Je Me Souviens: I Remember


A Fête St. Jean Essay on Traditional Culture and Philanthropy —by James LaForest

As we arrive again at the traditional holiday of French-Canadians everywhere, I am offering this essay as a reflection on where our French-heritage cultures are today and to explore the potential of our communal life.

There are two expressions that are important keys to understanding French-Canadian culture as it has come down to us today. The first is la survivance. This expression speaks to the survival of French North American cultures against all odds in Anglo-dominated North America. [See note below] It was popular among immigrants from Quebec in the 19th century New England mills and in pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec. It became a rallying cry of sorts against the cultural dispossession faced by generations of descendants of New France.

The other expression is found in the title of this essay: Je me souviens. It means, simply, ‘I remember.’ This concise phrase was coined in 1883 by Étienne-Paschal Taché, architect of Quebec’s Parliament Building. He had it carved into the stone above the building’s main entrance, just below Quebec’s Coat of Arms. Many historians and writers have commented on the meaning of such a short, elegant phrase, parsing it according to their own views and ideas.

Je me souviens. To remember is a vital part of any culture. Acadians remember their exile, retelling that important and terrible story. Every Passover, Jews the world over retell the great Exodus from Egypt over a ritual meal. Christians remember the Passion story by telling and enacting it. We remember through telling, retelling, re-enacting. We remember through solemn ceremony: Remembrance Day, Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day. We remember through genealogy. We remember, and our cultures carry on, we seem sure in our histories, and sure that our histories we help us carry on, as we embrace a legacy centuries in the making.

But when is ‘remembering’ simply not enough? When do we begin to lose our culture when memory is the only thing that we have to hold on to? How do we encourage an ethic that moves beyond memory to include grassroots cultural activism, communal leadership, and philanthropy?

In the early 20th century, Michigan’s formerly numerous French-Canadian communal organizations held their final parades and banquets for the Fête St-Jean-Baptiste. In 1952, Georges J. Joyaux wrote on the forgotten history of Michigan’s French Press (that’s journalism, not coffee…), at one time numbering over 30 publications. Today, if I am correct, there is but one specifically French-Canadian organization in Michigan, dedicated almost exclusively to genealogy and with programming exclusively in the Detroit area. There are small French-Canadian museums in Wisconsin and Illinois run by volunteers and descendants of local settlers. Even Essex County, Ontario, across the river from Detroit, has renamed its local French villages and French communal organizations there struggle to stay open.

Yet In 2013, we held Michigan’s first French-Canadian Heritage Week. It is an ongoing campaign to raise awareness of our culture and history in the Great Lakes region. Communities and individuals around the state have used the opportunity to offer an array of programming dedicated to the music, cuisine, history, folklore, and many other aspects of French Canadian culture. In Illinois, local advocates, with support from the Quebec Government Office in Chicago established a Heritage corridor. We are building in various ways.

But there is an element of ‘cultural advocacy’ which continues to be difficult to deal with or even to discuss, and it is very important: giving. Philanthropy. French-Canadians and Métis in Michigan, or throughout the Great Lakes for that matter, have little to no philanthropic infrastructure. Communal organizations, even most of our parishes, are gone. Complicating matters, based on my own research, it is not difficult to conclude that most of our people have middle and lower-middle incomes without a great deal of extra money to give to begin with.

Yet donors exist and have made a significant impact. The Beaumier Upper Peninsula Heritage Center was founded by the late Dr. John Beaumier, a native of Escanaba. Beaumier Center has sponsored many programs related to French-Canadian culture as part of its remit. Several nature preserves in Michigan bear the names of their French-Canadian donors. These are important contributions to the state of Michigan and the region.

But sitting here writing, I can think of half a dozen projects that relate directly to French-Canadian and Métis culture, beyond genealogy, that are intended not just to remember but to advance and build community, led by people who identify personally with our historic culture. These initiatives are led by grassroots activists who are raising funds for an array of projects: a rendezvous at one of the historic (and still active) parishes founded by French Canadians; another is to relocate an historic French-Canadian cabin for use as a community focal point, gallery, and education center; another is the relocation of a museum and cultural center in a community with a large and self-aware French-Canadian population to a larger and more modern facility; yet another is a public sculpture project in a state that has all but forgotten its French roots.

Grassroots activists face a challenging task: to “sell” projects that cost money while making them relevant to the people who are cultural stakeholders, often the people who are the least likely to be able to pay the lion’s share of the project. A further challenge is engaging wealthier donors who share French-Canadian genealogy but who may have forgotten their cultural roots. Isolation is another complication. Why would someone from Grosse Pointe donate to a program in Monroe? Why would someone in Ecorse or River Rouge support a sculpture in Vincennes?

So this essay, for the Fête St-Jean-Baptiste, the national holiday of Quebec and French-Canadians everywhere, is a call to action: a call to give, whether it is a small gift to one of the projects underway or a gift of leadership or a major gift. The reality of our world is that some communal buy-in, some communal philanthropy, is necessary. I do not believe it is necessary, nor desirable, for traditional French-Canadian and Métis folkways to be abandoned because the “world is always changing” or “no one cares anymore.” Such appeals to modern ideological, multiculturalist sentiments are commonplace. However untrue, they portend the death of traditional cultures everywhere they are proffered.

We Métis and French-Canadians are most welcoming by being ourselves and sharing the true nature of what has come down to us. By giving a little, you aren’t just helping build a statue somewhere or supporting a program you can’t attend — you are supporting the good values that once made homes vibrant with music, where folk stories were passed down for generations, and built family-filled, beautiful parishes around our Great Lakes. Be the generosity our forebears were known for. Je me souviens. Remember why it’s still important to be who we are.

NOTE: I refer to both cultural and linguistic survival of for example Cajun, Métis, French-Canadians, etc. I do not speak of French-Canadian or Franco-American culture as dependent on speaking the French language, and conversely all French-speaking people in North America today do not belong to the traditional French cultures of North America by virtue of speaking French.

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