Franco task force determined to make a difference with final report

Posted Nov. 26, 2012, at 6:50 a.m.

LEWISTON — Le plus que ça change, le plus que c’est la même chose.

Rough translation: The more things change, the more they stay the same.

That sentiment, offered by a pair of Maine-based French heritage teachers, is also the biggest concern for a task force the Legislature set up in 2011 to examine Maine’s Franco-American population.

The task force, which will issue a final report to the Legislature on its findings and recommendations, by Dec. 15 — will hold its fourth and final meeting at Lewiston’s Franco-American Heritage Center in the city’s Little Canada neighborhood on Wednesday, Nov. 28.

The meeting, which starts at 10 a.m., is open to the public.

Set up by a legislative resolve and chaired by Rep. Ken Fredette, R-Newport, the task force has focused largely on the areas of education, jobs and the economy as they pertain to Maine’s Franco-Americans, which account for about 24 percent of the state’s total population.

But the task force also commissioned some ground-breaking research, including a poll of 600 Mainers who identify themselves as Franco-American, Fredette said.

Remarkably, task force members raised the money for the poll and other task force work — nearly $20,000 in total — from private donations.

The poll was commissioned by the University of Maine’s Franco-American Centre in Orono and conducted by Maine polling expert and Bowdoin College professor Christian Pothholm.

Many of the key findings from the poll center around education and educational attainment, according to Tony Brinkley, an English professor and faculty member with the University of Maine’s Franco-American Centre.

Brinkley and Yvon Labbe, the centre’s executive director, are still studying the data from the poll. And with more than 25,000 data entry points, there’s still more to reap from the research, Brinkley said.

Labbe, also a member of the task force, has studied Franco-American history and issues in Maine since the early 1970s.

“We learned a good many interesting and, to some extent, disturbing things,” Brinkley said.

While Franco-Americans graduate high school at about the same rate as other Mainers, fewer of them, especially in the age group 18 to 25, have college degrees.

The unemployment rate for Franco-Americans in that age group was also higher than average — at 50 percent, Brinkley said.

When they drilled down further, they found the data suggested Franco-Americans in Maine, especially those with parents who did not attend college, didn’t see the value in higher education. The data also revealed the same group to be falling behind on the economic scale.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about what the value was for higher education,” Brinkley said. That age group also seemed to be more disconnected from their Franco-American heritage and ethnicity, while those over age 25 said they were more closely tethered and identified themselves as being a part of the Franco-American community.

Older Franco-Americans placed a higher value on college and also had lower unemployment rates.

The study and poll also yielded some more surprising information.

“We discovered there was far more self-identified fluency in French than we imagined,” Brinkley said. “The idea that French is a disappearing language in Maine is certainly not supported by the data.”

The poll also suggests that Franco-Americans who identified strongly with their ethnic roots were more likely to prosper economically.

“So the sense that leaving your roots behind is something necessary in order to prosper is countered by what we find in the poll,” Brinkley said. “A strong sense of wanting to be part of a larger society and at the same time keeping a sense of one’s own cultural identity seems to be a significant factor in prosperity.”

There were also indications that interest in college and higher education increased if a curriculum was to include segments on Franco-American heritage and culture, Brinkley said.

While it was not part of the study, some of the findings are likely to transfer to other cultural and ethnic groups, both Fredette and Brinkley said.

Fredette said two other findings from the study were particularly interesting to him.

The first being that York County in southern Maine appears to be becoming the county with the largest population of Franco-Americans.

That may indicate that people from more traditional Franco-American communities in Maine, like Lewiston-Auburn, are migrating south, Fredette said.

He said the second was the poll indicates people who have graduated from college showed a strong desires for their children to also go to college. He said that finding didn’t just apply to Franco-Americans.

“That is a significant factor, which we find crosses any ethnic line,” Fredette said. “It also focuses the issue of the University of Maine and the community college system continuing to recruit first-generation college students.”

Fredette said that effort will result in a cascading effect that will quickly compound the level of educational attainment in Maine, which also translates into a stronger economy for Maine.

Fredette and other task force members, including Rep. Brian Bolduc, D-Auburn, are determined to see their final report is put to good use and hopefully will inform policy decisions for years to come.

Bolduc said he would likely revive a bill he wrote last session that would have added Franco-American studies to Maine’s learning results for public schools. While the bill was voted down in committee, it only failed in the full House of Representatives by four votes, Bolduc said.

“There are three legs to the stool of history in Maine — the English history, the Native-American history and the Franco-American history,” Bolduc said.

The Legislature studied the Franco-American population in Maine about 15 years ago, Fredette said.

But like many task force studies, which don’t include hard data like the information from the poll, it was more or less shelved, he said.

Fredette would like to see the task force’s work continue and said he will propose legislation that would set up a nonprofit Franco-American Leadership Council.

Fredette, who was recently elected the new minority leader in House, has several other ideas that would make use of the work started by the task force, he said.

“We are looking forward,” Fredette said. “We look to the past for our history, but, quite frankly, I think for the Franco-American community now it’s really about looking forward.”

Maine Francos are more than ever realizing their political clout as well — another key finding of the poll was the ethnic group is fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, Fredette said.

He is quick to point to a growing number of Mainers with French roots who are serving in key state government leadership positions, including Gov. Paul LePage.

“I think the days of talking about being discriminated against is something that we probably ought to be looking at as being behind us,” Fredette said. “Certainly we’ve come to positions of influence, and it’s time to look forward.”

sthistle@sunjournal.com

Poll of Franco-Americans in Maine

Report from James Myall based on American Community Survey – U.S. Census data

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