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La Survivance (English version)

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From the 1860s through to the 1960s, recruiters from shoe mills, paper mills, cotton and linen mills throughout the New England states came to Quebec Provence. A representative, usually a well-dressed gentleman, would ask the local priest if he could speak to the parishioners after mass. They were looking for workers and had a lot to offer.

People suffered hardships in silence. Neighbors who could not feed themselves endured poor health. Men clung to their pride and stubbornness like a prize. Everyone struggled to survive. It was the time of “la survivance”, the surviving.

Quebec had lost shy of a million people: sculptors, bridge builders, engineers, musicians, master carpenters, artists, talent never to be recaptured by a provincial government unresponsive to its citizens’ needs and a banking industry lacking basic and stable infrastructure.

People left by the thousands into the mill towns and villages of the New England states, spurring the growth of hundreds of young companies into prosperity.


They offered jobs, higher paying jobs, steady jobs

“Take your wife’s parents, your cousins’ kids, it doesn’t matter. We have jobs for anyone willing to work,” the recruiter said. “We’ll place your men at a job on their second morning.”

They offered free transportation

“Come with your family. We’ll give you a free train ticket down.”

They offered a free meal

“Upon arriving, the company will give you a fine dinner.”

They offered free shelter

“Come and we’ll sleep you for the first night. The next day while you man starts a new job, we’ll help your Missus find a place to stay for your entire family. You’ll live in French neighborhoods, surrounded by friends who hold your customs and language dear.”

They offered free credit

“Buy whatever you need on credit for the first month. After that, you would have to start repaying.”

They offered a French school for children

“Your children will attend French schools with French-speaking teachers, and your children will keep their French while they learn a new language. They’ll be better equipped for life in the United States speaking two languages.”

They offered a French church with a French-speaking priest

“You won’t lose your religion. Our French priests serve in French churches.”

They offered a French community

“We have many French clubs: bowling, singing, social clubs, dancing. There’s something special for everyone.”


“La Survivance” or “Surviving” became the desperate cry for economic stability by over 900,000 people who fled eastern Canada between 1875 and 1930 for jobs in the United States. Between 1860 and 1960, about 900,000 people bit.  What these people didn’t know is that they would now have to work 12 hours a day except for Sundays, that conditions would be dangerous (fire, dust, loss of hearing from very loud machines), that windows could not be opened summer or winter, that the amount of cotton dust in the air would cause people to cough up and sneeze cotton from throats and noses, that children would be encouraged to work as well and be paid very small wages.  The recruiters started by saying that “you can earn in 1 month from the mills what you earn in 1 year in Canada.”  Québécoise sold all their furniture, boarded up their houses, sold off their livestock and moved to the US, seeking a better future.  During those years, Canada was in a very depressed state, no way to borrow money, no jobs, crops failed.

The Quebecois did not know that:

  • they would have to work 12 hours a day
  • they would have no fresh air or opened windows in the cotton mills
  • they would be forced to pay the pricing of food at the General Store
  • they would have to endure dangerous work conditions
  • they would be working with no fire safety in place
  • they would be inhaling cotton dust in their noses and throats
  • they would slowly become deaf from the horrific, loud, unceasing machinery
  • they would become slaves to the mill owners
  • the Foreman would set the speed of the work to be done

These people longed for the farm, fresh air, a slower, relaxed pace of life.

These people were not prepared for the industrial revolution.

They were proud people.

They sold off their furniture for little.

They sold off their animals.

They boarded up their houses and moved to the states.

Survival in Canada was depressing and hopeless.

Survival in the cotton mills was a new and strange kind of hell once the new arrivals understood that they were partially enslaved to the General Store and price-fixing, no rights in the workplace, no safety and foremen who also wanted these new arrivals to give over their own children into a child labor force along with their adult parents.


As eastern Canada was emptying out, western Canada was growing rapidly.  Expansion meant consolidating its railroad infrastructure, thus stimulating economy and trade from east to west.  Over 100,000 Chinese arrived in Vancouver to work on the railroads.  The empty prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan boasted 160 acre farmsteads with the promise of free ownership after a short five-year tenure and a $10.00 registration fee.

With laws protecting conscientious objectors, large German Hutterite colonies settled in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  One splinter branch of the newly-formed Mormon Church of Utah settled in Alberta.

And they came in large numbers; the English, Scotts, Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, North American Indians, Ukrainians, Dutch, Poles, East Indians, Russians, Welsh, Filipinos, Norwegians and Portuguese.  With the catchwords ‘The Last Best West’, Canada’s propaganda machine filled the barren prairie states.


The government had cried poverty – nothing in their purse, then they next trumpeted “Repatriation”, trying to reclaim their lost trades people.  From a purportedly bankrupt purse, the government miraculously found some $60,000.00 spare dollars, and was now willing to pay for the return of her people.

Some returned to Canada, then turned around and returned again to the mills.  At the time, the US economy had picked up and the future, although bleak in the factories, looked better than being a failed farmer.


In those years in Canada, the crops failed.  There were no jobs.  Farmers could not feed their own children.

At that time, Canada had few banks. Depositors lost all their money.

Some banks were only for fishermen, or bakers, or farmers

Many of the banks failed.

People lost all their money.

The pig industry was failing.

The cheese industry was failing.

The banking industry was failing.

Canada was collapsing as a country.

The entire world was in a depression.

Visit the Museum of Work and Culture

The Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, Rhode Island includes one wing that recreates the main Work Room of a 1880’s linen mill.  In this huge space, there is an interactive button that if pressed, will create the noise that workers endured during their 10 hour work day.

Feedback about La Survivance

If this reminds you of your family history, I’d love to hear from you.

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