Quebec Studies

Franco-American Studies in the Footsteps of Robert G. LeBlanc

Quebec Studies (2002), 33, (1), 9–14.

Abstract

9 Franco-American Studies in the Footsteps of Robert G. LeBlanc Susan Pinette University of Maine-Orono Franco-Americans constitute ten to twenty-five percent of New England state populations. 1 Composed of Acadian settlements in northern Maine that date back to the eighteenth century and communities of French Canadians, most of whom immigrated from Quebec and the Maritimes in the late nine­ teenth century Franco-Americans represent many New England states' largest ethnic minority.2 Yet this Franco-American community is often re­ ferred to as the "silent minority." Dyke Hendrickson calls his collection of oral histories Quiet Presence and Joan H. Rollins includes an article on FrancoAmericans in her book Hidden Minorities.3 Though a substantial presence, the "French fact" of New England is often overlooked and unheard. The sources of this silence lie in a number of places: in the community itself, in the long history of discrimination against the French in New Eng­ land, and in the standard narrative of American identity. Many blame the Franco-Americans themselves, citing their over-reliance on French Canada and on the Catholic Church to preserve their cultural heritage. Unlike other nineteenth-century immigrants, Franco-Americans did not travel far, main­ taining close ties to friends, family, and cultural institutions across the bor­ der. Their proximity to Canada discouraged early attempts to establish an entirely United States-based ethnic identity. Others find the "quiet presence" to be the result of a silencing. They trace deep-seated bias against the Catholic French back to the earliest conceptualizations of New England, through the anti-catholic protests of the Know-Nothing party and the KKK at the turn of the century, to the English-only laws that were in place in Maine until 1969.4 Still others argue that it is the prevailing narrative of nine­ teenth-century immigration in American history that obscures the FrancoAmerican experience. In the dominant American imaginary, English settlers established the leading characteristics of American culture. American cul­ ture is predominantly English culture; ethnic difference within that culture is created only with nineteenth-century European immigrations.5 The para­ digm for these immigrations is Ellis Island, which symbolizes the pas­ sageway from the "Old World" to the "New." Distinct from these European immigrants, Franco-Americans traveled overland to the United States after hundreds of years in Canada. Theirs is not a tale that can be articulated through the Ellis Island metaphor and in this dominant narrative of eth­ nicity, Franco-Americans have no place. Whatever its cause, this silence has had profound effects on the cre­ ation of Franco-American Studies programs at universities in the United States. Whereas thriving Irish-American, Jewish-American, and ItalianAmerican studies programs exist throughout the United States and Canada, Franco-American Studies is a relatively undeveloped field. This silence has not only hampered institutional development but also deprived us of a Québec Studies, Volume 33, Spring/Summer 2002

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Pinette, Susan