|Franco groups celebrate heritage across region |
By VICTORIA GUAY
Far from languishing in dry dock, Franco-American culture is alive and well in northern New England and ready to set sail on a new wave of interest.
Yvonne Cyr-Bresnahan, executive director of the Franco-American Centre in Manchester, said interest in learning the French language and in tracing French-Canadian familial roots has never been stronger.
"More and more people are interested in leading bicultural lives," Bresnahan said, linking it with the global economy.
"Having the ability to speak a second or third language looks impressive on a resume and allows people to reach for a higher standard of living," Bresnahan said, noting that a full 20 percent of New Hampshire’s population still speaks French.
She said a new wave of professionals from Quebec, many in the high-tech or medical industries, are coming to New Hampshire to find work that is unavailable or pays less in their country.
This new wave of professionals, coupled with an increase in the number of refugees from French-speaking countries in Africa and other places, means non-Francophones in the area want to learn French in order to do business with these new residents.
At the Centre, Bresnahan she’s seen an increase in both young and old wanting to learn French. In fact, over the last few years, the Centre has increased its course offerings from three to eight, just to accommodate the extra demand.
Bresnahan said this trend is opposite to what happened at the turn of century, when thousands of French Canadians emigrated to the United States to find work. Most went to work in the textile mills, while others came down to practice various professions and crafts.
"Those French-Canadians quickly assimilated," Bresnahan said. "Especially the men and women who went out into the working world. Those who stayed at home, such as mothers, grandmothers and grandfathers, would retain the language and not assimilate as quickly."
Now, Bresnahan said she’s seeing professionals moving here from Quebec who are enrolling their children in French classes so they will retain the language. Other Franco-Americans, who have been in New England for at least two to three generations, are seeking to relearn or learn from scratch the language of their ancestors.
"I think there is a renewed pride in being bilingual and multicultural," Bresnahan said. "Once again the importance of family and cultural tradition is remerging, not only amongst Franco-Americans, but amongst other ethnic groups as well."
Bresnahan said the Franco-American Centre in Manchester not only strives to keep the French language alive, but to promote the history and cultural traditions of the Franco-Americans.
The Centre’s biggest annual event is the feast honoring St. Jean Baptiste, a provincewide holiday in Quebec celebrated on June 24.
Priscilla Gagnon of Biddeford, Maine, head organizer of the La Kermesse Festival, said the French-Canadian culture is still strong throughout Maine, especially in places like Biddeford and the twin mill cities of Lewiston-Auburn.
The La Kermesse festival in Biddeford, which celebrates French-Canadian and other cultures, was begun in 1982 and it was modeled after the annual French festival in Lewiston.
This year’s La Kermesse Festival will be held June 25 through the 27, also around the time of the Quebecois holiday honoring St. Jean Baptiste.
Gagnon said events like La Kermesse keep the culture strong.
"For a while (over 20 years ago), there seemed to be a disinterest in learning the language and a general apathy toward the Franco-American culture," Gagnon said. "Since the festival started, however, there has been more of an interest in the younger generations."
Gagnon said it also has to do with a shift in the way Americans view themselves.
"The younger generations are more open and accepting of other cultures," Gagnon said. "People want to hold onto their heritage because it no longer carries the stigma it once carried."
Gagnon said that her parents could not aspire to certain careers because those with French heritage were not considered as intelligent as other people.
"In this area, there was a time (the 1920s) when if a person were a French-Canadian, they were discriminated against."
Gagnon, now a senior citizen, said that attitude seemed to trickle down to her generation. During the 1950s, she applied to be a French teacher at a local school and was turned down in favor of a man who could not speak French very well.
"It was the ’50s, the age of McCarthyism and segregation. Everyone was wanted to be Americanized, everyone was made to feel ashamed of who they were."
But the ’60s brought the Civil Rights movement and an end to McCarthyism.
Gagnon said that while the main thrust of the La Kermesse Festival is to celebrate French-Canadian culture, Biddeford’s other ethnic and cultural groups are celebrated as well.
At this year’s festival, Gagnon said, there will be representation from those of Latino, Scottish, German, Polish and Greek descent.
Gagnon said the man who came up with the idea, Joseph Plamondin, never lived to see the first festival.
"He had been ill for a long time, but he felt getting the festival started was so important because of the substantial French-Canadian community here," Gagnon said.
"It was Joseph’s dream to not only celebrate Franco-American culture, but to celebrate other cultures as well," Gagnon said.
The first festival was a huge success, with several thousand attending, Gagnon said. The event kept growing before leveling off over the last few years. Gagnon said that as many at 16,000 people a day attend the three-day event.
Gagnon said that the festival focuses on music, food and entertainment, all hallmarks for any culture.
Gagnon said along with speaking the French language, holding onto traditional French-Canadian stories, songs and dances is crucial to retaining the culture. Food is also a very important tradition — perhaps the most.
"The types of food we still prepare in our family — meat pies, poutine, creton — are foods that my grandmother used to make," Gagnon said. "There was always food when we gathered together for a holiday or a family occasions. I remember that when I was young, we would get together with family at least once a week and share a big meal."
Gagnon said that often, especially amongst the first-generation Franco-Americans, food was the only luxury they could afford, so they shared it with family and friends.
She said singing and storytelling were also a big part of family get-togethers.
"Wherever we were, there was always someone who could play the piano while the rest of us would sing. We weren’t good enough to make it on the ‘Idol’ show, but we could carry a tune."
She that many of the songs cannot be translated exactly and end up making no sense when sung in English.
Gagnon described some of her favorite traditional French-Canadian dishes. Poutine are french fries smothered in gravy and cheese curd. Creton is a type of pork pate. Meat pie is usually made from seasoned ground pork, with other ingredients added such as potatoes or onions, baked in a pie shell. Salmon pie is another Franco-American favorite.
Despite the success of La Kermesse, some think Franco-American culture is more dominant in places like Manchester.
Manchester a hub
Diane Thibeault, a spokesperson for the American-Canadian Genealogical Society in Manchester, said that she moved to Manchester from Biddeford about five years ago.
"In my view, interest in French-Canadian culture is more pronounced here in Manchester than in Biddeford," Thibeault said. "In Manchester, you can still go into stores and restaurants and still hear French being spoken."
At the genealogical society, Thibeault has noticed an increase in the number of people tracing their roots.
"It’s mostly middle-aged people, because their kids are grown and they have the time," Thibeault said. "But there are a few younger ones from time to time."
Thibeault said a good way to start researching your family history is to start collecting or find the relative who collects documents, pictures and stories.
"All my cousins, aunts and uncles know I’m the family historian, so they bring their old photos and documents to me," Thibeault said. "The information gathered from these sources is invaluable."
Thibeault also agrees that the retaining the language is the key to retaining culture.
"I’m a second-generation Franco-American. I speak French, my kids do not," Thibeault said. "To this day, I regret not teaching them."
But, Thibeault said, losing a home language after the second generation is a common thread among many who live the United States, not just French-Canadians.
"It’s written about in all the sociology books," Thibeault said. "Learning how to speak the new country’s language and becoming immersed in its culture just makes things easier, especially in terms of obtaining employment and education.
"The new country’s language becomes the predominant one," Thibeault said.
That’s how it happened in Laconia, according to genealogist Frank Binette.
Binette has been tracing the genealogy of local Francophone families for over three decades.
Binette said one of the first of many influxes of French Canadians to the United States occurred when young men from Quebec came to fight in the Civil War.
After the war, Binnette said, instead of returning an economically-depressed and mostly rural Quebec, many French-Canadians accompanied American war buddies back to their home towns.
"When you fight in a war, you can become closer than brothers," Binette said. "That’s what happened, so many young French Canadians stayed here."
These men found work in the mills of small towns, such as the Belknap, Belmont and Franklin mills.
"But while they lived and worked here, they would take the train back up to Montreal to get their girlfriends or wives," Binette said.
When they heard about how much money could be made, more families started to move south.
"Then the mill owners discovered something — the French Canadians were good workers," Binette said. "They were used to 16-hour days on the farm, now they only had to work 12 hours a day."
As the larger mills — as in the Amoskeag Mill complex in Manchester and mills of Lewiston-Auburn were being developed, the owners decided to recruit French-Canadians.
The Amoskeag complex alone had 25 mills and 16,000 workers, Binette said.
The recruiters went up into Canada, gave families money to move and told them to turn up at a certain mill in two weeks time.
As people came to work in the mills, many other French-Canadians, French-Canadians skilled in crafts or trades such as baking, dressmaking, and so on started to come to New England.
Binette said his own father came to New Hampshire and became a milkman for H.B. Hood.
"He could speak English and French and knew how to handle horses," Binette said, noting that in those days, milk deliveries were still done with horse and cart.
Binette said French-Canadian culture in New England was at its peak at the turn of century and into the early 20th century. Like many other ethnic groups, French-Canadians tended to stay in the same communities. There once was a section of Manchester called "little Canada," Binette said. Usually, French-Canadian men would marry French-Canadian women, which helped to preserve the language and the culture.
That all started to change as the Canadians started to assimilate.
By the time World War II came around, many second- and third-generation French-Canadians were marrying women of backgrounds other than their own. This usually meant that French was no longer spoken at home and many French-Canadian customs became blended with other customs or fell by the wayside.
Binette said the French-Canadian culture in New Hampshire has been fading for a long time, but recently he’s seen an increase in the number of people interested in tracking their past.
Roger Letendre, president of Club Richelieu in Rochester also feels the French-Canadian culture is still alive and well among those of the older generation, but not as strong in the younger.
"Though we don’t have too many younger members, I don’t think the language is dying," Letendre said. "It’s still being taught in area schools, and we sponsor a French-speaking competition each year for area high school students."
Club Richelieu is an international organization dedicated to promoting the French language. Clubs exist in every country where French is spoken, whether it is the predominant language or not.
Meetings, mostly in French, occur twice a month and include an educational or entertaining presentation in French.
Letendre added that many of the state’s Catholic churches still perform some masses in French.
Letendre said the best way to preserve French culture is to preserve the language. With more of an emphasis on bilingualism, more people are beginning to show renewed interest in the languages their parents and grandparents spoke.
Letendre said that while his father was French-Canadian, his mother was English, so not much French was spoken at home.
"I didn’t speak much as a kid, except with my grandparents and in Catholic school," Letendre said. "Then I got out of practice. When I joined Club Richelieu, it all came back to me."
Victoria Guay can be reached at vguay@... or at 524-3800, Ext. 5937.