Last Saturday, I went to a Franco-American gathering of artists, performers, writers, thinkers, and friends. It is a yearly event held at the Darling Marine Center in beautiful Walpole, Maine. The center, a branch of the University of Maine, is tucked in the woods, and the ocean glimmers through the trees. In the conference center where we met, there is a great room with a stone fireplace, long tables for eating, and a kitchen off to the side where the staff cooked delicious meals for us.
I always look forward to this event, where I get to chat with some of my favorite Franco friends, but this year was especially fruitful for me. Thoughts and ideas were clarified, which in turn has made the way clearer in my personal life. I’ll be exploring one of those ideas in this post, but before I do, I thought it might be good to give a brief history of Franco-Americans in Maine, which, to a large extent, applies to New England as well. Our story is not well known, but more of that later.
In Maine, Franco-Americans are primarily those of French descent who came from Canada. In the mid-1800s, there was a mass migration of families from Québec and eastern Canada’s Maritime Provinces. They left their farms, where they could barely feed themselves, to work in the burgeoning factories that the industrial revolution brought to New England. They were mostly Catholic, and French was their first and often only language.
Another way French Canadians came to Maine was even earlier, in the mid-1700s. During the French and Indian War, there was a mass deportation of French Colonists—Acadians—from Canada’s maritime region. Rather than being deported, some of these hearty Acadians took to the woods and settled in northern Maine.
In my family, I have both Québécois and Acadian ancestors, all coming to Maine from different routes but settling here for many, many years. Indeed, I am a fifth-generation Mainer of Franco-American descent. My great-grandmother never learned to speak English, and my mother didn’t speak English when she started Kindergarten. Unfortunately, in a sad flip, many of my generation did not learn to speak French at all, but that is a topic for another post.
In Maine, Franco-Americans are the largest single ethnic group, about 25 percent of the population, but for the most part, you’d never know this. When people think of Maine, if they think of it at all, they think about the coast and lobsters and the taciturn Yankees—the ethnic group, not the baseball team. The Yankees are here all right—I even married one—and their story deserves to be told.
But so does ours, and all too often it isn’t. Several years ago, when my mother and I visited Waterville’s Historical Society, there was nothing about the city’s Franco-Americans, even though they made up 40 percent of the population. Franco Americans worked in the factories, and they drove the city’s economic engine, but there was no trace of them in Waterville’s historic records. (I hope this has changed, and I plan on checking someday soon.)
This brings me to a presentation given by David Vermette, whose blog French North America is featured on the sidebar of blogs I recommend. He read from his post Why are Franco-Americans so Invisible?
Well, why are we? David lists various reasons, from “We are associated today with Canada and therefore beneath the notice of most Americans” to “Our Canadien/Acadien ancestors were in North America long before the United States and today’s Canada existed” to “We do not fit into the existing narratives of U.S. settlement history” and finally “Our national character.”
I think David, a wonderful speaker and writer, is correct on all counts, but I’ll touch briefly on the last—our national character. Ethnic groups do indeed have a character, and David makes a distinction between generalizations and stereotypes and notes “there are fair generalizations that can be made about coherent cultural groups.”
Among other traits, David spoke of how Franco-Americans value humility: “A Maine Acadian wrote to me, ‘We were taught that you don’t speak well of yourself. You let others speak well of you.‘ In the USA of Donald Trump and Kanye West, this trait is radically counter-cultural.”
David then went on to ask, “If we don’t speak our piece then who will speak it for us?”
Who indeed? It’s long past time for Franco-Americans to speak up, to make a “ruckus,” as David puts it. Our history, our story counts, too, and it should be woven into the narrative of Maine and New England.
I plan to do my little bit, and from time to time I’ll be writing about the Franco-American story on this blog. I sure wish my mother and grandmother were around to help me.