Thursday, March 31, 2016

Why Are Franco-Americans So Invisible?

“Why are we so invisible?” I've heard this question wherever Franco-Americans gather, be it through my social media contacts, at conferences, or at my occasional speaking engagements. The history of Franco-Americans is all but left out of the historical accounts on both sides of the border. It couldn’t be more missing among the history of U.S. ethnic groups. And it is largely unknown in Québec.

For example, Maine is among the top three Francophone states but this fact is all but unknown outside its borders and to a large degree within them. I received an e-mail from a mover and shaker from that state who wanted to discuss the “lack of diversity” in Maine. When I responded that about one-quarter of the state was Franco-American/Acadian, and suggested that people with a unique linguistic and cultural heritage counted toward the diversity in the state, the conversation came to a screeching halt. A group that reflects the actual cultural diversity of the region has been subsumed into whiteness. They’re “non-Hispanic White” per the U.S. Census and therefore do not count towards diversity in 2016.

Our long history throughout North America is connected with various narratives of U.S. history: the “French-And Indian War,” the War of 1812, Westward expansion, Industrialization, Nativism, the story of the Roman Catholic Church in the USA, etc. Any one of these narratives should include either Franco-Americans or our Canadien and Acadien forbears. With the exception of the “French-And Indian War” narrative, where they figure as bitter enemies, they’re almost completely missing.

For example, one-third of the participants in the Lewis & Clark expedition were Francophones but one never hears of this. Sometimes they’re mentioned as a faceless, nameless herd: “the French voyageurs.” The fact is, Lewis & Clark couldn’t have managed without them.

The invisibility extends, in fact, to a history wider than the Franco-Americans in the Northeast USA. The cloak of invisibility falls over all of the descendants of the former Nouvelle-France. I use this term Nouvelle-France in the sense in which it embraces the entirety of the former 17th and 18th c. French sphere of influence in North America including l’Acadie, le Canada (both the St. Lawrence valley and the Great Lakes region) and la Louisiane (the territory roughly corresponding to the USA’s Louisiana Purchase south of the Great Lakes).

If one totals up these descendants of Nouvelle-France on both sides of the border they number some 20 million people. It’s hard to hide a population of 20 million under one's hat but so far the writers of history, beyond specialists in certain areas or topics, have performed the disappearing act.

There must be reasons for this invisibilty. Yes, our population tends to be localized in the Northeast, the Great Lakes region, the Gulf Coast and a few other pockets. But other groups, such as Scandinavians in the upper Midwest, were also localized without becoming invisible. I don’t accept the explanation that this invisibility “just happened.” This is not an explanation.

How We Became Invisible
There are several reasons why I believe that the story of the Northeastern USA's Franco-Americans has become invisible.

1) We are associated today with Canada and therefore beneath the notice of most Americans.
The term most often used to describe us in American English is "French-Canadian" and both sides of this hyphen present obstacles in the minds of many Americans. Québécois of a nationalist bent make a distinction between Québec and Canada but that's a finesse of which most Americans are unaware. A "French-Canadian" is simply a type of Canadian for them.

To most Americans, Canada is the USA’s little brother: the USA can beat him up and fail to take him seriously, but they would defend him if a bully from another neighborhood came along. Most Americans are ignorant as to the geography and history of Canada. A current, photogenic Prime Minister notwithstanding, Canada represents little more than clichés about beer, hockey and people who say “eh.” When a presidential candidate arrives on the scene who scares one party or another the “I’ll move to Canada!” drumbeat begins, but most of that talk is fatuous.

This attitude, that Canada is nothing more than the 51st state, explains why I was laughed at by an (East) Indian-American when I suggested that one could emigrate from Canada. “That doesn’t count!” she laughed.
“It counted enough,” I answered, “when the Ku Klux Klan burned the ‘French-Canadian’ school in Leominster, Massachusetts in the 1920s. They were quite sure that we were ‘other’ enough to count back then.”
“Wow, I didn’t know about that,” she said quietly.
“No one does,” I replied.

2) Our Canadien/Acadien ancestors were in North America long before the United States and today’s Canada existed. 
This complicates matters because historians, thinking in terms of today’s political geography, want to tell the story of the USA or the story of Canada. But our people’s tale does not fit neatly into that geography. They settled large parts of the USA before it was the USA, as the numerous French place names throughout the USA’s midsection testify: Detroit, Des Moines, Vincennes, Terre Haute, Des Plaines, St. Louis, New Orleans to name just a few.

The English speakers who write the histories of the USA and Canada write them from the standpoint of today’s national borders. They write about these countries as separate entities while in fact the histories and populations of the two countries are intertwined.

For example, there were large and important exchanges of population originating from both sides of the border:
  • The Acadians deported and scattered among the 13 colonies in the 1750s.
  • The Loyalists escaping the nascent USA who settled in what is now Ontario and other future Canadian provinces in the Revolutionary War period and who were instrumental in the founding of English-Canada.
  • The Creoles of Louisiana whose homes were bought by the Americans in the Louisiana Purchase (including the descendants of the aforementioned Acadians who ended up there).
  • The Acadians in Northern Maine who became Americans when the Webster-Ashburton Treaty settled the USA’s Northeastern border in the 1840s. (Hint to the geography challenged: there’s territory east of Maine; not everything east of Maine is Atlantic Ocean.)
  • The Canadiens and Acadiens who came in droves to the USA in the 1840-1930 period and whose descendants number some 10-12 million U.S. citizens today.
Since the story is told as two separate nations – either as Canadian History or as U.S. History – these interconnections are missed. North of the border, the need to emphasize a common Canadian nationhood, always a fragile construct, does not favor the story of a Franco-Canadien nation that crosses existing borders. While in the USA, the history of “French-Canadians” seems to be the history of a foreign country.

3) We do not fit into the existing narratives of U.S. settlement history.

The established narratives are as follows:

a)     Native Americans/First Nations – the original human inhabitants of this continent. The majority of Americans tend to know little about them but increasingly feel they ought to.
b)     Jamestown/Plymouth Rock – by this I mean the history of the 13 British colonies before and during the American Revolution. These colonies included a range of ethnic groups such as the Dutch, Germans, and Scots-Irish but this is generally told as an English history.
c)     Ellis Island – this is my shorthand for 19th-early 20th c. emigration from Europe, both before and after Ellis Island was established, including emigrants from Ireland, Italy, Greece, and Jewish populations from Russia and Eastern Europe and other peoples from many lands too numerous to mention.
d)     People of Color – this frame has emerged relatively recently in its current form. This narrative includes the African slaves who were brought to these shores forcibly. It includes the Hispanic peoples either those who settled parts of the USA before it was the USA, or those who entered the country from points south. It also includes East Asian immigration, mainly although not exclusively to the West. It also includes many other more recent emigrants from non-European countries. Native Americans are sometimes brought into the people of color narrative. Native Hawaiians and Native Alaskans might fit into this narrative but, sadly, their story is largely invisible as well.

There is simply no room for Franco-Americans in these narratives. Although many have First Nations ancestors, they don’t fit precisely into that narrative. They were the bitter opponents of the Jamestown/Plymouth Rock bunch. There was no Ellis Island, no Statue of Liberty to greet them when and where they crossed the border. They’re not people of color either.

When certain allowable, accepted narratives have been established, what doesn’t fit into these schemes becomes invisible.

4) Our national character.
The notion of a “national character” is old-fashioned but in fact culture exists. There is a difference between a generalization and a stereotype, and there are fair generalizations that can be made about coherent cultural groups. And generally speaking, the culture of the Franco-North American populations has emphasized tenacity, reliance on our own, and a certain insular quality. 

The anthropologist Horace Miner, studying a rural Québec parish in the 1930s, noted that someone from the next parish over was regarded almost as a foreigner. This tendency to fragment into smaller (and frequently squabbling) units has discouraged a telling of the story in its proper breadth. The history of Franco-Americans, when it has been told, tends to be parochial, i.e. the story of Woonsocket Francos, or of Maine Acadians, or even of individual families.

The national character also emphasizes humility, another old-fashioned notion. This anachronism is heard again and again in Franco-American conferences. 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. If we don’t speak our piece then who will speak it for us?

Raising a Franco Ruckus
In her book Moving Beyond Duality, psychologist Dorothy Riddle posits that making people invisible is a form of depersonalization. I’ve been told in no uncertain terms that my family’s and my entire people’s experience is insignificant and beneath notice and that I should forget all about identifying as a Franco-American. The message here is, “People don’t know about you because you don’t count.” 

Addressed to any other ethnic group this notion would be insulting at the very least. It’s the invisibility, whether it’s our own doing or someone else’s or some combination of the two, that makes statements like this socially acceptable. In fact, the converse is true: we haven't counted in the eyes of the wider culture because the story has remained untold.

I’m tired of being called a “quiet presence.” I’m tired of blending into a pale, beige background labeled “non-Hispanic White.” It's un-Franco-American to do so, but perhaps it’s high time we raised what one of us called “a Franco ruckus.” Let the ruckus commence!

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Yes, There Was A Conquest

It is a war with three names. For some it is the Seven Years War. In the USA it is the French and Indian War. For the Québécois it’s often known as the War of the Conquest. That this 18th century war entailed the conquest of Québec by the English forces, that left the Canadiens a conquered people, is a founding narrative for many of those we now know as the Québécois.

However, in recent years there has been some pushback, mainly from Anglophone Quebeckers, who claim that in fact there was no such Conquest. In a March 2016 article in the Montreal Gazette by Celine Cooper, calling for an overhaul of the history curriculum in Québec schools, Cooper epitomizes this revisionist view. She characterizes the events of 1763 as "the abandonment of New France by the French monarch and its surrender to the English." 

This sentence reframes a military conquest in passive terms. The agency is given to the French Crown rather than to the conquering English. It’s not the English who take the initiative to conquer the colony, but rather the French who "abandon" it, despite the fact that they had held it for the better part of a century and a half. It makes it seem as if France simply faded away without firing a shot. 

Some years ago, Brian McKenna’s film Battlefield Quebec: Wolfe and Montcalm was an extended treatment of the revisionist view. In a preview of the film in the Globe and Mail, McKenna announced a new discovery. He claimed that a few days before the climactic battle on the Plains of Abraham, General Wolfe “[wrote] out the terms of Quebec's capitulation in the event of a British victory, terms which centered on the protection of French institutions, notably the French language and the Catholic Church.”

But McKenna’s argument contradicts itself. Who dictates terms of surrender but a conqueror? Assuming McKenna is correct that Wolfe’s overtures were beneficent, the fact that Wolfe anticipated giving his terms to a defeated city tends to prove the opposite of what McKenna's revisionist thesis contends.

And the revisionist view must also account for other, far less conciliatory words that Wolfe addressed to the Canadiens in 1759 as his flotilla made its way toward destiny: “If by vain obstinacy and a misguided courage [the Canadien civilians] want to take up arms, they must expect the most lethal consequences; their habitations will be pillaged, their churches exposed to an exasperated soldiery, their harvests completely destroyed, and this most formidable fleet will prevent them from having any relief.”1 If these aren't the words of a conqueror then what are?
Québec City, 1759:
But don't call it a conquest!


Getting Real About History
Whatever name we give this mid-18th c. conflict, it entailed warfare in N. America involving tens of thousands of combatants. Wolfe’s fleet in 1759 alone included 30,000 sailors and 9000 soldiers.2 After years of warfare, the British forces sailed up the river that year with purpose. The colony’s political capital was taken and its commercial capital, Montréal, surrendered into the hands of the looming British military. Although fighting continued after that, the war was won for the British and lost for the French and the Canadiens when it was British rather than French ships that were seen coming over the horizon in the Spring.

In the negotiations following the hostilities, France opted to negotiate the return of the Caribbean islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, which Britain had taken from France, while she ceded her claim to Canada to the English. The decision to cede Canada was made as a result of strategic and/or economic calculations on both sides of the treaty negotiations. The British dealt from a position of strength since their military held the country. 

The notion that there was no Conquest does violence to history because it ignores the considerable pains the English had taken to seize the colony by force and it ignores the bargaining position that their military posture gave them. It also papers over the loss of life (about 10% of the Canadiens were killed) and property damage involved in that war. In fact it argues that the prolonged period of warfare was simply inconsequential since, revisionists pretend, the power was in the hands of the French who opted to “abandon” the colony.

Gaslighting the Québécois
In summary, there was warfare in N. America over a period of years; the capital of the colony of Canada was taken by force; there was an occupation; there was a military government; and there was what we now call “regime change.” And it was permanent. The British monarch is still officially the Queen of Canada. If that’s not a conquest then we’re equivocating on the meaning of the word. Invariably, Orwellian equivocations serve a political agenda.

The agenda here is clear. The revisionist view is intended to undermine Francophone Québec's sense of itself as a distinct society. It attempts to establish that the Québécois were always on an equal footing with their British-descent countrymen and it suggests that there was always a perfectly level playing field between the two groups. 

Another reason for the revisionism is that the Québécois do not fit prevailing N. American racial narratives. The Québécois are in the anomalous position in North America of being a white-identified people who had been subjugated by another white-identified people. In this, they resemble the Irish.

Even if the British conquest of Canada were the most benign conquest in the history of the world, to be conquered and occupied by a foreign power is humiliating and traumatic. In all such cases, the conquerors hold the cards and the conquered have no choice but to submit to their fate be it benevolent or the opposite. Today, the descendants of the conquered Canadiens face the further humiliation of having their historical memories, a memory of cultural survival and eventual prosperity in the face of defeat, denied by the revisionists.

And, no, the point is not to wallow in victimization regarding events that happened long ago. It's about telling the truth and understanding the basis on which Québec's sense of collective self rests. The narrative that today's Québécois are the descendants of survivors of the Conquest is justified by the historical facts. Revisionists must not succeed in manipulating history.

In psychology there is a term for such manipulations: gaslighting. This is a form of psychological abuse where one person causes another to doubt their perception of reality through manipulation, distortion and denial. It is time for the historical revisionists to stop gaslighting the Québécois. It is time they faced up to the past as it really was and not as their political counter-agenda wishes it to have been.
---------------------------
Notes
1 Lamonde, Yvan. Histoire Social des Idées au Québec 1760-1896. Montréal: Editions Fides, 2000. Print. Cf. p 18. [The translation from the French is my own.]

2 Havard, Gilles and Cécile Vidal. Histoire de l'Amérique française. Paris, Flammarion, 2003. Print. Cf. p 442.

Picture credit
A. Bennoist, engraver, after Richard Short (fl. 1754-1766), A View of the Church of Notre Dame de la Victoire, built in Commemoration of the raising the Siege in 1695 and destroyed in 1759. Hand-colored copperplate engraving. London, 1761. Graphics Division, Prints B-7.