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Once again I’ve weathered Memorial Day. But still without
remembering just what it is I’m supposed to remember. It’s all hidden
behind a haze induced by a French name. Without supplementary
information, I don’t even know on which side my ancestors fought in the
Civil War. According to the Census Bureau, the French have been for
centuries (not years) the fourth largest ethnic group in the United
States, coming right after people of British origin: England, Scotland,
Wales — with, as the 19th century wore on, Ireland.

In the early 17th century, when the Plymouth Rock people were
erecting a godly society in Massachusetts, just a bit further to the
north of New England, French peasants were of a very mixed character,
the portion called canaille (riff-raff) being all too
conspicuous. Along with the peasants had come a regiment of French
soldiers fresh from the Turkish wars, who were more ready to wear the
symbol of the Virgin in campaigns against the Iroquois than to live
their lives according to Christian ethics. “Our good king,” wrote
Sister Morin of Montreal, writing home, “has sent troops to defend us
from the Iroquois, but our soldiers and officers have ruined the Lord’s
vineyard, and planted wickedness and sin and crime in our soil of
Canada.”

Montreal, today Canada’s leading city, was at the time a frontier
town, and the natural resort of desperadoes, displaying the riotous
behavior of the lawless crew which infested it. When La Barre, the
French governor, visited Montreal, he found 200 reprobates gambling and
drinking. One has a tendency to forgive these disorderly people who
were mainly disbanded soldiers, who rarely saw a priest. In Canada,
from the moment a boy carried a gun, his father could no longer restrain
him. These disorders were always greatest in families of the nobility
– or of those who passed themselves off as such.

A certain order of knighthood sprang up in Canada, suppressed by the
church, but which did not manage to suppress its habits. It was thought
a fine thing and a good joke to go about naked and tricked-out like an
Indian on days of feasting. These practices tended to encourage the
tendency of young men to live like savages and be forever unruly and
lawless, like them. Other Indians, who roamed at large about the
colony, did prodigious mischief, because the children of the nobility,
not only copied their way of life, but also ran off with their women
into the woods.

One great evil in Canada, wrote La Barre, is the infinite number of
drinking shops, which made it almost impossible to remedy disorders, and
attracted all the rascals and idlers of the country. Three noblemen, on
assignment from the crown, were in general agreement, giving a favorable
account of the colony. “But before we knew our flock,” they wrote, “we
thought the English and the Iroquois were the only wolves we had to
fear. But knowing the place now, we are forced to confess that our most
dangerous foes are drunkenness, luxury, impurity, and slander.” Despite
their style of living, Canadians were reported to be tall, well-made,
robust and vigorous. They had intelligence and vivacity, their only
shortcoming being that they were wayward and inclined to debauchery.

Denonville, a royal official, sought the king’s aid for two Canadian
families he found that were destitute. Those members of the laboring
class who applied themselves not only lived very well but were
“incomparably better off than the better sort of peasant in France.”

Magdeleine Bochart, sister of the governor of Trois Rivieres and of a
family “of distinction,” brought her husband as a dowry; 200 francs,
four sheets, two table-cloths, six linen napkins, a mattress, a blanket,
two dishes, six spoons, six tin plates, a pot, a kettle, a table with
two benches, a chest with lock and key, a cow and a pair of hogs. Since
the bride was from a distinguished family, the dowry, it was felt,
“answered to her station.”

August, September, and October were the busy months in Quebec. Ships
from France were unloaded. Shops and warehouses of the Lower Town were
filled with goods. With the frost, the ships sailed away, the harbor
deserted, the streets silent again, and like ants or squirrels the
people set to work laying in their winter stores. Shops were closed and
the long season of leisure and amusement began.

From then until Lent, dinner parties were frequent. There were
dinners for the military, for civic dignitaries and their wives, and for
prominent citizens. The wives and daughters of the burghers of Quebec
were said to be superior in manners to women of the corresponding class
in France. “They have wit,” said one of the French noblemen in
attendance, “delicacy, good voices, and a great fondness for dancing.
They are discreet, and not much given to flirting. But when they
undertake to catch a lover, he doesn’t find it easy to escape.”

Some years later another visiting French nobleman found the ladies of
Canada pretty, and “fond to the last degree of dress and show.” The
great explorer Bougainville, during the last years of French rule,
described the Canadian as essentially superior to the French peasant.
He found them loud, boastful, but obliging, civil and honest,
indefatigable in hunting. The Swedish botanist Kalm said the women were
beautiful, with an innocent and becoming freedom, who “dress out very
fine on Sundays. On days when they pay or receive visits they dress so
gaily that one is almost induced to think their parents possess the
greatest honors in the state.” The women were attentive to the latest
fashions and the first question they asked a stranger was whether he was
married.

The next question was how he liked Canadian ladies, how they compared
to the women of his own country, and third, whether he might carry one
home with him. No one could say Canadian women lacked either wit or
charm. The young gentlemen who came over from France were more than
content. “Everybody does his best to make the time pass pleasantly,
with games and parties, drives and canoe excursions in summer, sleighing
and skating in winter. There is a great deal of hunting and shooting.
Canadians breathe from their birth an air of liberty.”

These rambunctious people, canaille, gamblers, hunters,
soldiers, forward young women, were my blood ancestors. But the king’s
ship is about to sail. Winter draws near. The sun has set in chill
autumnal beauty and the sharp spires of fir trees stand still and black
against the pure cold amber of the fading west. The ship sails in the
morning.

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