Reporting Failure: The National Project That Wasn’t

Let us leave those American factories where our health wilts like a flower kept from the sun’s invigorating light, and seize the land, such as to be a strong, great, happy, and prosperous people.

Charles Edmond Rouleau’s words, published in 1896, were very much in the spirit of the times, at least among Quebec’s elites. Nearly forty years after the publication of the first government report on French-Canadian emigration to the United States, those elites were still at it—trying to halt the exodus, with little to show for their efforts despite the many years that had elapsed.

A second report, issued in 1857, had, like the prior one, produced little change. Repatriation and colonization efforts undertaken in the 1870s had proven no match for the return of prosperity to U.S. industry at the end of the decade. The famed colonizing curé, Antoine Labelle, had enrolled liberals and conservatives alike in his work to develop the outlying regions of the Province of Quebec, yet the height of his influence coincided with the apex of emigration to the United States.

Enter Rouleau, who came into the world just as Lower Canada was entering a new age of clerical nationalism, in the early 1840s. In this respect, too, Rouleau was emblematic of the period. Although initially destined for the priesthood, the young man chose to live out his Catholic faith in military service. In the 1860s, as the Papal States were under threat from liberal Italy, Catholic groups—the zouaves—formed in military defense of the Pope’s temporal power. Rouleau was among the French-Canadian volunteers.

Charles-Edmond Rouleau (Wikimedia Commons)

The effort was in vain: Rome fell and the Pope became a prisoner of the Vatican. But Rouleau’s involvement helped to cement his own faith and career. He published several works on the subject, including Souvenirs de voyage d’un soldat de Pie IX (1881) and a broader history of the zouaves (1905). A speech on papal power (1885) firmly established him as an ultramontane—placing spiritual power over secular institutions, refusing concessions to non-Catholic groups, and opposing all potentially revolutionary and radical movements.

As a journalist and occasionally an editor for major newspapers, from La Minerve to the Courrier du Canada to Le Soleil, Rouleau could claim to be a figure of importance and influence. By no means did he confine his writing to the glory of Catholicism, however. He penned a Guide du cultivateur, ou cours d’agriculture (1890), a lengthy treatise on productive techniques in farming. He also published Légendes canadiennes (1901), folk tales that he had first contributed to Le Soleil. (Many of these works are available on

As Rouleau blended religious devotion and patriotic service, it may be argued that his most important work was his treatise on emigration to the United States—appropriately, one of the leading issues of the period.

Earlier studies of emigration were policy-oriented and evinced greater concern for structural problems (economic or otherwise) than personal values. Through his writing, Rouleau attested to the shift in discourse that occurred in the last three decades of the nineteenth century. He blamed neither the provincial government nor the business class. The ills of the day were moral and personal.

Emigrants, he claimed, were sometimes forced to exile because they had lived beyond their means. A search for the latest fashions and the desire to fill up parlors with pianos and fine furniture replaced the stoic simplicity of olden times. In order to get credit, farmers mortgaged their farms and eventually lost them. They then had no choice but to leave their communities and find short-term employment in American factories.

Rouleau also drew attention to the vices of intemperance and laziness. He cited a provincial commission on emigration appointed in 1892, which had offered mixed messages on the work ethic of Canadian farmers. The ultramontane journalist was far less nuanced. “If our people worked in Canada as the Americans make them labor in the United States, at least half of those who are poor would live in comfort,” he argued, while assailing farmers who sat by the stove and chatted all winter long. This laziness translated into the overall fate of Canadian farmers. Those who ultimately left the province showed no disposition to improve their land or to learn more efficient techniques. In this regard, Rouleau followed up on his work on agriculture and proved more forward-looking than we might credit him for; he vaunted agronomy, an injection of modernity in his otherwise traditional outlook.

In an imaginary conversation between an emigrant and a Quebec farmer, the author used anglicisms to highlight how different the way of life was south of the border. People in Quebec were being lured with a false vision of the United States, he claimed. In fact, American farmers were deeply in debt and industry was in crisis. No doubt that was true, but Rouleau had also picked his moment. The Great Republic was still reeling from the Depression of 1893.

The spinning room in a Fall River textile factory in the early twentieth century. Rouleau had little sympathy for those who left Quebec to take up this kind of work. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rouleau concluded by stating that emigration had begun to subside and that Quebeckers were slowly learning from others’ errors, if not their own. There were vast regions in Canada still to be developed. That final touch of optimism had little connection to the rest of the book—a tome largely built on hypotheticals and hearsay, which offered no evidence of exchange between Rouleau and Franco-Americans.

Rouleau continued to write and spent his later years as a civil servant. How impactful his work actually was is unclear, but contemporary events indicate that it represented the state of discourse in Quebec. By then, the multi-pronged program of the committees of 1849 and 1857 had given way to a single-minded focus on domestic colonization—the apparent panacea that actually hid the vacuity of political efforts against emigration.

In 1898, at a nonpartisan congress on colonization organized by Montreal’s Société générale de colonisation et de rapatriement, delegates’ only resolution to encourage repatriation was to propose the appointment of French-speaking agents. It may be that they were thereby suggesting, as Georges-Etienne Cartier allegedly said, that people of low morals ought to remain abroad—c’est la canaille qui s’en va. Simultaneously, as they sang “Un Canadien Errant,” they attested to the sad plight of people permanently severed from their native land.

All of the hand-wringing over emigration, largely powerless, may have had symbolic outcomes. As ultramontane Jules-Paul Tardivel explained, “at the opening session, we witnessed the heartening spectacle of the union of Church and State as it must be, Church and State working hand in hand to ensure the happiness of the people and the greatness of the homeland.” Archbishop Paul Bruchési noted at the congress that “religion and homeland are a pair that can never be separated.” Colonization enabled political and religious leaders to reaffirm ties to one another.

Charles-Edmond Rouleau would have approved.


C.-E. Rouleau, L’émigration, ses principales causes. Quebec City: Léger Brousseau, 1896. Google Books. Readers may also be interested in a related article on domestic colonization authored by Frédéric Lemieux (Assemblée nationale du Québec), “Les missionnaires-colonisateurs ‘gouvernementaux’ entre Eglise et Etat, 1911-1936,” which appears in the latest issue of the Revue d’histoire de l’Amérique française.

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