Wednesday, August 1, 2012

La Survivance and Revolution: The Ideological History of a Remnant (Part 3)

La Survivance in New England goes largely unnoticed in Québec because of another Revolution: la Révolution Tranquille, Québec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. This great cultural revolution undermined the older sort of nationalism that emphasized the Catholic and rural character of the country. In some sense, it represents the triumph in modern times of the old Patriote strain of Québec ideology.

The Quiet Revolution burned away two of the chemical elements from the older formulas of la survivance – Catholic and rural – and what remained was the precipitate: the French language. The preservation of the French language, protected and established by the famous Law 101, became the chief characteristic of a new phase of la survivance in Québec in the period during and after the Quiet Revolution. The French language became the sine qua non of Québec nationalism.

During this period, the older designations by which we had been known, Canadien or Canadien-français, were replaced with a new ethno-national label: Québécois. This label, intended to affirm a modern, forward-looking identity for the people of Québec, had the unintended consequence of tearing at the bonds of kinship between the New England Franco-Americans and their cousins to the North. Whereas the earlier term “French-Canadian” was more inclusive, and could include a Franco-Ontarian or a Franco-American from Woonsocket or Wisconsin, the term “Québécois” excludes them definitively. A Québécois, after the Quiet Revolution, describes a French descendant, born and raised in Québec, in the French language – and no one else.

This explains why, while one commonly hears the terms “Italian-American,” “Irish-American,” or “African-American,” I’ve never heard anyone referred to as a “Québécois-American.” The older term “Franco-American,” on the pattern of the former designation “French-Canadian,” is still used, revealing that the Franco-American in New England is now a remnanta remnant of the pre-Quiet Revolution Québec, stranded, as it were, on the southern side of the border.

With the Quiet Revolution history repeats itself. Just as the French Revolution of 1789 guaranteed that the Canadiens would remain for many years a remnant of pre-Revolutionary France, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s ensured that the Franco-Americans in New England became a remnant of pre-Quiet Revolutionary Québec. Separated from a Québec that has become very different from the homeland of our grandparents and great-grandparents, we Franco-Americans have become the remnant of the remnant.

Just as someone from France visiting certain older villages in Québec seems to enter the domain of a much earlier vision of France, a Québécois visiting one of the older Franco-American Catholic parishes steps into the pre-Quiet Revolution Québec of his or her parents or grandparents.

For example, Saint Joseph’s Church in Biddeford, Maine, my maternal grandfather’s home parish, at least as recently as 2005 still celebrated French Mass on Saturday evenings. When I visited this church, I expected French Mass to be attended by a half-dozen older women. To my surprise, I found the church packed to the rafters, with, I would estimate, 100 or 200 people in attendance. From age 4 to age 84, all of them knew their prayers and the entire Mass in French, and understood a lengthy French sermon, delivered with old-fashioned verve by the curé.

Are there any churches in Québec, in a town of comparable size to Biddeford, with so many regular attendees – for a single Mass on the weekend schedule? Québec has become perhaps the most secularized portion of North America while many of their Franco-American cousins preserve the religiosity of our common ancestors. 

Successive revolutions – the Cession of 1763, the American Revolution of 1776, the French Revolution of 1789, the failed revolution of 1837, the Industrial Revolution of post-Civil War New England, the demographic revolution which displaced a large portion of the poorer classes of Québec, and, finally, Québec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s – each contributed to creating a remnant of the past, a remnant which holds to its history with tenacity. At each phase, the ideology of la survivance was adapted to respond to a new situation, as there appeared a new reason in the present to affirm the past. At each step la survivance…survived.

Part 1
Part 2


  1. This is very well-written David. I have felt your characterization of the French-Canadians in America to exist in the way you have described, but never realized it in the terms you have used...remnant. Insightful writing.

    1. Thank you very much for commenting, Wolfgang. I hope you will visit this blog again.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.