French-Canadian folklore is a treasure trove of stories, morality tales, humor, and horror that has been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Some of the stories are imports from Europe, some are hybrids of stories that were similar to those found among the First Nations/Native American cultures. Still others were ‘born and bred’ in New France, on the voyageur routes of the fur trade, and in the French Canadian settlements across the New World.
In the Great Lakes region this is as true as it is throughout the other French-speaking areas of North America. The oral tradition of the French Canadians and Métis of the Great Lakes region has left a vast repertoire of songs and stories that are slowly being uncovered and preserved. Forward-thinking individuals acted as early at the 19th century to record this part of our patrimony for the benefit of future generations.
One such person was Marie Caroline Watson Hamlin, a Detroit-area native born in the 1850s. Watson-Hamlin’s family origins are among the earliest Detroit families. With the benefit of a tight-knit family, many stories were passed down to her. In the 1870s, she published the collection Legends of le Detroit which continues to be used today. It is found in the libraries of French Canadians throughout the region, as well as in public libraries and other collections.
In 1972, Father Germain Lemieux, S. J. founded the Centre franco-ontarien de folklore (Center for Franco-Ontarian Folklore) at the University of Sudbury. Subsequently, scholar Marcel Beneteau has worked to ensure that our patrimony, in the form of oral tradition, is not lost to time. The mission of this organization is to preserve and enhance the folk traditions of French-speaking people in the region, something relevant to French Canadians and Métis on both sides of the border.
One of the most vibrant examples of French-Canadian folklore in the public eye today is the Marche du Nain Rouge, held every Spring in Detroit. Described as a new/old tradition, the people of Detroit come together in early Spring to banish evil (in the form of a nasty sprite or troll) from their city. This is an example of a contemporary community tradition based on a French-Canadian tale which originated in Detroit.
In LaFontaine (Tiny), Ontario, the Festival de loup draws on a local telling of the story of the loup garou for a community-wide festival that is a highlight of the area’s Summer cultural offerings. It is both a way to transmit and celebrate French in Ontario, and a way to transmit cultural knowledge from one generation to another.
The Nain Rouge, the Flying Canoe, and le Loup Garou are among hundreds of tales in the French Canadian library. They have been told and retold countless times and continue to be told in many ways down to the present day.
Genot Picor, storyteller