September 29, 2013 by LeVoyageur
For the past several months I have been actively involved in organizing the petition for Michigan’s first French Canadian Heritage Day and putting a lot of energy into building, promoting, and editing the blog Voyageur Heritage. It has been both a learning experience (a good one) and a pleasure to get to know so many people as interest grew in this project. That alone is a good result, on a personal level.
But on a wider level, I feel equally as satisfied that the work we have done as a committee and as a community has made a difference. October 4, 2013, five months and a day since this project begin, is really just a beginning. From the outset, my hope was not to just get a special day for French Canadians in Michigan. More importantly my personal goal was to raise awareness. If this one day were a ‘one-time deal’ that would be all well and good. But would it make much of a difference?
The question is, what constitutes success? Success for me in this project is knowing that people have engaged, or reengaged, with one of Michigan’s founding cultures. Success is seeing interest build around an idea that is not just about the past or about Michigan’s struggles. Success is knowing that people have come around to a new idea: an idea that French Canadian culture can and should be part of Michigan’s 21st century narrative.
Michigan’s French Canadian culture is part of a dynamic, living, and historical culture that stretches across North America. It’s place in Michigan is without dispute. This great culture has developed in many ways, in different areas. We are cousins to the Cajuns and Creole of Louisiana. We are known as Franco-Americans out East. Just across the Detroit River, many prefer the moniker Franco-Ontarian, and throughout the Great Lakes region many French Canadians also identify as Métis.
The question that arises for me, going forward, is how do we as a community tap into our collective memories that are nearly four centuries in the making and build on them? How do we remember to ‘live’ culture, not just memorialize it?
Storytellers reinterpret their art in every new generation, bringing new characters, a refreshed storyline, and contemporary nuance to tradition. Artists across North America, such as Simon Beaudry in Quebec are reinterpreting traditional culture through fine art for the 21st century. A new generation has produced artisans of traditional arts and skills who have begun reintegrating these treasures into community life through crafts, food, music, and storytelling.
We are limited only by our failure to imagine. I know today that men and women in Michigan are quietly teaching the art of finger weaving the traditional voyageur sash; I know that living history workers and re-enactors are preserving traditional culture and knowledge for the future; I know that musicians and researchers are helping uncover Michigan’s French Canadian fiddle tradition. I know that people across the Great Lakes region are looking into old cookbooks and excavating traditional family recipes. That to me is hope for the future.
Imagine a tiny population of original settlers, many of whom were mixed race, some operating a trade outside the law, almost all devoted Catholics, living at the far edge of a colony that was barely populated itself; imagine that this population could produce a culture which survived wars that saw their lands pass from a Catholic empire to a Protestant one and then on to the American Republic; imagine that such a culture could survive intact, and be passed on to a generation 300 years later.
And now imagine leaving all that to the history books. Who are we to see its end? If there is a time to build, that time has come. If there is a time to gather, that time has come. If there is a time to laugh and dance, that time has definitely come! (We’re French Canadians after all!) Our ancestors planted the seeds of culture. Let’s reap it in joy for many generations to come.