Friday February 07, 2014 | 09:21 AM

              Rhea Cote Robbins is a Maine voice for Franco-American women. In her advocacy work, she looks at what it means to be, “…a Franco-American, and female and in the state of Maine..”, she told a workshop presented on Thursday afternoon, February 6th at the Auburn Public Library.  Three women writers are highlighted in a book she edited titled “Canuck & Other Stories”, written in English with the translations from the French provided by four French language colleagues.

Robbins is the founder, and the executive director of the Franco-American Women’s Institute (FAWI) and a Maine writer. Her workshop focused on the contributions of Franco-American women who have, metaphorically, built a bridge from the past to the present.

Rhea Cote Robbins at Auburn Public Library

Rhea Cote Robbins, a Maine writer and founder of the Franco-American Women's Institute and editor of "Canuck & Other Stories", presented at the Auburn Public Library

In fact, since the beginning of the 17th century when French immigration to Canada included women to create New France, and later in moving into the United States, the French-Canadian and Franco-American women built ethnic pride through their heroic works, the stories they contributed to the culture and through writings. 

Perhaps this heroism is rooted in the life of the famous Saint Joan of Arc, but it’s also been carried out by women who dedicated their lives to religious orders, to defending their frontier homes in times of war and in caring for others, during times of extraordinary need.

            Robbins has collected a vast amount of information about Franco-American women, which she’s made available in a website loaded with public resources, at  http://www.fawi.net/.

            Franco-American women are important in every phase of the culture. Although they’re honored in public statuary and religious histories, most of their writings and stories about their heroism are published in French and, therefore, not widely distributed.

“As a result, their voices have been silenced and now need to be heard,” she says.

Writings from three particular women who published in French are now available in English, featured in one book,“Canuck & Other Stories”, edited by Robbins. These three authors’ writings are in the translations (translators credited):

·        Camille Lessard Bissonnette (1883-1970), “Canuck”, a book about the French Canadian immigration experience from a young woman’s point of view, translated by Sue Huseman and Sylvie Charron;

·        Alberte Gastonguay (1906-1978), “La Jeune Franco-Americaine: The Young Franco-American”, about the Lewiston French, as published in the newspaper Le Messager in 1933, translated by Madeleine C. Pare Roy; and

·        Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau (1881-1963) “Francaise d’Amerique, Frenchwomen of North America”, a one act play about the heroines who helped to settle New France, translated by Jeannine Bacon Roy.   

“Generations of Franco-American women forebears are described in the writings,” says Robbins.

Moreover, the three women writers address contemporary themes like domestic violence, equal pay, marriage and family. “They are the role models who lived the immigration experience,” she says.  In so doing, they left for us to read a legacy about how women can “multitask”, by caring for others while still standing up for ourselves.

Canuck and Other Stories book jacket

"Canuck & Other Stories", a translation edited by Rhea Cote Robbins

Robbins grew up in Waterville where French was her first language. Nevertheless, during her formative years, she and her brother spoke English at home. 

“There was a time when I tried to walk away from the Franco-American culture,” she says.  “But, we always manage to come back.”  

As a matter of fact, her bilingual ability helped her to access higher education and achieve a degree at the University of Maine, after receiving a scholarship.

“I finally identified as a Franco-American when I was given an opportunity to advance my education and my bilingual background at the University, especially by working with the Franco-American Center, in Orono,” she says. 

Attending the workshop in Auburn were Georgette Berube, Janet Chabot Sullivan, Donna Chretien Steckino and Joanne Charest Ducharme. They all spoke briefly about their experiences attending schools where the teachers were religious nuns and about the challenges of growing up speaking French, when this practice was frowned upon.

“It’s important for us to communicate beyond ourselves, about how the French culture honors women and women heroines,” says Robbins.

About this Blog

Juliana L’Heureux is a freelance writer whose articles about Maine’s Franco-American history and culture have appeared in Portland newspapers for 25 years. She serves on the Maine Franco-American Leadership Council.

Juliana and her husband Richard live in Topsham ME. Feel free to contact her at Juliana@mainewriter.com.

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