From Harvard to Manchester, People are rediscovering their French-speaking origins

Twice a week, the Franco-American teaches a course to discover the French language in North America. A course that also tells its story.

I grew up in Dearborn, near Detroit, near Ontario. I grew up listening to Radio-Canada and spoke French at home with my parents and grandfather.She says.

I studied at the University of Michigan, Wayne State University and the University of Virginia and we never discussed Franco-American reality or the existence of Quebec! »

A quote from Claire-Marie Brisson, Professor of French at Harvard University

Claire-Marie’s grandfather, originally from Saint-Fabien-de-Panet near Quebec, was the first of the family to settle in the United States. He joined the approximately 900,000 French Canadians who migrated to New England in the 19th and early 20th centuries. An important community that we speak very little of in the United States.

This observation was the trigger for the professor.

I then asked myself what it means to me to be a Franco-American, to have this experience of speaking French in North America. I wrote a thesis that spoke not only of the identity and reality of French Americans, but also of French Canadians throughout Canada.explains the Franco-Michigan woman.

Claire-Marie Brisson in front of a Harvard University pavilion.

Claire-Marie Brisson, a Franco-American, teaches French at Harvard University.

Photo: Radio Canada / Karine Mateu

She also persuaded the renowned Harvard University to take a French course based on the history and culture of Francophones in North America. She added a bit of geography.

One day I said I have family in Quebec and my friend said to me, “Ah yes! It’s near Haiti!” Seriously, I wasn’t laughing, even though I know geography is difficult. »

A quote from Claire-Marie Brisson, Professor of French at Harvard University

So, she explains, I started my course with a carte blanche of the United States and North America and asked her where the French-speaking parts were.

Dekyi Tsotsong and Owen Sughrue in a park.

Students of Claire-Marie Brisson at Harvard University, Dekyi Tsotsong and Owen Sughrue

Photo: Radio Canada / Karine Mateu

In the park in front of the café, musicians enliven the lives of passers-by and customers on the terrace. Two of Claire-Marie Brisson’s students, Owen and Dekyi, join the conversation.

Owen is also a Franco-American.

I’m from Massachusetts. My grandmother is from Quebec. She spoke French with her family, at school and in church. His brother Paul spoke French to me when I was little, little phrases like, “How are you? Thank you! You’re welcome!” But that’s not much! says the student.

The family transmission of the French language stopped there. Therefore, he had to deepen them further in school. I studied French for four years when I was 14 and four years here at Harvard. It is a connection to my grandmother and my mother’s familyhe says.

I am a Tibetan-American immigrant, says Dekyi, the other student, who was born in Nepal. She has no French-speaking ancestry but does have a love for French. She studies American history. Like his teacher, he was never told anything about Franco-Americans throughout his school career.

I hadn’t learned it before, either in my courses or in my French classes. In high school and Harvard, we only talk about France and Paris. »

A quote from Dekyi Tsotsong, student

In his case, learning French is simply a choice. I lost my Nepali language, my Tibetan is not very good, but I had a chance to learn French. I don’t know, I had a connectionshe said in excellent French.

The Legacy of French Canadians Podcast

Jesse Martineau in a radio studio.

Jesse Martineau hosts the French Canadian Legacy Podcast.

Photo: Facebook French Canadian Legacy Podcast

Less than an hour from Boston, French-American Jesse Martineau invites historians, politicians and artists to his microphone every week to discuss the history of the Francophones living in the United States. His podcast French Canadian legacy podcastwhich has been around since 2019 is also a way to take ownership of your own story.

I was born in Manchester, New Hampshire. Both of my parents spoke French at home as children. My grandfather came from Saint-Apollinaire, my great-grandfather from Saint-Léonard-d’Aston, other ancestors from Sainte-Monique or Saint-Georges-de-Windsorhe says.

All my ancestors are from Quebec, but me and my sister are the first non-French speaking generation. »

A quote from Jesse Martineau, host of the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast
Jesse Martineau in front of a poster.

Jesse Martineau is also a solicitor at Manchester Superior Court.

Photo: Jesse Martineau

Mr Martineau, who is also a prosecutor at Manchester High Court, ruled the transmission would not stop like that. Last year he spent six months in Quebec to take French classes.

Back then, says Jesse Martineau, parents stopped speaking French to their children, in part for fear of discrimination. Speaking French, he explains, meant we were poor, we were factory workers. It was not seen well to speak French.

Professor Claire-Marie Brisson goes even further. People were forced to speak English. There are many people who said that if students spoke French in school, they had to copy: “I will not speak French on school premises”, which means: “I will not speak French in the schoolyard.” There was assimilation, xenophobia.

A rebirth?

According to Jesse Martineau, more and more Franco-Americans are interested in their origins. Meetings for exchange and sharing are organized.

I think now it’s a renaissance. There’s an energy you see in people younger than me. »

A quote from Jesse Martineau, host of the French-Canadian Legacy Podcast

Infatuation or Decline? Estimates differ. Jesse Martineau believes that there would be more than two million descendants of French Canadian immigrants in New England. In contrast, in 2010, about 200,000 New Englanders reported speaking French at home, according to census data.

Claire-Marie Brisson does not consider these figures to be representative. When we say “francophone” does that mean I speak 100% French? Does that mean I use words from time to time? It’s hard to know how many we are.

However, the networking works. I know Jesse Martineau, she said. I also have a podcast called The North American Francophonie. I even attended his podcast. We speak on social media. We’re a community from across New England. That’s positive!

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