From French-Canadian
to Franco-American

By Juliana L’Heureux

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Franco-Americans like North Berwick, Maine actress Susan Poulin and others, enjoy drawing attention to their centuries long heritage inherited and brought to Maine from Quebecois-Canadian ancestors Nevertheless, people outside New England have little, if any, knowledge about Franco-Americans.

This lack of understanding about the French-American culture is especially obvious on the European continent, particularly in France where it quickly becomes a conversation topic when ordering in restaurants.

Poulin pleasantly promotes her autobiographical heritage by picturing herself in promotional ads alongside a commercial can of familiar Franco-American spaghetti. Periodically, it's worthwhile to explain the term "Franco-American". In other words, how did French-Canadians from Quebec become Franco-Americans? Undoubtedly, French colonial history is part of the description. All Franco-Americans claim at least one ancestor who came to the United States from the Canadian province of Quebec.

Moreover, ancestors of the original Quebecois-French families generally trace their genealogical beginning to specific communities in France. Other French Canadians who arrived in the United States from Nova Scotia and the Canadian Maritimes are actually Acadians, even though they are sometimes mistakenly lumped into the ethnic group called Franco-Americans. A shared history with France and Canada are major distinctions of Franco-Americans, but there's more in the mix than just the past alone.

Actually, if you ask first American generation Franco-Americans about their ethnic identity, they would overwhelmingly call themselves "Canadians", pure and simple. The French immigrants from Quebec who left their struggling farms to work in the New England textile and shoe mills during the industrial revolution of the 1800-1900s did not think of themselves as French-Canadian. Most Quebecois immigrants of the industrial era didn't even know about other parts of Canada where English was the primary language and Roman Catholicism was not practiced by the majority of the population. These first French-Canadian immigrants typically believed the people who spoke English were Protestant and therefore from England. Instead, it was the New Englanders who called the Quebecois immigrants "French Canadians", to distinguish them from other immigrant groups.

About 900,000 French Canadians went south from Quebec during the mass migration; many traveled the Old Canada Road, between 1860 and 1920, providing a crucial workforce for industrializing America. French-Canadians established themselves in New England communities by largely congregating into pockets called "little Canadas", where French was the primary language.

Towns like Sanford and Biddeford, Maine still point to specific areas where the French lived apart from their English speaking neighbors, in close proximity to a Roman Catholic Church.

But, when the French-Canadian immigrants in the United States started having their own children, they referred to their offspring as being Franco-Americans. Writer Amy Stone writes in "Cultures of Americas: French Americans" that Franco is just another term for French. Therefore, the French Canadians used the word Franco on purpose so their children and their descendents would remember their heritage.

Virtually all Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. As far as we know, the very first immigrants to America migrated from Asia to the North American continent somewhere between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago. The descendants of these first immigrants are known as, either, the Native North Americans, Native Americans, American Indians, or First Nations people. Unfortunately, history tends to overlook the French-Canadian and Franco-American immigration experience, even though the origins of the French culture are documented with the founding of Montreal by Jacques Cartier in 1541, well before the first English settlement of North America.

But Poulin isn't entirely joking about the Franco-American spaghetti can she uses to identify her ancestry. America's first pasta factory was opened in 1798 by a Frenchman who lived in Philadelphia. It's another piece of French-American immigration history overlooked by educators and others who, overall, have done a poor job describing the

Published in the July 29, 2004, Portland Press Herald, Neighbors Edition

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Copyright 2004, Juliana L'Heureux and the Portland Press Herald