by James LaForest
AUTHOR NOTE: I first wrote this essay in 2012 on the blog “The Red Cedar: Essays on Culture and Heritage.” It was my first attempt at putting into writing my thoughts on my French Canadian identity. In the subsequent eight years I have written a great deal more on this blog, on The Red Cedar and in various other publications. I have recently made The Red Cedar private and with this post will slowly transfer all of my “classic” essays to Voyageur Heritage for long-term archiving. The essay has been edited lightly for grammar and clarity from the original.
It’s difficult, if not folly, to try to describe growing up ‘French-Canadian’ in Michigan in an era when there was, in my experience, little discernible difference between people with French-Canadian heritage and their neighbors of Irish, German, Polish or any other European ancestry. But for my part, growing up in the 1970s and 80s there was a sense of difference, if only because I was so attuned to family history from an early age. I was a teenage genealogy geek and as a consequence, a long list of French surnames was constantly before my eyes. To find a classmate or neighbor with a francophone name, Brasseur, Shaloy (from Charlerois), or Mason (in our town, from Grandmaison), not to mention LaFave, LaLonde, and LaFreniere (I feel a little like Bilbo leaving the Shire – or should that be Bilbeau…) gave me an unspoken sense of kinship.
Although my family had moved back and forth between the Detroit and the Windsor areas since the early 1700s, the most recent landing was an actual immigration: my grandfather’s parents arrived on the Detroit shore around 1900 from the small communities of Belle Riviere and Pointe Aux Roches on Lake St. Clair in Ontario. My grandfather was born in 1901, the 6th of 13 children, and the 2nd to be born in River Rouge, Detroit.
I never knew Grandpa Sam, but I imagine his French was pretty good. His parents spoke French as a mother tongue. But by my father’s generation, there was little desire to pass on the language, despite my great-grandfather’s admonition to his son to speak it with his children. My dad knew a few words which I managed to pry out during my frequent interrogations of him, yearning to hear his memories of youth. He remembered Mim, his grandmother, who made him ask for his lunch in French as a little boy. I suspect he may have remembered more, but those few words he shared with me still evoke a treasured image of him at the table of his grandmother, all four-feet-ten of her.
And thus, my sense of French-Canadian identity was born. I never called it “identity” as such. It was not inculcated. It rested in the memories of my family, and was animated in the dancing, dark-haired, suntanned, beer-drinking extended family who populated my childhood. They could be a bit wild. And it was a heritage I understood implicitly as I saw older generations in their pews at Sunday mass. It was a mystery, a photograph, a recipe. It was the often unspoken history that drove my search for connection.
I had then no specific awareness that certain elements of our family life were rooted in French-Canadian heritage. My mother, a South Dakota farm girl, learned many recipes from my father’s family. She, like all the women in my father’s family, made meat pie. It was only later that I realized this ‘meat pie’ was also known as tourtière and is a recipe deeply rooted in French-Canadian culture – our very own pâté de campagne. It was eaten by our family during deer season and on New Year’s Day, although the tradition of eating it after midnight mass on Christmas eve is central to most people’s memories. And then I uncovered the origins of a sort of chicken soup/slider called glissons (glissants) – another recipe with roots in French-Canadian culture. It was our soul food, even if we didn’t yet know why.
As for my grandmother Elizabeth, the only trip that I am aware that she made outside of America was on pilgrimage to St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. The liberal-leaning, big-tent Catholic church I remember was at the center of our lives. To attend mass in my hometown was to see my family. Everyone had a place where they sat week after week. It was a predictable scene that I can largely reconstruct with only a moment’s thought.
Summer and deer season were exciting times because it brought other relatives North on vacation and their appearance at Mass made the otherwise dull Sunday morning more of an occasion. There were parishes in Michigan with larger concentrations of French-Canadians that continued masses in French well into the 20th century. Living in a remote corner of northern Lower Michigan, we were far from such one-time French-Canadian centers of Saginaw, Monroe, or Copper Country. While we didn’t hear French, to attend mass on a weekday at St. Paul’s was more or less to have a private family mass.
When I look at family photographs, I see the somewhat stern, almost ‘handsome’ features of my great-grandmother pass down through the generations. By all accounts, Vitaline, the diminutive woman who taught my father a few words of French, had a lot of sorrow in her life. It is difficult not to lament her circumstances.
But it is also through Vitaline that I have often found my sense of direction in terms of discovering French-Canadian ancestry and appreciating my sense of French-Canadian identity. It was through Vitaline that I first discovered family history beyond a few generations. It was through Vitaline that family lore, and later church records, brought our lineage back to the time before the French.
Growing up, ‘French-Canadian’ was a phrase I learned from my father and which was reinforced as I traced my genealogy. But it was also something that felt deeply ingrained. I did not know as a teenager that my body ran with the blood of 15 generations of French who had lived along the rivers of New France, and generations before them who lives along the shores of Lakes Michigan and the riverine world of the Illinois peoples. All I knew was that I was part of who came before, and they were part of me. Somehow I knew that my history stretched down the length of Lower Michigan to Detroit, across lakes and rivers, and up the St. Lawrence to Quebec where my grandmother once went to pray. It was these spiritual and mental maps, and the soul foods we ate to mark the seasons, that were among the surest signs of who we were.