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Changing a Present Focused On The Past

Updated: Apr 11, 2021

The following appeared in the Spring 2021 Issue of UMaine's Le Forum.

I am someone who is newer to the French-Canadian/Franco-American world. It can be a disadvantage at times an advantage at others. I am not a French speaker (yet) and my recent family history is devoid of the traditions handed down from Québec. That said, Franco-Americans like me don’t carry some of the emotional scars that many who grew up in the culture have. It can be a great advantage when rediscovering where we came from.

Growing up in my American upbringing I have heard that people from Québec, generically called the French, are hard to work with and stuck up. Hearing that your entire life can turn off potential “re-born Francos” from even engaging in a very vibrant community. A “re-born Franco” is someone who was raised completely away from the culture, but for whatever reason, has come back on their own.

Somehow, I was able to see through those untruths and connect with the Franco community. Huge shout out to the movie Réveil for giving me the final push to do something.

A Present focused on the Past

Fast forward to the present day, I have been interacting with many Franco-American organizations throughout New England. All doing some truly amazing work up against difficult odds. What I have noticed, is our groups tend to focus a lot on the past and academic type stuff. That is very important, but I fear as a larger community we have become one-dimensional (i.e. talking about the past).

One thing that seems to come up periodically is that Franco-Americans are largely unknown in Québec . There are small pockets of Québécois who know of us and a large amount who don’t. After a few years of social media interaction with the Québécois they fall into two generally defined teams.

Équipe no 1: We view Franco-Americans as assimilated and dead.

Équipe no 2: I am interested in our cousins in the US and happy they are interested in us.

I’m a big fan of Équipe no 2. I don’t dislike Équipe no 1, I understand their viewpoint. I have tried to engage with them and it has not gone so well. Maybe they’ll come around, but we aren’t there yet.

So how do we work with Équipe no 2?

Reaching Équipe no 2

When my working group and I launched New Hampshire PoutineFest in 2016, one of my hopes was that it would act as a beacon for any Québécois looking south of the border to realize we were still here.

In the years since NH PoutineFest, social media contact to the Event and the Franco-American Centre of New Hampshire has sharply increased….and not just to say Bonjour.

In early 2018, a very motivated and talented Québécois named, Luc Trépanier, reached out to us. When I began speaking with Luc I could tell he was an obvious member of Équipe no 2. Luc was a big fan of the local Double A team in Manchester, The New Hampshire Fisher Cats, and also curious to know more about Franco-Americans.

Over the last several years Luc and I have become pretty close friends. His efforts to learn English and mine to at least try to pick up some French have come in handy.

In 2019, we planned a small baseball tournament of sorts between kids living around his town of Saint-Hyacinthe, QC, and kids in Nashua, NH. It went really well for a first time. Our goal is to bring it back once COVID-19 is a thing of the past.

In talking with Luc over the years I noticed he was surprised how many Franco-Americans were interested in Québec and the Québécois. Most folks in Québec only heard the Équipe no 1 narrative growing up.

A Pipeline of Francophones Returns?

One of the main reasons from my, non-academic perspective, on the fading of the French language in New England is our isolation from Québec. Once immigration stopped around 1930 and recent immigrant families stopped going back “home” in the 1950s and 1960s we then see a couple generations that are largely unilingual.

Around the start of the global pandemic, I mentioned to Luc that I was looking into starting a bilingual blog that took a different approach to our shared story. The intent of the blog, Ma famille canadienne-française, was to bring the descendants of New France back together. It would do this by educating the Québécois on who Franco-Americans are and showing Franco-Americans they can be proud who they are. Essentially reaching out to Équipe no 2 and pushing back on the American narrative I was taught about our shared culture. Luc was all in. We began to create some fun content for the blog and also looked at how we could have a unique social media aspect to the page.

Le rêve de Gagnon

One of my favorite authors, David Vermette, gave a lecture that I attended at Saint Anselm College a few years back. It was a great lecture mostly focusing on some of the information in his iconic book, A Distinct Alien Race. In this lecture he mentioned a person I had never heard of before, Ferdinand Gagnon. Gagnon’s story really resonated with me.

Gagnon was a journalist who envisioned a national union of French-Canadians in the US and Canada. He also put some time into having Franco-Americans move back to Québec , this didn’t go so well. While he wasn’t always so popular amongst many in the community at the time (19th century), his idea really interested me. He was also born and raised in Saint-Hyacinthe and spent quite a bit of time in Manchester, NH.

I had a passing conversation with Jesse Martineau from the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast about names for a potential Facebook group and he brought up Gagnon…I loved it. I explained the idea to Luc and literally the next day he created a Facebook Group – Le rêve de Gagnon or Gagnon’s Dream in English.

What’s the Purpose?

There are quite a few Facebook groups out there on French-Canadians, most of which focus on Genealogy. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, but it is leaving a gap. Le rêve de Gagnon is focused on the living. Some examples 1) What’s going on in Québec today? 2)What’s Happening in the Franco-American World 3) Businesses in the French-Canadian Community 4) new projects launching and yes “some” genealogy stuff.

We don’t shy away from tough topics in the group. If we don’t talk about things how else will we learn? It’s led to some pretty great learning opportunities.

We are super fortunate to have some great administrators working with us too. Melody Keilig adds a younger female Franco perspective to our group. She is part of the “reborn Francos” and is doing some awesome work with her blog Moderne Francos.

Patrick Lacroix needs no introduction in Le Forum. He is a bilingual Québécois living outside the province of Québec. His in-depth knowledge of history and contemporary Québec is a huge asset to the team.

Next Steps

It will be interesting to see where this goes in the post-COVID-19 world. My hope is we can do what Irish-Americans and Italian-Americans cannot do. That is, use our proximity and recent shared history to bring us back together…fulfilling Gagnon’s Dream.

Timothy Beaulieu is the Founder of NH PoutineFest, a Trustee at the Franco-American Centre of New Hampshire, Advisory Board Member of The Association for the Advancement of the French Language and Francophone Culture in the United States, and writes for the blog Ma famille canadienne-française

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