Friday, December 7, 2012

"There is No Forty-Fifth Parallel": Division or Unity for French North America?

I had made a terrible faux pas. I made the mistake of asking a proud Franco-Manitoban what part of Québec he was from.

It should have been a clue that he described himself as French-Canadian rather than Québécois. But in the USA a Québécois might have used the former expression especially when speaking English. However, the author of a blog called French North America should have known better.

After correcting my misapprehension, my new Franco-Manitoban acquaintance made a revealing admission. He first said that he hated being mistaken for Québécois and then said, “There are pockets of French all over Canada. And they don’t like each other.”

Sad. But, in my experience, also true. One of the most hateful, vitriolic anti-Québec rants I have ever read appeared on the blog of an acadienne. The Acadian resentment of Québec is something I’ve noted in both written and verbal communication.

Being three-quarters a grandson of Québec and one-quarter a grandson of Acadie, I once asked a young Québécoise in the Beauce region about the Acadians. She expressed sorrow about the history of Acadie but then said that her sense was that the Acadians were the mouton noir of the Francophones in Canada.

We were not always so divided. There was a time when the French North Americans felt a unity of language, religion, and customs, at least when these were perceived as threatened.

Witness an article that appeared on page 8 of the June 9, 1911 edition of the Boston Evening Transcript. The matter at hand was a convention of Franco-Americans meeting in Biddeford, Maine to discuss the Corporation Sole controversy.
Boston Evening Transcript
June 9, 1911
French North Americans
United Against the Corporation Sole

This dispute concerned a Maine law that had placed all of the temporal property of the Catholic parishes in the state in the hands of the Bishop of Portland and his successors. The law took assets that were purchased and improved at great expense by the impecunious Franco-American Catholics and turned them into the personal property of the Bishop.

French North Americans on both sides of the border were united against the Corporation Sole legislation. The 1911 article reports that Pascal Poirier “the representative in the Canadian Senate of the French Acadian people of New Brunswick” sent the convention this message: 
“I wish to tell you that I am, like everybody else here in New Brunswick, entirely with you in heart, soul and spirit. It is the cause of the religion of our fathers, it is the French language, it is liberty, it is right you are defending…God who has made us French and Catholic – Catholic in the truest sense of the term – expects that we will defend by all means within our power, our nationality and our religion… No representation, no taxation. This motto has made of the English a nation of freemen. Let it be our motto also, especially when certain persons in authority are using our own property to destroy our children, our language, and our faith.”

Note that the “French Acadian” Senator refers to “our nationality,” which he owns as the common possession of Acadians and Franco-Americans, the majority of whom had roots in Québec. For the Senator, the Franco-Americans are a we and not a them.

I imagine that the Senator did not fancy himself any less an Acadian when he refers to “our nationality” in common with New England Franco-Americans. He had not only a local identity as Acadian but he also claims a wider French North American identity.

At the 1911 Biddeford convention a letter from Cyrille F. Delage the President of the Saint Jean Baptiste Society of Québec was also read. Monsieur Delage writes:
“We cannot attend your convention, but we are with you in heart and spirit. Your struggle interests and passionates (sic) us in the highest degree. We are following it in all the details, for it has all our sympathies, and we consider your cause our own. There is no forty-fifth parallel between the descendants of the French race in America…. Justice shall be given you and success will crown your noble efforts for the preservation of our language and our traditions. If we can aid you, either financially or otherwise please command us.”
“There is no forty-fifth parallel between the descendants of the French race in America.” Monsieur Delage seems to means the 49th parallel, the traditional border between Canada and the USA. Despite this geographical miscue, he recognizes that the French North Americans are a nation without a state straddling the border between two federal unions, the USA and the Dominion of Canada.

The word “our” is used a number of times to emphasize what M. Delage states frankly: that the struggle of the Franco-American is also the struggle of the Québécois. The great-grandparents of today’s Québec nationalists considered the Franco-Americans to be of one “race” with them.

The article also notes the enthusiastic response given by the assembly to the address, and indeed the very presence, of Olivar Asselin, a Québécois journalist, “former associate of Henri Bourassa,” “leader of the Nationalist party,” and a “special delegate from the Saint Jean Baptiste Society of Montreal,” the foremost French-Canadian national society of its day.

In addition to the journalist Asselin, the article reports that, “all the French-Canadian papers in Québec and New England, including La Presse, La Patrie, Le Devoir, and La Revue Franco-Americaine of Montreal are represented almost all of them by their editors themselves.”

When was the last time that an organ such as the venerable Le Devoir took an interest in a Franco-American convention? Imagine the editor of a major Montréal or Québec City media outlet today attending such a convention in Maine.

One hundred years ago, in a very different ideological milieu, the “French race in America” formed a coherent bloc, albeit with local distinctions. Elsewhere I have pointed to the example of the Latinos. Although they have their origins in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico and other places, they have recognized their common interests and christened themselves with a new name. They have become a major socio-political bloc thereby.

The ties of language and religion that once united us across national and provincial borders have loosened considerably. But have we cooperated, unwittingly, in a strategy of divide and conquer advanced by the assimilationists? Rather than nursing grievances based on ancient resentments or parochial differences, the fragile plant I call French North America could choose to reinforce its roots in the soil of a common heritage.

Once the “French race in America” in its various pockets in Canada and the USA had a wide, continental perspective. If we may still speak of la survivance a return to this more inclusive French North American identity may be our last, best hope.

1 comment:

  1. hi, I appreciate your creative writing. Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn't really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That's because they were able to connect experiences they've had and synthesize new things. thanks, @Clara