February 4, 2014 by The Editor
French Canadian culture has a special affinity for genealogy. One reason for this is well-known: our ancestries can often be traced back to the founding of New France because of the widespread availability of source material in the form of parish registers, notarial records, and other documents. These ‘raw materials’ might have remained unavailable to researchers today had early genealogists like Tanguay, Denissen, and Drouin not undertaken their massive projects to organize and therefore preserve our heritage in this way.
Why they undertook such projects is an important question to consider. Were they simply doing what historians do, organizing information using a modern scientific approach, like a natural history museum organizes rock specimens? Were they motivated by a nascent 19th century French Canadian nationalism, seeking to ensure that the historical record was accurate and widely known? Was there a concern for canon law (Denissen and Tanguay were both priests)? Or perhaps they were subconsciously drawing on ancient traditions of ancestor veneration found in European and Indian cultures? Whatever their motivations, they were men of their times, originating in places with a strong French Canadian culture.
Today people of French Canadian heritage in the United States are likely to be more assimilated than in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are often removed from the places where their French Canadian ancestors lived. It is more likely than not that they practice genealogy out of an interest in their ‘family line’ rather than an attachment to a French Canadian ‘diaspora.’
This approach is not necessarily connected to anything but the hobby of genealogy. It might even be fair to say that this practice of genealogy does not constitute part of culture but rather stands in place of culture. This is a generalization of course. There are many exceptions as the vibrant online communities French Canadian Descendants and Great Lakes French Canadians clearly show.
Unlike voluntary, free social media forums, genealogical organizations depend on memberships, which in turn form a hobbyist community. Membership fees often fund personal writing projects focused on genealogy that are written and “peer-reviewed” by a self-designated leadership. Such organizations might further establish a kind of social hierarchy by awarding ‘certificates of authenticity’ and publishing opportunities to people who can prove descent from one notable person or pioneer group or another (who is truly a descendant of Madame X or Monsieur Y?)
In this way, leaders of genealogical organizations not only claim elite researcher status (and the final say in genealogical matters) but also designate elite members of their genealogical societies. This results in not just the absence of authentic French Canadian culture, but also the promotion of a false sense of culture and history. If you don’t have a certificate, you’re not in the club. We can’t all be descendants of the crème-de-la-crème of early North American society now can we?
As the continuing controversy surrounding the descendants of Thomas Jefferson clearly shows, many genealogists are not interested in an egalitarian understanding of society. As a pursuit it is, in a sense, another manifestation of the adage ‘the winners write history.’ I fear that too many of today’s experts in French Canadian genealogy follow the model of the Monticello Society to the detriment of French Canadian and metis cultures in America.
When genealogy is in the service of an elite, it easily becomes an ideological tool. It may be perfectly benign, a way to encourage a connection to your culture and history. But it may also be connected to a rejection of legitimate cultural forms such as oral tradition and of historical realities that may fail documentary legitimacy. This is a bias favoring a colonialist mentality that is very much in evidence still today throughout North American societies.
I believe most people have benign intentions when they submit forms and research in exchange for certificates or contributions to society journals. It gives them a connection to history, a concrete way of showing family lineages, a way of rewarding the labor of research. They are proud of where they come from, and there is nothing wrong with that.
However, it is a practice (“approved lineages”) that I believe we are better off without – for two reasons. First, it establishes a social hierarchy among modern French Canadians and French Metis, which is fundamentally detrimental to our understanding of history and creates needless segmentation in already marginalized cultures. By selecting and highlighting well-documented family lineages, these family lines suddenly take on a prominence that results from nothing more than fortunate research and editorial preference: a status is ‘proven,’ ranks are established, and an elite is invented. Do we need it?
Secondly, it allows an extraordinary measure of power to genealogists over other people’s personal family stories. Allowing someone else veto power over your family story is to not have a story at all. Those of us who have family stories that conflict with the official record understand this all too well. Oral tradition is routinely denigrated and with it our ancestral cultures.
I favor a different approach to genealogy, one that is not determined by constructed ideas of superiority. French Canadians and Metis are born of explorers, not nobility. We are born of mill workers, trappers, and teachers, not fort commandants and fur trade bourgeois. We are born of ‘negre blancs’, ‘half-breeds’, and patriotes. This is our multifaceted cultural patrimony – a legacy that informs our culture today. It is this we are linked to, not to representations of culture as presented in genealogical research.
We are stronger as people, as cultures, and as societies when we write our own stories and take responsibility for understanding our own histories. Art, literature, spirituality, scholarship, and community are all the richer when we know our past. For a people with a ‘story culture’ and an oral tradition, this should come naturally, and will ensure that the real French Canadian and Metis stories continue to be told well into the future.