Over the past several years, I’ve been amazed at how much cultural and historical knowledge of the French experience in North America has been safeguarded and transmitted to a wider audience by a relatively small number of people. A very few local historians, re-enactors, entertainers, genealogists, activists, and lay scholars have done the yeoman’s labor of research, writing, speaking, events, and organization that have animated the French Canadian and Métis past for new generations.
While there are many scholars at work on the history of the French and Métis in North America, scholarly monographs and articles with their discursive writing and too often ideological perspectives, are generally inaccessible to most readers for one reason or another. This is not to diminish all such works, but to state simply that they are not always the best avenue for the transmission of cultural and historical information. What professional scholars are paid to do, the local historian often does for free, making use of an array of sources and their own labor to create more readable narratives for a wider audience. We owe them all a debt of gratitude for their service.
What this realization attests to more broadly is related to the unfortunate reality shared by many people who come to identify more strongly with their ancestry than they might have before. That reality is cultural illiteracy. Cultural illiteracy among French Canadians and Métis is rooted in many factors from the dominance of Anglo-American culture and historical narratives to the sublimation of indigenous ancestry and the loss of the French language among historically French-speaking people. I am speaking mainly of French-Canadians and Métis outside of Quebec, but that is not to say that the average modern Québécois/Québécoise is particularly well-grounded in the history and traditional culture of Québec.
How many people have I encountered in a few years who, upon initial forays into genealogy, became attached to a long-lost culture they came to know as their own? Their questions inevitably turn from ‘Who are my ancestors?’ to ‘How did my ancestors live?’ and so begins a search for signs of the culture their ancestors lived, perhaps silently passed down to their own generation without realizing it. And, so begins the search for knowledge and an attempt to reverse what has long been seen as a natural progression: the slow fading away for small European and Métis cultures in North America whose numbers or organization cannot sustain a vibrant cultural unity.
In a 2013 article on the number of Jews leaving Judaism, commentator Caroline Glick wrote that many people see the loss of Jewish identity in America as a “natural progression.” And indeed, such shifting away from culture and identity to something new is natural, but only if you were never had it to begin with. She wrote, “you cannot abandon what you never had in the first place.” The problem she identified as the source of weakening Jewish identity is a lack of basic Jewish literacy.
This trend can be seen among many peoples generally, owing to a widespread lack of historical knowledge. However, among the adherents of a small cultural group or subculture like French Canadians and Métis, this cultural illiteracy becomes a matter of long-term survival. How do you transmit that which you have no knowledge of? How does a retiree, suddenly immersed in ‘their culture’ expect to instill a love and pride of culture to children and grandchildren who have never heard of it? How many generations can pass before a treasure is irretrievably lost?
I am not writing here to create a false sense of alarm, or to overplay the sense of loss. In fact I see many reasons to hope for the future of French Canadian and Métis cultures. There is a renewed interest in many quarters of cultural identification in general. There are many entry points to our cultures: music, storytelling, religion, history, etc. It’s not all dependent on taking up genealogy anymore.
But the long-term health of the French cultures of North America depends on increasing our internal cultural and historical literacy. I would assert that this should include at least a basic understanding of the following:
- The exploration and foundation of Quebec and the rest of New France
- The fur trade and it’s implications for the cultural development of the French in the interior of the continent (such as the Great Lakes region)
- The displacement of the Acadians
- An awareness of the manifold French riverine and farming communities stretching from Louisiana to the North Dakota, from Oregon to Maine and the Gaspé
- The victories of the British and Americans in North America and the implications for the French here
- The political uprisings of the Patriote Rebellions and the Métis under Louis Riel and the rise of Québécois nationalism
- Mass immigration in the 19th century out of Quebec to New England and the Midwest
- A knowledge of important French Canadian and Métis writers, artists, and filmmakers
- The development of Franco-Ontarian identity
- The Révolution tranquille (Quiet Revolution) in Quebec and modern Québécois identity and politics
- The French language
This list is not exhaustive. But it serves to help consider more deeply why it is important to move beyond just “voyageurs and ribbon farms” in fostering a modern sense of French-Canadian or Métis identity. I am a strong proponent of tradition and of using our history to understand our present. However, pride in the achievements of our ancestors is, alone, not enough to sustain a culture. If it is not enough to keep young Jews Jewish, a great storied culture of such antiquity, how can we expect young, completely assimilated Americans (or Canadians) to take an interest in a 400 year legacy that represents to many nothing but language or conflict?
Educators, family members, community leaders (museum directors, community center staff, librarians, etc), and many others have the vantage point from which to understand the needs of their particular communities and also to work with others to provide programming they may not have envisioned to begin with. Now more than ever it is important for community members to bring their ideas forward in the hope that the continuity of our French North American cultures will be a given in generations to come.