By James LaForest
You have but to inquire about bygone ages that came before you, ever since God created man on earth…Deuteronomy 4:32
Today, July 26, is the Feast of Stes. Anne and Joachim, parents of the Virgin Mary in Catholic tradition. Ste. Anne is perhaps the better known in North America, as she is the namesake of countless churches, lakes, rivers, and communities across the continent. The most celebrated place in the Great Lakes region is the parish of Ste. Anne de Détroit. Now a basilica, Ste. Anne’s is the second oldest continuously functioning parish in the United States, founded in 1701.
It is on this feast day that I am always reminded of the role of memory in perpetuating the traditions of our ancestors. French-Canadians and Métis are groups that have survived the catastrophic changes that come with changing fashions, new rulers, and modernity. But how has that happened? And what lessons can we draw from the continued existence of such small and marginal cultural communities (at least in the context of the greater Anglo-American continuity that has dominated the US and Canada for over two centuries now)?
This is a question with many potential answers. Many people, particularly the Québecois and Red River Métis, might point to political struggle and the resulting developments that ensured recognition of our peoples in law. While I am a nationalist and do not underestimate the power of collective action, a political movement does not alone create a people. Riel, Bourassa, and Groulx were drawing on a deeper well than animosity toward British rule and a simple desire to manage their own affairs.
Language, among the French-Canadians, has been both a political and cultural struggle. For many contemporary Canadians, language is the chief signifier of what makes someone “Franco.” In other words, to be a French speaker in Canada now has little to do with the ancient French-Canadian culture. This assertion that language is the raison d’être of French life in Canada is a circular argument rooted in something that does not seem to hold water (that an historical culture is irrelevant to our modern lives.) While I fundamentally agree with the importance of maintaining the French language in North America, if you are born into an English-speaking American family of French-Canadian heritage, the fact that we do not speak French and are no longer living in the era of international French-Canadian nationalism (the 1890s) does not preclude you from membership in the culture.
Religion has played an important role in the survival of French-Canadian and Métis cultures, with places like Ste. Anne de Détroit and pilgrimage sites vital locations embodying our common history. Yet with the past 60 years we have seen the role of the Catholic Church in Québec reduced to near insignificance. Increasing secularism in all of North America has led to the end of church affiliation for many French-Canadian Catholic families. The impact of this loss is not universal, as American-style freedom of religion has resulted in French-Canadians of every faith. Yet the weekly, even daily experience of communal worship among members of an ethic community is a powerful binding force that is no longer what it once was.
These are but three challenges to French-Canadian and Métis cultures that have impacted our survival over decades. Yet here we still are, some of us. What each of these elements has in common is that they draw on and animate something that is central to the existence of any people: collective memory. How we remember our past is a cultural conversation, that in our case takes place among scattered remnants of a bygone empire and communities that sprung up around a long-defunct industry (the fur trade.)
If through politics we have asserted a right to self-determination, it is a right that is based on an historical experience, a notion of common cause rooted in ethnic heritage. If language is a signifier of unity, then that signifier must be recognized as having been a near-universal vehicle through which our culture was transmitted for centuries, across thousands of miles of land and waterway among a variety of indigenous cultures. If religion bound us together, it is because belief in God is part of the collective strength that enables peoples to look beyond the individual experience to the greater good.
Our collective memory is more powerful than any of the antiquated anti-French laws that traumatized earlier generations, more unifying than merely speaking a language which is spoken on every continent among widely divergent cultures, and as sacred as the religious beliefs upon which Western society has largely been built.
I have found that my individual memories and understanding of our French-Canadian and Métis heritage, when held close to my being, is less powerful than those moments when I find myself sharing experiences with others. Recognizing a common heritage while drawing on personal memory suddenly becomes an ephemeral and potent experience of collectivity. It is the act of stepping into a level of existence just that much greater than yourself, beyond your family, into the realm of ethnos, a state in which our folk cultures can be embraced as the emanation of our collective memory. Whether you are a Baby Boomer or Gen Z, in order to experience this, you have but to inquire and you will learn.