Virgil Benoit: a personal retrospective by Dick Bernard

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Virgil Benoit Dec 19, 2011, at Cafe Aster, Minneapolis. First in-person meeting with Virgil about Franco-Fete 2012

The eleven of us who were the Twin Cities Franco-Fete Committee* on site Sep 28-30 are preparing to debrief this years event on November 15. This seems a good time to recognize the man whose vision and determination and passion led to Twin Cities Franco-Fete in the first place: Dr. Virgil Benoit of Red Lake Falls MN and the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks and IF Midwest.
Readers who were at the event know that Virgil had a serious automobile accident three days before Franco-Fete began, Tuesday night Sep 25.
As I write, Virgil is recuperating at home. My evidence is occasional e-mail messages, and a response he just filed to the base blog post about Franco-Fete! This is no epitaph or eulogy, in other words. It is a small tribute from someone who’s learned much about his French-Canadian culture through years of contact, mostly indirect with Dr. Benoit.
We all have our stories. Here, very briefly is mine, as pieced together from assorted documents I retain here at home.
I first “met” Dr. Benoit in the Les Francais d’Amerique/French in America calendar for the year 1985. There were to be sixteen more of these calendars, the last for 2002, which were a joint project of Virgil Benoit and Marie-Reine Mikesell of Chicago, all printed in Grand Forks. I have the calendars through 2001 – a precious possession (why didn’t I get 2002?!). The color photographs from the collection were posted and remain on the internet here.
While we lived far apart, geographically, I seemed often to be somewhere within his sphere.
The first time in person was probably L’Heritage Tranquille conference in November, 1985, at the new Riverplace development just below Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Minneapolis. He did the keynote at that conference, and a group of us had come down from Hibbing for it. Later, I learned he had essentially organized the conference for Concordia Language Villages, and I still have the book, L’Heritage Tranquille, which was sold at the conference. Here’s what Leonard Inskip of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had to say: L’Heritage Tranquille 001
The next year, 1986, some of us from Hibbing went over to Red Lake Falls for a fall event, Le Festival Rural, which was in the town hall of the community. It was a stimulating day of immersion in things French-Canadian, including guests from St. Boniface MB. Lorraine deMillo of Hibbing had told us about the event and later wrote a summary about it for the newsletter I edited, Chez Nous: Virgil Benoit:Midwest Fr001
Time went on, and I recall seeing him at Alliance Francaise events in Minneapolis. I was at an event, Espaces du Francophone, of which he was part, which includes a photo of him at the time (1989):Espaces Francophone 1989001
At one point he came down for the St. Paul Winter Carnival and I introduced him to a couple of elderly Nun friends, French-Canadian, at Bethany Convent at the College of St. Catherine. It was a rich moment for Sr. Ann Thomasine Sampson and Sr. Ellen Murphy. They with Virgil in his buffalo coat.

Virgil and Michael Rainville with the Buffalo Coat January 20, 2012

Le Festival Rural at some point moved to rural Red Lake Falls to Huot Crossing on the Red Lake River, where the Old Crossing Treaty 1863001 transferred the rich land of Red River from the Indians to the whites. It was the last major event of the 1862 “Indian Wars” whose 150th anniversary is being commemorated this year. I traveled north for a few of these events, now called Chautauqua, all organized by Virgil Benoit.

Virgil Benoit "up north" spring 2008 photo by Anne Dunn

About 2007, Virgil had the introductory event for IF Midwest at the University of North Dakota. I was able to make it to all of the subsequent events: first in Grand Forks; thence a tour including my ancestral home parish at Oakwood, places like Pembina, Bathgate, Leroy and Belcourt; in 2010 in Bismarck, 2011 in Fargo, and now setting root in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis St. Paul.
Let’s leave it at that.
A hardy Merci Beaucoup to Dr. Benoit for celebrating a rich culture: the French-Canadians (or whatever we happen to call ourselves) of the Midwest!

Virgil Benoit with Francine Roche and her niece from Montreal, July 17, 2012, also at Cafe Aster

More about Franco-Fete here; more about French-Canadians in the Midwest here.
* (in alphabetical order): Dick Bernard, Bob Dedrick, Mike Durand, Jerry Foley, Pierre Girard, Mark Labine, Fr. Jules Omalanga, Jane Peck, Marie Trepanier, Jon Tremblay, Mary Ellen Weller

Franco-Fete in Villes Jumelles (the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St. Paul) September 28-30, 2012

UPDATE Sep 12, 2012: Here’s an interesting hour with samples of Le Vent du Nord music and discussion of Franco-Fete on Bonjour Minnesota radio program Sep 11, 2012.
CONTACT INFORMATION: Check in occasionally. Scroll to end of this post.
Francophone, Francophile, French-Canadian ancestry…or know someone who is, or is interested? Consider passing this post along, about a very special event in Minneapolis September 28-30, 2012. That’s only two weeks away. Home website is here.

(click on all photos to enlarge them)

Statue of Pioneers corner of Marshall and Main Street NE, Minneapolis, less than a mile from the conference venue.

reverse side of Pioneer Statue

In 1980, the United States Census asked, for the last time, a question about the ethnic background of Americans.
That year, 7.9% of Minnesotans- 321,087 persons, one of every 12 citizens – declared themselves to be a least partially of French (France and/or French-Canadian) ancestry. Neighboring Wisconsin counted 7.3% Wiconsinites of such ancestry and many other states had very significant numbers of persons in this category. Fr-Can in U.S. 1980001
It is this base, and any of those with an interest in the French language and cultural influence, who will want to set aside the end of September, 2012, for the first-ever Franco-Fete in Minneapolis.
All details, including registration information, are on the web here.
IMPORTANT TO NOTE: The agenda continues to evolve. Even if you’ve checked before, check back again to get a more complete picture of the entire conference. The music and meal programs especially should be reserved now as we anticipate very significant interest both Friday and Saturday evening.
Franco-Fete will include all the elements of a fine program: family, food, fun…along with academics, history, music…
This will be the first such Fete in Minneapolis-St. Paul, but is not a first ever venture.
Leader Dr. Virgil Benoit, French-Canadian (Franco-American), professor of French at the University of North Dakota and a lifelong part of the Red Lake Falls MN community, has been putting together similar festivals for over 35 years in various places in Minnesota and North Dakota. Dr. Benoit is a professor of diverse talents and great skill, as well as having great passion for the culture and language of his birth.
This years conference will be the largest and most ambitious thus far. Most likely it will be continued in subsequent years.

Virgil Benoit ca 2008 compliments of Anne Dunn

There are two major venues for this years Conference:
Our Lady of Lourdes Church, since 1877 the spiritual home of Minneapolis French-Canadians, will be the venue for Friday night Sep 28. The below photo, taken ca 1968, shows Lourdes as it was before the development of Riverplace around it in the early 1980s.)
DeLaSalle High School, a few short blocks from Lourdes on Nicollet Island in the Mississippi River, and within a short walk of downtown Minneapolis, will be the venue for all of Saturday Sep 29 programs.
On Sunday, September 30, at noon, the French-speaking congregation at St. Boniface Catholic Church in nearby northeast Minneapolis, will host those who wish to experience the Catholic Mass in French. This community, largely immigrants from African countries with French colonial overlays, is a vibrant French-speaking community in the midst of the Twin Cities. While not a formal part of the conference, we urge participants to take part in this ending celebration.

Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church, Minneapolis, 1968

Our Lady of Lourdes, August 7, 2012

DeLaSalle High School, Nicollet Island, Minneapolis MN

Fr. Jules Omalanga, pastor St. Boniface Catholic Church, Minneapolis, after Mass March 25, 2012

After a sit-down supper at Our Lady of Lourdes on Friday Sep 28, and tour of the church, noted musician Dan Chouinard and friends will give a concert in the sanctuary of the Church.
On Saturday evening Sep 29 the noted Quebec band Le Vent du Nord will do music workshops and a music program at DeLaSalle. They are internationally noted, and one of Canada’s most popular ensembles. (The web page can also be accessed in French.) UPDATE: More on the Le Vent du Nord event here.. Tickets can also be purchased on-line here. The evening program begins at 5:30 p.m.
The St. Boniface Francophone Choir of Minneapolis, Dan Chouinard and others will also be part of this evening extravaganza.

And Sunday Sep 30 at noon, the community at St. Boniface will host all for Catholic Mass in French.
Again, Franco-Fete is only two weeks away!
Now is the time to enroll.

NOTE: You can find many related commentaries using search word Quebec or French-Canadian. Or enter any of the following numbers in the search box and click enter: (Each has a basis in French-Canadian or Quebec) #15 Grandpa; 28 Weller; 43 Fathers Day; 280; 306; 313; 388; 449; 450; 459; 481; 486; 510; 550; 573; 582; UPDATE Sep 5: 585; 610; Aug. 17, 2012; Sep. 1, 2012;
You are invited to submit your own commentaries, either as a distinct blog post, or as a comment to be added here.

General, local contact:
Dick Bernard
cell 651-334-5744 (leave message, with return phone #).
Specific, including interview requests:
Dr. Virgil Benoit
University of ND at Grand Forks
toll-free: 855-864-2634

Clotilde Blondeau and Octave Collette about July 12, 1869

Clotilde Blondeau and Octave Collette married at St. Anthony of Padua in then-St. Anthony, now-Minneapolis MN July 12, 1869. In 1871 the City Directory showed them, and the rest of Collette family, living at what is now the corner of SE 2nd Street and SE 6th Avenue at what is now a block or two from Father Hennepin Park and Minneapolis’ Stone Arch Bridge, and perhaps three blocks from I-35E bridge. More here.
Additional information for those with a continuing interest in matters French-Canadian are invited to visit here. This space will be updated and may well become a continuing presence for those with an interest.

#459 -Dick Bernard: Heritage. Michif Language and Music; Haitian Family Story and Food. Thoughts of Booyah and Culture, generally.

An October theme for this writer came to be the topic of Heritage. Previous posts on this topic are here and here and here.
October 18, found me in a classroom with multi-cultural students of French at Macalester College in St. Paul MN. We were listening to Professor of French and French in America scholar Professor Virgil Benoit of the University of North Dakota speak on the Michif culture of the Chippewa Reservation at Turtle Mountain ND. Dr. Benoit is a passionate defender of the French language, one of the major world languages, and one of the most studied languages in the world.

Dr.Virgil Benoit, University of N. Dakota, at Macalester College, St. Paul MN October 18, 2011

Dr. Benoit’s video guests (from a 2005 video interview) were Turtle Mountain Michifs Dorothy and Mike Page (Mike is pictured with the fiddle above). Mr. and Mrs. Page conversed about various aspects of their culture, including use of their native Michif language, a language infrequently used at this point in their history. “Michif” is a culture and a language, usually a combination of French-Canadian and Canadian Cree ethnicity and language and customs. (A number of links related to Michif, including a fascinating conversation spoken solely in Michif, can be found here.)
A few days later, October 21, we attended a most interesting talk presented at a Minneapolis Church by Jacqueline Regis about her experience growing up in the southern peninsula of Haiti (near Les Cayes). Haiti, the second free Republic in North America (independence in 1804) was born from a revolt of African slaves against their French masters. It was viewed as a threat by slave-holding and infant United States with consequences to the Haitians lasting to this day (click on Haiti history timeline link here NOTE. the reference to 1919 should be 1915). The loss of Haiti was a major defeat for the French, however, and a direct consequence of that defeat was the co-incident sale of the huge Louisiana Purchase to the United States in 1803.
Ms Regis, long in the United States, is fluent in English but grew up speaking Kreyol and learning French, now both official national languages of Haiti, though French is the language of government and commerce.
[UPDATE: see note at the end of this post] Here is a Haitian recipe for Haitian Pumpkin Soup, served at the gathering: Haitian Recipe001. Food, along with Fun and Family, are very important parts of all cultures.
As I was listening to the Page’s and Dr. Benoit on Tuesday I began to think of a regional stew often featured at large group gatherings in this area. It is called “Booyah“, sometimes “Booya”, and when I looked it up I found it is likely actually derived from a French word, and possibly was first used as a reference to the stew in Wisconsin.
Booyah, like Americans generally these days, consists of many common elements, but no Booyah is exactly the same.
So also is American culture: very diverse. And the diversity was reflected both in the classroom and the church sanctuary in the Twin Cities this week.
Dr. Benoit, the Page’s, Jacqueline Regis, and everyone who make up the American booyah have good reason to be proud of their heritages, as reflected in the rich tapestry that is the American culture.

UPDATE October 26: an incorrect link is shown in the pdf. A reader provided the correct link for the Pumpkin Soup recipe: see it here. Other recipes here and here

#420 – Dick Bernard: Speaking as a Liberal

Directly related posts: here and here.
Yesterday’s news has President Obama going on vacation for a few days. Of course, presidential vacation is not a vacation at all. But this does not prevent the Congressional critics, themselves on a one month vacation, from saying the President should be back in the White House creating jobs – the same accomplishment they are actively seeking to prevent. Helping the President get more jobs is not politically good for the opposition. And so the deadly games go on.
My favorite blogger wrote today about the Presidents vacation, and that President Obama’s selected vacation reading was the book “Nixonland” by Rick Pearlstein. (My vacation choice was Naomi Klein’s “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism” I recommend it very highly.)
I’ve been thinking a lot about this label “liberal”, which I am proud to affix to myself. To many, it is a cursed word, along with other swear words like “union”, and on and on. In fact, years ago, Newt Gingrich had a famous list of words. They were (and still are) very helpful for his disciples to use as they seek and achieve high office.
They are also destructive to a functioning society, as we are seeing every day.
So, what is a ‘liberal’ as compared to the polar opposite ‘other’? (I use ‘other’, because in my own experience, most liberals are conservative people*.)
All I have is personal experience, and with that there’s a story.
Three years ago I was on a bus tour exploring matters French-Canadian in northern North Dakota. We stopped at a now-empty Catholic Church in tiny Olga, ND, and our leader, Dr. Virgil Benoit of the University of North Dakota, talked powerfully to us about intercultural relationships, specifically Native Americans and French-Canadians.
On the long bus ride to Belcourt in the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation, I was sitting across from Dr. Benoit, and at one point I asked him where his compassion came from. He related a specific experience at a Minnesota Indian Reservation, where, as a young PhD, a tribal elder spoke to him about priorities and social concerns. It made an indelible impression on him.
But then he turned the tables on me. “And what about you?”, he said.
I was taken aback, and struggled for an answer.
It really didn’t occur to me till later.
For me, the epiphany came in 1963-65 when my young wife and I struggled through two years of hell until she died of kidney disease in July, 1965 (she was buried on the very day the Medicare Act was signed by President Johnson). We were kids, then, and had no medical insurance. Stuff like this wasn’t supposed to happen to someone in their early 20s. I was on the brink of bankruptcy when North Dakota Public Welfare stepped forward and paid the bulk of the unpaid medical bills…and they had to stretch their rules to do that. (click on photos to enlarge)

Dick, Tom, Barbara Bernard about August, 1964, Valley City ND

The community which is government saved my and my sons future in hard times. I’ve never forgotten this; I never will. It could happen to anyone.
That, and other experiences, have made me ‘liberal’, and if that’s not okay, so be it.
In my observations over many years, it seems that there is some kind of a continuum that defines the difference between people like me, and those in the camp of the individualist, government be damned bunch.
Like all continuums, there are infinite gradations between one extreme and the other.
On one extreme are the communalists who argue that everything should be for the good of all. The Communists tried this, and it has never worked quite as the theory proposed. I suppose the Shakers were another variety; and the Amish a contemporary version.
On the other extreme, though, more akin to our most radical right wing types, is an even worse problem: in the extreme, all that matters is the individual. Theirs is a dog-eat-dog world and the strong survive, and the weak don’t. Get what you can while you can. Make the rules for the loser others. “Winner takes all”.
I’m off on the communalist side of this continuum, but far away from the extreme left that I describe.
There has always been this continuum, but the difference in the last 20 or 30 years has been the casting of one side as good, and the other evil. The side that considers my side to be evil has had the upper hand, and it is not healthy for them, for us, or for society at large. But it has been a winning formula for them, and only we can make them change their focus.
Then there’s the even more troubling “winning formula” of making a judgement of the whole, by a non-negotiable demand to resolve a part (i.e. unrestricted gun rights; an immediate end to the war in Afghanistan, and on, and on, and on.) Thinking larger is too hard, so we think small, or not at all. We just judge.

Where are you on these matters? At least think this through privately.
I’m proud to be “liberal”, and I think that, like a bird, there is a need for two ‘wings’, but wings that work together.

Dick Bernard at the White House, January 16, 1980

UPDATE: Saturday, August 20: I often describe myself as an Eisenhower kid: Dwight Eisenhower was President during virtually my entire high school and college years. I graduated from college less than a year after he left the presidency in January, 1961; and weeks after John Kennedy was elected to succeed him (I was too young to vote – 21 was voting age then).
Yes, I liked Ike, and still do. More than a few liberals I know do too. He was a moderate conservative. He’d be thrown out of todays Republican party.
My favorite blogger (see first paragraph above), was born in those days (1947), and remembers them in today’s column here. They are a little different than they are usually portrayed in those acidic “forwards” I get.

Sitting in Vice President Walter Mondale's chair, the west wing of the White House, January 16, 1980

* – I have long thought that this true conservatism of ‘liberals’ (prudence, careful in use of money) is one reason why big business doesn’t want liberals in control of government. Government waste, after all, is very good for business, not bad. It may not be good for the community that is our country, but it is great for profit.
UPDATE August 21: A good friend commented on this post, yesterday.
Bob Schmitz: I too can pin point a number of epiphany moments that led me to embrace the label liberal and now Green Party values. A recent incident confirmed my beliefs. Last summer I was in Wishek, N.D. for a wedding. Wishek votes Republican. As I was walking down the street in a residential area of the city I could not help but admire this pleasant town, but I became most impressed with the finished look to the streets with their curb and gutters, and sidewalks throughout. As I got to the end of a block after having made this observation, I looked down at an inscription on the sidewalk. It said, “WPA – 1937” [Works Progress Administration], the year of my birth. I was very much a product of the depression and my family never really recovered until the late 50s or during the golden era of our economic revival from the 30s. It is to bad that revival came as a result of military Keynesianism [WWII]. When on his death bed a few years ago my 90 year old Dad started talking politics with us. He recalled the idle men sitting on the benches in downtown Arcadia, Iowa during the 30s, and spoke of FDR with such fondness. He started to cry when he talked about Roosevelt trying to help them and how some of these public works projects started under Roosevelt gave them work and restored some dignity. My grandfather lost his farm due to the depression but recovered with WWII, which put everyone to work, including my three uncles who participated in the war. They came back and all could buy a home through the GI bill. My wife’s brothers were able to become engineers, and wealthy, by attending the school of engineering at the U of M under the GI bill. Without the GI bill they would not have been able to attend college. They by the way are Republicans. I still recall the “bums” coming to our door as a small child and before the war cranked-up. These bums were traversing the country on the old Lincoln Highway looking for work and food. Mom would make them a sandwich or let them have something from the garden in return for raking some leaves or doing a small odd job, and we didn’t have a “pot nor window” [old saying about being poor – “not a pot to pee in or a window to throw it out of”] .
I want to recommend a book: “There Is Power In A Union: The Epic Story Of Labor In America” by Philip Dray. This is a wonderful history of labor and reminds us that we are still fighting the same old battles. Right now I am reading about the Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1910, a horrifying tragedy which should be memorialized, just to keep the public reminded of the consequences of Adam Smith’s free-market economics when applied in an industrial age.
Dick’s response: There were, of course, ordinary people in the depression who hated Franklin Delano Roosevelt too. I know this included some of my relatives. The same kinds of reasons some despise liberals today.
Here is one of my Depression era stories (I was born in 1940). This story is set in rural Berlin ND, about 60 miles east of Wishek on Hwy 13.
Later, another from Bob: I know there were those who disagreed about FDR. There were great discussions in my family about politics and I do recall them talking about the plutocrats or small town business people who did not want to help the derelicts and cursed FDR. My maternal grandparent did ok but retained sympathy for those who did not, and seemed willing to chip in to help the neighbor who ran onto bad times. I believe he was a closet atheist as he resisted attempts by the local Methodist minister to get him into church. Grandpa Liechti, a Swiss, said his religion consisted in doing onto others as he wished them do onto him, and that’s all he needed to know. He simply threw a biblical quote back at them and left it there. My Dad’s parents were devout Catholics but also had a strong social conscience which I think came from their life’s experience. Grandpa Schmitz was an orphan dumped with a farm family who essentially used him, which was the social welfare system of that time. I recall vividly that Mom and Dad voted for Henry Wallace in 1948, the Progressive Party candidate. He was from Iowa and the former Sec of Ag. and I believe a Vice-President under Roosevelt. Dewey was supposed to have the election locked up but Truman upset him with a very narrow victory. Mom and Dad were told that they wasted their vote. I don’t think so.
Sometime I could go on about the mental health movement in which I had the good fortune to participate. I am referring to the successful effort to empty the old state hospitals at the end of the 50s and into the 60s. The current Republicans seem to want a movement back to those days. In those bygone days the Republicans of that time saw the merit in ending the old state hospital system and participated in that effort. Elmer Andersen was one of them.
As I read history the current trends seem less scary and are nothing new, but there is no guarantee that they could not morph into full blown fascism.

#356 – Dick Bernard: Bottineau Jig, Untold Tales of Early Minnesota

Two sold-out performances of Bottineau Jig, Untold Tales of Early Minnesota, attested to the interest in Dance Revels Moving History’s interpretation of the life and times of legendary Pierre Bottineau.
The program was performed at Intermedia Arts in Minneapolis, Friday and Saturday evening, April 1 and 2. The production was a creation of Jane Peck of Dance Revels. Jane is a long-time student of historical dance forms. The program proudly noted that the activity was “funded, in part, by the Minnesota arts and cultural heritage fund as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota on November 4, 2008” (This is the Clean Water and Legacy amendment approved by Minnesota voters November 4, 2008.)
Pierre Bottineau (played by Dr. Virgil Benoit) was a legendary early founder of the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, and he was renowned guide in the white settlement of the upper midwest. Bottineau, Metis (Michif) born in the area of present day Grand Forks ND, was gifted in languages and a larger than life presence. He was one of eight pioneers who built the original log cabin St. Paul Catholic Church (the first Cathedral of St. Paul MN); he owned land and built the second frame house in what was then St. Anthony, later to become Minneapolis; he founded Osseo and later Red Lake Falls MN.
Jane Peck’s program was an extraordinarily rich demonstration of period fiddling, music and dance.
The program interspersed spoken word, ethnic music and dance, covering the period from Bottineau’s birth in 1817 through 1870. At the conclusion of the program the cast of 14 invited the audience to join them in a Red River Jig, and then engaged in discussion with the audience. (Click on the photo to see an enlarged version.)

Audience and Cast participate in Red River Jig April 2, 2011

The program specifically intended to showcase an assortment of characters, not all well known in Minnesota History. So, Sarah Steele Sibley was emphasized over her more well known husband, Henry Hastings Sibley, and Franklin Steele, builder of the first house in to-be Minneapolis. Jacob Fahlstrom, early Swedish settler via England and years with the natives in Canada, and his wife, Marguerite Bonga, whose ancestry was a freed Haitian slave well known in what is now the Duluth area, spoke powerfully to the dilemmas of cross-cultural relationships in the newly emerging Swedish community northeast of St. Paul.
Among other purposes of the Bottineau Jig Project are, according to producer Jane Peck: “1) Offering the contributions and points of view of the mixed bloods and Metis in Minnesota history. They have been ignored as much or more than the French; 2) tracing the modern-day communities of some of the cultures represented in the play, including the Metis as the only modern mixed blood community.”
An expert cast was augmented by three fiddlers, all well known interpreters of Metis and French-Canadian music: Legendary Metis Fiddler from Turtle Mountain ND, Eddie King Johnson, gave his usual great performance, as did Twin Citians Linda Breitag and Gary Schulte. Larry Yazzie and Ricky Thomas provided outstanding dance, native and Metis. Other performers, all very engaging, were M. Cochise Anderson, Josette Antomarchi, Jamie Berg, Paulino Brener, Kenna Cottman, Craig Johnson, Scott Marsalis and Jane Peck.
Jane Peck has begun and will continue a blogging project on the Bottineau Jig at her website. See her site for more stories about Bottineau Jig.
Also visit the website of IFMidwest for upcoming activities in Virgil Benoit’s French-Canadians in the Midwest organization. The annual conference of IF Midwest is planned in Fargo ND October 7-8, 2011. Details will be at the website.

#280 – Virgil Benoit: On French-Canadians, English and the American Revolutionary War

During an animated conversation on Sunday, some new friends, long-time residents of Long Island NY, and for a number of years residents in Salt Lake City UT, asked a question about an aspect of French-Canadian history, which I then rephrased for Dr. Virgil Benoit of the University of North Dakota, an expert on things Franco-American. His Initiatives in French – Midwest is a fledgling but important organization to celebrate the French heritage in the Midwest.

Dr. Benoit re-enacting an important French-Canadian trader at old St. Joseph (Walhalla) ND 2008

I asked Dr. Benoit: “Is there a simple reason why the French did not support the Americans when, in the Revolutionary War period, the fledgling U.S. was interested in throwing the English out of power in Quebec?
I know nothing is simple, but perhaps there is a general answer.*

Dr. Benoit responded almost immediately, and his succinct commentary is well worth sharing, and is shared with his permission.
Hi Dick,
The Quebec Act of 1774 [Q Act] is often cited as the event which encouraged French-Canadians [F-Cs] to not revolt against the British in Canada in 1776. The Q Act gave F-Cs the freedom to practice their religion, customs and language.
The Q Act was a first in British governance towards its colonies. But the British were only a small minority in Quebec at the time. Maybe they felt they had to do it that way. They also knew they could lose the other thirteen colonies in North America and have no foothold in the New World. The F-C. also had no support from France by 1776. They also were afraid of being swallowed up by the neighboring anglo-saxon protestant culture, i.e. the new United States. As it were the Quebec Act gave them more protection as a defeated people than the unknown relationship with a nation-to-be.
With the defeat of 1760 [of France, by England at Quebec] the F-C society lost its upper class. Its leaders with political contacts went either back to France or had been lowered in status to common folk as far a political or social influence was concerned. The one class that rose quickly to exert influence in Quebec at this time was the clergy, which turned out to act very conciliatory toward the British. They [the clergy] interpreted the new situation stemming from the Quebec Act as one that guaranteed protection. They felt that as a conquered people the French-Canadians should be careful and appreciate that they had religious freedom as well as privileges to use French and customs as before the conquest in 1760. Over time, the clergy tied the privileges of religion and language together, saying that to keep French was also to be true to the Catholic faith.
These two “freedoms” became the clergy’s motto for keeping French-Canadians together, so to speak. The clergy fought migration to urban areas, such as Quebec City and Montreal which were very British and Protestant up until WWI. In short, the surrender of New France by France led to the seemingly paradoxical situation you are asking about. But the French of the former New France did not side with the Americans. It happened as you see because the common people of the former New France saw little hope, and their choice not to fight again was reinforced by the clergy. The common folk had fought the British invasion of 1760, but were in the end greatly outnumbered on the battle fields. They lost and along with the defeat, strategy (contacts with the homeland) and courage were also lost.
It would take the French Canadians until the 1970s to work their way back to a Quebec society that could be called contemporary to its counterparts in the world. Bravo. They did it. There was the Revolution of 1836 against British dominance in Quebec. It was stopped. There was the war’s act of Trudeau against Quebec in about 1968. It did not last. In all the rest of time and in all other arenas of civilized society the Quebec people have worked through parliament to regain equity with those who invaded and took their country away in 1760.
A final observation, invading armies can make war, but they can’t kill culture. It will surface and come back. In Quebec, not only has culture survived wars between gigantic superpowers and brutal scrimmages on the home front, but a rich government has been put into place and the country is dynamic today. Best to you.”

* – At the time of the American Revolution, the French had already been established in what is now Quebec for 168 years. The founding of Quebec as a French Colony dates to 1608, with the major development beginning after 1630.