As the nation considers the merits of the present incarnation of “comprehensive immigration reform” currently being dragged through the pitiful mire that is the 113th U.S. Congress, the mythology that undergirds American ideas about immigration frequently rises to the surface. Much of this mythology comes from the history of American immigration, especially from two periods: the early settlements in New England and the late nineteenth-century flood during the Industrial Revolution. Powerful images come into play here: the Mayflower and Thanksgiving in the first instance; in the second, the stifling European slum, the crowded steamship in New York harbor, the railroad running unendingly west, the virgin prairie furrowed by the plow. When Americans are at their most romantic, this is how they tend to think about immigration.
And when Americans turn these images into stories, they describe the way that immigrants arriving in the New World found renewal or liberation in their confrontation with the forces of the land “vaguely realizing westward” (in Robert Frost’s beautiful phrase from “The Gift Outright”). The myth of nature remaking the immigrant into a new kind of human who is healthy, democratic, and free is deep in the American unconscious, and politicians across the spectrum deploy it, sometimes to make surprising arguments. But these stories we tell about immigration constrain how we think about the subject. Could we gain from finding different stories to tell about patterns of settlement in this hemisphere? Would they free us to see our own past differently?
Suzanne Desrochers’s historical novel Bride of New France (appearing in paperback this month in the U.S.) tells a story about the founding of Canada that is instructive to all North Americans. It is less about the settler’s encounter with the natural forces of the frontier and more about the persistence of Old World power relations in the North American colonies, the systems of surveillance and control created by the expanding territorial states of early modern Europe that find their apotheosis in contemporary border fences, detention centers, and biometrics (not to mention PRISM).
Bride of New France is the story of Laure Beausejour, a young woman from the streets of Paris brought to the fledgling colony of New France (present-day Quebec) as a part of a seventeenth-century French program to provide brides for the male colonists there. Soon after her arrival in the colony, she begrudgingly marries a portly former soldier and moves to his shoddy frontier cabin in the tiny settlement of Pointe-aux-Trembles (today a borough of Montreal). But when Laure’s first winter on the frontier sets in, her new husband leaves her to fend for herself and treks west up the Ottawa River to get the jump on the spring fur trade. While her neighbors are mostly indifferent to her hardship, Laure survives by cultivating an illicit relationship with an Algonquin man. The novel is not the story of a European choosing to leave home to pursue the opportunities of the New World. Instead, it is the story of a young woman thrust onto the frontier by forces beyond her control.
Bride of New France is not a work of devastating literary greatness: its plot plods along diffidently until it picks up slightly in the final third of the book, its style is repetitive and stilted, and its inconsistencies of narrative perspective are occasionally jarring. But the great value of the book is the way that Desrochers shows how the settlement of New France was the product of an Old World power, a brutal authority acting mercilessly on the bodies of the poor. In Laure Beausejour’s day, these bodies overwhelmed the French state’s prisons and reformatories, but they were desperately needed in New France, where a half-century of indirect colonization through the trade monopoly of the Company of the Hundred Associates had failed to produce a viable, self-sufficient colony. In 1663 Louis XIV took direct control over the colony and appointed an intendant to administer the colony in his name.
The office of the intendant was part of the growing system that centralized power in the hands of the king by working around the parlements and local nobles that previously stood between the monarch and his provinces. Jean Talon, the first resident indendant of New France, arrived in 1665 with a mandate to aggressively reorganize and expand the colony. From the start he energetically pursued new initiatives to encourage the clearing of land, the construction of roads, and the establishment of new industries. Above all, Talon understood that the colony’s population needed to grow, so he concerned himself with increasing the colony’s population through immigration and incentives such as cash rewards for large families and early marriages. But the colony’s massive gender imbalance was the major obstacle to his plans. Other than the brave nuns like those of the Société Notre Dame who founded the city of Montreal and dedicated themselves to the instruction of aboriginal converts, there were few women in New France.
In response to his pleas for more female settlers, Talon’s superior Jean-Baptiste Colbert developed a plan to extract young women from French poor houses, orphanages and hospitals, and send them to populate the New France. Over a thousand of these women, called filles du roi (“daughters of the king”) arrived in New France in the 1660s and 1670s. Desrochers’s book emphasizes the central role played by a single Paris institution in the provision of a large number of the brides for the colony. The Hospice de la Salpêtrière served as a hospital and a reform house for the urban poor. City authorities placed hundreds of homeless, prostitutes, mentally ill, and other poor undesirables in the institution against their will where most lived in miserable dorms or languished in dungeons. A small number, however, were taught skills thought to be useful by the state. In Bride of New France, we learn that Laure Beausejour, after being taken from her street performer parents, was trained to be a seamstress as part of a state scheme to substitute imported Italian fineries like lace with domestically produced goods. The young women taken from the Salpêtrière were given a modest dowry and a chest of household goods and shipped off to Quebec. Along with Jean Talon’s other policies to encourage immigration and reproduction, the transportation of the filles du roi more than doubled the population of the colony in less than a decade.
But the women did not escape the systems of control that existed in the Old World upon their arrival in Canada. Instead, they became part of a new regime of control over the body. On the one hand, they were brought for the primary purpose of bearing children for King Louis. On the other, they played a crucial role in controlling the men who were already in the New World. Many settlers had ignored the settlement plans of the authorities and become coureur des bois (“runners of the woods”), illicit fur traders who circumvented the colonial system of regulated trade and ventured far into the interior to seek out furs nearer their source. Rogues like Laure’s absentee husband hurt the mercantilist system designed to control and tax the fur trade through the use of aboriginal allies and traders carrying the proper permits (congés). If these men would stay home and settle the land, they would produce useful exports for the homecountry instead of flooding the fur market, endangering French missionary efforts among the Indians by their illegal dealings in brandy, and living and mating with Indian women outside the bounds of the colony and European morality. The filles du roi were sent to tame the men, as well as bear their children.
The perspective of Laure Beausejour lets us understand the horror of this system as experienced by someone caught up in it. Taken out of the strictly disciplined Salpêtrière, sent to a foreign, wild land, and thrust into a marriage with a stranger, Laure feels the pressures to regulate her body in the interest of the imperial economy even stronger in the New World than in Paris. Although Desrochers gives Laure the skills and the courage to resist these forces in limited ways, Bride of New France makes it clear that the lives of the founding mothers of Quebec were often just as dismal as those of the women left behind in the Salpêtrière.
Stories like Bride of New France make us rethink the romantic myths that Americans tell each other about immigration. After all, it’s not just a Canadian story. There is a history of similar institutions in America: the plantations, the reservations, the internment camps. And today we need to recognize the broken immigration system for what it is: a means of sustaining a large force of precarious, undocumented labor to do the tasks that Americans refuse to do without the inconveniences of labor laws, unions, or safety measures. It’s no longer babies that we need from immigrants. We need them to bone our chicken, mow our lawns, roof our houses, and, above all, not make much of a fuss: it’s for the good of the colony.