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Wednesday, 18 July 2007


No Dial Tone:

New England's Franco-Americans are New 'Silent Minority'

[The following is a slightly amended version of an original-draft proposal for the Franco-American Political Project. Details regarding the Project follow the text. It was written in 1978].

By Richard Carreño
The Franco-American Political Project targeted New England's single largest minority.

Federal census figures, based on the latest, 1970 census, showed a Canadian-American population in New England of about 1 million. Reliable estimates, including those from the federal Bureau of Census, now placed the Franco-American population -- representing the overwhelming majority of the Canadian-American population -- at an increased 1.5 million.

Almost half of this population resides in the most populous of the five New England states, Massachussetts.

Among the most concentrated Franco-American communities are those in Maine, where about 15 percent of the state's school-aged children are from French-speaking homes, according to the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. In some areas along the Quebec border, that figure increases to more than 90 percent. In Lewiston, Maine's second largest city, children from francophone families represent 60 percent of total schools enrolment.

In New Hampshire, Franco-Americans are heavily concentrated in the Manchester area, where, in 1971, 31.7 percent of the city's population was identified as of French-Canadian ancestry.

Connecticut's population, about 6 percent of the state's total population, is largely located in the state's northeastern corner, nearby to Putnam and Killingly.

Despite their numbers and significant minority presence as foreign-language speakers, Franco-Americans in New England have historically maintained low profiles in politics, civil rights, and in minority affairs. Unlike other ethnic groups with equally deep roots in the region -- Irish-Americans and Italo-Americans are common examples -- the Franco-American community has never matched these other ethnic groups in wielding political clout and ballot-box success. The result? Franco-Americans have been long known as the 'silent minority.'

According to many analysts, the community's low political involvement evinces an ethnic character trait -- in this case, the lack of personal aggressiveness and ego, often associated with successful political ventures. The community, as a whole, is often described as self-centred, suspicious of 'alien' institutional power, and under-educated. These realities are attributed to a social system -- one transplanted from Quebec-- top heavy with Roman Catholic clerics as community leaders and spokesmen.

In addition, the community's fierce efforts to preserve cultural values has accounted for an ethnic introspection that allowed for little contact with the diluting influences of the larger society. This, despite an increasingly losing struggle to retain French as a chief defining characteristic.

The community's introversion can also be linked to 19th century migratory patterns, highlighted by geographical proximity to homelands in Quebec and New Brunswick. At least initially, many migrants to New England saw themselves as only transients. Because of proximity and easy border crossings -- again in the early stages of late 19th century migration -- many French-Canadians would frequently return 'home' to visit remaining family and renew ties through renewed contact with local affairs and politics.

Despite an increasingly stronger bond with their new residence -- made only stronger by births, deaths, and work -- close physical contact with Canada still worked to diminish an even greater political and societal commitment. What resulted was a tightly-wrought ethic enclave that -- because of its lack of assimilation -- became a ready target of prejudice and stereotyping.

French-Canadians weren't quick to become naturalised Americans. The average waiting time between immigration and seeking citizenship was 16.4 years, according to published studies. These reports also showed that almost 50 percent of French-Canadian immigrants in the 19th century returned to Canada, not to return to New England. (More on this later).

This migratory pattern infused New England's Franco community with a strong, ongoing bond to the 'patrie.' In more recent years, members of second and third generation families have come to more strongly identify with this country. Yet, even later generations of Franco-American are still known to experience a tug-of-war -- and a tug at the heartstrings -- between their values as French-Canadians and as French-Americans. (It's not uncommon, even today, for many Franco families to vacation in Quebec and New Brunswick).

Franco-Americans, then, are distinguishable from other 19th century and early 20th century immigrant groups to the United States. European immigrants, for one, were forced by necessity (cost, distance) to sever relations with native countries. Franco-Americans -- much like Puerto Ricans in the mid-20th century -- were not.

While other groups assimilated, losing native languages, all the while creating romanticised myths of their early years in America, Franco-Americans in large measure preserved French as a principal lingua franca, and transplanted their institutions (mainly religious, or quasi-religious as in the case of the Union St. Jean-Baptiste). An authentic heritage was maintained, albeit one crystallised in a Quebec of a remote past.

The Franco-American community in New England defied many of the assimilation stereotypes often associated with other ethnic groups of equal longevity in this country.

As noted previously, the Franco experience here shares -- because of proximity to homeland and a commitment to the retention of a native language -- a common ground with Puerto Rican immigration, the newest wave of 'foreign' settlement in New England. In turn, differences are notable, as well. The Franco's community long presence in New England has meant that class, economic, and social structures have scaffolded that community in ways that the Hispanic community has yet to achieve.

Still, the Franco-American community is not as unified as a casual observer might believe. General social policy (community organisation by and for the elderly) and issues regarding the degree of identification with American, French, and/or Quebec cultural values still are debated.

Dividing the discourse are those aligned or identified as the community's elder 'grandees,' its younger leaders, French cultural elitists, community-based populists, the politically conservative and the politically liberal, and, of course, Quebec chauvinists and activists grounded in New England ethnic identification.

In the fore, as well, is the direction of the moribund Union St. Jean-Baptiste, a prominent 'national' fraternal group that critics see as having too little fiery, activist zeal. Federally-funded bilingual education, linked to language retention and fashioned after the Latino model, also gets a frequent airing.

The preservation of French is related the well-being of the French-language press, historically the domain of Quebec nationalists, and those in intellectual and cultural vanguards.

Despite divisions, New England's Franco community is, by most accounts, brimming with a renewed ethnic consciousness and pride. This self-recognition was evident during the second annual Franco-American Conference, held in June 1979 in Providence, Rhode Island. More than 300 representatives of a dozen Franco-American community groups, education associations, and cultural organisations met to form a national coalition. That new group, the Franco-American Confederation, was organised to sponsor task forces to explore health issues, social services, opportunities for youth, equality for women, and the advocacy for bilingual education.

What external forces, if any, have activated the community's once dormant consciousness? Has Quebec involvement -- political, cultural, monetarily -- figured in manipulating, covertly or overtly, Franco public opinion?

Has Quebec's separatist movement, led by the Parti Quebec and Quebec Premier Rene Levesque, contributed to greater cultural awareness? Levesque has already made it clear that he wished for closer ties between his province and the five states, and he made that even plainer on a personal level, as well. Like many French-Canadians, Levesque spends his summer holidays in New England. (In his case, he vacations on Cape Cod in Massachusetts).

Ironically, the 'Free Quebec' movement has also had unintended consequences. Some disaffected Quebecois have said to spur new immigration to New England, bringing theirs and other financial capital and investment as a bonus.

Direct Quebec involvement in French-Canadian affairs in New England already has a precedent. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the provincial government organised a repatriation movement to encourage French-Canadians to return to their homeland. As noted before, the drive was not without success.

Lastly, has France -- echoes of General Charles de Gaulle's divisive 'Quebec Libre!' statement during the 1967 Montreal World's Fair ring in one's ears --played any role in the community's activism?

About the Franco-American Political Project
Whether known as New England's 'French-Canadians,' 'Franco-Americans,' or, more recently, as 'Quebecois,' or 'French Quebekkers,' this French-language community -- a vestige of French 17th and 18th century colonial power -- has always been an under-reported minority group. The Project was an early, ground-breaking attempt explore the inner-workings of the Franco community. The project sought funding from the National Endowment for Humanities and was a project of Quinebaug Valley Community College, Danielson, Connecticut.
For additional information and citations to further readings, contact the author at mailto:JuntoEzine@yahhoo.co.uk.