Lea Wait, here, playing reporter. Maine has a long and close association with French Canadians, beginning with Benedict Arnold’s unfortunately planned and executed campaign to capture Quebec City during the American Revolution by journeying up the Kennebec River to the Chaudiere. After all – maps showed the rivers meeting and a water route all the way to Quebec, didn’t they? (Details he didn’t count on: maps in the 1770s weren’t EXACTLY correct. And even when the maps were right — a lot of portages were involved. Especially when the river was frozen. And cannons don’t do well in portages. Or in waterfalls or rapids. Nor was late September the ideal time to start a trek north from Maine to Quebec. Add in details such as men who didn’t know how to shoot, little ammunition, low food supplies, another general whose troops were captured before they reached Quebec to reinforce Arnold’s — and, oh, yes — a major smallpox epidemic among his troops. Amazing, actually, that he arrived in Quebec Christmas Eve with any men still alive. And, then, somehow he hadn’t heard how wide the St. Lawrence was. Or about that cliff protecting the city ….) In any case.
Future interactions between Maine and Canada have been considerably more positive.
In the 19th and early twentieth century thousands of Canadians took “the Canada Road” (which paralleled in most part the Kennebec and Arnold’s journey) south into Maine to fill jobs at mills, especially in Lewiston, Auburn, Biddeford, and Saco, all of which soon had large French-speaking populations. Old Orchard Beach became a resort area where French-speaking Canadians were particularly welcomed. Although in large parts of the United States road signs are in Spanish and English, in parts of Maine signs are written in French and English, welcoming our neighbors to the north and west.
Today, Maine towns bordering on Canada share close relationships with the people living there, and Canadians often visit Maine, as Mainers often visit Canada.
History lesson over.
Several towns in Maine celebrate their Franco-Americain heritage with festivals, and last weekend my husband Bob (who claims French ancestry via Quebec dating back to 1666) and I decided to check one out.
La Kermesse (The Festival) was the 31st annual Franco-Americaine festival held in Biddeford-Saco. Its site was a waterfront park in downtown Biddeford, across the river from one of the old brick mills whose jobs had originally drawn the French to this area. But today’s festival was all about today, not yesterday. Bob and I missed the fireworks and bands and “Maine Idol” contest” Saturday night, and arrived Sunday morning to find the festival grounds empty.
Where was everyone? We found out. They were attending the Catholic Mass being held in the largest tent on the festival grounds. (How many festivals include cotton candy, Ferris wheels, and Mass?)
We chatted with Lorraine Pelletier, the Maine Regional Coordinator(Coordonnatrice regionale:Maine) for Congres Mondial Acadien 2014: Acadia of the World. She hailed from Madawaska, one of the most northern towns in Maine, had driven six hours to attend La Kermesse, and was very excited to tell us about the World Acadian Congress, an international event celebrating Acadian culture and history, held every 5 years since 1994 to bring together Acadians dispersed around the world for family reunions, conference and shows. The next conference will be in August, 2014. (For more information, see http://www.cma2014.com)
We thanked her, I wondered about story possibilities beyond Longfellow’s Evangeline, and then we hit the food tents. Diets and festivals do not go together, but we were taking a holiday. We shared a plate of classic poutine (french fries covered with gravy and cheese curds that tastes better than it sounds), and then were tempted by crepes. We browsed through the craft and product booths. We resisted the (not very authentically French, but popular) carnival rides.
And then we headed home. A fun break from art and writing. But, we decided, next time we crave French culture, we’re heading for Quebec City.