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How francophones learned to love the "other" Catholics

by Sylvain-Jacques Desjardins

While Quebec's first settlers may have been predominately French, during the 19th and 20th centuries, Italian and Irish immigrants accounted for many of the new arrivals in the province. But even through Italian and Irish immigrants shared an important trait with francophone Quebecers that helped their assimilation, namely Catholicism, relations among the original colonizers and the new were difficult at first.

These strained relations and their causes were examined by eight speakers during a daylong symposium organized by Concordia History Professor Ronald Rudin last Friday. Called Les autres catholiques: les Irlandais, les Italiens et l'imaginaire québécois, the conference was attended by some 40 academics from universities and colleges across Quebec.

Robert Grace, a Université Laval professor, gave a talk on Irish immigration in Quebec City. He said that the Irish began arriving in Quebec from 1815, and by 1840 represented 90 per cent of all new immigrants in the province.

Although the number of Irish immigrants would decline in coming years, they were initially seen as a threat by most French Quebecers. "Relations between both parties were like cats and dogs," he said.

Most French-speakers were afraid the Irish would take away their jobs and obliterate their language, since the Irish spoke only English. But as time progressed, the Irish married outside their communities, and after a few decades, many became francophones.

"Sweet and sour could describe relations between French Canadians and the Irish during the 19th century," Grace said. "Sour, because both groups fought for jobs; sweet, because many members of each group united through marriage."

The Italians, who mostly settled in Montreal, were not seen as a welcome addition by French Quebecers, either. "Their arrival was seen as a calamity," said Marco Micone, a Vanier College professor. He added that a large wave of Italians arrived here around the time of the Great Depression, prompting fears among Quebecers that their language would be overwhelmed.

Mistrust of the Italians started as soon the first wave arrived in Quebec in the late 1800s. Even though some 6,000 Italians immigrants broke their backs helping to build the Canadian railroad from 1902, Micone added, they weren't respected for their work as settlers. "They faced racism and injustice just like the Chinese and Japanese did."

By 1940, Italian immigrants faced increasing tension with franco-Quebecers when most chose to school their children in English, which was then the business language in Quebec. "If Bill 101 had existed then," Micone said, "many of these problems could have been avoided."

Yet Italians assimilated, too, and 50 per cent of Italian men who were schooled in French ended up marrying francophone women, helping ease relations and erase misconceptions between groups. Perceptions also changed as Italians moved up from the working class to the middle and upper-middle classes through the 20th century.

Italians were also legitimized among French-Quebecers when their experience became popular fodder for francophone literature, movies and art as late as the 1980s. "This is why the Italian community is now far better integrated in Quebec than in the rest of Canada," Micone said.

Micone added the majority of 20th-century Italian immigrants chose to settle in Montreal because they were sponsored by family members who had arrived here during the first wave. "Without sponsorship requirements," he said, an even higher proportion of Italian immigrants would have gone to Toronto.

The daylong conference was sponsored by the Institut interuniversitaire de recherches sur les populations (IREP), a research institute supported by various Quebec universities, including Concordia.


Copyright 1999 Concordia's Thursday Report.