The St. John Valley is Maine’s Last French-Speaking Bastion, But For How Long?

In the far northern stronghold of Acadian culture, it’s getting rarer to hear “Valley French,” once more common than English. What’s at stake if it’s lost?

By Eric Boodman
Illustration by David Plunkert
Read this story in French in our May 2022 issue

In 2016, Carly Bahler arrived in Madawaska to study the local French. She was a PhD student with midwestern vowels and an infectious sort of brio, and soon after checking in at her convent turned hotel, she was back at the front desk. Did the receptionist know anyone who spoke French? “Oh, I can’t,” came the reply, “but you should go to McDonald’s, and so-and-so can talk to you.” So Bahler went. “I talk to so-and-so at McDonald’s, she helps me, and she says, ‘Oh, but the lady you talked to? She can speak French. She just doesn’t want to.’”

This kept happening. She’d be at Tim Horton’s, chatting with old-timers, but when she’d ask about an interview, they’d say — in French — that they didn’t speak French. Moé, j’parle pas Français. For that, she should go à l’aut’ bord. They might gesture past the billows of the paper mill, to the St. John River, which marks the Canadian border. Over there, they speak French. It was Bahler’s first-ever fieldwork, and it was the hardest thing she’d done in her life.

She could hear the music of their mother tongue in their refusals. When they said à l’aut’ bord, the o was beautifully dark, the r rolled at the tip of the tongue. They wouldn’t let her record, but they’d offer to jaser un ’tit brin. Jaser, to chat, from the chirruping of birds; un ’tit brin, a little bit, from a wisp of grass.

Those last two are expressions I know. I grew up in Montreal, one of a handful of Anglophone Jews in a French Catholic school. To my classmates’ bafflement, I’d fallen in love with Québécois fiddle music — and to be curious about those tunes is to be curious about language politics, class, and nationalism, the stories that get told in what we decide to preserve and uphold.

When I moved to Boston as an adult, the specters of Franco-Americans were everywhere and nowhere at once. French was audible in people’s last names but absent from their conversations. I could go to a museum in Lowell, Massachusetts, and learn about the French-Canadians who’d come down to labor in the textile mills, but I found nothing equivalent to a Chinatown or a Little Italy. The Petits Canadas, it seemed, were pretty much gone.

What attracted me to Madawaska was the same thing that had attracted Bahler. If New England French was going to survive anywhere, the thinking goes, it would be in Maine. If Maine French was going to survive anywhere, it would be in the upper St. John Valley, where the dialect has long been known as “Valley French.” Before I visited this winter, Bahler offered some advice: “You might have to hear a lot in their silence.” It was true, she said, even with the local nonprofit called the Association Française. “Here are a bunch of people who ostensibly are enthusiasts and defenders of the French language. And a few of them agreed to talk to me. But a lot were too afraid.”

The Association Française office, in downtown Madawaska, is a bookish counterpoint to the mill around the corner and Big Rick’s burger bar across the street. It’s both the headquarters of the Valley’s linguistic preservation squad and a library named for a benefactor who taught French in Chicago. Her books are displayed upstairs, her toy nuns near the door: nun baby dolls with unnerving stares, guitar-playing nun figurines, their habits swinging.

I came to meet Guy Dubay, a historian and retired school principal who’s there every afternoon, poring over family trees and archival documents. He’d prepared a presentation with binders of photocopies, a sort of analog PowerPoint — instead of waving a laser pointer, he’d whack each page. He’s an emphatic orator even when he isn’t genealogy thumping, and the history lesson had a fire-and-brimstone edge.

It’s a story of colonists squabbling over stolen indigenous land, of the British conquering what’s now Nova Scotia and growing suspicious of the French settlers, called Acadians, who’d stayed. Some were forcibly deported in what’s known as the Grand Dérangement, or Great Upheaval. Others fled, first to Québec, then to the loamy banks of the lower St. John, only to be pushed out again, this time by fighters who’d been loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution. In 1785, a scattering of Acadians ended up far upriver, bitterly chinking their houses with moss, carving out a living among pine thickets.

Those pines turned out to be so valuable they nearly caused another war. Peace was brokered by turning the river into a border, its south bank transformed into American soil under villagers’ feet. The valley’s main thoroughfare became a dividing line — though it didn’t count for much. As proof, Dubay flipped to a photocopied merchant ledger. “En Français, mon doux!” he shouted, smacking the columns. “In English money. This is 1846, he’s been an American for four years.”

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Those Francophones weren’t just Acadian. Some had married French-Canadians during their peregrinations, and those families had been joined by people fleeing tough times in Québec — part of la grande saignée, the great hemorrhage — which had also populated the Petits Canadas from Lewiston to Woonsocket. What set the St. John Valley apart — and what still does — was its identity as an Acadian-settled borderland. I could hardly walk a block this winter without seeing an Acadian flag or star; I could hardly cross a room without my phone jumping an hour ahead to New Brunswick time. Pre-COVID, people crossed into the U.S. for cheaper gas and into Canada for better cheese. One Mainer told me her hairdresser and bank were à l’aut’ bord.

Politically, though, people south of the St. John River were unquestionably American. As Dubay put it, “Our people have to deal with the governor of Maine.” He was referring to the 1800s, but speaking in an eternal present tense, collapsing centuries, merging today’s iPhone-toting Madawaskayens with their hardscrabble forebears. In many ways, the valley is still grappling with the ghost of Maine politicians past — specifically, a law they passed in 1919. It was repealed 50 years later but continues to shape every conversation.

By now, it’s almost a cliché, as much a part of the official valley narrative as ployes, the golden buckwheat pancakes griddled only on one side. It’s mentioned in tourist brochures and in National Park Service publications. “I will not speak French in school,” a kid would write, as punishment, 50 or 100 times.

It still makes Cléo Ouellette cry at 85. We were sitting in her kitchen, looking out at the previous night’s snowfall. A crucifix hung nearby. She doesn’t like to speak ill of nuns, but they played a central role: like many of her generation who grew up in the valley, she went to a state-funded school where teachers were members of religious orders, blurring the line between public and parochial. She can picture them, formidable in their coifs, enforcing the law through a game, turning student against student. Everyone got tokens, cut from construction paper, made official-looking with rubber stamps. Hear a classmate speaking French, take one of their tokens. At the end of the week, having the most tokens got you a prize, having the fewest got you chastised. For Ouellette, that meant vowing, line by tedious line, that she wouldn’t speak French in school. Others remember the strap, forging a Pavlovian link between French and pain.

It had started with anxious Anglo-Saxon nativism surrounding World War I. In southern Maine and Massachusetts, the Ku Klux Klan set fire to Franco-American neighborhoods and schools. The St. John Valley was too French Catholic to give the Klan a toehold, but the state prohibition on teaching French in schools, except as a foreign language, did damage on its own. If it hadn’t been so traumatic, it would’ve been comical: teachers, local or from Québec, who hardly spoke English but were forced to teach in it. Kids snickered that there were three languages around the valley: French, English, and Nuns’ English, which was unintelligible to everyone else.

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But the formal French taught in foreign-language classes was, in some ways, truly foreign, with its clipped diction and baroque rules. Ouellette remembers overhearing a nun muttering, “I don’t know what we’re going to do with these people. They don’t speak English. They don’t speak French. They’ll never amount to anything.” School became a vise-grip of shame: shame because she spoke French, shame because she somehow also didn’t.

Her husband, J Paul, jumped in. He hadn’t been punished like that. He’d gone to a one-room schoolhouse — too small for the state to bother with, perhaps. Still, he’d felt the same prejudice elsewhere. He’d worked at a local potato-barrel mill and a Connecticut fuel-tank factory, had done his military service, had gone to college on the GI bill. But when he considered applying for accounting work at the Madawaska mill, friends told him not to bother — desk jobs were for les Anglais.

Just four or five years ago, Cléo Ouellette was chatting with a few ladies at the legion when someone else arrived and snapped, “Speak American!” Ouellette felt like she’d been hit. She was a lifelong Mainer, a retired public-school teacher of both English and French, a volunteer for the Association Française, the founder of the group’s French-immersion preschool. Her husband was a veteran and a retired Federal Land Bank loan officer. They were the kind of community pillars accustomed to making baked beans for 75 — for the local snowmobile club, for the legion, for funerals. Still, she said, “We weren’t American in their eyes.”

“I have six kids and none of them speaks French,” Taylor Martin told me, sitting in a restaurant booth in Fort Kent, twirling cheese strands from his poutine. He is 47 but looks younger. He’d just spent 10 hours working as a ski patroller. His haircut and glasses would fit in at a Brooklyn bike co-op. I’d gotten in touch with Martin because I wanted to play some tunes — more a social call than a journalistic one — but once he started talking, I had to take out my notebook.

Bahler, the linguist, had described to me a language faltering: “I understand but don’t speak” was a refrain among valley dwellers under 50. Martin was no exception. We’d occasionally slip into French, but it was hard, he said, his ideas stuck in a syntax that no longer felt natural. His parents had worried that being from a French household made him slow in school. When I’d first asked if he spoke, he said, “C’est dans l’passé, ça.” That’s in the past.

Then again, he’d spent much of his adulthood reviving the past. For 10 years, he’d logged the old-fashioned way, with a chainsaw and a horse. Once he had kids, that felt too dangerous. He kept going into the woods, but encased in a machine. He teaches high-school music now, ski patrols in the evening, logs on Saturdays.

The fiddle, too, was a revival of sorts. He’d go to a Christmas party, hear relatives saying how fun it was when mononcle Roméo would play. They used to carry all the furniture onto the porch, to free up the floor for dancing. He was 19, playing in a metal band. He bought himself a fiddle secondhand. Roméo was dead by then. He learned off mail-order cassettes from Québec.

“Let’s go play fiddle,” he said abruptly, and got up.

I followed his taillights through the snowstorm out of town. He went as far as the plow had gone, got out, handed me boots and skis. We herringboned our way up a hill. He’d given me a headlamp too, but after a minute, he said, “Turn that off. You’ll see better.” Eventually, the dark bulk of a house appeared.

We could see our breaths in the headlamp beam as he lit a fire, then rummaged for two fiddles. They were cracked, superglued, tinny-sounding, hard to tune, and when Martin started playing, he sounded as scratchy as the archival tapes he’d learned from. He did foot percussion in his ski boots. He wasn’t a tradition bearer, per se. He couldn’t show me the valley’s idiosyncratic bowings. Many of the tunes he played were from Appalachia. But his playing had a death-metal sort of trance to it, a shimmering portal to another world.

We ended up crashing there that night, melting snow for tea as sleet clicked against the window. We woke to a snowpack glittering with ice. As we skied back down — falling, yanking ourselves out, falling again — I remembered something he’d told me at the restaurant. “I’m just a poser,” he’d said. He was doing by choice what his forebears had done by necessity. He didn’t have to work as a logger or go without electricity. His wife and kids lived in an apartment in town. He could’ve gotten an office job years ago.

Why hadn’t he, I asked. “Because I’m f*cking crazy,” he said, grinning.

It was hard to imagine Cléo Ouellette describing herself that way. You don’t have to be crazy to revive something, but it does require vision — a sort of second sight allowing you to peer beyond the status quo. It also requires money. “If it’s going to cost people a lot to learn a language, they’re not going to do it,” said Kendyl Reis, a tribal historic-preservation officer for the Mi’kmaq Nation, in Presque Isle. Reis, who specified that she is a non-Native, white employee and can’t speak for the Nation, hopes to apply for grants to pay Mi’kmaq learners, so the opportunity cost isn’t so high.

There had been bilingual education on and off in St. John Valley public schools, starting in the ’70s, after the law prohibiting it was repealed. Kids weren’t paid to take part, but it was free. Gil Albert, who ran the French-immersion program in the ’90s, described his employment as a game of grant-funded hopscotch. The end of each subsidy meant scrounging for more money — “or finding myself another job,” he said. Funding for Albert’s position ended in 2000. The program ended a few years later.

Some parents had considered it elitist: a special curriculum in a district with shrinking enrollment, the constant threat of schools being closed, and kids being bused to other towns. There are still jobs at the paper mill or in the woods, there’s the University of Maine at Fort Kent, and a savvy server at Big Rick’s can make close to $400 in tips at lunch alone from the snowmobile crowds during February break. But the valley isn’t exactly bursting with opportunity.

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And the association between French and hardship hasn’t gone away. Ouellette remembers the meetings about the immersion program, how parents didn’t want their kids going through what they’d gone through. Leave us alone, some said. With that language, we lost everything.

“Often, what you hear from Québec and New Brunswick is, ‘When you lose your language, you lose your culture,’” said Patrick Lacroix, director of UMFK’s Acadian Archives. To him, that expression is tinged with disdain, a north-of-the-border chauvinism suggesting that Franco-Americans were destined for the melting pot, the great American homogenization.

But identity is complex, not easily summarized, and not built on language alone. That Yiddish transmission stopped with my grandparents doesn’t negate my Ashkenazi Jewishness. That my mother tongue isn’t French doesn’t lessen my Québécoisness; that my high-school friends can’t play their forebears’ fiddle music doesn’t lessen theirs.

If negotiating that is tricky for one person, doing it collectively is only more so. When the National Park Service offered funding in the ’90s to memorialize Maine Acadian heritage, towns and nonprofits began to squabble. Even the term remains controversial. One night, over ployes, Daniel Picard, a graphic designer behind a number of educational brochures, complained it flattens the valley’s history, is marketable but half fictional, and leaves out migration from Québec. The next morning, over coffee, Lise Pelletier, former director of the Acadian Archives, countered that it resonates with people, bolsters tourism, and includes those whose ancestry isn’t technically Acadian.

They both want the same thing: For the valley’s French to be kept alive, contextualized, not reduced to a cliché. “In the future, maybe people will say, ‘We’re Acadian from the St. John Valley, that means we eat ployes,’ and that’s all people will know,” Pelletier said. “That’s certainly a danger.”

Bahler’s aim wasn’t to preserve. Instead, she was documenting the presence and structure of verb tenses complex enough to show the health of a language. If only wisps are left, people can say the beans are delicious but not discuss the implications of a bill moving through the state house. For that, you need conjugations of unreality, moods of possibility and wishful thinking: the subjunctive, the conditional, the ifs, the might’ve-beens.

Her dissertation included interviews with 87 people. Sometimes, she’d arrive at someone’s house, expecting to be there for 45 minutes, and end up listening for six hours. People fed her ployes and plied her with whiskey. The French she recorded wasn’t just full of those intricate grammatical constructions; they were sometimes used in a way she hadn’t heard anywhere else. To her ear, it sounded old, maybe a regional variant in France that had crossed over and persisted, less a keepsake than a daily tool. She was talking to the last generation to use it. She’d heard about an older lady who lived with her adult nephew, discovering after years of speaking to him in French that he couldn’t understand her. It sounded apocryphal, but exemplified a kind of interaction she often saw between generations. “There’s a lot of smiling and nodding,” she said.

Just before leaving, I met Pelletier in a Fort Kent diner. As I sat down, she motioned to the guys at the next table. “You just missed some sacres,” she said, referring to the church terms — chalice, tabernacle — used as swear words in Québécois and Acadian French. It was the kind of conversation that made you want to eavesdrop. They were cackling with laughter, joking about something I couldn’t quite catch. During my trip, I’d done hours of interviews in French and overheard snatches of it — a dad joke here, a salutation there — inserted into English conversations. Here, though, it was the norm, the sound both familiar and foreign, similar to the Québec I knew, but rhythmically distinct, with its own unique cadences and expressions.

When a new buddy showed up, they switched to English. I went over, but the guys wouldn’t talk much. One said he’d worked at the mill long enough for his pay to go from $1.50 to $20 an hour. Then, his friend interrupted: “With everything that’s going on in this world, we don’t want to give out too much information. We don’t know who to trust.”

Pelletier knows that sort of scene might not last much longer. Once that generation is gone, kids might learn written French in school — she hopes they will — but it’ll have none of their grandparents’ music. There would still be ways to learn that too, if they wanted. All they’d have to do is walk across the border.


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