June 28, 2011

Juliana L'Heureux: Bill to establish a legislative task force on Franco-Americans

Juliana L'Heureux

Now that Maine has elected its first Franco-American governor, the state is poised to create a task force that will study the state's Franco-American population.

State Representative Kenneth Fredette, R-Newport, sponsored LD 656 to create a task force to gather basic data about the culture, such as how many Franco-Americans reside in Maine, where they live, their percentage relative to the population as a whole and how many speak French. He said he hopes the task force will produce information that can be used to teach students about the culture's influence and history.

"We will report about how Franco-American history and culture are important to Maine," Fredette said.

The bill is awaiting the governor's signature. Representative John Martin, D-Eagle Lake, and others co-sponsored the bill.

Fredette, 47, is a Franco-American. He grew up in the small Northern Maine town of Danforth, in western Washington County. His paternal relatives are from New Brunswick, Canada. Today he lives in Newport, with his wife Cyndi and two children.

French colonial history is evident in the Washington County city of Calais, where the St. Croix settlement National Park is located. In 1604, the island, located in the St. Croix River, was where the first short-lived French settlement in Maine was established by the entrepreneur Sieur de Mons and explorer Samuel de Champlain. The St. Croix Island settlement predated the Plymouth Massachusetts landing of the Pilgrims by 17 years.

Even though Maine's French history began in eastern Maine, the state's large numbers of Franco-Americans did not influence Fredette when he was growing up in Danforth. Although he lived in close proximity to French history, opportunities to learn about his culture were rare.

Industrial Maine communities like Waterville, or Lewiston attracted large numbers of French Canadian and Franco-Americans who worked in mills or related industries. But Fredette says his family was a minority in Danforth.

"We were not connected to other Franco-Americans," he says.

Fredette said his cultural awareness came while attending the Kennedy School of Government in Boston.

"I was asked to write about my heritage and background. That's when I came to recognize the importance of my Franco-American heritage."

He explored education and employment issues facing Franco-Americans, and how aspirations for Francos and non-Francos may be different.

He drew on his first-hand experience: Fredette was the first person in his family to graduate from college.

Today, he notes how Maine's Franco-Americans are still underrepresented in public policy leadership positions, in spite of being the location of the first organized French settlement in North America.

"It took decades for Maine to elect state Franco-American leaders like U.S. Congressman Mike Michaud and now Governor Paul LePage," says Fredette.

Appointments to the task force will be made by the President of the Senate Kevin Raye, Speaker of the House of Representatives Robert Nutting and by Gov. LePage. The task force will submit its findings by Dec. 7, 2011 to the Maine Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs. Fredette serves on the committee.


 

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