Michigan’s fourth annual French-Canadian Heritage Week was celebrated across the state recently with events from September 26-October 2. Reports from community leaders and organizations around the state indicate that interest in maintaining this annual ‘official’ observance of our cultural heritage remains strong and a wide array of people came out to enjoy the events. Once again, Representative Bill LaVoy (D-Monroe) sponsored a Resolution in the Michigan State House naming September 26-October 2 as Michigan’s French-Canadian Heritage Week. Representative Andrea LaFontaine (R-Columbus Township) and 42 other co-sponsors adopted the Resolution with widespread bipartisan support.
A new event venue this year was the Niles History Center in Niles, Michigan. According to director Christina Arseneau, the Center showcased an exhibit (running through the month of October) entitled “The French in North America/ Les Français en Amerique du Nord – A Vast and Enduring Presence” produced by Canadian Studies scholars at Western Michigan University. An open house for the exhibit included a round-table discussion moderated by Professor Michael Nassaney, principal investigator of the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Project. Discussion participants included WMU faculty José António Brandão, Vincent Desroches, and Lyn Heasley. Following the round-table, a sold-out “French-Canadian Supper Club” was held at the local Olfactory Hue Bistro featuring traditional and contemporary French-Canadian foods.
Once again this year, David Bezotte of Houghton, Michigan, organized seven separate events in four communities around the Keweenaw Peninsula, a remarkable feat! These events included children’s story-hours at a local library, performances by David’s own musical group, Maple Sugar Folk, a folk concert by a mother and daughter duo Emma and Susan Dlutkowski, and a concert by Father Corbin Eddy on the Quebec made-Casavant Frères pipe organ at St. Joseph Church, Lake Linden.
Community support for the activities in the Keweenaw area has been key to their success. For example, according to David, “about 140 children attended the French-Canadian story-hours over three days, along with the parents who accompanied them” This is a wonderful result and demonstrates how French-Canadian cultural continuity can be impacted by our annual Heritage Week. In addition, on September 28 Canterbury House in Houghton featured a French-Canadian meal at their weekly dinner attended primarily by Michigan Tech international students, exposing Michigan’s French-Canadian heritage to a world audience.
For the second year running, Sandy Vanisacker of Monroe, Michigan organized a French-Canadian Descendants ‘family reunion’ at River Raisin National Battlefield Park. The event included music, food, traditional costume, and dancing. According to Sandy, the park staff was pleased with the event and look forward to getting it on the calendar for next year. The event included an extemporaneous presentation on the historic Jesuit Pear Trees of the Detroit River Region by Windsor, Ontario resident Jean Tremblay, who had graciously brought a tasting of the rare pears to another local event.
Also in Monroe, the Quebec Government Office in Chicago sponsored for a movie through Monroe County Museums. The Quebec Government Office has supported our cultural efforts via French Canadian Heritage Week for four years running with unique programs featuring Quebec culture and the ties between Quebec and the Great Lakes region. The Quebec office in Chicago supports cultural programming throughout the Midwest, working with established non-profits. Monroe County Museums also offered a “Hunt for Loup-Garou” event for children, based on the French-Canadian folk-story Le Loup Garou. The Hunt is part of their very popular ‘Lantern Tours’ and will be ongoing through October.
In Detroit, collaboration between the Detroit Historical Museum and the French Canadian Heritage Society of Michigan offered a full day of events on Saturday October 3. According to FCHSM Vice President Dawn Evoe-Danowski, a highlight of the day was a discussion of Detroit’s French history by Wayne State University professor Karen Marrero and Yale colleague Jay Gitlin, and genealogist Diane Sheppard. Music was performed by Genot Picor and les Trois Bouffons.
A further highlight of Heritage Week was a full day of events at the Beaumier Heritage Center at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Director Daniel Truckey reported that a large number of people took part in the day’s activities, which included demonstrations and discussion by well-known fur-trade and French-colonial-era scholar Timothy Kent, folk music, and a canoe display from the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association.
Grass-roots community leaders and directors of local institutions are key in bringing events like these to the people of Michigan throughout the year. Their support of French-Canadian Heritage Week isn’t just helpful – it is vital. Without it, there would be no Heritage Week, save for the Resolution naming the week by the State Legislature and social media sharing. The Resolution and social media acknowledgement are important, but real-world events, particularly those focused on children ensure that our culture will be passed on to another generation. It is clear in soliciting feedback from organizers that some things work better than others. Events featuring traditional food, for example, are clear winners! Folk music and lectures on historical topics relevant to the Great Lakes are of interest to a wide array of people.
Reaching an audience is perhaps the most challenging part of putting on any event. Building community resources and fostering continuity includes stepping outside usual frameworks to reach people who are not tied into social media, or at least not the social media organizers are committed to. One notable media-related factor this year, which certainly enhanced attendance at the final event in Lake Linden, was that the concert was advertised in several local newspapers and church bulletins. In SE Michigan a small number of newspapers published Heritage Week’s schedule in full as did the national magazine France-Amérique. Outreach from local leaders and organizations as well as through statewide advocacy is increasingly leading to wider awareness of our heritage, and in the coming years will hopefully increase and reinforce our efforts.
Thank you to all who organized and took part in our events. An ad-hoc group of community leaders and organizers have agreed on dates for 2017: the FIFTH Annual French Canadian Heritage Week will be Sunday, September 24 – Saturday, September 30, 2017.