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!

Next: My Book A Distinct Alien Race Now Available for Pre-Order


  1. Great column, David. I'd add (under point 2) the following:

    *“The French in the Midwest and Great Lakes region who became Americans when the Treaty of Paris settled the USA’s northern border in 1783, after the end of the Revolutionary War.”

    1. gosh yes! French influen is evendent in Minnesota, where place names include: Mille Lacs County, French River, French Lake, Roseau County, St. Louis County, Lac qui Parle County, Hennepin County, Le Sueur County, Lyon County, Voyageurs National Park, Lake Vermilion, Grand Portage, Lake Marquette, Fond du Lac river, Lac Bois Blanc lake, Lac Vieux Desert lake, Lac Plè (or Pelé) lake, Belle Plaine, Belle Plaine park, Belle Fontaine post office, Belle Taine, Belle Rose Island, La Croix Lake. La Salle Lake, La Salle River, LaBelle Lake. Le Homme Dieu Lake, Nord lake, La Grand, La Crosse, Audubon, Bain, Beauford, Beaulieu, Bejou, Bellaire, Belgian Township, Belle Prairie Township, Bellevue Township, Belleville, Des Moines, Detroit, Duluth, Dumont, Duquette, Frenchman's Bar, Frenchy Corner, Frontenac, Grand Marais, Lafayette, La Fontaine, La Cressent, Lagarde, Le Claire, Le Roy, Le Center, Louisville, Maine, Marcoux, Sault, St. Hilaire, Chapeau Lake, Faribault, Lake of the Woods (=Lac des Bois), Nicollet County, Orleans ce is evident in Minnesota.

    2. C'est fabuleux l'énumération de tous ces noms francophones!

  2. Thank you David! Very Informative, I know I along with many other Franco-American's shall speak along with you!
    Yes, let the ruckus commence indeed!

  3. David, I'm of Franco-American/French-Canadian descent on my maternal side, born in southern California, and raised there largely by my maternal grandparents. When I visited New Hampshire and Maine in my 40's, I observed what I'd call a sense of shame among the Franco-Americans I encountered. I saw a general reluctance to acknowledge cultural heritage or discuss it openly. I noticed that many Franco-Americans mispronounced their last names. I heard a lot of self-deprecating jokes. So, I sensed a lack of collective self esteem that felt disheartening to me. Not everyone exhibited these features, of course, but I saw this pattern and I tend to attribute it to the cultural trauma our ancestors faced and the ensuing shame that goes with feeling defective for being who you are. Thanks for all the great writing you do! You are having a healing effect. A Franco ruckus is needed, one that expresses pride in being Franco-American. Dave Hallock, Seattle

    1. Couldn't agree more about the shame factor. I've observed it too. Thanks for your comment, Dave.

  4. LOVE THIS! I am so looking forward to your talk at the Franco-American Centre in May!
    Side note - my neighbor across the street, a gentleman whose last name is "Fish", saw my lawn sign that reads, "Live Free et Parler Français!"

  5. My "Fish" neighbor saw my sign and said that his family name was originally "Poisson" but his father changed it to Fish so he could get work because no matter where he went, they were not hiring Franco-Americans / French speakers.
    Hard to believe ...

    1. I lived in Marquette, MI and knew a Fish family....they also were originally named Poisson.

  6. Hi there, born in northwest Minnesota here, of Norwegian and Québec ancestry, and what you say is true. There are dozens and dozens of Québec names in my MN town of 8,000 and there is even a church in the village next door, Gentilly, with French stations of the cross on the stained glass. Though people don’t seem to know that their ancestors were from Québec. They talk a lot about Norway and Sweden though. The whole thing about Ellis Island is kind of overblown as well. I know a retired Norwegian professor from St-Olaf University who wrote a book last year about Norwegian immigration in MN and N America, 90% came of it came through Grosse-Île near Québec City and not Ellis Island. But, because we have movies like the Godfather, everything thinks their ancestors were quarantined on that island. My ancestors were among the first Europeans in North America (Leif Erikson at l’Anse-aux-Meadows in 1100 and the colons of New France in the 1590s).

    1. True about Ellis Island being overblown. That's why I say I use it as "shorthand" b/c people know about it. It exists as a symbol more than as an historical fact of immigration history for many European immigrants. Thanks for your comment, Thomas.

  7. When I entered grade school at la Paroisse Notre Dame, Fall River, MA, I spoke only French. I learned English from my peers. I continued to study French right through my college years. Since that time, I must agree with David, we, as a group, have had an "unnoticed" history. Too many individuals today with French surnames do not even know they are of French heritage. Nor, can they even speak a word of French, reflecting the comments I always get: "Oh! You speak French?" Or, from visitors from another planet: "Vous parlez francais?" As for the old neighborhoods, you will now be lucky to even find someone who speaks English.

    1. I can't cite my source, but somewhere I read that at one time Fall River, MA was the largest Francophone town in North America with the exception of Québec City and Montréal. Merci pour ton commentaire.

  8. Lorsque la république du Québec verra le jour (bientôt!), nos frères et soeurs et cousins métissés à travers toute l'Amérique commenceront aussi enfin à être visibles. C'est le visage de l'humanité toute entière que nous allons changer en affirmant notre existence au yeux du Monde, en fracassant l'illusion qui vous condamne à l'invisibilité. J'invite de tout coeur tout francophone (et francophile) hors-Québec à venir au Québec dès maintenant pour nous aider dans la lutte acharnée qui s'annonce (occupez Montréal, surtout, le Jérusalem d'Amérique). Les forces qui vous gardent invisibles s'abattent sur le Québec sans relâche et feront tout pour nous empêcher de naître. Une grande révolution se prépare dans l'invisible, et les Québécois en sont le fer de lance. Chacun d'entre vous peut jouer un rôle dans l'épanouissement inéluctable de notre Nation. Le moment approche, le vent se lève... attachez votre tuque!

  9. No question about what has happened to F-Cs...For those who came to the USA between 1850-1900, from Quebec particularly, was nearly 50% of the FC population. Economics/survival was the main reason. Problems of acceptance in the USA: Catholic, foreign language speakers ("Chicanos of the North," and competition for jobs with other emigrant ethnic groups of that same time period. Most F-Cs realized that the faster they assimmilatied (learned English) and moved into the mainstream, the better off they were to be...So, they kept their heads down and strived--as did the Finns and Scandanavians and others. It was not an easy transition. It's not unknown that other ethnic groups put their language and past behind them as well..Some now are coming to realize that--and finding interesting facts of their ancestors via genealogy, history, etc. I know that I did...Had to, as my grandparents were dead before I was born--and there was this "unknowing" gap in my life...Did my research in the mid-90's in Quebec...and Ottawa...

    1. Douglas, thank you for your comment. The situation was a bit different in the New England region where the language survived for 100 years. Generations of my family lived in Maine speaking French. The reason is that they lived in compact neighborhoods mostly in industrial towns with their own schools, churches, stores, etc. The F-Cs in the region were much slower to assimilate to Anglophone U.S. culture than others groups, so slow that they provoked a backlash. There was much hand-wringing in the press of the area, and even in the national press, about the "problem" facing New England from the F-C influx. There were even conspiracy theories floated around them, namely that the R.C. church was trying to take over the area an annex it to a revived New France. This is mentioned in a number of sources from the 1880-1900 period. The F-C group in that region was quite large and quite visible 100 years ago. Now, as far as most of the narratives are concerned, they did not exist. I am mainly, although not exclusively, addressing the F-C descent population in this Northeastern U.S. area. I have become more aware over the past few years of the F-C experience in the Midwest and how it differs somewhat from the experience back East. Same culture; different immigration experience at least in some respects.

  10. As an ex-francophone in Canada outside of Québec, I can't help but see simmilarities in Canada ouside of Québec! Le Canada bilingue de Trudeau ????

    Le rêve de Trudeau père relève aujourd’hui d’un fantasme irréaliste : le Canada est de moins en moins bilingue ?

    Je dirais plutôt un génocide culturel prémédité !!/photo.php?fbid=10153550867058140&set=a.232916908139.169388.652793139&type=1&theater

    • Le mensonge de Trudeau ! Le Génocide culturel des francophones au Canada
    Synthèse du déclin du français au Canada par Pierre-Luc Bégin
    PDF :
    Résumé statistique :
    • Les résultats de Trudeau!!/156743514375142/photos/a.324109114305247.73488.156743514375142/480372472 012243/?type=3&theater
    • La réalité de Trudeau !
    • Avis de décès: le rêve de Trudeau !

  11. Do you recognize some of these French-Canadian names, that have been transformed in the USA????

    Onomastique franco-américaine Par Jean-François Caron!/503220633034678/photos/a.530586313631443.110336.503220633034678/1019083541448382/?type=3&theater

  12. Guy Huard - Montréal.April 1, 2016 at 7:57 PM

    About F-Cs in the Great Lakes and beyond. 1760 didn't make much difference for them before the war of 1812. Ontario was still very scarcely populated. The turning point was the Erie canal in the 1840's. The British then moved loyalists from Quebec to the Niagara peninsula to block American expansion in that direction. But before that life in the center of the continent had carried on as before because America wasn't there yet. For almost a hundred years things didn't change much, History hadn't caught up.

  13. Our publisher, Robin Philpot of Baraka Books in Montreal, recently referred to your blog, and the expectation that our upcoming book will help address part of the issue that David so aptly described.

    The book is entitled "Songs upon the Rivers: the Buried History of the French-Speaking Canadiens and Metis from the Great Lakes and the Mississippi across to the Pacific." Besides the actual history of this most under represented group of peoples, the book addresses the systematic process by which 19th century American historians felt the need to denigrate their presence in both quantitative and qualitative terms. And of course, ever since, all challenge to this overly Americanized version of our greater West, have been thoroughly deflected.

    Regardless of historiography, the core problem is simply that the original French-Canadian West (le pays d'en haut) mostly ended up the U.S. Hence, it fell out of Canadian national history and was never written back into U.S. national history.

    The first book taking the story to the 1840s should be in print by September.

    Rob Foxcurran

  14. Thank you for this piece. Very interesting and an essay which I plan to share!

  15. We have no "national" holiday to celebrate our "francité" the way Irish-Americans have St. Paddy's Day or St. Joseph's Day/Columbus Day for Italian-Americans. What is the French-American, or Franco-American is you prefer, holiday? Bastille Day is not the same thing. Also, the author touches upon the parochial nature of our identity. Cajuns do not identify with Quebekers who do not identify with Acadians who do not identify with Creoles who... etc. Those of us who still speak French spend more time discussing who uses what word or expression when and where than any substantive discussion about our common heritage.

    1. I think in Windsor, the community celebrates St. Jean de Baptiste Day, June 24.

  16. I am surprised there was almost no reference to French Louisiana – until now.

    From the postings given here, I could feel invisible, too. I live in Louisiana in the area known as Acadiana. My ancestors came to Louisiana because of the deportation of Acadians by the British from Nova Scotia beginning in 1755. With the deportation, the British attempted to settle them along the east coast of the present-day United States. However, most of the French-speaking Acadians were not welcome there, so they moved on to other areas more welcoming, including some islands of the West Indies, northern South America, lands bordering Nova Scotia, France, and to Louisiana. Probably 1/3 of the population of Nova Scotia settled in Louisiana. Acadians had been victims of ethnic cleansing. Many historians believe the British of this period wanted to destroy Acadian culture and identity.

    As a result of their tragic history, especially their relationship with the British, Acadians turned inward and wanted to be left alone to practice their faith and speak French. Being French and Catholic was a heavy cross they had to bear, even in the American/British colonies along the east coast. Because of these tumultuous forces whirling around them, it is my opinion that Acadians began to question their own worth in the larger world society. Left with a rather low sense of self-esteem, the Acadians turned inward, accepted their plight, and just simply wanted to be left alone. The Acadians, referred to as Cajuns in Louisiana, settled in rather isolated areas and established their own communities west of New Orleans. (The original French settlers in New Orleans were not Cajuns.) It took generations for Cajuns to become a part of the greater world. Their problems were not over once they arrived in Louisiana. In 1921, the state passed regulations that forbade Cajuns to speak French in schools. That measure again alienated them – at least temporarily.

    However, it is my belief that with WWII, change gained greater impetus. Cajuns saw the important role they played during the war, since, as American soldiers, they could mingle easily with the local population in France and therefore were valuable assets to the American military. These Cajun soldiers returned to Louisiana with a sense of worth and a fresh outlook. Soon afterward, other aspects of the Cajun/French culture and mindset changed. A sense of pride in their culture, cuisine, music, and enthusiasm for life began to displace feelings of doubt and low self-esteem. Today, there still remains remnants of being characterized in negative terms, but change has not ended. Cajuns, descendants of France via Nova Scotia, are no longer as “invisible” as they had been. They have pride in their history, for they regard themselves as survivors. In many Acadian towns of Louisiana, Cajuns meet regularly in groups known as “French Tables” and speak in French to keep their Cajun French language alive and to celebrate their role in the history of the United States.

    1. Thanks for your perspective. I have written about my own "discovery" of Acadiana, where I have been several times since, in this blog post.

      I have included Louisiana in several discussions focused on the Colonial French regime era in particular, including a mention under Point 2) above. There's no neglect of Louisiana here it's just that writers tend to write about what they know best and in my case that tends to be the French-descent communities in the Northeastern parts of the continent, esp. in the Northeast USA. Louisiana has a complex history and I'm certainly no expert although I welcome contributions from well-informed people. Thanks for making a contribution to broadening the discussion here.

  17. For most Americans we can conjure up a picture of the Iwo Jima Memorial, what is hidden is that a descendent of la Province de Quebec was a certain U.S. Marine by the name of Rene Gagnon of Manchester NH.
    Sad to say that NH has let his story fade into history! smh