Thursday, January 15, 2015

"French-Canadian Invasion!": What if 'The McLaughlin Group' Existed in the 1890s?

In the 1880-1900 period hundreds of thousands of French-speakers from Canada flooded into the Northeastern USA. They were considered by the mainstream American press to be the “problematic” cross-border immigrants of their day.

A conspiracy theory, repeatedly expressed in media of the day, claimed that the Québec Catholic hierarchy had hatched a plot to seize New England and annex it to a revived New France which was to include Québec, New England, and parts of Ontario, New York and the Maritime Provinces of Canada.

What if they had the news media then that they had today? This parody of a popular American news talk show demonstrates the tenor of the dialogue around these immigrants in this period.

For more information:
“Fears of Franco-American Conspiracy: Immigration and Paranoia”

“19th c. Québec Messianism and Franco-Americans”

“The French-Canadian 'Alien In Our Midst': Nativism vs. Nationality in 20th c. America”

“Assimilation Is No Accident: 19th c. Yankee Attitudes Toward Franco-Americans”

Monday, December 29, 2014

Video Presentation: The Cabot Mill and Brunswick, Maine's Franco-Americans

This is a video of a presentation I delivered in April 2014 through the auspices of the Pejepscot Historical Society of Brunswick, Maine. It details the development of the Franco-American community in that town and the history of the textile mill that began to bring French-Canadians to Brunswick in the mid 19th century.

Among other topics I discuss:
  • Reasons for the exodus from rural Québec
  • Chain migration from L'Islet, QC to Brunswick
  • Conditions in the company-owned housing
  • The background of the Boston Brahmin mill owners
  • The steps the Franco-Americans took to improve their lot in adverse conditions
This talk covers some of the research I have written about before (for example here and here) but includes research and graphics that I have never before published.

I hope you have time to sit back and enjoy this presentation.

Monday, April 22, 2013

1930s Ethnic Study: Franco-Americans Break Sociological Mold

Recently, I examined select results from a 2012 sociological study of Maine Franco-Americans. This research bears comparison with a study conducted in the 1930s that included not only Franco-Americans but other ethnic groups as well.

Published as The Social Systems of American Ethnic Groups, by W. Lloyd Warner and Leo Srole (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945; parenthetical page numbers below refer to this book), this study investigated a New England mill town the authors called “Yankee City.” Successive waves of immigration had brought the Irish, French-Canadians, Jews, Italians, Armenians, Greeks, Poles, and Russians to the town.

In terms of population, the Irish and French-Canadian groups dwarf the others. With the exception of the Irish, the French-Canadians had more than twice the headcount of any of the other groups studied (28).

The modern reader notices that the book refers to Yankees, i.e. Anglo-Saxon Protestants, as “native Americans.” Of course, this term has a very different meaning in today’s identity-political discourse. For the purposes of the study, the world of Yankee City divides into “regular Americans,” i.e. Yankees, and others who are called “ethnics.”

French-Canadians began to arrive in Yankee City in the 1880s, the second oldest group among the “ethnics.” The thesis of the study is that the longer a group’s sojourn in the USA, the more it becomes assimilated to “regular American” ways and the higher its economic and social status (2). The Franco-Americans in town contradict this hypothesis.

The researchers quantified the residential, occupational, and social status of the various ethnic groups. Despite their relatively long tenancy in the town, the Franco-Americans ranked fifth among the eight ethnic groups in terms of the status of the neighborhoods in which they tended to live (40).

With respect to home ownership, the Franco-Americans ranked dead last as compared with the other groups. Only 25.9 percent of the Franco-American group owned a home, as opposed to 63.4 percent of the Jewish population and 55.5 percent of the Russians (80).

With respect to occupational status, the Franco-American group ranked lower than all of the others with the exception of the Poles and the Russians, the latter groups having arrived in Yankee City only about 10 to 20 years before the study was conducted (60).
Data from an Ethnic Study of "Yankee City"
Source: Warner and Srole, 60
In terms of a general measure of class status, which takes into account social connections among other measures, the Franco-American group appears somewhere in the middle. They are ahead of the more recently arrived Poles, Russians, and Greeks but of lower status than the Irish, Jews and Armenians (70).

The authors propose an elaborate theory regarding the social status associated with physical characteristics (such as skin color and facial features), religion, and language (284-296).

Their theory holds that the closer an ethnic or racial group approximates to the physical, religious, and linguistic norm of the “regular Americans,” the lower the socio-economic barriers and the greater the ease with which that group assimilates to the Yankee way of life.

Fascinatingly, the authors recognize that “the Catholic French,” presumably the “French-Canadians” of the study, are "out of place" within their scheme (289). The authors are indeed correct. The study shows that the Franco-American in Yankee City did not occupy the slot in the ethno-racial caste system that the authors' model predicted.

I assume that the intelligence and capacities of the Franco-American group fall within the same range as those of any other group of human beings. How, then, do the authors account for the relatively low status of the Franco-Americans given the length of their tenancy in Yankee City?

The authors find one possible explanation in the traditional family system of Québec. In this system, the father of the family determined the station in life of his children. The family rather than the individual was the unit of measure as regards social status. Successful family members transfer their success to the family as a whole (100-101).

Young adult children were not self-determined. They did not make their own career decisions based on self-perceived talents or their own desires. Their lot depended on their position in the family as perceived by their parents, especially the family’s patriarch. I don’t need to explain how the assumptions of this system differ from those that favor the self-made man or the rugged individualist of “regular American” lore. 

There is another factor, not mentioned by the authors, retarding the Franco-American’s assimilation and relative socio-economic status: the history of domination of the French North American groups by Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

Other groups in Yankee City, such as the Armenians, Greeks, and Jews, were also under foreign domination for centuries. However, with the exception of the Irish, none of these groups were under the domination of an Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture, and none of them under a North American culture of this type before their arrival in the USA.

I contend that the Canadien immigrants of this period saw only minor differences between les anglais of Canada and les anglais of the USA. In both countries, their elites had an express ideology of determined resistance to assimilation by the Anglo-Saxons.

Even a desire to rise in the Yankees' social order implies a degree of assimilation to their worldview, a view that many Canadiens were taught was poisonous and destructive to faith and morals. The authors are measuring the degree of social cohesion with an Anglo-Saxon group, the very type against which the “Catholic French” had a long history of bitter conflict and separatist resistance.

The study looks at the “ethnics” through the lens of Yankee values. Its measures of success include the house on the hill, a white-collar job, and membership in the golf club. “Ethnics” also have their own measures of success, their own values and priorities.

The authors recognize that these values may interact in a complex way with those of the dominant culture (100). The complexity created by competing value systems may impede both the immigrants' acceptance of the dominant culture and the latter's acceptance of them.

For instance, the researchers found that the index of residential status for the Franco-American group was lower than expected because a disproportionate number of them resided in the poorest section of town. This is the section where the group began to form a cluster shortly after their arrival in Yankee City.

Perhaps some families stayed in the poorer section because they wished to remain where they had raised their families, where they were surrounded by friends of their own cultural group. Maybe they wished to be near their church where it was easy to “make a visit” or attend daily Mass. Maybe such considerations were more important to them than “moving up” on the Yankee social scale.

The study points to the important and overlooked fact that the French North American groups fit poorly into the categories of American ethno-racial identity-politics. We are not what are now called people of color nor are we “regular Americans” per the standards of the 1930s. Although many of us have Native ancestry we’re not First Nations either. We landed at neither Plymouth Rock nor Ellis Island.

We're unique in that our cultures are North American, and yet predate the existence of the United States and of today’s Canada. Our peoples occupied parts of what is now the USA before they were parts of the USA. And our peoples were, for the most part, conquered by the English and Americans before the latter imagined themselves as distinct from the former.

There is no pigeonhole for us in the accepted racial and ethnic narratives and these narratives are central to one’s place in the American story. In a future post, I intend to explore how this anomalous position contributes to our general invisibility.

Monday, April 8, 2013

2012 Study of Maine Franco-Americans Sheds Light On The Names We Call Ourselves

The descendants of Nouvelle-France have been known by many names. In a recent post I discussed in particular the significance of the various appellations applied to the descendants of the former French colony of Canada: Canadien, Canadien-français, and Québécois.

A new study of Maine's Franco-Americans sheds light on these labels and the other names we call ourselves.

The study was conducted by polling firm Command Research and commissioned by the Centre Franco-Américain at the University of Maine at Orono under the auspices of the Maine state legislature's Franco-American Task Force.

Administered in July and August of 2012, the phone-based survey included 600 respondents who self-identify as Franco-American. An initial analysis of the data appears in the paper Contemporary Attitudes of Maine’s Franco-Americans, co-authored by Jacob Albert, Tony Brinkley, Yvon Labbé and Christian Potholm.

Respondents were asked, “Into which subgroup of the Franco-American background or heritage would you put yourself?”  The question yielded the following percentages of respondents:

French Canadian/Canadian/Franco
Other (metropole French, etc.)
Don’t Know
About one-half of respondents identified with the English equivalents of the designations Canadien, Canadien-français, or Franco-Américain. Nearly one quarter did not know. This leaves slightly more than one-quarter divided among the three responses, “Acadian,” “Québécois,” or some combination of labels.

The researchers found that the Québécois subgroup, 60 of the 600 respondents, differed from the others in a number of ways. 
  • 80% of the self-identified Québécois subgroup claimed that speaking the French language was “very important” to their “sense of being a Franco-American” compared with about 40% of the Acadian or French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroups
  • 68% of this subgroup claimed fluency in French as opposed to no more than 38% of any of the other subgroups
  • 86% of them who also identified as Catholic reported that they believed “most or virtually all Catholic Church doctrine” as compared with 59% of the French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroup, 56% of the Acadian subgroup, and 13% of those who replied “don’t know” to the question
  • 52% of them were college graduates as compared with 20% of the Acadian and 22% of the French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroups
  • 27% of them claimed to own a large company as opposed to no more than 2% of the Acadian and French Canadian/Canadian/Franco subgroups
  • Only 2% of the Québécois group lacked health insurance compared to 8% of the French Canadian/Canadian/Franco group, 22% of the Acadian group, and 23% of those who identified with a combination of labels 
Does the Québécois subgroup represent relatively recent arrivals in Maine, people who came to the States from Québec after the Quiet Revolution changed the national designation there from Canadien-français to Québécois?

I doubt it. The strong identification with Catholicism is not typical of post-sixties Québec. Laïcisation was a chief feature of the Quiet Revolution and forms no small part of the ruling Parti Québécois's program today. My experience suggests that today’s Québec may be the most secularized region in North America.

However, there's a missing data point which is the percentage of the Québécois subgroup that also identified as Catholic. The researchers report that 62 percent of survey respondents were Catholics, but we do not know how many among this cohort also identified as Québécois. My conclusions are tentative but for now it appears that the element in this group that is Catholic has a strong identification with that faith. 

For now, it appears that a subgroup in Maine that identifies as Québécois, most likely the children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren of yesterday's Canadien-français, is more Francophone, more staunchly Catholic, more educated, and wealthier than other Franco-Americans.

These characteristics fit the profile of a Franco elite of past generations, the group that led the efforts toward la survivance in New England in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Their identification with the term Québécois suggests a desire to maintain a connection to Québec – today’s Québec. At the same time, this group also appears to hold attitudes associated with la survivance ideology of the pre-Quiet Revolution period, with its emphasis on both Francophonie and Catholicism as cornerstones of national identity.

Identifying as Québécois, in contrast to the older terms French-Canadian or Franco-American, suggests a consciousness of the living tradition of Québec and the evolving features of this national group. Awareness of the continuing story North of the border correlates with the concerns of a more educated cohort.

I have questioned whether it is possible to be a “Québécois des Etats-Unis.” This research suggests that such an identification is a reality for a minority of relatively affluent and educated Maine Franco-Americans. 

Further, in a previous post I identified risk aversion, external authorization, and reticence to put oneself forward as dispositions typical of Franco-Americans. I suggested that a sociological study might confirm these preferences.

Consider the responses to the following question from the recent study:
“At work or in your community, if you are upset at an issue or situation, what are you most likely to do about it?”

Remain silent about it
Speak about it within my family
Work with others to change it/
join a group
Donate money to groups
interested in it
Support candidates
who agree with me
Don’t know
While the survey question did not use the express terms of my previous post, I believe that the present research favors my suggestions. Those who report ambivalence (“Don’t know”) or passivity (“Remain silent,” “Speak within my family”) when faced with an upsetting issue at work or in the community comprise 83.7 percent of respondents.

Only about one-sixth of respondents assume an active role in such situations. Eight percent act directly while about the same percentage take indirect action through supporting candidates or donating money.

It would be interesting to see poll results on this question for the American population at large.

The authors of the study state that their analysis is preliminary and that more papers are forthcoming. For more information on the study or to obtain a copy of the first paper in this series contact the Centre Franco-Américain.

Monday, April 1, 2013

19th c. Québec Messianism and Franco-Americans

In previous posts I have discussed the backlash in the 1880s and 1890s against the rapidly growing numbers of Francophone, Catholic immigrants in the Northeastern USA. Major newspapers such as the New York Times waxed Francophobic editorializing not once but repeatedly about an alleged “danger facing New England.”

The gist of these articles was that the Franco-Americans were the advance guard of an invasion of New England planned in the war rooms of the Québec Roman Catholic hierarchy. This supposed plot involved flooding the neighboring states with immigrants, gaining political control, and then annexing these states to a new, independent country called New France.

An 1892 New York Times editorial even alleged that some such plot was the aim of the so-called “secret society” to which “every adult French-Canadian” was said to belong.

In an earlier post I dismissed this plot and associated claims as paranoiac fantasy. Let’s check again. Was there any such plot?

In fact, there was a messianic strain in Québec ideology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was one tenet of a so-called ultramontane faction among the Québec elite.

Québec ultramontane messianism posited that the “French race” in North America had a mission ordained by divine Providence to be a civilizing, Catholic bulwark on the continent. The French North Americans, it was imagined, would continue the missionary work of France prior to the Revolution of 1789. 

In his study Franco-Americans of New England: Dreams and Realities (Sillery, QC: Editions du Septentrion, 2004), Yves Roby cites examples of this messianic rhetoric as it applied to the Franco-American influx. For example New Bedford, Massachusetts curé Fr. George Payer asked:

“Before the Conquest…in what place were devised the most fantastic schemes to annihilate us? Whence came those cruel bands who…relentlessly set to pillaging and profaning our churches and our Catholic crosses?” From New England. Today where do we find the French-Canadians? “In the land of the very people whose forefathers sought to annihilate us, and we now live there with our priests, our friars and our nuns, erecting churches, founding schools, while ever remaining Canadiens and Catholics.” (45)
Other voices were more aggressive. Roby finds that the “vocabulary employed” by the messianic ideologues “expresses…the concepts of conquest and reconquest” of New England. Said one of them, “We are in the process of restoring to the former New France the immense domain seized by our forefathers, then dedicated by them to the church.” (49)

However, Roby concludes that the majority of the Franco-American elite did not share these views. This majority favored the more modest goal of cultural survival in their new milieu. Writes Roby, "[they] envisaged, quite simply, a separate future in the American Republic, with the survival of the distinctive elements of French-Canadian nationality.” (50f)

This aim represents the transplantation onto American soil of the resistance to Anglo-Saxon assimilation that had been the posture of French Canada since 1763.

Understandably, the talk of reconquest on the part of the immoderate few gave rise to legitimate concerns in Yankeedom. A little investigation on the part of American alarmists, however, would have revealed that the ultramontanes offered no coherent program with respect to the Franco-Americans. Their views were confused if not self-contradictory.

At first the ultramontanes staunchly opposed the emigration of Québec’s rural poor and roundly condemned the emigrants. Then some argued for repatriation of the Franco-Americans either in the Québec hinterlands or in Manitoba, while other voices began to speak of their Providential mission across the border. 

Both the vocal opposition to emigration and the repatriation schemes contradict the notion of a premeditated conspiracy to conquer New England. If there had been such a scheme one would expect the ultramontanes to have been united in encouraging emigration and discouraging repatriation. 

Further, the New York Times and other American commentators were mistaken in assuming that ultramontanism was the only thread in the fabric of Québec nationalism. There was also a liberal faction that had developed from the Patriote strain in early 19th c. Québec ideology.

Liberal institutions such as the Institut Canadien based in Montréal created a forum for free thought and free speech. Its library contained works by Voltaire, Montesquieu, Diderot and Lamartine, giving an indication as to its ideological pedigree. This group flirted with the idea of annexation to the USA rather than annexation of a part of it.

The Institut resisted the ultramontane bishop Bourget's attempts to censor its library. It also challenged his refusal to grant a Christian burial to a member who had died unrepentant. The Institut closed its library in 1880 but its spirit lived on.

Even within the ultramontane party there were discernible factions. Archbishop Taschereau of Québec, the ranking hierarch in the Province, represented a moderate ultramontanism. He was leery about ecclesiastical meddling in political questions and frequently stood in opposition to the extremists such as Bishop Laflèche.

The ground of the ultramontane rhetoric about divine missions and reconquest was the need for an ex post facto rationalization for the phenomenon of emigration to the States.

These emigrants were from the poorest classes of society, many heavily in debt and some, as Roby notes, close to famine. The emigrants were motivated by economics not ideology. Whatever may be the will of le bon Dieu, the will of the families which departed Québec was to meet the most basic of human needs.

Ultramontanism dabbed ideological perfume upon malodorous facts. To wit, the British Empire’s program of assimilation had maneuvered a segment of Québec's elite in the mid 19th c. into a reactionary trench. The insistence on the maintenance of an antiquated socio-agricultural system, combined with the British Empire’s malign neglect of les habitants, had left a large part of the rural population in desperate straits.

Rather than take corrective action to address the root cause of the emigrant’s flight, the ultramontanes annexed them ideologically to their own messianic illusions.

"A family of habitants
on their arrival in New England"
, July 1893
Dangerous radicals?
The Franco-American workers were the ideological playthings of both the Canadien elite and the mainstream American press. What the Yankee press and agitators failed to comprehend is the difference between the concerns of the working class Franco-Americans and the tiny elite consisting of the clergy, journalists, and a handful of professionals.

Those of us who actually knew Franco-American folk born in this period might be amused at the alternately exalted or sinister interpretation given to their very existence. Although loud discussion of political events was on the agenda of amusements, in their scant spare time they enjoyed their music, sports, games, storytelling, or family gatherings. They were hardly the stuff of international conspiracies.

The hyperbolic ideological quantum ascribed to these poor laborers in small industrial cities is incongruent with the facts on the ground. These interpretations reveal more about the interpreters than they do about the Franco-American workers.

The revealing fallacy of the New York Times and its ilk was to assume that the most strident utterances of a portion of a remote elite were the uncontested views of the population as a whole. They then construed the rationalizations of pipe dreamers as a coherent religio-political agenda.

Simply put, the Francophobe element in the American press got it wrong. There was no plot to annex New England. There were no secret societies meeting on alternate Tuesdays to plan their next, nefarious, anti-American gambit. There were merely the dreams of a faction of extremists who couldn’t agree even amongst one another.

Would that it were the last time that influential elements in the US press made such an error.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Canadien, Canadien-Français, Québécois

Early in the history of Nouvelle-France a distinction was made between les Français and les Canadiens. Les Français were those born in France and intending to return there. It included officialdom, and many of the clergy and military personnel. The term les Canadiens signified the French-speaking colonists born in Canada or permanently settled there. The term was used as early as the 1680s.*

After the Conquest, ratified by 1763, the new English colony was called the Province of Quebec but its people remained Canadiens despite the fact that the colony’s name and frontiers changed several times.

The place where most Canadiens dwelled was called successively Canada, the Province of Quebec, Lower Canada, Canada-East, and again the Province of Québec (and perhaps a couple of names I’ve forgotten) but the inhabitants continued to call themselves Canadiens.

With the American Revolution many of the Anglo-American colonists who wished to remain loyal to the Crown found homes in the British Province of Quebec. The division of this Province into two units, called Upper and Lower Canada, and the reorganization of its constitution in 1791, were to accommodate this new English-speaking population.

Upper Canada (the root of today’s Ontario) was the home of many of the American Loyalists, while Lower Canada constituted the older, solidly French settlements. We should not forget, however, that there were already Francophones in Upper Canada and Anglophones in the Lower province in these days.

Les Canadiens continued to call their Anglophone neighbors les Anglais. The children of Anglophones born in Upper Canada, however, began to claim the right to be called Canadians. The children of immigrants to the British North American provinces from many lands also claimed this right in later times. Yet, many Francophones spoke as though only they were Canadiens.

After the union of Upper and Lower Canada in the 1840s, a new variation was required. The uniqueness of the national identity of the Francophones was signified via the hyphenated label Canadien-français. This label persisted into the mid-20th c.

This label’s English equivalent, French-Canadian, is still the recognized term in the USA. If I say to most Americans that I am Franco-American or use the word Québécois they might not know what I’m talking about. I find that the easiest route to comprehension is to say that I am of French-Canadian descent. Americans seem to have some hook, however small, on which to hang that term.

The label Canadien-français crossed geographies. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries a Canadien-français was a Canadien-français whether one lived in Maine, Michigan, Ontario or Saint-Louis-du-Ha! Ha! This term was a national label unconnected to any particular geography. It represented a nation without a state.

Then came the great social and political revolution in Québec known as la révolution tranquille: the Quiet Revolution. This period in the 1960s, followed by the ascendancy of the Parti Québécois in the 1970s, changed the culture of Québec more swiftly than at any time in its history. The sixties were a time of social change throughout the Western world but perhaps nowhere else were the changes as profound as in Québec.

With this change came a new national label: Québécois. This label affirmed the new, secularized, forward-looking stance adopted by the Quiet Revolution. It rejected the former, hyphenated identity, a hybrid something-or-other, some part Canadian and some part French. The rapidity with which the Francophones of Québec embraced this label is astonishing. It was a brilliant piece of what we would now call rebranding.

So thorough and successful was this rebranding that the term is used even retroactively. For instance, in Québec one might speak of “the Québécois who were involved in the Rebellion of 1837.” But the Patriotes of 1837 would not have recognized the term. They were Canadiens. For them, I suspect, the term Québécois would have designated a resident of the city of Québec. **

This bold and decisive rebranding of the Francophone people of Québec is not without its ironies. After all, it was the English who called the community centered on the Saint-Laurent, the Province of Quebec. The French called it Canada. If we were to revive someone’s Franco-American great-grandmother she might wonder why we are surrendering our national label to les anglais. “We’re the Canayens!” she might say. “Why are we allowing les anglais to convince us that we are no longer such?”

One of the innovations of the term Québécois is that, unlike the terms Canadien or Canadien-français, the new designation is tied to a specific geography, that of Québec. Whereas my grandfather would have been recognized as a "Canadien des Etats-Unis,” is any Franco-American a “Québécois(e) des Etats-Unis.” Is such a category possible?
Canadiens des Etats-Unis:
WWI-era ad in
a Franco-American newspaper
Source: Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College
It appears that the intention of the nationalists who transformed the Canadien-français of Québec into Québécois, was to reinforce the viability of the latter as a nation with its own territory as a prelude to establishing an independent republic. As such, the rebranding was formidable although it had consequences keenly felt among the Francophones who lived elsewhere in today’s Canada.

Canada became a land that the Québecois began to speak of as a foreign country. The art in the label Québécois is precisely in this distancing from anything Canadian. In declaring themselves to be not a type of Canadian (i.e. "the French type"), an identity at least as unique as that of any other nation-state is affirmed. 

With the Quiet Revolution, the newly minted Québécois, having survived a series of setbacks, circled the wagons. The gaze of Québec nationalism became focused on fortress Québec. Increasingly, there became a sense of Québec as a lone Francophone holdout in an unvariegated Anglophone landscape.

Once, however, the Francophones of Québec had continental ambitions. The Louis Riel affair, the question of French language schools in Manitoba, Ontario and New Brunswick, as well as various Franco-American events, were burning issues in Québec, debated in the press and followed with care.

I note with reluctance that nowadays, even among well-educated Québécois, I find little cognizance of the Francophone or Franco-gene groups in North America beyond the borders of la belle province. In fact we live all over the continent. I suggest gently that le fait français might be reinforced if we looked beyond our separate fortresses to renew our ancestors’ broader, continental perspective.

I hold that Québec’s best allies are Franco-Americans. As a general rule, we have maintained our affection for Québec and support its people in whatever path they choose.

Monsieur René Lévesque understood the potential importance of Franco-Americans to Québec’s future. Last year I learned from participants in these events that Monsieur Lévesque visited the Franco-American Center at the University of Maine during the campaign for the first referendum on Québec sovereignty in 1980.

Still waging a Cold War, there were fears in Washington that an independent Québec could become “another Cuba.” Monsieur Lévesque turned to Franco-Americans to help explain Québec to the USA. He understood that Franco-Americans were a link between his people and the mainstream USA which could be a great benefit to Québec.

Feebly, writing in English no less from a humble blog, I offer a hand to the rebranded Québécois behind the fortress walls. If you come to know us better you might find that we are not foreigners but long lost family.

* cf. Gilles Havard and Cécile Vidal, Histoire de L'Amérique Française (Paris: Flammarion, 2003) 403f
** To avoid this anachronism, on this blog I have used the older term Canadien, with the French spelling and usually italicized, to designate the 19th c. descendants of the former French colony of Canada although I have not always used the term consistently.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Family, History, and the Formation of the Heart

How is the heart formed?

By the heart I mean neither the physical organ nor the sentiments and affections but something deeper. In French the word for heart is cœur, which appears to be related to the English word core. The heart I’m speaking about is our psychological core, the center of our values and aspirations. It is by means of the heart that we perceive meaning. If we feel that something is worthy of our attention, valuable, meaningful or important it is by means of this metaphorical heart.

Inside this metaphor, it’s self-evident that different hearts function differently otherwise we would all have the same values and the same sense of what is meaningful, which doesn’t seem to be the case. What it is that we value or find meaningful is the result of a process of formation. How is one heart formed in one way while another is formed in some other way?

One day I noticed a stone beneath my neighbor’s rain gutter. I noticed how the stone had been smoothed by erosion caused by years of rainstorms. That stone had been formed by its “experience,” drop by drop, storm by storm.

At the risk of mixing metaphors, perhaps the heart is formed in an analogous way. At birth the stone has some rough shape but immediately the infant’s perceptions begin to form the stone, bit by bit, drop by drop. As we grow older the range of our choices grows and the choices we begin to make, and the responses to those choices, also form the heart. 

The scientific literature focuses also on such factors as genetics or birth-order. No doubt these play their role on the individual level, but do they account for the remarkable persistence of cultural traits at the level of the heart, at the level of the values that communities share?

In some schools of psychology the family system is seen as a crucible of the heart and thereby a conveyor of cultural values. My parent’s choices were a factor in the formation of the hearts of their children as their parents’ choices were for them. We discover a web of connected family systems that link back through a chain of history and causality. 
Carillon Sacré-Coeur Flag:
The Heart was a symbol with
immense spiritual power
in the traditional
French North American cultures

On the assumption that I know my grandparents and my grandparents knew theirs, the living memory of an extended family system reaches one’s great-great-grandparents. Generally, my great-great-grandparents were born in the 1820s. The collective memory of my extended family system stretches from 2013 to people whose hearts began to take shape in the 1820s. This is a rough estimate of a family’s effective historical horizon. 

Perhaps in all cultures but certainly in the Franco-American culture, stories play an enormous role in the process of forming the heart. Stories are vehicles for conveying who we are, what is important, and what ought to be done, especially when these stories are about our own family. The stories in my family that appeared as living memories did indeed extend to my grandparents’ grandparents.

For example, as a child I heard the tale of my great-great-grandfather Joseph Doucette and how he resisted with force and at the price of bodily harm what he regarded as an unjust economic and social system.

You can read Doucette’s story here and then I’ll ask what does a child learn from hearing a story like this not once but repeatedly? The story’s subtext makes clear that our people were the underdogs. “We” are not the ones with the power. “They” are. The rules are set by these others who have the power to establish systems in “their” interest and not necessarily in “ours.” A host of heart-forming messages are contained in such stories. 

I contend that even in families where specific stories have not come down from so distant a past, even if you have no idea who or what your grandparents’ grandparents were, these ancestors still haunt us. Their distantly echoing voices are still heard in the recesses of the heart through the messages we receive consciously or not from parents, grandparents, or others. The voices of more proximate generations are even louder and clearer.

We might borrow from engineering the notion of tolerances. Materials have certain tolerances to temperature and pressure, a degree of elasticity, etc. An aviation engineer is free to design an aircraft as he or she sees fit but only within the tolerances allowed by the materials as determined by the laws of physics. Similarly, as individuals we maintain substantial freedom of choice but only within the tolerances of the materials in our hearts.

History does not determine our choices but it does inform them. Many people choose to value what their forebears did not, but even these choices are not made out of context. Even if we recognize our tolerances and wish to transcend them, this transcendence is precisely of those tolerances. It is in response to them.

Here are some of the tolerances I’ve detected in my family system:
  • Authority comes from outside, from above rather than from within. We are not self-authorized but externally authorized.
  • Risk aversion: risk is seen from the standpoint of potential loss rather than potential gain.
  • One does not put oneself foward too much and one risks shame if one does. In a group situation it is important to feel out the context before making your contribution.

It requires little imagination to see how incompatible these assumptions may be with a competitive, aggressive, entrepreneurial, hyper-individualistic socio-economic system such as that of the USA. Although not all Franco-Americans share these tolerances, I would be very surprised if a sociological study did not find that such attitudes are shared disproportionately among this population as compared with some others.

Now that I’ve made them conscious I have won some freedom of choice with respect to these attitudes. But I cannot merely set them aside much less ignore them. Many raindrops through many storms formed the stony heart in the way in which it is formed. In a theoretically free society I have the theoretical freedom to transcend them. But to do so it is useful – some might say necessary – to understand the full weight of the history that informed them.

Our political or economic freedom, such as it is, does not mean that we are atoms floating in a void, only occasionally colliding in utterly context-free and wholly chosen transactions. We are not entirely self-determined but exist in context. Human beings exist within systems that include family, religious, and ideological systems as well as political and economic ones.

Choices are free within the tolerances allowed by a particular context within this network of overlapping systems. Our choices may be oriented toward changing one or another of these systems, but this is only possible by recognizing their character and scope.

If the past has no bearing on the formation of the heart then history is a frivolous discipline. It consists of stories that are perhaps entertaining but by no means important. If the experiences of our grandparents have no bearing on who we are now then I see little point in knowing about them at all.

If the experiences of generations past do not contribute to the formation of our hearts then what we call history is a mixed assortment of anecdotes about atomic individuals who made choices based on a self-created core that appears ex nihilo, unshared, and without the taint of context.

But this is no world that I live in. My heart was not formed to believe in such a world.