The grass was always ice cold on her bare feet and the hem of her nightgown wet with dew by the time Lucienne Cloutier padded her way from the dooryard of her family’s Maine farmhouse to the edge of the nearby brook to fill a small glass jar with clear running water. The child’s pilgrimage had to be done the moment she woke on Easter Sunday and the water had to be fresh, because it was saved for use throughout the year.
Holy water. Kept at the ready to meet any need in her Franco-American household.
That included some judicious sprinkles during thunderstorms when she and her brothers and sisters were afraid.
Cloutier, 104, remembers her childhood growing up in West Old Town as vividly as she does moving with her new husband at the age of 24 to French Island in Old Town and raising four children. It was a life steeped in Franco-American heritage — from French spoken in the home and the staunch Catholicism to ever-present work ethic, the importance of family and ties to St. Cyprien, Quebec, where she and her 13 siblings were born. But the pressure to assimilate was ever-present.
“Both my parents were Franco-American and it was French all the time. But when I went to school, my parents wanted me to learn English because they knew I needed it here,” says Cloutier. “I tried to teach my children French, but my husband didn’t agree. He said this is America and they talk English.”
While English became her children’s first language, Cloutier made sure that they never forgot their Franco-American heritage. She insisted on it.
“It’s very important to be French-American,” says Cloutier, who still lives next door to the house where her late sisters lived in the Franco-American enclave she has called home for six decades.
For 16-year-old Jordyn Lee, Cloutier’s great-great-great niece who lives in a nearby town, her only clues to her Franco-American heritage are the French lullabies she remembers her grandmother singing. While her grandmother was religious, Lee says she “didn’t grow up in the church.” In Lee’s life, French is a required high school class and none of her friends talk about their Franco- American roots.
The Old Town High School junior hopes to go to college to study psychology.
“I’m proud of it,” she says of her ancestry, “but I don’t know much about it.”
What it means to be Franco-American in Maine today was the focus of a statewide survey last year, commissioned by a legislative task force. In 2012, the 12-member Task Force on Franco-Americans, co-chaired by Sen. Thomas Martin of Benton and Rep. Ken Fredette of Newport, was convened to define “who is a Franco-American,” gather demographic data, and find ways to promote and preserve Franco-American heritage.
In support of the task force, the Franco-American Centre at the University of Maine commissioned a survey of the current attitudes among Maine’s Franco-American population. The study, conducted by Command Research, a national public opinion survey company based in Harpswell, Maine, received nearly $17,000 in funding from UMaine, the University of Maine System, the University of Maine at Fort Kent and the University of Southern Maine, among others.
The task force presented the study’s findings to the legislature in March, and the first monograph based on the data, Contemporary Attitudes of Maine’s Franco Americans, by Jacob Albert, Tony Brinkley, Yvon Labbé and Christian Potholm, was published this spring.
In a “scientific approach to understanding Maine’s largest ethnic group,” the 55-question survey of 600 self-described Franco-American adults, randomly selected statewide, provided some of the first evidence of important distinctions about Maine’s Franco-Americans not found in U.S. Census Bureau data. The survey results offer an unprecedented glimpse into the lives of Franco-Americans today — almost a quarter of all Mainers, say the researchers.
“The poll’s ability to elicit public opinion is perhaps its greatest strength, for its discoveries challenge us to see the people around us with new eyes,” according to Albert, Brinkley and Labbé, who are affiliated with UMaine’s Franco-American Centre, and Potholm, founder of Command Research.
The study is the first of its kind in Maine history, says Potholm in a report on the survey’s preliminary findings, noting that no other ethnic group in the state has ever been surveyed to this extent. As a result, “the unity, diversity and richness of Franco-American opinion are captured for the first time.”
The survey revealed information about Franco-Americans “we didn’t even know we didn’t know,” including findings of particular interest to policymakers, Brinkley says, such as changing work attitudes, the independence of Franco-American voters at the polls and variable language competencies.
“The survey reaffirms the importance of their contributions socially, politically and culturally to Maine,” says Severin Beliveau, a member of the task force, former legislator and Franco-American leader in Maine.
Through their four decades of community outreach and advocacy, UMaine Franco-American Centre researchers knew that a high percentage of Maine Franco-Americans identified with their culture. However, until the survey, the evidence was largely anecdotal.
And outside of the Franco-American community, public awareness of the dimensions of the French identity in Maine typically began and ended with historical accounts of Acadians, whose settlement in Maine began in 1604 with Samuel de Champlain and the founding of New France, and of Quebeçois, who came after 1850 to work in the burgeoning woods and textile industries. The French were the first Europeans to settle in the region.
Many of the survey findings were reaffirming of their reality, such as the fact that 30 percent of the respondents said they are fluent in French, contrary to the perception that the language is disappearing in the state, Brinkley says.
The survey also found that the stronger the cultural sense of heritage, the greater the economic prosperity.
“One way to assimilate is to leave your working-class culture behind, thinking that’s what holds you back, but the numbers suggest that being part of the cultural realities and bringing culture with you correlates with success,” Brinkley says.
Other findings better defined the challenges and needs of the ethnic community. Nearly 40 percent of all respondents cited jobs and unemployment as the most crucial problem facing them today. Of greater concern, says Brinkley, are younger respondents who appear to feel the most disenfranchised because of higher unemployment, fewer educational opportunities, and questions about their heritage and its relevance.
Of the 20 percent of the survey respondents who reported that they are unemployed, most are between the ages of 18 and 25 and living in urban areas. According to the researchers, these unemployed are less politically engaged than the other employment groups — those who worked for companies, were self-employed or retired — and among the least religious. They also were less likely to find relevance in their cultural heritage, in French or in the educational opportunities the state could provide for their future.
While unemployed, when asked to cite the most crucial problems of Franco-Americans in Maine, 63 percent of the cohort responded that they did not know.
“The response ‘don’t know’ shows up more among younger respondents,” says Albert, a research associate at the Franco-American Centre. “That signals to me that these respondents aren’t quite sure how to answer questions like: What is important to you about being French? ‘Don’t know’ is the knee-jerk response to a question you’ve not thought of before — indicating a lack of awareness — or aren’t willing to talk about. Until now, questions being asked about French cultural realities in Maine usually have revolved around language, religion or labor. It is clear that these questions are not enough to get at the realities they seek.”
Of those between the ages of 18 and 25, 13 percent judged a college education to be important, compared to 60 percent of all respondents. An estimated 17 percent of this age group goes immediately on to college, though 40 percent of those ages 26–45 have earned college degrees.
The numbers speak to the need to prioritize educational aspirations and achievement, according to the final report of the task force. More analysis is needed to “enable policymakers to develop more effective public policy targeting educational attainment and aspirations among Maine’s Franco-Americans.”
“The biggest challenge now is to reach out to young men and women, and remind them who they are and how they can play a higher profile role in Maine society,” says Beliveau.
The survey data also make it clear that Franco-American demographics have implications for Maine’s political scene with evidence that the Franco-American community can represent a swing vote. Among the findings: 45 percent were registered as Democrats, 32 percent as Independents and 14 percent as Republicans, with roughly 8 percent citing no party affiliation. Independents appeared to have “significant divisions in the cultural attitudes and political opinions of Franco-American voters,” say the researchers, with interests appearing to diverge from what some scholars have historically associated with Maine Franco-American heritage.
Brinkley takes that a step further, predicting an even greater force to be found in cultural awareness.
“If they get a clear sense of who they are and their potential power, they could be a determining force,” says Brinkley. “Obviously, they won’t all think in the same way. I believe the political future in Maine depends upon Maine’s Franco-American communities.”
Survey findings such as these are part of a growing body of research at the Franco-American Centre, which maintains an online library and an archive of oral histories and culturally relevant materials, many of them digitized and accessible by scholars and community members. The center works with partners in the Northeast and beyond as it advocates for Franco-Americans and the inclusion of their realities in Maine education.
“This is all fundamental to cultural development — as important as changing the perception for people in Maine about who we are and who we can be,” Brinkley says. “Economic development without cultural development has no soul. And cultural development without economic development is unrealistic.”
“The disempowered feel that the status quo will be against them, and people who benefit from the status quo benefit from perceived powerlessness,” Brinkley says. “People feel the power to change by finding it in themselves, feeling a strong affirmation in who they are and where they come from, and turning that understanding into a future. Isn’t this what the humanities should be about?”
In Contemporary Attitudes, the researchers wrote: “At first glance, statistics on education and family, and figures divided by age group, religious affiliation, or the urbanity/rurality of Franco-Americans tell us a great deal about how this population group’s concerns and circumstances are dependent on certain of its conditions.
“Findings that point to changing work attitudes, independence at the polls, and variable language competencies suggest that these three areas might also be important lenses through which to read the survey’s findings. Local news affiliations, opinions for job training, histories of discrimination: these are also points on which little attention has been given in research, but are now clear and available.”
In its final report, the task force called for Franco-American history to be included in Maine Learning Results, and the educational progress of Franco-American youths to be tracked to help support academic achievement and aspirations.
It said the state should invest in recruiting Maine residents who are first-generation college students, no matter their ethnicity, and require Maine public universities and community colleges to improve post-secondary graduation rates for this population.
The task force also called for the creation of a statewide Franco-American Leadership Council to continue addressing the socioeconomic challenges facing Maine Franco-Americans, and to promote opportunities for a renewed recognition of Franco-American achievements, culture, language and future in Maine.