By James LaForest
French Canadian and Métis cultures in the United States, and to some degree in Canada outside Québec, are what I would consider ‘microcultures.’ By that I mean cultures that are so small as to be largely invisible to the greater population, unknown to newcomers, and which are not taken into account in the larger cultural fabric except in areas where their populations are most numerous.
If a subculture is defined as “A cultural subgroup differentiated by status, ethnic background, residence, religion, or other factors that functionally unify the group and act collectively on each member” and a microculture is defined as “The distinctive culture of a small group of people within a limited geographical area,” I believe that ‘microculture more aptly describes American and non-Quebecois French cultures in Canada. Small groups of French Canadians in New England and the Midwest retain their historic, cultural, and even linguistic characters while fading from the general consciousness.
It’s largely, to me, a matter of semantics. But, not long ago, my use of the term microculture triggered some academic and activist readers who felt it was a pejorative attack on, specifically, Métis culture. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, defining Métis or French-Canadian culture this way might have the effect of strengthening their roles in traditional communities. By constituting what might be considered a unique or even elite grouping, or at the very least historic, they might engender a deeper engagement with local populations.
But some things become so large in people’s minds that they forget the scale of their actual existence. In truth, both traditional Métis and French-Canadian cultures are tiny in the context of our nations. Some Métis in Canada claim to constitute a nation, but the reality is Métis are a group of widely scattered peoples with varying degrees of recognition. I exclude Québec and Québecois culture from this discussion. Québecois culture is in effect a national culture that defines an entire people and body politic. Its influence through immigration into the US, the potential of a Québecois ‘diaspora,’ is small and does not in turn bear heavily on French Canadian cultures elsewhere. Where it does, I would assert that it happens through traditional manifestations of French North American culture as continue to exist in Québec: concerts by groups like Le Vent du Nord, traditional cuisine, and popular artistic themes such as those found in the works of Clarence Gagnon, Cornelius Krieghoff, Henri Julien, and Frances Anne Hopkins.
Today as our nations increasingly fracture along political, economic, and religious fault lines, our microcultures are all the more relevant. For those dispossessed of their heritage through policy and mass market culture, the persistence of microcultures gives those who seek them a solid underpinning. Evidence of this is seen as many people in Ontario from traditional French Canadian backgrounds have begun asserting and identifying more strongly with their Métis ancestry. Where one has been turned largely into a multicultural linguistic community, the other offers the same traditions with the added benefit of political power.
The term ‘subculture’ brings to mind Beatniks or punk rockers, not French Canadians and Métis. ‘Microculture’ on the other hand demonstrates our reality: that which is largely unseen, yet retains a significant impact on individual lives and scattered communities. Such a term does not betray our ancestors nor does it minimize the strength of our story. Whether you agree with my take on ‘microculture’ versus ‘subculture’ I would suggest that the more we discuss elements of our cultures like this, the more likely we are to see them continue into future generations and the more likely our story will survive. Such things matter because in bringing subtle distinctions like this to the surface we show that we are invested in our cultures. Most microcultures do not have the advantages of wealth or visibility to carry them into the future. We have our heritage, our traditions and our intellects – fundamentals that should hold us in good stead for ages to come.