Many Franco-Americans in New England don’t have a strong connection to their family’s heritage. Often, they cannot speak French and do not have an understanding of their history. But what about those Americans of French-Canadian heritage who were raised in border towns neighboring Québec; are they more likely to speak French as a first language and know their history by heart?
Chantalle Forgues, a member of the Franco-American Centre (FAC) in Manchester, NH, was born and raised on the border of Québec and the United States, but was discouraged by her family to speak French. Even though her paternal grandparents mostly spoke French and her father was brought up speaking French, Forgues says she was urged to be an Anglophone.
Despite this disconnect from the French language, Forgues says that her family participated in French-Canadian culture.
“We did the French stuff; we did the sugaring, the music, things like that,” she says, adding that food was a significant part of their customs.
Some of the traditional French-Canadian foods she grew up making included La Buche de Noelle; a jelly roll cake with chocolate filling made to look like a Christmas yule log, and Tarte au Sucre; a sugar pie mostly made of brown sugar, flour, eggs, and butter.
Forgues grew up in a cultural French-Canadian environment with her Anglophone mother and Francophone father
who had learned English in his teenage years. It was evident to her parents that speaking English would be more beneficial to her than speaking French.
In New England, there has been an open secret spanning generations of Franco-Americans of their own rejection of their language and culture in order to fit in with their English-speaking counterparts.
However, Forgues says this rejection of the French language has not only been a Franco-American occurrence but one that is also found in Canada.
“Not just American culture, but across the border, too. Where I’m from is on the border of Québec and Ontario, with a huge Anglophone and Francophone battle between those provinces,” she says.
The ongoing language conflict between English-Canadians and French-Canadians affected the way she viewed herself as an American with a French-Canadian background.
“I think French people from where I’m from are viewed as the poor, lower-class people that are Catholic, they’re farmers, they’re uneducated, they’re not well-esteemed, so my family was pretty clear that I should be an Anglophone,” Forgues says.
Having a French-Canadian background was a part of her upbringing, but not her identity. Forgues didn’t bother letting others know about her heritage; she says that some people figured it out by her last name, but that was their only indicator.
It was only later when Forgues was in her high school and college years that she began to form an identity around her heritage.
“When I grew up and got to be a young adult, I learned that it wasn’t something to be ashamed of. I went out into the
world and went to college in Vermont and law school in Boston and I sort of realized that it wasn’t something I needed to hide or be embarrassed about because there’s other cultures out there, too, and I didn’t really get that when I was a kid,” she says.
Because of that real-world experience, Forgues sparked her own inspiration to revive the French language that she never had the chance to learn. However, due to the drop of interest in French-Canadian and Franco-American culture in New England, she also feels that it’s a challenge to pick up the language in a majority English-speaking population.
“I don’t see much interest in it at all. I feel like it’s dying out, just when I’m starting to get interested in it,” she says.
Forgues hopes that the language and culture will make a comeback, not just for her, but for her children.
“Oh, I wish it would. Especially because I have three kids, so I’m hoping that they will grow an interest in it and maybe adopt some of it,” she says.
Because she is eager for her children to be involved, Forgues enjoys attending family events organized by the FAC. She believes that immersing her children in the events will help inspire them to appreciate their heritage and learn French along the way.
“I love all the family events: the summer picnic, Poutinefest, and Halfway to Mardi Gras are great for kids! The Poutinefest really resonates with the kids because of the food,” she says.
When it comes to the revival of French-Canadian and Franco-American culture in New England, there is a difference of opinion on whether the culture and language can make a reemergence or continue fading away from the mainstream.
For Forgues, she is hopeful that more people, especially the younger generation, will become interested in their family’s French-Canadian and Franco-American roots and bring the culture back to life in New England and, more specifically, in New Hampshire.
“It’s been here for a long time and it’s part of New Hampshire for sure with all of the mills and all of the history, and it’s a fun culture to add some different flavor to Manchester, which is increasingly diverse, so I think it adds some value to New Hampshire with the traditions and different language, religion, music; it’s got something to offer,” she says.
Perhaps with enough cultural interest, the American descendants of French-Canadian immigrants can create a loud and noticeable presence throughout New England, reclaiming the previously rejected heritage and making it their own.