By James LaForest
June 24 is the Feast of St. Jean-Baptiste — John the Baptist in English. It is the national holiday of Québec and has been celebrated historically by French-Canadians across North America. In recent decades however those celebrations have become nearly invisible, but in the early 20th century stretching back to 1606, this day has been celebrated by the descendants of the French who formed a new nation in North America.
Beginning in 2013, in Michigan, I helped to found the first French-Canadian Heritage Day (later week) in the Great Lakes state. A small ad-hoc committee was formed to help publicize and popularize the idea. One of the first decisions the committee made was to choose a day for our Heritage Day. Two ideas were put forth. The first was to have the day in the Fall, to frame it as a way for schools, particularly in areas with historic French-Canadian populations, to develop programming aimed at highlighting this important aspect of Michigan’s history. The second idea was to have it on St. Jean-Baptiste day, in alignment with Quebec’s national holiday and the past practice of French-Canadian immigrants throughout the country.
The second idea was popular but there were concerns expressed that it was potentially too political or too connected to Catholicism. For many people of French-Canadian heritage, the celebration of Fête St. Jean-Baptiste was a total unknown – it was something they had never experienced or known about. It had been that long since it was an important holiday. With that in mind, both the religious and political concerns were taken seriously and ultimately the first idea won out. Michigan’s first French-Canadian Heritage Day was October 4, 2013. A few small events were held around the state and it proved very popular on social media. The Heritage Day became, the next year, Heritage Week and for the next 5 years it was celebrated with a legislative resolution and events in several Michigan towns and cities.
As proud as I have been of the achievement of securing legislative and popular support for French Canadian Heritage Week in Michigan, and for helping people with similar communal projects in other ways, I have realized that there has been diminishing interest in it. Now, with the limitations on public gatherings and smaller organizational budgets, the whole project seems ripe for reinvention. So, I would like to announce that I will not be proceeding with any organizational activities to promote an autumn French Canadian Heritage Day or Week in Michigan in 2020.
As I reflect on the reasons why this heritage celebration came about, I see more clearly now that in some ways it was a missed opportunity. Educationally, the Heritage Day was little utilized. A few French language teachers reported making use of the opportunity in their class activities. Those were wonderful to hear about. In terms of pride in French Canadian heritage and identity, I believe it has been a success, but connecting it to a wider community of celebrants seems in retrospect like it would have been the better long-term approach.
Therefore, I would like to further announce that henceforth, whatever efforts I undertake will be aimed at promoting French-Canadian pride, heritage and identity through Fête St. Jean on June 24. I invite all those who previously engaged with programming around French-Canadian Heritage Day in Michigan to join with me in refocusing attention on this important day in our history. It is a set day, one which does not need special attention from political bodies, and it is built into our cultural experience.
Now more than ever, we need to be aware and respectful of our past, as the pressure to erase communal pride in European heritage is mounting. It is important to remain connected to older ways of thinking and being that are respectful of all people, while underscoring our unique heritage in North America. Though we are no longer bound together by a fervent nationalism or the Catholic faith, our shared, ancestral past is a unity that has persisted beyond the assimilation of the 20th century. We now face political upheavals which would tear down our own monuments and sow division where we were long capable of friendship. Do not run from our heritage, but celebrate it. Tell our story honestly and in so doing bring honor to our ancestors who helped forge two great nations.
Bonne Fête St. Jean to all!