Lewiston, Maine’s Little Canada: Revealing the Cultural Intentions of French-Canadian Migrants

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In a short period of time after the US Civil War, French-Canadian ethnic enclaves emerged in many of New England’s medium-sized cities, featuring ethnic churches, schools, press, and businesses. The construction of the built environment and its history in these places could offer compelling evidence on the agency French-Canadian migrants displayed as they moved to and within the US. Evidence pertaining to the construction and operation of the built environment could provide not only a record of a cultural resistance, but also of how the infra-politics of Little Canada neighborhoods were negotiated between elite and everyday people. The evidence I have gleaned from the development of the Little Canada neighborhood in Lewiston, Maine appears to support the above assertions.

This map provides context for Lewiston's location in New England.
This map provides context for Lewiston’s location in New England.

I think the built environment of Little Canada neighborhoods acted as an important expression of agency given the conjuncture of factors shaping French-Canadian migration patterns. Yukari Takai from York University suggests migrants from Quebec were not destitute victims of industrialization in either Quebec or the US. They used kin and peer networks to identify spots that would provide gainful employment. For example, Lowell, Massachusetts may have been just a stop in a network that encompassed industrializing areas in both Quebec and New England. Yet Little Canada neighborhoods were tightly insulated places where its residents largely rejected outside assistance. This means that its occupants contributed to the schools, churches, and national societies as a function of their transit, not settling down. The migrants must have contributed to these causes because they wanted whatever town they landed in to support them in a physical and emotional sense. When compared with other immigrant groups to the US, French-Canadians used the built environment in a unique way to express agency in their new society.

The heart of the Little Canada neighborhood lies between the Lincoln Street Park and the Androscoggin River.
The heart of the Little Canada neighborhood lies between the Lincoln Street Park and the Androscoggin River.
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The Dominican Block, November 2014.

French-Canadian migrants to Lewiston, Maine expressed their hopes and concerns through the development of a Little Canada neighborhood along the Androscoggin River. It began with the development of a national society, The Insitut Jacques Cartier, that built and acquired other buildings. Both types of property acquisition had the effect of announcing French-Canadians growing power in the Lewiston milieu; purchasing announced the group’s collective financial strength and building spoke to both fiduciary and overall organizational abilities. The Dominican Building, constructed by the society, acted as “the social and political nerve center” of Little Canada. The new collection of social centers served as a foundation to cultivate French-Canadian forms of dance, opera, and theatre, earning the city a reputation as a center of high culture in Maine. Next, the society built St. Mary’s Church at the north end of the nascent neighborhood. This church is unique for its Norman-inspired architecture, designed to reflect the style of building in Normandy, the point of origin for many Quebec residents’ ancestors.

Completed in 1928, St Mary's Church in Lewiston Reflects the Norman-roots of the city's Franco-American residents
Completed in 1928, St Mary’s Church in Lewiston reflects the Norman-roots of the city’s Franco-American residents.

The development of the residential built environment in Little Canada must be considered an organic expression of agency, both in terms of preserving French-Canadian culture and rejecting Anglo culture. With the impetus of society funds, the first tenement style apartment building adjacent to the Dominican building gave society members preference in renting. As French-Canadians moved to Lewiston, they quickly bought up property along the Androscoggin River from the Lewiston Water Company, creating a neighborhood layout in contrast to that of industrializing Lewiston. Little Canada is adjacent to the long parallel streets that house many of the city’s famed factories, notably the Bates Mill. But Little Canada is a collection of narrow one-way streets that curve in a way to maximize sightlines with the other residences in close range. The result is a neighborhood that looks much like the crooked streets of Quebec City. As such, Little Canada is a rejection of the order that industrializing America attempted to institute in its reordering of the built environment.

Little Canada's curvilinear streets sought to re-create the built environment of Quebec and foster intimacy in interpersonal interactions
Little Canada’s curvilinear streets sought to re-create the built environment of Quebec and foster intimacy in interpersonal interactions
The narrow streets of Little Canada stand in contrast to the grid pattern that is but a quarter of a mile away. One fosters efficiency and transportation, the other foot traffic and human interaction.
The narrow streets of Little Canada stand in contrast to the grid pattern that is but a quarter of a mile away. One facilitates transportation, the other foot traffic and human interaction.

It is noteworthy that way that local Franco-American authors described Little Canada’s built environment for a pamphlet designed to instruct residents about the city’s history: “When viewed from across the river, the numerous tiered porches create rhythmic contrasts of light and shadow. Over all soars the spire of St. Mary’s Church.” The buildings created a physical manifestation of cultural intentions. To the local historians who penned this piece, the “rhythmic contrasts” reflect the song and dance of French-Canadian culture. In contrast, the order and piety of Americanized streets and buildings could not produce the same effect.

The spire of St. Mary's stands in the left corner of this shot taken from across the Androscoggin  River, in Auburn, Maine.
The spire of St. Mary’s stands in the left corner of this shot taken from across the Androscoggin River, in Auburn, Maine.

The way that French-Canadians chose to use the built environment reflects their desire to preserve and protect their culture. Living in multi-story tenement buildings with porches that run along the back of the residences, extended families often lived in the same structure. The result was similar to what many first-year college students experience in dorm life. Families kept their doors open, pooled resources, and organized their get-togethers around residents’ everyday routines. This system contributed to the establishment of group norms, first and foremost was the cleanliness of their fellow residents. As a result, the buildings of Little Canada acted not only as physical protection for French-Canadian residents, but also a means to provide emotional sustenance for each other. Taken together, these are interesting and fairly remarkable cultural achievements, but when we factor in that there was normally great turnover in Little Canada’s residents from census to census, the role the built environment played in sustaining this culture becomes even more important.

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The shared back porches and stairs facing one another created cohesion and closeness among the families living in the built environment of Little Canada.

The record of how buildings such as churches and national societies were both constructed and operated could tell us more about whether this was an elite-led migration or one that had more organic roots. This semester in my historiography class at U-Maine I’ve been impressed by Allan Greer’s The Patriots and the People. He argues that Quebec’s habitants displayed subaltern strategies to shape their existence in pre-rebellion Upper Canada during the 1830s. Habitants only submitted to the rules and regulations of their social betters after vetting their ideas and policies. This thesis could be put to the test in a different context when examining the evidence provided from the construction, building, and operation of structures that housed associational groups. In a basic sense, just the choices that the groups made when building provides record of cultural intent and reveals the structure of power relations. On a more detailed level, records of the families that controlled the prestigious pews, the people selected to leadership positions in the church, and how the budgets of the organizations were spent would help us to understand how Little Canada neighborhoods really operated.

As a historian-in-training, I need to work on constructing narratives in as much complexity as the situation requires and that I can intellectually handle. Sure, painting a story of heroic immigration in a racist and unforgiving society sounds scintillating. But this approach would take out some of the grittiness. This is where it gets tough. The question is what preconceptions I bring to my analysis of French-Canadian society in the first place. Was Quebec an anti-modern and paternalistic society beholden to its Catholic priests? Or was it organic society that struggled against injustices in the face of unrelenting pressures? Examining the records the built environment has left behind would provide evidence of the contradictions and complexity between these two arguments. This could also help to get a greater understanding of groups perceived to be modern or anti-modern. Historical actors need the opportunity to have their intentions and motivations evaluated in the face of the concrete situations that shaped their existence.

My hypothesis is that the built environment of Little Canada neighborhoods acted as a node of protection within a wider network of migration. Migrants from Quebec built up the environment of Little Canada neighborhoods because they did not see a great degree of difference in the Anglophone culture that surrounded them. Therefore I feel French-Canadians viewed migration as an opportunity to create similar cultural forms in an altered environment. The residential patterns of Lewiston’s Little Canada support this notion; migrants could not recreate the same ways of living they had experienced as habitants, but they did simulate their close and communal style of living in an urbanized environment. Based on the evidence from French-Canadian migration to Lewiston, I favor the hypothesis that French-Canadian migration was more organic than elite-led. The layout of streets and the living situations of Little Canada’s residents reflect personal choices and is something that would appear to be difficult to institute in a top-down fashion. But beyond this I am not sure. I feel like the sources from the built environment could help answer some of the thornier questions French-Canadian migration has left behind for historians to struggle with.

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Mike Brennan

Grad Student, Social Studies Teacher and Department Head
I am a part-time PhD student in the environmental history program at the University of Maine Orono. I am still completing my coursework, but I plan on researching the Environmental Justice Movement in Boston, Massachusetts for my dissertation. When not at work on grad studies, I teach social studies at a high school in Maine. I enjoy exercise and guitar playing in moments left over.

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