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Woonsocket French Canadians Celebrated at the Museum of Work and Culture

Nearly a million French Canadians settled in New England. In 1920, 70% of the population of Woonsocket in the county of Providence, Rhode Island, was francophone. They proudly dubbed the area “the most French city in the United States.” The downtown area was said to be a true “Little Canada.” The Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket tells the compelling and little-known story of the “tisserands du pouvoir,” (textile mill workers), who struggled to survive before they could ever aspire to the American Dream. They had to assimilate quickly, and as a result, speaking French was discouraged. The history of these French-speaking immigrants shaped the industrial landscape of the city.

The museum, which is housed in a former factory, pays a moving tribute to the thousands of French Canadians who chose to settle in the area. The exhibition has visitors begin their explorations at a Quebec farm, then cross the Canada–US border and immerse themselves in the life of French-speaking workers and immigrants from the textile mills of Woonsocket. Nine bilingual interactive exhibitions show visitors the daily lives of the region’s inhabitants, who lived there until the interwar period and had a profound impact on it.

In addition to its permanent exhibitions, the museum hosts other events from time to time, such as Ciné Québec—showcasing Quebec filmmakers—conferences, and talks. On June 24, the Museum of Work and Culture celebrates Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day—an important French Canadian holiday—with festivities including an ever-popular poutine tasting event.

Even though the English language rules once again in Woonsocket, its francophone heritage is plain to see. Many streets and businesses have French names. Spectacular landmarks, like St. Ann’s Church—now a cultural centre—are also proof of how French Canadians have influenced the city and impacted the region. Woonsocket is a member of Réseau des villes francophones et francophiles d’Amérique.

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