Claire Poirier and Robert Poisson at a meeting in Lewiston of a task force dedicated to preserving Maine's Franco-American culture.
For the group's final public meeting, about a dozen Franco-Americans showed up at the Franco-American Heritage Center in Lewiston. They chatted in French as they waited for things to begin. Many said their biggest fear is losing their culture.
"I'm - I guess, the main concern is the loss of the French language among our next generation, and that's a sad thing," says Claire Breton. Breton, like many others, is curious about what the task force will recommend to preserve Franco-American culture.
She got some encouraging words from the chair of the task force, Republican Rep. Ken Fredette. "I really see the work here that we're doing as tranformational," Fredette said. "In a sense what I'm saying by that is that we've been in this state for 100 years, and I think really what we need to do as a community of Franco-Americans is to find our voice."
In the spirit of finding a collective voice, and then using it, the task force presented four recommendations. First: Require Franco-American history to be taught in school curriculums, just as Native American history was required about 10 years ago as part of statewide standards.
Second: Require Maine schools to track ethnicity. It's a simple idea, but Fredette says once a student is identified as Franco American, it helps track that student's performance in school. "That, I think, becomes the foundation, not only for our work now, but for the work in the future."
Recommendations one and two will both require legislative approval. But the third recommendation, one that Rep. Fredette thinks is particularly important, will depend on Franco-Americans themselves. It's to create an independent, statewide Franco-American Leadership Council, to unify the pockets of Franco-Americans across the state to carry on the work of the task force.
While the audience seemed generally supportive, the idea prompted 90-year-old Robert Poisson to blurt out this question: "Do you really believe that our children, or our granchildren, or our great-grandchildren will be having meetings like this?"
For a few moments, it left members of the task force was speechless. Poisson says all of his kids learned French growing up, but none of them speak it now. After some back and forth with the task force, he eventually found some hope from audience member Cindy Larock. She travels the state teaching traditional French-Canadian folk dancing to kids of all ages.
"I think that there is a lot of potential for other important parts of the Franco culture, which is the music," she said.
But another audience member - who didn't speak during the meeting - defied the perception of the young generation. "I mean, I've always associated myself as a Franco-American, or identified, I should say," says Timothy Stretton, a senior at the University of Southern Maine. He came to the meeting as part of a school project tracking his family's immigration to Lewiston.
Stretton says culture is important to him, though he's not fluent in French. "I'm taking French courses right now, so I'm working on it," he says.
The fact that Stretton is pursuing higher education represents the fourth, and final, recommendation from the task force. It found that fewer Franco-Americans hold a college degree compared to the rest of the population. Ken Fredette says the task force hopes advocates will work with Maine colleges and universities to attract more first-generation college students - from any ethnicity or background.
"Getting them in, and getting them the skills and the education that they need, I think can be transformational, not only for the Franco-American community, but for the future of Maine," Fredette says.
Higher academic achievement, says Fredette, will likely lead to better economic well-being. The task force will deliver a report on its findings and recommendations to the state Dec. 15.
Photo by Patty Wight.