Thursday, August 9, 2012

Culture Is More Than Language: Notes to a Québécois Cousin

This week I received an e-mail from a cousin in Québec. He had seen the genealogical data I had posted on a web site. His mother, the daughter of my great-grandfather’s brother, was on her deathbed. She knew little about her Vermette family and my cousin was happy to be sharing my research with her in her last days. This touching message was the beginning of an extended correspondence. Here I share some excerpts (edited and expanded in places).

Cousin: Your perspective is very illuminating because you could extract something of value beyond the language loss, an idea that in Québec we cannot comprehend because we think it is all about speaking French, and possibly this is not the case!

Me:  C'est ça. There is more to our culture than language alone. Culture may exist consciously or unconsciously. Consciously, my parents identified as American and spoke English. Unconsciously, they were very Québécois: in their outlook, in their concerns and the way they spoke of them, in the foods they ate or didn’t eat, in the way they worked and approached a task, in the way they arranged their home, in their musicality, in the way they raised their children, in the way they celebrated, in the way they watched a play or a performance, in the way my father stood when he talked to his brothers. All of this is culture.

You can do all of these things in a Québécois way and speak either French or English. How could my parents, the product of many generations of Québécois be any other way than deeply Québécois? This is what I might like to impress on our cousins in Québec: although I regret the language loss our culture is more than just speaking French.

Cousin: Why would one `choose' to be different? This is one question I have at times.

Me: It’s an excellent question. In the case of the Québécois immigrants in the USA there are a couple of reasons why they may have wanted to preserve their “difference.” One reason is that they were indoctrinated in la survivance ideology of 19th c. Québec. As you know, the Durham Report circa 1840 called for a fairly aggressive policy of assimilation of the Québécois.  It is when an identity is threatened that it asserts itself all the more. To the immigrants, there was no difference between being surrounded by anglophone Protestants in Canada or in the USA. In either case, the preservation of language and culture was an unquestioned premise.
Cartier: "It's the rabble who are leaving!"

Another reason why the Québécois immigrants wished to preserve their language and culture is because the elites in Québec, politicians, Church leaders and journalists, stigmatized the immigrants as vendus. They were considered sell-outs who were just interested in getting rich. Georges-Etienne Cartier reportedly said about them, Laissez-les partir, c'est la racaille qui s'en va.  It was to prove to the elites back home that they were not vendus or racaille that the immigrants in the USA were eager to preserve their culture. They would prove themselves to be more Québécois than the Québécois!

The truth is that they were not vendus. They were poor people who could not make a living in Québec. Whether or not there was an agricultural crisis in Québec is disputed among historians. It seems clear to me that, whatever the cause, the economic development of 19th c. Québec could not keep pace with the population growth.

In a family with 12 or 13 surviving children only one or two of the sons could find a suitable farm, according to the traditional socio-agricultural system. Although the idea of a single “inheriting son” is an oversimplification, nonetheless younger sons were often driven to frontier “colonization areas.” One of these younger sons was our forebear Joseph Vermette who moved his family to Megantic County in the Eastern Townships after his older brother inherited the farm in the old parish near the St. Lawrence. The real wealth of this area was timber and minerals. But these businesses require a large capital outlay, something beyond your average habitant.

Is it that the modern economic development of Québec was enabled by our ancestors’ exodus?  A point to ponder…

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