field in English-Canadian literature. But the motion put to the House by Charlton, a member from Ontario, reminds us that the threat of depopulation reached well beyond the St. Lawrence River valley. Emigration was in fact intricately connected to bigger questions of national development that English and French Canadians encountered simultaneously and, through Parliament, together.

A Crisis in Ontario

The alarm was sounded in Upper Canada as early as 1857, when the old Canadian parliament appointed a special committee to inquire into emigration from the eastern half of the colony, the second such committee in less than a decade. Wilson Seymour Conger, the member for Peterborough, hinted at a similar wave of migration in his section. In the early years of the new Dominion, an Ottawa newspaper discussed Quebec’s woes, adding, “[t]here is reason, too, to believe that there has been a very considerable exodus going on from the wealthy and prosperous province of Ontario.” Months later, one observer claimed that the country was not only experiencing the loss of its native-born residents, but failing to retain European newcomers, “so that our [im]migration system is a first-rate set of machinery to settle Uncle Sam’s western dominions.”[ii]

The issue returned with stunning regularity in Parliament. In 1877, the member for Perth North argued that Canada was losing its “best settlers”: many “had left Ontario during the past four or five years, and gone to the Western States and California.” In the early 1880s, David Mills and former Finance minister Richard Cartwright stated that Ottawa, Hamilton, Kingston, Belleville, and St. Catharines had all suffered population losses in recent years.[iii]

Cartwright viewed migration as a bellwether of economic conditions and used it as evidence that the Conservative government’s commercial policy had failed Canada. Antoine-Aimé Dorion of Montreal had in fact made that connection explicit in the first post-Confederation parliament. Lower Canada was then losing more than a thousand people to the United States every week; “[e]ven in Ontario he found a somewhat similar state of things . . . This emigration, he believed, was due to the repeal of the Reciprocity Treaty.” Cartwright, by contrast, would use the issue as ammunition against the high-tariff National Policy.[iv]

Successive governments claimed to have put an end to outmigration. As with the Conservative press in the 1880s, so with a Liberal newspaper that declared in 1900, “The Exodus Is a Matter of History.”[v] Those in power dodged Opposition attacks by arguing, for instance, that areas of the United States also experienced emigration or that American immigration figures were inaccurate. Often, they blamed prior governments’ policies. These varied tacks point to a sense of genuine powerlessness. When existing policy levers failed, the government could do little but to deter public scrutiny. So it was that John A. Macdonald’s caucus voted down John Charlton’s motion for an inquiry in 1890.

The Problem from Shore to Shore

We have ample evidence that outmigration did occur on a large scale—nationwide. For four consecutive decades (1861-1901), the country experienced a net migratory loss. When Charlton requested an inquiry, there were 981,000 people of Canadian birth living in the United States, with two-thirds being English-Canadian. In addition, there were hundreds of thousands of Americans with Canadian parents. Whatever the causes of this phenomenon, Opposition critics were correct in their overall assessment.

These critics drew evidence from Quebec and other provinces, typically without drawing ethnic distinctions. In fact, Ontario papers and politicians revealed that they were far from gratified to see French Canadians leave the country. Even Goldwin Smith, no friend of the French-Canadian people, deemed it preferable to keep them north of the border and to do so by building up industry to match American factories.[vi] The Conservative Party, we should remember, depended heavily on Quebec votes and could not afford to dilute the province’s representation within the Dominion. In 1882, more than 50 of Quebec’s 65 elected members identified as Conservative. Five years late, in the heated aftermath of Louis Riel’s hanging, the party still won a majority of Quebec seats.

Emigration also intersected with European immigration. The Conservative government charged that by waving this issue, the Opposition was harming Canada’s reputation abroad and thus deterring foreign immigration—or encouraging immigrants to remigrate to the United States.[vii] Despite the perceived need to attract immigrants, discomfort with “foreigners” permeated the twin questions of emigration and repatriation. Studies by Martin Pâquet and Paul-André Linteau indicate that Quebec leaders preferred to recruit French Canadians who had gone abroad. Ethnic preferentialism prevailed in other provinces as well and sometimes manifested itself as outright xenophobia. According to Cartwright, “One Canadian was at any time worth half a dozen of the immigrants who came here representing the scum of Europe.” At century’s end, Senator William Dell Perley “criticized the class of European immigrants brought into the country by the present government. Perley denounced undesirable immigration from Europe and thought the government should direct likely emigrants to the North-West.”[viii]

This effort to retain or repatriate settler Canadians through western colonization relied on the dispossession of the original occupants of the land. Ontarians were by no means the only group to consider settlement opportunities in the West. Manitoba fever touched Quebec. As André Lalonde has shown, though most people leaving Quebec settled in the United States, well-placed opinion-makers in their home province nourished the dream of an extended homeland stretching into the Prairies. It was this dream of a culturally safe space, to which emigration might be diverted, that fed vigorous debates over faith and language in Manitoba in the same period. Through their elected representatives and their missionaries, French Canadians took part in a nation-building process that would establish profoundly unequal relations between the various ethnic and racial groups, with Indigenous peoples suffering the most in the process.

A Common Story

Canada experienced growing pains long after Confederation. High levels of emigration often justified pessimism. As policymakers put forth solutions, Canada was made culturally and politically inhospitable to the First Nations and Métis while European immigrants seeking a better life faced the abuse of nativists. Emigration debates also touched on commercial policy, western expansion, and the other key, national issues of the day. Its significance to both of the largest national groups cannot be underestimated.

The story of emigration is just one of many that binds English and French Canadians in a shared experience; other events of nationwide consequence suggest, similarly, that we need not revert to a triumphalist narrative organized around LaFontaine and Baldwin, or Macdonald and Cartier. None of these phenomena will offer us anniversaries and monuments, but, once acknowledged, they will serve a more complete, more honest depiction of Canadian history.

Patrick Lacroix, Ph.D., is a historian of immigration and Franco-American communities and the author of “Tout nous serait possible”: Une histoire politique des Franco-Américains, 1874-1945 (PUL, 2021). He currently serves as director of the Acadian Archives in Fort Kent, Maine. Twitter: @querythepast.

Further Reading

Beattie, Betsy. Obligation and Opportunity: Single Maritime Women in Boston, 1870-1930. Montreal and Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2000.

Brookes, Alan A. “The Exodus: Migration from the Maritime Provinces to Boston during the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of New Brunswick, 1978.

Fahrni, Magda. “Reflections on the Place of Quebec in Historical Writing on Canada,” Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, ed. by Christopher Dummit and Michael Dawson (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2009), 1-20.

Lacroix, Patrick. “Emigration and the Limits of Public Policy in Quebec and Nova Scotia, 1867-1900,” Journal of the Royal Nova Scotia Historical Society, vol. 25 (2022), 41-61.

Lacroix, Patrick. “Seeking an ‘Entente Cordiale’: Prosper Bender, French Canada, and Intercultural Brokership in the Nineteenth Century,” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 52, no. 2 (spring 2018), 381-403.

Lalonde, A.-N. “L’intelligentsia du Québec et la migration des Canadiens français vers l’Ouest canadien, 1870-1930,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, vol. 33, no. 2 (September 1979), 163-185.

Lamonde, Yvan. Les colonies du Haut et du Bas-Canada avant et à l’époque des rébellions. Quebec City: Presses de l’Université Laval, 2022.

Lavoie, Yolande. L’émigration des Canadiens aux Etats-Unis avant 1930: mesure du phénomène. Montreal: Presses de l’Université de Montréal, 1972.

Linteau, Paul-André. “Les migrants américains et franco-américains au Québec, 1792-1940: un état de la question,” Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française, vol. 53, no. 4 (spring 2000), 561-602.

McInnis, Marvin. “La grande émigration canadienne: quelques réflexions exploratoires,” L’Actualité économique, vol. 76, no. 1 (March 2000), 113-135.

Pâquet, Martin. “Le meilleur immigrant: le rapatrié des États-Unis comme catégorie pour les responsables politiques du Canada-Uni et du Québec, 1849-1968,” Francophonies d’Amérique, no. 9 (1999), 87-105.

Ramirez, Bruno, with Yves Otis. Crossing the 49th Parallel: Migration from Canada to the United States, 1900-1930. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Roby, Yves. The Franco-Americans of New England: Dreams and Realities. Montreal and Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 2004.

Saul, John Ralston. Reflections of a Siamese Twin: Canada at the End of the Twentieth Century. Toronto: Viking, 1997.

Vedder, R. K., and L. E. Gallaway. “Settlement Patterns of Canadian Emigrants to the United States, 1850-1960,” Canadian Journal of Economics, vol. 3, no. 3 (August 1970), 476-486.

Widdis, Randy William. With Scarcely a Ripple: Anglo-Canadian Migration into the United States and Western Canada, 1880-1920. Montreal and Kingston: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1998.


[i] Official Report of the Debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, 4th s., 6th Parl., Vol. XXIX (Ottawa, 1890), 403-448.

[ii] “Parliamentary Intelligence,” Semi-Weekly Spectator [Hamilton], March 14, 1857, 3; “The ‘Globe’ on Emigration Again,” Semi-Weekly Spectator, June 22, 1859, 2; “How to Keep Our People,” Daily Citizen [Ottawa], December 11, 1871, 2; Gananoque, “Encouragement to Manufactures,” British Whig [Kingston], March 6, 1872, 2.

[iii] Debates . . . Vol. III – 40 Victoria, 1877 (Ottawa, 1877), 789-790; Debates . . . Second Session – Fourth Parliament . . . First Volume of the Session (Ottawa, 1880), 203-204; Debates . . . Second Session – Fourth Parliament . . . Second Volume (Ottawa, 1880), 1297-1308; Debates . . . Third Session – Fourth Parliament . . . Second Volume (Ottawa, 1881), 1030-1042.

[iv] House of Commons Debates – Second Session – First Parliament – 32-33 Victoria (Ottawa, 1975), 123-125.

[v] “The Exodus Again,” Ottawa Daily Citizen, September 17, 1880, 2; “The Exodus Is a Matter of History,” Brantford Daily Expositor, October 6, 1900, 2.

[vi] Goldwin Smith, “Protection and Free Trade in Canada,” Daily News, September 10, 1878, 1.

[vii] “The Alleged Exodus from Canada,” The Gazette [Montreal], April 12, 1882, 4.

[viii] “The Dominion Parliament,” The Gazette, January 31, 1893, 5, 8; “Dominion Parliament,” Victoria Daily Times, May 3, 1899, 2.

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