Published by EH.Net (June 2019)

David Vermette, A Distinct Alien Race: The Untold Story of Franco-Americans, Industrialization, Immigration and Religious Strife. Montreal: Baraka Books, 2018. x + 388 pp. $30 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-77186-149-6.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Vincent Geloso, Department of Economics and Finance, King’s University College.

The topic of immigration has been heavily studied by economists. However, it is only very recently that empirical studies of the political economy of immigration have started to emerge. This emergence, rendered possible by advancements in econometric methods and statistical software, has allowed economists to tackle one important question regarding immigration: does immigration change institutions? Broadly conceived, the question is about the political ramifications of immigration.

Many studies have shown positive effects on institutions (Powell et al. 2017) as a result of the selection bias inherent to migration (i.e. those who migrate choose the best institutions and thus they are more likely to strengthen them than anything else). Some have shown the presence of mild negative effects stemming from nativist backlash that yields policies meant to protect natives (Padilla and Cachanosky 2018).

The past offers rich grounds on which to expand on such findings for two reasons. Immigration policy was looser in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century than it is now. As such, the past offers grounds to test important questions regarding the potential effects of loosening or tightening immigration policy today.

For those who seek to exploit this research opportunity, the work of David Vermette on the French-Canadians who migrated from Quebec to the United States from the 1860s to the early decades of the twentieth century constitutes the equivalent of a gold mine.

The French-Canadians were a particular bunch. Emanating from the modern-day of Quebec in Canada, they were deeply religious Catholics who moved from the relatively poor Quebec to the protestant heartland of New England to work in the region’s rising manufacturing sector. Vermette’s book, while not a work of economic history, engages the literature (see chapter 8) by linking the theoretical elements to the empirical evidence on living standards in Quebec in order to explain migration patterns. As such, economic historians will find themselves reading a book that seeks to engage them by paying tribute to the existing work.

Readers should bear in mind that the French-Canadians were whites – an element of relevance in the racially-charged political context of postbellum America (the era during which the bulk of French-Canadian migration occurred). Yet, they were considered “a distinct alien race” in part for their Catholicism and in part for their development of separate institutions for schooling and solidarity. Others described them as “half-wild folk” who, as a result of stemming from the colder Canadian climate (and through a belief of interbreeding with Native Indians) had a yearning for the forest (Newton 2016). The contempt they attracted was real and it led to important political changes.

Vermette dedicates four chapters of A Distinct Alien Race to the reaction given to French-Canadians. Two examples help illustrate how much researchers could gain from picking up his book. During the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan had managed to make important inroads in New England. At its heights during the 1920s it had 80,301 members in Vermont and 150,141 in Maine (p. 273). In these two states alone, this meant that the Klan represented more than twenty percent of the population. These numbers are probably inflated according to Vermette, but they speak to the popularity of the Klan as even a considerably smaller fraction would still entail a significant political support. To gather steam, the Klan relied heavily on the unease generated by the presence of French-Canadians. This is a first example of a research opportunity. The Klan constitutes a clear image of the nativist backlash which could be used as an instrumental variable to explain policy shifts during the 1920s and 1930s (which in turn explain shifts in living standards). This could then be modulated to see if the Klan had heterogeneous effects depending on whether it was strong because of the fear of immigration or because of the fear of Black Americans.

Another example speaks to education. The French-Canadians preserved their educational institution (i.e. parochial schools) where French and English were taught alongside each other (and sometimes French alone). This was perceived as an attempt to resist integration into the American social fabric. Consequently, some states (e.g. Maine in 1919) passed laws mandating English in public schools. Other states (e.g. Rhode Island) went further and placed parochial schools under state control rather than local (county) control. There is thus a direct connection from immigration to education policy (the latter being an outcome of the former). Vermette documents with great detail how these laws actually reinforced the social isolation of the French-Canadians. Some decided to drop out of school earlier rather than continue learning in a foreign language. Others were sent to private schools which they had to pay for (in addition to the taxes they already paid for the public schools they refused to use). The details can serve to complement important findings in the literature such as those of MacKinnon and Parent (2012), who pointed out that the French-Canadians were noticeably slower than other immigrant groups (such as the Italians who are a close comparator) in improving their level of educational achievement. MacKinnon and Parent do not say anything about these local laws. If they caused a backlash by altering the behavior of French-Canadians, it is possible that legislation intended to foster integration actually postponed it. Combining the details in Vermette with proper econometric methods and data would serve to study this “political economy” aspect of immigration.

While Vermette’s work is one of social history, its serious engagement with works in economics gives it a great value for research in political economy. Its historical details are assembled cogently around a follow-line that can be used to cater more focused studies of how immigration affects the political landscape. Vermette makes the effort to cross disciplinary lines. It is only good manners (and proper academic entrepreneurship) to return the favor.


Mary MacKinnon and Daniel Parent. “Resisting the Melting Pot: The Long-term Impact of Maintaining Identity for Franco-Americans in New England.” Explorations in Economic History, 2012, vol. 49, no 1: 30-59.

Jason L. Newton. “These French Canadian of the Woods are Half-Wild Folk”: Wilderness, Whiteness, and Work in North America, 1840-1955. Labour/Le Travail, 2016, vol. 77: 121-150.

Alexandre Padilla and Nicolas Cachanosky. “The Grecian Horse: Does Immigration Lead to the Deterioration of American Institutions?” Public Choice, 2018, vol. 174, no 3-4: 351-405.

Benjamin Powell, J. R. Clark and Alex Nowrasteh. “Does Mass Immigration Destroy Institutions? 1990s Israel as a Natural Experiment.” Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization, 2017, vol. 141: 83-95.

Vincent Geloso is assistant professor of economics at King’s University College and is the author of “Distinct within North America: Living Standards in French Canada, 1688–1775,” Cliometrica 13 (2): 277-321 (2019).

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