Franco-American Studies in the Footsteps of Robert G. LeBlanc

By Pinette, Susan | Quebec Studies, Spring-Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

Franco-American Studies in the Footsteps of Robert G. LeBlanc


Pinette, Susan, Quebec Studies


Franco-Americans constitute ten to twenty-five percent of New England state populations. (1) Composed of Acadian settlements in northern Maine that date back to the eighteenth century and communities of French Canadians, most of whom immigrated from Quebec and the Maritimes in the late nineteenth century, Franco-Americans represent many New England states' largest ethnic minority. (2) Yet this Franco-American community is often referred to as the "silent minority." Dyke Hendrickson calls his collection of oral histories Quiet Presence and Joan H. Rollins includes an article on Franco-Americans in her book Hidden Minorities. (3) Though a substantial presence, the "French fact" of New England is often overlooked and unheard.

The sources of this silence lie in a number of places: in the community itself, in the long history of discrimination against the French in New England, and in the standard narrative of American identity. Many blame the Franco-Americans themselves, citing their over-reliance on French Canada and on the Catholic Church to preserve their cultural heritage. Unlike other nineteenth-century immigrants, Franco-Americans did not travel far, maintaining close ties to friends, family, and cultural institutions across the border. Their proximity to Canada discouraged early attempts to establish an entirely United States-based ethnic identity. Others find the "quiet presence" to be the result of a silencing. They trace deep-seated bias against the Catholic French back to the earliest conceptualizations of New England, through the anti-catholic protests of the Know-Nothing party and the KKK at the turn of the century, to the English-only laws that were in place in Maine until 1969. (4) Still others argue that it is the prevailing narrative of nineteenth-century immigration in American history that obscures the Franco-American experience. In the dominant American imaginary, English settlers established the leading characteristics of American culture. American culture is predominantly English culture; ethnic difference within that culture is created only with nineteenth-century European immigrations. (5) The paradigm for these immigrations is Ellis Island, which symbolizes the passageway from the "Old World" to the "New." Distinct from these European immigrants, Franco-Americans traveled overland to the United States after hundreds of years in Canada. Theirs is not a tale that can be articulated through the Ellis Island metaphor and in this dominant narrative of ethnicity, Franco-Americans have no place.

Whatever its cause, this silence has had profound effects on the creation of Franco-American Studies programs at universities in the United States. Whereas thriving Irish-American, Jewish-American, and Italian-American studies programs exist throughout the United States and Canada, Franco-American Studies is a relatively undeveloped field. This silence has not only hampered institutional development but also deprived us of a determined canon and an established curriculum. Yet, Franco-American experience offers meaningful insights into the fields of American immigration and French Studies, engaging the fundamental assumptions governing these disciplinary paradigms and opening them up to fruitful dialogue. The investigation of Franco-America substantially alters the study of nineteenth-century immigration by broadening its parameters from a purely national story to a North American one. The French-Canadian pattern of immigration and settlement resembles the borderlands configuration most often associated with the twentieth-century immigration of Mexican-Americans. The study of Franco-America deepens the understanding of American immigration by historicizing this "contemporary" pattern of Mexican immigration, placing it within a larger, continental view. Similarly, Franco-America introduces a new aspect to the field of la francophonie by conceptualizing the French language as a space of comfort and safety rather than one of oppression. …

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