As Christmas approaches with the New Year not far behind, I would like to wish the readers of Voyageur Heritage a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And as the year comes to a close, I will take a moment to share with you some thoughts on our heritage and looking forward.
There was a time, not so long ago, when younger generations built on the success and heritage of the previous one. The new generation, the generation coming into its own, taking on some authority and responsibility for affairs much larger than themselves, always sees itself as innovative, and that’s true — no two generations are carbon copies. But part of the strength of societies lays in how well the ‘new generation’ acts in another role: as standard bearers for the people, the religion, or the nation they come to represent.
Coming from rural Michigan, growing up surrounded by extended family, I had many opportunities to see up-close the impact of the previous generations on my life. I saw their hard work in the walls of my family home, built by great-grandparents many decades before. In the church we attended I saw not just people with strong faith, but people whose sweat and treasure had actually built the church we worshipped in. At annual communal events, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July parade, and Veteran’s Day, I saw generation after generation be honored for their service to the great cause of liberty. And perhaps most vivid in my memory is when those same veterans led us in stopping, ever so briefly, to honor their fallen brothers and sisters in arms.
If I saw the impact of previous generations, I heard it twice as often in the stories of my grandfather and great-grandparents, the adventures of my parents growing up in the hardscrabble days of the Great Depression. Hearing their stories today, I envy a bit the wide-ranging freedom my older siblings had with their great gang of baby-boomer compatriots and cousins. The things I saw and did during my own youth have now become my memories and form some of the values that I try to pass on best as possible to those who will listen.
It is disconcerting however as it becomes ever more apparent that the “up-and-coming” generations of today seem, well, quite impatient. But that too is not particularly new. Thirty years ago a friend told me about how her father, a much-loved and respected professor of sociology at the University of Michigan, a member of the Greatest Generation, was being shoved out of his department. The young, Marxist graduate students and newly-hired assistant professors took to calling him a dinosaur. Once, early- and mid-career businesspeople, scientists, teachers, politicians, and community leaders would honor their elders with kind words and references to “standing on the shoulders of giants.” The new regimes seem to prefer a different approach: tearing down rather than building up.
While this worries me for the sake of our society as a whole, the values that were passed down to me have long helped me personally focus on the tasks at hand and get to where I needed to go. Recently Jim Paquette, a French Canadian and Métis community leader from Upper Michigan, wrote of our ancestors the voyageurs:
“They did what no one else could do because no matter how bad things got, they always got up every morning after sleeping on the cold ground and got into their birch bark canoes and then paddled on. They understood in their souls that the only way to move on…the only way to get to your destination…the only way to leave the bad and the scary behind…was to paddle forward. And so they did, with a song of hope in their hearts.”
Jim’s words ring inherently true, and speak to faith, tradition, and heritage, but they also point to something else. They are part of the long tradition of honoring our elders by remembering them, remembering their accomplishments, and implicitly thanking them for helping us to be who we are. All cultures honor their elders, but to me it seems somewhat amplified among French Canadians and Métis. This is true for many reasons such as our oral tradition, the cultural influence of Native Americans and First Nations, access to genealogies tracing our families hundreds of years, and even adversity faced by our forebears in retaining our language, faith, and history.
My hope for the New Year is that the next generations of French Canadians and Métis honor the ways of their ancestors. When so many around us remember the past only for its faults, when there are those who see shame in bearing French names, who think of our ancestors and remember only darkness, I turn to words like Jim Paquette’s. My hope is that the elders of today pass on at least one story this Christmas season to the younger generations about our ancestors. My hope is for the continuity of our French Canadian and Métis heritage, for tradition, and yes, for innovation — innovation that respects a fundamental truth: we get nowhere without someone else rowing the canoe before us, for us, and with us.
Meilleurs vœux à tous pour le nouvel an!
My best wishes to all for the New Year!