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Saturday, October 21, 2006

My French-Canadian Moment

When I moved to Woonsocket, I already knew about its history as a mill city dominated by French-Canadians.  In Rhode Island, Woonsocket is famously French.  Just don't come here, as someone I know once did, expecting French cuisine.  You'll get meat pies and pea soup (both quite good, by the way).

I knew that my mom was half-French, whatever that meant.  I would ask her about it, and all she knew was that her family came from upstate New York, where it had been for a long time, apparently.  Were they from-France French?  She didn't know.  Her mother could speak French, her grandmother spoke nothing but French, and pea soup was a part of her childhood, but she didn't know where they had come from.  Canada was never mentioned.

In Woonsocket, my wife and I became friendly with the older couple across the street, Marcel and Terry.  Marcel, born in Quebec, was a musician.  We would occasionally catch him playing at local events.  His big hit was the song "Charlie Brown," which he would sing in French.  It was pretty funny, especially the "Why is everybody always picking on me?" part.  Marcel was close with some other musicians we knew, a fact we learned only after Marcel had fallen ill, and was confined to his home.  My wife called up our other friends, and arranged to have the gang of us visit Marcel at home one afternoon.  It was great fun, and it would be the last time we saw him alive.

Woonsocket is home to the largest American-French genealogical library in the country.  It happens to be within walking distance of my house.  In time, I formed a habit of walking over, notebook in hand, to discover the history of my family.  One odd thing for me about living in Woonsocket was that many women in town seemed to resemble my mom for some reason.  Not until I started researching my family's genealogy did it begin to dawn on me that my mom's family was not just French, but French-Canadian.  I was a bit nervous asking her about it, but she really had not ever heard Canada or Quebec mentioned overtly.  She supposed it could be true.  There was a story that her grandmother had been born in Montreal, for instance.

The term "French-Canadian" is confusing.  In the US it is used to mean those Quebec-Americans whose ancestry is French-Quebec, or Quebecois.*  But Canada, like the US, is a melting pot, so "Quebec" isn't really an ethnicity.  To get the ethnic sense of a person, you refer to him as French-Canadian or English-Canadian (or Pakistani-Canadian).  In the case of French-Canadians this is misleading, since the actual connection to France is about three or four centuries ago.  As with African-Americans whose families have been in America for three centuries, the cultural connection with the "ancestral homeland" is pretty abstract.

I do think that "Quebecois" can be used as an ethnic term.  A relatively small number of French came to Quebec during a relatively short period of time, then lived together in relative isolation, intermarried, and created a unique culture over three centuries.  The people are no longer strictly French, any more than meat pie is French cuisine.  And though their language is obviously derived from French, even the French can't understand it.  So why did my mom know she was French, but not Quebecois?

We went to Marcel's wake at the funeral home down the street.  His mother and many of his siblings were there, some having journeyed from Quebec.  The room was lit an eerie pink, and packed with older people who all seemed to be speaking French.  Some of the people we recognized from the neighborhood.  It was lively, like a giant family gathering.  We introduced ourselves to Marcel's mother, who spoke to us in French until my wife explained that she only knew "un peu," which made everyone listening laugh.  Then a priest called for attention, and conducted a brief service.  This was followed by a statement, a reminiscence, read by one of Marcel's friends.  All of this was in French.  We were immersed in a part of Woonsocket that we normally only glimpsed.

My mother grew up in Barre, Vermont, as did her parents.  Her grandparents, both sets, had come to Barre in about 1890 to work in the granite industry, an industry so grand at the time that stoneworkers were regularly recruited from all over Europe.  Though a small city in the middle of Vermont, Barre hosted several ethnic communities.  These communities arranged themselves socially based on the status of their work in the granite industry.  Italians were the prized stonecarvers, they were at the top of the ethnic ladder.  The Scots were trained stonecutters, right below the Italians in status.  At the bottom were the unskilled laborers, more often than not French-Canadian.  In fact, French-Canadians were recruited as strike-breakers whenever there were labor disputes.  This did not help their status.

My mother's mother came from a line of French-Canadians who had left Quebec generations earlier, before 1840.  They had worked in New York's Ausable Valley, had fought in the Civil War, and generally regarded themselves as Americans.  When she married another Barre native, a Presbyterian Scot, in 1923, it was a scandal, but hadn't her family been in America longer than the Scottish family?  Hadn't her family been in America long enough to be called American rather than Canadian?

A couple of weeks after Marcel died, his friends and family held a musical tribute for him.  The tribute took place at a performance hall run by one of the musicians we knew.  The hall was packed, and there were several different groups of musicians who played fiddle tunes, French songs, and Country-Western songs.  The MC kept everyone entertained in French, sometimes translating into English (but not the jokes).  What most impressed me was when the entire audience sang along with the French songs.  The songs reminded me of songs my mother had learned from her mother.  I don't know if they were French songs, she never sang them in French, but the melodies had a similar lilt to what I was hearing that night.  It was dawning on me that I, too, was French-Canadian.


* I am using the word "American" here to mean someone from The United States, though technically anyone from South, Central, or North America, including Canada, is an American.

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