—by James LaForest
In honor of the upcoming Fête St-Jean-Baptiste, known as La Fête nationale du Québec, this article explores the place of La Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste and other French Canadian civic organizations in 19th century Michigan. The feature image on our front page is a detail from the Carillon Sacré-Coeur — the traditional flag of the SSJB.
La Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste is known today as a strong defender of the French language in Quebec and of French Canadian culture in the province. It lobbies the government in defense of French language rights, acts as a voice for francophone culture, promotes the independence of Quebec, and coordinates la Fête nationale du Québec (formerly celebrated as the feast of St. Jean Baptiste – Quebec’s national holiday.)
La Société was once found throughout Canada and in major French Canadian communities around the United States. It was founded in Quebec in 1834 by Ludger Duvernay as a way to build French Canadian unity. In the 19th century when French Canadian immigration to the Great Lakes area experienced a third wave of newcomers who made their way here for the lumber and mining industries, la Société became a force connecting French Canadians locally and, for many, with their homeland of Quebec. The observance of the “Feast of St. John” became a central element in the public celebration of our culture as French Canadian nationalism took root during the century of Papineau, Riel, and Bourassa.
Evidence of this can be found in French-language newspapers published in Michigan and Windsor, Ontario at the time. Coverage of St. Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations around Michigan, news of the organization’s efforts to help fellow French Canadians, details of Michigan’s delegations to the national conference, and even controversy are found in articles dating from at least the 1880’s onward.
In Windsor’s Le Courrier de l’Ouest, which covered both Windsor and Detroit francophone communities, the July 4, 1885 edition reported on St. Jean Baptiste feast day celebrations in Ottawa with delegates attending from throughout Ontario and other provinces, as well as upstate New York. However, much fuller coverage was given to local events, providing us today with an excellent view of Detroit’s celebrations. An extensive article highlights the leadership of the SSJB of the city and the agenda of the day, which included une grand messe solemnelle – a solemn mass – celebrated at Ste. Anne de Détroit. Notable here and in coverage of similar celebrations around the state is the cooperation between the SSJB and other French Canadian organizations, such as the Société Franco-Canadienne and the Société Lafayette.
In the Bay City newspaper, L’Ouest Français a June 29, 1888 column recaps events around Michigan in the context of French Canadian life throughout the United States. In “Nos Compatriotes aux Etats-Unis – leurs Oeuvres et leurs Succes” (Our Compatriots in the United States – Their Efforts and Their Success), St. Jean-Baptiste Day celebrations are recorded in Alpena and in ‘Haut-Michigan,’ Upper Michigan, at Champion. In the same issue, a national convention of French Canadians held in Nashua, New Hampshire is covered for local readers. Seven hundred delegates convened for the 17th convention of “Canadiens-Français” in the United States, including 75 delegates from cities of “l’Ouest” (The West): Minneapolis, St. Paul, Muskegon, Detroit, Bay City, Chicago, and Kansas. In a July issue from the same year, Michigan’s delegates are listed in further coverage. All of the local representatives were from the SSJB.
In a September 7, 1888 article from L’Ouest Français, a writer expressly ties membership in the Société St. Jean-Baptiste with overcoming a lingering sense of inferiority French Canadians had as a result of being a conquered people. J. Royal wrote that this sentiment had invaded and deformed their national character. Through membership, through conventions, and through a federation of societies he envisaged an “exaltation de notre race” with the outcome a stronger and prouder people.
L’Union Franco-Americaine, based in Lake Linden, Michigan, covers 1891 events. In advance of celebrations we see the local branches of la Société arranging a grand united affair, with the communities of Calumet, Houghton, and Hancock coming together as one at the invitation of Calumet’s French Canadian leadership. As at Detroit, other organizations in the area indicate their own plans to celebrate. In Ishpeming, the Société Union Canadienne-Français announced their intentions to celebrate locally.
Coverage of this French Canadian affair was not limited to the French press. In The Weekly Iron Port of Escanaba, an 1892 article goes into great detail of the local “St. John’s Day” celebration. Here it is recorded that “Franco-Canadians” arranged and carried out celebrations with over 1000 people in attendance.
Why was the SSJB, and other French Canadian community organizations, so successful during the era of immigration for the lumber industry? Their heyday came during a period of time that saw French Canadian nationalism increase which included a strong identification with the Metis cause. And if French Canadian culture was a culture that had been marginalized and ‘conquered’ years before, it had clearly not been erased. Immigrants brought with them their sense of ethnic consciousness, expressed it in terms of a national identity, and celebrated on the streets of small-town and big-city Michigan.
In subsequent years, according to scholars such as Jean Lemarre and John Dulong who have written on the French Canadians of the era in Michigan, circumstances including the trailing off of immigration led to the gradual demise of these organizations. But their presence in late the 19th century fleshes out the portrait of Michigan’s French Canadians in a way that enriches our understanding of their immigration experience. In this and other ways, French Canadians were a group who saw themselves as part of a separate North American nation or ‘people’ with a unique history and their own culture.
Through the celebration of the Fête St. Jean-Baptiste and membership in La Société Saint-Jean-Baptiste, French Canadians in 19th Michigan, especially recent immigrants, publicly asserted Quebec’s place as their homeland. Balancing their status as new Americans, Quebec was acknowledged as a political power not only for Canadiens in Canada, but also in the United States in the Great Lakes and New England. The enthusiasm with which our forebears celebrated French Canadian culture, along with the national character of the celebrations, forms an important element in the continuity of French Canadian history, culture, and politics in North America.