“French Pride” and the Question of Repression
I could be called an assimilated Franco-American. I grew up in a suburb south of Boston. We didn’t live in a Little Canada. We spoke English in our house when I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s. We didn’t go to a “national” parish church, but a predominantly Irish-American one in which the liturgy was served in English. My parents, thanks to their ingenuity and sacrifice, were able to send their children to college, the first generation of my father’s family to do so. My siblings and I have white-collar jobs; we’re solidly middle-class.
And yet, despite our so-called assimilation, increasingly over the past few years my sister and I have looked into our past, and our future, to begin a process of rediscovering a Franco-American identity that has followed our family like a shadow. It hid in the background, but it was always there. In fact, the more I learn about our heritage, the more I see how much we fit the profile.
Three of our grandparents had roots in Québec. The fourth, my maternal grandmother, was an Acadienne – although I never heard her use this term – from Prince Edward Island. It was on a trip to this island, in the town of Rustico, on a voyage of discovery regarding the Acadian side of our heritage, that I first got wind of Ben Levine’s film about the Franco-Americans, Réveil: Waking Up French. Levine was interviewed on CBC radio, and, as I began to grasp the subject matter, I called to my sister as she puttered about the kitchen. “You’ll want to hear this,” I said. “This guy is talking about us.”
It was with great anticipation that my sister purchased a videotape of the film from the accompanying web site and we sat down to watch it together. I glanced at the box and saw the subtitle: “The Repression and Renaissance of the French in New England.” There was something in this sub-title that I thought might make some people a little uncomfortable. “Repression?” I could hear someone saying. “Isn’t that a little harsh?”
This reaction, I have discovered, is typically Franco. As a community, I’ve noticed we tend to deflect questions about our past hardships. We don’t like to dwell on them and we dislike it when others do. We don’t like to conceive of ourselves as just another “oppressed minority.” This was clear in a public screening of Levine’s film that I attended in New Hampshire. In the discussion Levine led after the film, one woman in the audience was critical of what she felt was an unbalanced view of the Franco-American experience. She deflected the film’s account of “repression” by saying that it reflected the Maine Franco experience only. She implied that “these Mainers” tended to overemphasize anti-French discrimination. Another older woman also deflected the question of repression by saying, “we didn’t have the Ku Klux Klan and all this here.” An older gentleman, very quietly, corrected her. The KKK was here, he asserted.
I found this discussion troubling and I left that night disquieted. It was as if some of our Franco family – for that’s what we are, in truth – would like to push the question of repression off-shore, as it were: “Those ‘bad things’ didn’t happen here…just in Maine…or in Woonsocket…or somewhere – anywhere – else.” The comments were also disturbing because they show a tendency to divide the – let’s be honest – already tenuous Franco community. Forgive me, but to pit New Hampshire Francos against Maine Francos is like two mice fighting over a crumb that falls from the table of a king.
At the same time, I don’t want to fall into the same trap by creating a division between those women and myself. I was momentarily nonplussed by their reaction to the film, but, in the next moment, I recognized what they were saying because I discerned the same attitudes in myself. In fact, I wanted to speak with one of the women after the discussion and tell her that I understood and sympathized with her reaction, but the opportunity did not arise.
It seems to me that behind this reaction is the desire by Francos not to be seen as victims. Although this trend is being challenged, in recent decades it has been fashionable to be a victim. Swimming upstream – typically – many people in our Franco community resist this trend. I have some sympathy with their attitude if only because I believe that the repeated abuse of the notion of victimization cheapens the experience of those who genuinely have been victimized, either on a personal or a historical level.
But do we honor our ancestors by deflecting the question concerning repression? Can we fully represent our community if we do not acknowledge the past inequities – not because we want a handout, but because we need to know and fully acknowledge the truth in order to understand our past…and claim our future?
French Pride my mother calls it. By this, she doesn’t mean the French version of Black Pride or Gay Pride or some similar movement. What she means by “French Pride” is a particular stance, which, if not unique to French North America, is characteristic of it. It’s the attitude summed up succinctly in one of the Franco-American oral histories included in Dyke Hendrickson’s book Quiet Presence. Discussing a hard life in the mills as a child, following her father’s death, one older woman says, “We didn’t feel sorry for ourselves, we didn’t want a handout.” I most certainly recognize this attitude. I see it in myself, in my family, in the Francos I know, and in the literature about French North Americans on both sides of the Canadian/American border. But in our French Pride, in our desire not to be tagged with the label of victim, do we sometimes, to call again on my mother’s folk wisdom, “cut off our nose to spite our face”?
Do we sometimes minimize the extent to which there has been an attempt to institutionally repress the Franco-Americans – through “foreign language” education laws, ethnic jokes and ridicule, the Nativist movement, intimidation, job discrimination, the denigration of our language as “not real French” (a slur I heard, on occasion, in my own childhood) and much more subtle means? Certainly this repression – to use Levine’s term – is not the whole story. Not at all! But if we deflect this onto some other group or some other region, do we do justice to our ancestors?
In Hendrickson’s Quiet Presence, time and again we read comments like, “We made do,” “Somehow we made it through,” “It wasn’t so bad.” When I read these comments, and relate them to the appalling conditions of hardship, poverty, and, yes, discrimination, that the same speakers describe, I can’t help but think of the phrase “damned by faint praise.” So many of these comments are expressed in the negative, for example, “It wasn’t so bad” in the mills. It’s as if someone has suggested that, in fact, it was “so bad,” and the speaker is trying to deflect that impression. This ambivalence, created by the experience of a life of hardship coexisting with the we-didn’t-feel-sorry-for-ourselves attitude of French Pride, permeates the book.
For example, Father Clement Thibodeau, a priest who served in both the Acadian areas near Madawaska and the Franco-American mill towns of Southern Maine, is quoted as saying, “I think that some parishioners in Springvale [Maine] felt they were a minority people. But oppressed, no. I know that some of the intellectual elite of Franco-Americans in Maine raise the question of oppression, but these working people were not conscious of being oppressed [p 132, emphasis added].” A mere three pages earlier, however, the very same priest says this: “The French in the mill towns were a…subservient people, with no dignity, no pride…those who worked in the mills were drones in a mechanical society that was foreign to them [p129-130].” This contrast, this ambivalence, is present throughout the literature. The objective conditions, which suggest that the term “repression” does not go too far, are contrasted with the subjective experience of those conditions.
If Father Thibodeau were here, and after the rumbling from generations of Mémères rolling in their graves had subsided, since I dared to question a priest, I would ask him, respectfully: “Father, which is it? If the Francos in the mill towns had no ‘dignity,’ if they were ‘drones’ who toiled away mechanically in a foreign society, as you, yourself, have said, then how can you say that they were not oppressed? If to be reduced to a ‘drone’ with ‘no dignity’ is not oppression, then what is?” The key, however, is in what Father Thibodeau has already said. If, in fact, they were – we were – oppressed, they – that is, we – were not conscious of it. This raises a question that I ask sincerely, with no pretence that I have an answer up my sleeve: is it possible to be oppressed without knowing it?
Reading Hendrickson’s oral histories, and many other books about French North American history, one gets a sense that, for us, victory is equivalent to survival. If we “make it,” we’re satisfied. That is, after all, the banner we flew up the mast after the horrors of the Deportation of the Acadians and the Conquest of Québec in 1760: La Survivance. And, of course, having read the history, I know why Survival became the standard. Threatened with assimilation, if not extinction, Survival, was, actually, setting the bar as high as possible. To extend my earlier analogy, if all you have is a few crumbs that fall off the king’s table, then your entire world becomes about preserving those few morsels. I am aware that the slogan La Survivance has a specialized meaning in this context, but I can’t help but notice that, as a slogan, “Survival!” has a strange ring in the ears of a 21st Century Anglophone. To survive is to “make it” to “make do”; to survive is not necessarily to thrive but simply to not perish.
Please understand that I intend no disrespect toward the Patriotes of the past who fought tooth and nail for Survivance. I fully recognize that, whether they would choose to claim me or not, I stand on their shoulders as I stand on the shoulders of ten generations of giants – my own ancestors – who made possible the education that now allows me to be reflective about our community. If they had not survived, physically and culturally, then I would not be in the position I now enjoy. There would be no French North American community to reflect upon. I feel I owe a debt to these giants, who were no one’s elite, but obscure cultivateurs and journaliers, and asbestos miners, and mill and shipyard workers, and machinists – and mothers who had 12 or 14 or 15 children only to watch three-quarters of them die. Now that I know that there was (for a middle-class, 21st Century American) unimaginable hardship, now that I can be conscious of it, I feel that I serve them, and I honor them, not by wallowing in victimization, but by remembering, not deflecting, their hardship with an “it really wasn’t so bad” attitude. And also by reminding others, of whatever ethnicity, not to forget about our tragedies and our sacrifices – as well as our triumphs.
You may have detected that I take this personally. Allow me to explain why.
My father was born in Brunswick, Maine, as were my grandparents before him. Two of my grandparents, four of my great-grandparents, and three of my great-great grandparents, that I know of, are buried in St. John’s Cemetery in Brunswick. Although I was neither born nor raised there, my roots are planted quite deeply in that soil. In the course of reconnecting with my past, I’ve done some primary research into the Franco-American community of Brunswick, as it was when my grandparents grew up there in the final years of the 19th and first years of the 20th centuries and when my father lived there in the 1920s and 1930s. Someday I hope to compile this research into a book.
In the manuscript United States Census for Cumberland County, Brunswick, Maine for the year 1880, I found the family of my great-grandmother, Albina Ouellette (b. February 1868, Roxton Falls, Québec). The census reports that Albina, age twelve, her father, and six of her eleven siblings, including her ten-year-old younger brother, worked in the Cabot textile mill. This district, in the census for that year, contains approximately twenty continuous pages of French names. Almost all of these individuals were born in Canada and were employed by the Cabot Mill. There is little doubt that the area of Brunswick represented in these pages is what is referred to in contemporary newspaper accounts as “the French Quarter” or “the French locality.”
In the following year (1881), as far as I can determine, my great-grandfather Charles Vermette (b. May 1860), would arrive in Brunswick from Canada and take up employment at the Cabot Mill. Charles, with a brother called “Frank” (François), who were born in St-Gervais-de-Bellechasse, Québec, seem to have crossed the border into northern New Hampshire, where they worked in the logging camps before they made their way to Brunswick. They were joining an older brother named Joseph who had already established himself in the States. In September 1887, Charles Vermette would marry Albina Ouellette.
The year prior to their wedding, a serious Diphtheria epidemic would spread through the French Quarter of Brunswick. This disease, which to this day is associated with overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, would spread to at least 142 individuals, mostly French-speaking children, between April and September of 1886. I estimate that somewhere between eight and ten percent of the French group in the town became infected with the disease.
Mr. A.G. Tenney, editor of the English-language newspaper, the Brunswick Telegraph, mounted a campaign in his paper against the Cabot Company, which lasted several weeks and detailed the poor conditions that prevailed in the company housing in the “French locality” at that time. I will quote one passage from this series at length:
The houses are built in close contact; there are no yards; the sheds and privies are near by; the drainage – the sink spouts are running only a few feet or so outside of the houses where all dirty water is poured out – falling on the surface of the ground, some of which drains into the cellar and leaves one of the most prolific sources of disease. The houses have from two to three stories, some of which are divided into eight tenements; the average number of people is about twelve in each tenement (96 to a house); the number of rooms in each is from five to seven; bedrooms are small, many of which have only one window where there are two beds. This will give you an idea of the amount of dirty water and slops that are poured out on the surface, close by the block – leaving the most offensive odor that can exist. These large blocks are accommodated with only four privies – giving about twenty five people for each privy – and those privies are cleaned only once a year, and this is done during this present hot weather of July. These places have overflowed since the month of May.
Swine, cows, and hens are kept in the sheds, pig-pens in close connection with wood sheds &c. – giving additional offensive odor. The wells are in the midst of this filth, some of which are not more than twenty feet distant from the sink spout and privies. Sandy soil as it is in this place there is no doubt that some of these wells receive the slops in a few days after their pouring out of doors.
The collection of refuse matter in or around the dwelling houses, such as swill, waste of meat, fish and decaying vegetables, dead carcasses are all present, giving or generating disease germs, affecting the purity of the air; – they should be considered the worst kind of nuisances. Such nuisances one should be compelled to remove or dispose of either by burial, burning or otherwise. Now then, summing up in a few words the above mention will show the favorable condition for any contagious disease to spring up.
[Brunswick Telegraph, July 30, 1886]
Doctor Onesime Paré (b. June 1854, St-Gervais-de-Bellechasse) provided the Telegraph with descriptions of these conditions, as well as other information regarding the extent and spread of the disease. Doctor Paré and Mr. Tenney should be remembered for the efforts they made to care for the Franco community and for drawing attention to the deplorable conditions in which many of them lived. In the newspaper, the evidence of other (Yankee) doctors is brought forward to corroborate the facts as presented by Tenney.
For further corroboration, we may examine the statistics for burials at St. John’s church. William N. Locke, in his article, The French Colony at Brunswick, Maine: A Historical Sketch (Les Archives de Folklore, 1 (1946, pp 97-111), provides statistics on burials from this parish in the years 1877-1895. There is a sharp spike in the number of deaths among the French community in the years 1886 and 1887. That this increase in mortality is not a natural consequence of an increase in the French population during these years is demonstrated by the fact that there were nearly half as many burials in 1888 (41 total) as there were in 1886 (81 burials).
The sad truth is confirmed by an examination of the handwritten vital records kept by the Town of Brunswick. Therein, we discover that 35 children died between April and September of 1886. The records, in most cases, do not state the cause of death, but, in a few, Diphtheria is cited explicitly. That the majority of these children were the victims of the Diphtheria epidemic we may surmise, apart from the newspaper’s testimony, by examining child mortality rates in the years on either side of 1886. The records reveal that nine children died between April and September 1885. In 1887, 18 children died in this same span of months. The records also show that Diphtheria, in that summer of 1886, was not an equal opportunity disease; without exception the children who died that spring and summer had French names.
In reading the Brunswick Telegraph’s increasingly shrill outcries against the Cabot Company and its directors, I can’t help but imagine my great-grandparents and my great great grandparents, Thomas Ouellette (b. March 1836, Ste-Anne-de-la-Pocatiere, Québec) and Josephine Racine Ouellette (b. March 1842, St-Charles-de-St-Hyacinthe, Québec), or their relatives and friends and fellow parishioners and co-workers living in such conditions. Did my great-grandmother Ouellette hear the cries of the children who had the disease? Or were the infected children too sick to cry out? Did she see the lesions caused by some forms of this disease? Did she attend the funeral of a neighbor’s child?
It’s quite likely that she did. Comparing the names of the children who died with the data provided by the 1880 census, and assuming that the cast of characters involved lived in the same places in 1886 that they did in 1880, I can confirm that children were dying all around the location where my great-grandmother lived. The census taker in 1880 designated the Ouellette’s residence, in order of visitation, as dwelling 25. Two-year-old Marie Claire Ste-Marie and her eight-year-old brother, Alexis Albert, died on the same day, April 13, 1886. The census indicates that this family lived in dwelling 23. “Cause of death: Diphtheria,” the town records report. Ten-month-old Joseph Desjardins died on August 26th; this family lived in dwelling 27. Nine-year-old Rosa Leblanc died on June 30th; her family resided in dwelling 29. The census also reveals that no less than thirty-one individuals lived in dwelling 29. On the assumption that these families stayed put between 1880 and 1886, I conclude that my 18-year-old great-grandmother was well aware of the dying children during these spring and summer months.
But when I recounted this history to others, even to my own family, the deflection mechanism went into full swing. I heard, “It was bad for all the others [i.e. Irish, Italians, etc.], too…the French were treated no worse”; “Conditions were bad in Québec, too”; “People were used to less in those days, their expectations were lower”; “They didn’t really know what caused those diseases then.” I was amazed by these reactions. Even if such statements are true, they’re irrelevant. The fact is that if you housed animals in such conditions nowadays it would be a punishable offense. What purpose does the deflection serve? Why can’t we just admit that, in this case, at least, our Franco people were treated inhumanely and then give thanks to God that we were able to rise out of such conditions?
To answer some of these attempts at deflection, from the Telegraph’s account it is clear that Tenney had some confusion regarding the precise cause, but he was correct that overcrowded conditions are favorable to the outbreak and proliferation of the disease. The fact that the conditions in the tenements were not business as usual is attested to by numerous quotations from Tenney’s articles. For example, in the same article quoted above, Tenney describes the conditions as representing “a degree of brutality almost inconceivable in a civilized community.” Two weeks later, Tenney writes:
We only wish that the Boston Cabot gentlemen could listen to the biting denunciations of them as notorious (at least in the case under discussion) for their filthy greed, by gentlemen, we can tell them who, as manufacturers, are their equals in experience, perhaps in wealth, but infinitely their superiors in all that goes to make up the true man, regardful of the lives and health of the men and women whom they employ. Some of these manufacturers…are downright wrathy over the reflection cast upon all other manufacturers by the abominable neglect of Cabot company Directors, to remedy a state of things which no man here dares to deny exists.
[Brunswick Telegraph, August 13, 1886]
In the final article in the series, Tenney’s rhetoric against the Cabot Company and what he terms “the disgracefully neglected Cabot homes” reaches a crescendo leaving no doubt about how his newspaper viewed the Cabot Company and the condition of “the French operatives” of the mill:
[It’s] record should consign to eternal infamy the management of this corporation, more heartless than the Fejees of old, who in hot blood, murdered their prisoners, then roasted and ate them. The Cabot Company has no such tender mercy for the poor slaves bound to it by the necessities of existence, they dying by slow poison germinated in the filth permitted by the company’s home management to flow over the soil in reeking streams from the vaults of the boarding houses, the poor people inhabiting them being powerless to secure relief.
[Brunswick Telegraph, August 20, 1886]
From these passages it is plain that such conditions were not what was expected in those times since they were denounced as exceptionally bad even by those of the same occupation and “station in life,” as the “Boston Cabot gentlemen.” These extracts also show how at least one educated Yankee of that period regarded the French-Canadian/Franco-American mill worker of his day. The “French operatives” in the mill were, in Tenney’s view, “poor slaves” bound to the mill by “the necessities of existence”; they were “poor people…powerless to secure relief” from the disease and the conditions that contributed to it.
And the poor housing conditions had prevailed for years prior to 1886. Typhoid Fever – which is contracted through drinking water polluted by human excrement – had passed through the French Quarter in 1881 five years before the Diphtheria epidemic; it would have a return engagement in 1887. Tenney, in his 1886 series on the Cabot Mill, says that the same conditions had existed in the worker’s housing for 15 years, that is, since the early 1870s, when French-Canadians had started arriving in Brunswick in significant numbers. It was not a brief episode due, as was suggested to me, to the fact that the directors of the Cabot Company “didn’t really know what was going on.” I suspect they knew full well. Their local agents most certainly did since their noses couldn’t lie.
At this distance one can only imagine the conversation that transpired in the Cabot Company’s boardroom, or the 19th century equivalent, in the midst of Tenney’s campaign:
Mr. C: Well, how are things up north at the cotton mill, Green.
Green: Not so well, sir. The dirty workers have contracted disease and some of our future operatives aren’t going to make it.
Mr. C: And our production figures? Has it impeded production?
Green: Not yet. We’re holding steady. But some do-gooder scribe called Tenner or Tennyson, or something, has raised a ruckus in the local rag, I’m afraid. He blames our company housing conditions rather than the obvious fact that these illiterates just can’t take care of themselves.
Mr. C.: Wadsworth, look into whether it will cost more to buy out that muckraker or to make some attempt at improving the housing.
Wadsworth: I’m on it, sir
Mr. C: Now, we were planning an expansion up there in a couple of years. Will this infection result in significant loss of labor power?
Green: Not in the short-term, sir, but down the road we may have to deal with it.
Mr. C: I’m not too concerned. If we lose too many of the children, you know our friends at the Grand Trunk will send us off another shipment of dumb Canucks in the spring.
Mr. C: Very well. Next topic, sirs…
The fact that French-Canadians continued to cross the border to work at the Cabot Mill, as they did during these years of the 1870s and 1880s, is more a statement about the desperate conditions in rural Québec in the late 19th century than it is proof that things “must not have been so bad.” Things were so bad. Necessity drove them into the mills anyway. Choices were few. Does it need to be said that the lesser of two evils cannot, by definition, be good?
If all we knew about the Brunswick Franco community was the poor conditions in this French neighborhood in the late 19th century, we might despair that life was always and unremittingly bleak. Of course, it was not. My research, and my father’s and my grandmother’s stories of later times, reveals the rich life the Franco-American community enjoyed there. In the later 19th and early 20th centuries they had, and still have, a beautiful “national” parish church. They established a French school, a French band, a French language theater troupe, sports teams, etc. Even in the 1880s, in the midst of the squalor Tenney describes, Locke cites the “church fairs, ‘levees,’ plays, operettas, picnics, and even dances” enjoyed by the Francophone community. However, let us not use the amazing resilience of our French North American community, its ability to continue to express its culture through adversity, as a defense of the indefensible.
In Brunswick, as elsewhere in New England, our community made a good life for itself. But the fact that we triumphed through adversity, and created better conditions for ourselves, neither erases nor mitigates the exploitation suffered in the earlier years. Nor does it mitigate the responsibility of the exploiters. I’m sure it is true, as numerous commentators have said, that many immigrants from French Canada were grateful just to have a job that paid cash money on payday, but, again, this is simply a reflection of the poor conditions they left behind. The mouse is grateful for the crumb that falls from the king’s table, but the subjective feeling of gratefulness has no bearing on the objective fact that the king lives in splendor while the mouse lives in a hole under the floorboards.
The reason I have gone into the case of the Cabot Mill at some length is to describe, in detail, what it is we’re deflecting when we answer our ancestor’s hardship with such statements as “Oh, things weren’t so bad,” “or “I’m tired of these Maine Francos always complaining.” Forgive me, my friends, but these attitudes do not do justice to the memory of our forbears, least of all the children who died so that the likes of the Cabots of Boston could extract a few more dollars from our ancestors’ hides.
A balanced view must be just that – a balanced view, which must include the products of literature and art produced by our people, our religious and political life, our success stories, our newspapers and our “National” societies, by all means. But we must also include that much of this was created despite the extreme – and often unnecessary – hardship that many of our working people endured. It no longer serves us, and in fact never did, to continue to deflect what has been obvious to outsiders – from A.G. Tenney in the 19th Century to Ben Levine in the 21st – all along.
David Gerard Vermette
January 24, 2004
David Gerard Vermette is a writer and researcher based in Somerville, Massachusetts. The author would like to acknowledge Dr. John Mooney of the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston for providing a modern medical view of the nature and causes of diphtheria. He can be reached at P.O. Box 380459, Cambridge, MA 02238-0459 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was first published in Le FORUM, mars-avril/March-April 2004