One of the earliest posts on this blog is called There Is No Name For Us. I argued there that it might be empowering to coin a term that would describe all of the various groups that descend from the 17th and 18th c. French colonists in the New World. I looked to the model of the terms Hispanic and Latino, which serve as umbrella terms for the various peoples of Latin American descent now living in the USA.
Rather than asserting that there is no name for us I might just as well have said that there are too many names for us: Québécois(e), Acadien(ne), Franco-American, Cadien, Canadien-français, etc. Vituperative arguments ensue over the names because some of them are ill-defined and people tend to become entrenched within their own understanding of any term they acquire as a self-description.
Let’s take an historical view of this name game.
In the first years of the 17th c. the French began to have permanent settlements in North America. As I understand it, the geographical term Nouvelle-France included all of the French colonies on the continent, which consisted roughly of three main territories.
- l’Acadie – Centered in today’s Canadian Maritimes, the people of Acadie came to be associated with what we now call Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, among other areas.
- le Canada – Included the St. Lawrence Valley to the Ottawa River, westward to the Great Lakes region which was sometimes called le Pays d’en Haut.
- la Louisiane – A vast territory in the modern American Midwest sweeping southward from the Ohio Valley to the Gulf of Mexico. This region was often divided into an Upper and a Lower Louisiana.
The boundaries between these regions were often disputed and the names were not always used precisely. Nonetheless, the original designations by which French North Americans were known correspond to these three regions: les Acadiens, les Canadiens, and les Louisianais.1
The term Louisianais does not include the Acadiens who were expelled from their homes in the 1750s and eventually found their way to Louisiana. This group, known today as Cadiens or Cajuns, ought to be distinguished from les Louisianais, that is from those who came to the southern colony directly from France.2
Two other groups with roots in the French Regime period include the Creoles of Louisiana and the Métis people, with their cultural center of gravity in Manitoba and the prairie provinces of today’s Canada. Any discussion of these groups, products of relations between European settlers and other peoples, touches the third rail of North American history: race. If I say no more about these two peoples here it is due to my own ignorance regarding a sensitive topic rather than to neglect or disinterest.
By 1803, what was once Nouvelle-France had been divided between Great Britain and the fledgling United States. British and American settlers became permanent residents of the former colonies of Nouvelle-France. However, the Francophone descendants in the former Acadie and in Canada retained their national designations.
For example, into my grandparents’ days, to these Francophones, a Canadien was someone who spoke French. The people of the British American possessions who spoke English they called les Anglais. This latter term applied not only to those with roots in the British Isles but also to Anglophones whose ancestry might well be German, Ukrainian, or Greek.
As the English speakers in the British North American possessions began to call themselves Canadians, the distinction between Francophones and Anglophones was sometimes emphasized by means of the hyphenated term Canadien-français and its English equivalent French-Canadian. This term was accepted until the middle of the 20th c. in Québec and is still heard in other parts of today’s Canada and in the USA.
Like their Canadien cousins, the Acadiens retained their name, their distinctiveness, and their regional character, i.e. an Acadienne was an Acadienne whether she came from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, or the Magdalen Islands. The Cadiens of Louisiana also retained their name and separate identity.
Then came the great emigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries from the former French colonies of le Canada and l’Acadie to the USA. What term ought to signify the children of these immigrants?
Around 1920 the term Franco-Américain came into use particularly among the large and cohesive group of Francophone immigrants in New England. This term was used to distinguish those born in the States, or permanently settled there, from those born in Québec or in the former Acadie.
Some within this group continue to use the older term French-Canadian, but that term is problematic for several reasons. First, it causes confusion. If I were to say to most Americans that I was French-Canadian they would assume that I was born in Canada. Not only was I not born there but neither were my parents, nor most of my grandparents. I am not any kind of Canadian in the modern sense of that term. I am an American and my identity-political label should reflect that.
|Attestation to the term|
Franco-American from the
Brunswick (Maine) Record
December 5, 1935.
Another reason the term French-Canadian is tricky in the New England context is that there are many Acadians there who would say that that term refers to people from Québec alone. Some Acadian descendants in New England reject the term Franco-American if it means that they’re lumped in with the latter. This view I have heard in particular from some inhabitants of the Saint John’s Valley in Maine who insist that they are not Franco-Americans but Acadians.
Many Franco-Americans, like myself, are the product of a mix of the peoples known as Canadien-français and Acadiens. Of my eight great grandparents, five were born in Québec, two were Acadians, and one was a Franco-Ontarien from the Great Lakes region. This is a textbook case, a sociological mean for New England Franco-Americans.
When I use the term Franco-American, I am referring to the descendants of this mix of North American Francophones who came to the Northeastern states circa 1870 to 1930. In my nomenclature, Franco-Americans, as such, are a phenomenon of the Northeastern States. I would make no objection if my cousins from the Great Lakes, Missouri, or Louisiana do not recognize the term and do not apply it to themselves.
The term encounters a rather silly obstacle, namely that it is associated with a brand of canned pasta products. The usage of the term as an ethnic designation predates the brand name but, since almost no one outside of New England has ever heard the term apart from the latter context, one encounters snickers at the mention of it.
Readers who have followed this name game play-by-play, as tangled as any mess of canned spaghetti, will note how complex it can be. I do not claim that my terminology or distinctions are definitive. I’m placing a stake in the ground with the expectation that others will move the markers as they see fit.
At the risk of trying my readers’ patience, in a future post I will say a few words about the designation that replaced the older terms Canadien and Canadien-français during that decade of change, the 1960s: Québécois.
1. The term “Louisianais” does not seem to have been used during the first French Regime in Louisiana but was in use not long after.2. As usual, the history is messier than my survey claims since I am leaving out the Swiss and Germans who were integrated with les Louisianais very early on. Also, many of those who call themselves Cajun today are not descended from Acadiens at all.