What is French America? I have been thinking about this strange question a good deal these days, as my relation to that nebulous region winds to a close. My immigration documents inform me that I arrived in Quebec on July 29, 2003. In a little over a week, on July 31, 2013, I will be getting on a one-way flight to Paris, ending a chapter of my life that lasted exactly a decade plus two days. Well, minus the year in Berlin, the eight months in and around New York, the several months away each summer. Still, notwithstanding these sorties, for two days more than a decade French America will have been my constant home and point de repère.
If you were to Google the phrase that serves as our title, you would get some blunt-minded advice about airlines and stopovers, but that's not what I mean. Consider rather this progression: From Paris, you set out to St. Malo, and from there to the islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon, then on to Quebec City, then Montreal, then Ottawa, then Toronto, Windsor, and, finally, you take the tunnel across the détroit into Détroit. Sorry, I mean Detroit. (In the process of Americanization, it's the accents that are first to go.) You have arrived in that most American of cities (now especially American in its failure), and you have done so by imperceptible degrees.
The most significant transition, in fact, is probably the first one, which takes place entirely within the Hexagon, as you move from the French capital to the peninsular Breton outpost, the walled city of the Malouins with the streets named after their native son Jacques Cartier. From there, you cross an ocean, guided by winds long known to Celts and Basques, but without leaving France: the aforementioned islands are French territoires outre-mer, and from them you can call Paris without using a national dialing code. But North America looms, obviously, and of practical necessity defines, with the migrating birds and the cold fronts and the light, the reality of these tiny settlements that cannot be artificially filtered out with the conventions laid down by the telephone service. So you move down the St. Lawrence a good way, and you come to a capital of sorts, walled like St. Malo, with tourist junk in shop windows like St. Malo, and you could be forgiven for your momentary confusion as to which side of the French Atlantic you are on. And then you continue down the St. Lawrence to the southwest, and you encounter other cities, some big and some small, each more shabby than the previous one, and each more American, more like Detroit, less like Paris, until you hit the great bankrupt ruin itself.
From there, if you like, you can enter out into a whole third of a continent dotted with French names that are now pronounced according to the rules of no known language: Des Moines is neither 'Dess Moynz' nor 'Day Mwahnne'; Terre Haute is 'Terra Hut'. Americans understand that there is some sort of foreignness there that they must respect, even if they don't know quite how. Yet during the Iowa primaries of each US presidential election, Radio-Canada will still send a reporter to find, in that Midwestern capital, a French-speaking American to tell the Québécois what is at stake, and they will act like it is the most natural thing in the world, like the Francophone man in the street had been chosen at random. And they will pronounce the name of the city just as if it were the partitive genitive plural of the French word for 'monk' that were in question.
How did it get this way? What is French America? We know about the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, of course, and how the overextended French empire, already happy to have thrown the battle against the British at the Plains of Abraham in 1759, was relieved in turn to dump the Mississippi River basin on the newly independent colonies. But that's not what I'm asking about, any more than I was interested before in Expedia itineraries.
One thing is certain to me after a decade in Montreal: French America is not Quebec, and it is a betrayal of a complicated, centuries-long, continent-wide history to circumscribe French America within these reduced provincial boundaries. French America is indeed something that radiates out from the St. Lawrence, and that extends to the Maritime Provinces, New England, the Canadian Prairies, and the American Midwest. I agree with at least the spirit of Pierre Trudeau's argument against the sovereigntists, that Quebec separatism is wrong to the extent that it would reduce a continental legacy, which overlaps in many places with other cultural legacies, to the neat but arbitrary boundaries set by cartography.
One of the cultural legacies with which French America overlaps in complex and unique ways, ways worth acknowledging and celebrating, is that of Native America (itself of course constituted out of many legacies). I am struck by the frequency with which I come across, in 19th-century non-French texts, the idea that French America (or French Canada, which is a proper part of this) occupies a sort of intermediate position between the native and colonial worlds. Thus Henry David Thoreau writes in 1853:
It has been observed by another that the French Canadians do not extend nor perpetuate their influence. The British, Irish, and other immigrants, who have settled the townships, are found to have imitated the American settlers and not the French. They reminded me in this of the Indians, whom they were slow to displace, and to whose habits of life they themselves more readily conformed than the Indians to theirs.... Thus, while the descendants of the Pilgrims are teaching the English to make pegged boots, the descendants of the French in Canada are wearing the Indian moccasin still.
And a half century earlier the German anatomist and natural philosopher Johann Friedrich Blumenbach took the case of the French Canadians as a classic case of 'racial degeneration' or reversion to the primitive state. He writes in the Contributions to Natural History of 1806:
Europeans enough... have found such a great delight in this wild state of nature as to lose all desire of changing it, and coming back to their own countrymen; nor are there wanting instances of it, especially among the French Canadians, who of their own free-will have gone over to the savages there, and taken up the same kind of life as they.
The idea is usually expressed in the terms typical of 19th-century progressivist chauvinism, but the authors who express it inadvertently convey an important historical truth: that the French colonial experience in America really was very different from the English one (and for that matter from the Spanish one). They came in small numbers to cold, forested regions. The life of the voyageurs and the coureurs de bois required adaptation to local realities, which meant in large part adaptation to cultural forms, native forms, already adapted to local geographies. This different reality gave rise in time to the Métis nation, to French-Algonquian creoles, and to a French-American identity that existed on a continuum with, rather than across a fundamental conceptual divide from, the native peoples European settlers were in the course of displacing. As I noted in a recent essay on Louis Riel, when this Métis resistance fighter was executed in Saskatchewan in 1885, this was perceived as much in Montreal as a blow against French Canada, as it was in the Prairies as a blow against Native Canada.
My mother came to visit from California in the Fall of 2003, shortly after I arrived from my first job in Cincinnati. She looked around my neighborhood (at the time, the Village de Lorimier on the eastern part of the Plateau), and said: "This looks like where you lived before." I was annoyed, in that irrational filial way, that she had placed me right back in the Midwest after my desperate flight away from it (I had been aiming for Europe then too, and was ridiculously sensitive about the fact that I had fallen several thousand kilometers short, and settled for what at the time I took to be some negligible North American simulacrum). "It's totally different!" I snapped back. "Why?" she pushed, "What's so different?"
I paused, and thought, and came up blank. "Because it starts with a 'Q'," I finally said, hoping to deflect my irritability into a joke.
But this reply may have been more profound than I understood at the time. Québec! What a name! Some sources will tell you that it derives from the Algonquian word Kébec, which means 'where the river narrows'. But of course that makes no sense: the Algonquians no more had the Greek kappa than they did the Latin qv, and what these amateur etymologists really mean to say is that we are looking at a Native word given a typical French orthography. There are other such instances of linguistic métissage, of course, some of them very unexpected: thus the -cad- in Acadie is the same as the -quod- in Passamaquoddy, that cartoonlike placename noticed by any slightly attentive vacationer to Maine. But Acadia has been fully translated into the elevated registers of European mythology (so very close to Arcadia!), and loses altogether its Algonquian force. Québec straddles both worlds perfectly.
In ten years in Montreal I have lived in six different places, three of them east of the Boulevard St. Laurent, and three of them west. Well, there was also that month and a half I'd rather not bring up, which was technically east of the great divide, but could hardly be called living. Then again it does help to tip the scales: I've lived more often on the French side of town than the English. In all, I feel I know Montreal very well. I have also been all around the province, even to that peculiarly circular lake north of Quebec City; to Val d'Or, the miserable gold mining town and gateway to the truly native North, where burly Québécois miners ride choppers with Confederate flags waving from the back; and all the way to Wemindji, on St. James Bay, where I stayed with the Cree, and helped make a ceremonial hut out of moss and twigs, and ate squash and flaked whitefish with admixed blueberries, as one might have done 5000 years ago.
I have flown back and forth to Toronto countless times. I have never been to the Maritimes, nor to the Prairies, nor to the Arctic. I will probably never go. As I said, I'm leaving in a few days.
It is however somewhat more likely that I will find myself again in the Detroit airport, or even passing through Des Moines, on some low-end academic roadshow. And I'll have my own private romance with the toponyms, enriched by this past decade in ways I expect to continue to discover, as those around me go about their history-less American business as if it had just always been that way.
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