Opinion

Lawmakers in 1919 tried to neuter Acadians by banning their language in schools

On April 1, 1919, the Maine Legislature passed an English-only bill that targeted the Acadians of Aroostook County.

It required that schools educate children exclusively using the the English language. In the Crown of Maine, this gave rise to the oft bitterly repeated phrase, “I will not speak French in school,” which originated from teachers punishing children for speaking casual French in classrooms by forcing the child to write the phrase over and over again. Survivors of that period tell stories of receiving punishments just for speaking French on the playground.

In one month, the centennial of that unreasonable and insulting law will come and go, and even though the bill came to an end in 1960, the impact it had on the Franco-Americans of Maine, especially the Acadians, shows that government efforts to destroy cultures within its own borders are a vile and dishonorable practice that seems to exhibit the intent to neuter minority populations.

Today, there is not a single French program in the public elementary schools of the St. John Valley, a well known regional bastion of the French language. And though students can opt to take French as a foreign language in high school, fewer young people are choosing to take that path and even fewer are showing mastery of the language their grandparents spoke in the same school buildings the grandchildren attend today.

Little pockets of Acadian French language still hold out in towns like Fort Kent, Madawaska and Van Buren. If a person walks into a local McDonald’s or Tim Hortons, he or she will hear the smooth, curvy sounds of the local French language passing between the members of small-town coffee clubs as native senior citizens solve the problems of the town, state and country. Civic-minded neighbors organize early childhood language classes and events where the children sing French songs, act out French folk tales in little skits and plays, and simply charm the socks off of the people who are attending. Local historical groups work diligently to preserve the artifacts of their pasts.

There are always forces that try to destroy what people consider alien. We are seeing that unfold through dehumanization efforts and propaganda in the current atavistic policies occurring on our southern border.  We saw it in the systematic fracturing of the Acadian communities that exist on both sides of the St. John River as governments enforced strict controls at border crossings that made international family ties slowly fray, unravel and finally separate.

Lise Pelletier, the president of Maine Acadian Heritage Council and director of the Acadian Archives/Archives acadiennes, is a fierce advocate for preserving the French language in Maine. On Wednesday I was introducing a friend of mine from Texas to the St. John Valley, and we stopped by the UMFK campus where the archives reside and spoke with Lise.

Her advocacy of French culture, and especially the Acadian culture in our region, made me feel as if I had failed by never learning French when I moved to this region nearly 20 years ago. But Lise reassured me, saying that the language was only part of the French Acadian identity, though an important part. She said a person could support the modern Acadians by understanding their history, from their migration from France in the 1600s to their mostly peaceful coexistence with the First Nations of the unexplored territories, to the nightmare of the Grand Derangement and ethnic cleansing of the 1700s and the resulting separation and scattering of families and congregations across the American continent, to the quiet existence of the communities that established themselves in the St. John Valley, to this day. She said the Acadian identity is also about the moral strength of the people and understanding and embracing the simultaneous dreadful and glorious past that defines the Acadians of today.

And while I may not speak French, I take comfort in the admiration and respect I feel for my Acadian friends and seek always to understand their experience in this part of our country.

Andrew Birden is the general manager for Northeast Publishing, a division of the Bangor Daily News. People can reach Andrew at abirden@bangordailynews.com

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