In one word, a scholar writing about French Detroit encapsulates conventional thinking about French-Canadian culture on the American side of the Great Lakes: vanished. This is not something at all new to descriptions of the region’s Old French-Canadian and Metis communities. In fact these descriptions of the “fading” French culture have been going on for nearly 200 years. Descriptions of the French-Canadians of Detroit as a people whose days are numbered, whose day is over, have long been penned by an array of writers.
Perhaps most striking is the rarity of any sort of characterization at all of the Detroit French in the Michigan Pioneer Society Collection. These volumes of late 19th century essays (available through archive.org) largely consist of first and second-generation Anglo-American migrants to the area claiming the moniker of founders. If the French appear at all in the volumes, they come from the elite families who married early into the wave of early 19th century migration from the East Coast. Sympathetic and romantic as it may have been, Bela Hubbard’s extensive description of the Detroit French (found in the Pioneer writings) echoes the sentiment: “the joyous, carefree days of the Frenchman are over.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, this sense of disappearance has long persisted, finding its place in the dissertations of scholars and books meant for a popular readership. What many of the commentators seem to have in common are three points: they are people who seem to have never lived or had roots in the Detroit River Region; they equate French-Canadian culture with the presence of the French language; they understand French-Canadian and Métis cultures through the lens of the society that marginalized them rather than on their own terms.
While I agree that the loss of language is a tragic, if potentially reversible situation, the persistence of French-Canadian and Métis consciousness among Americans in the Great Lakes region for the many decades since the French language faded, indicates to me that language is not the sine qua non of culture. I wish it were still spoken in Michigan. I wish I spoke my grandfather’s French. I do not. But I have not, therefore, abandoned my culture and disappeared.