SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2015       Personal Memory Ethnographies

Tim Costello

Meanwhile on the North Border

The 75th corridor where I grew up in transit has shifted over the years and is commonly known as the free trade highway. The whole length from Florida all the way up through Canada is of vital meaning to the group of people known as “snowbirds”. Another type of “snowbirds” existed, which never made Florida. These we always called “the children of the border”, because they migrated between Northern Ontario to Michigan. They lived a unique dual culture spanning between urban America, and French Canada, which they themselves call many things such as: Quebecois, Cabana, and some times just the French.

The area on the Abitibi River, along the “Queens Highway” or last roads, was critical of the one home to these snowbirds. These were a stretch of three towns: Faquier, Moonbeam, and Kapuskasing; which lay north of Timmins and west of Cochran. The other was either Flint or Detroit, which were a complete contrast to the norms of the Abatibi region. When the Abitibi ran dry (as they would say), those who wanted to still make a living went south to the automakers in Michigan. The problem was some could not give up home entirely and so would often send their families north for the summers. They would join them on holidays, and when winter hit, with occasional Christmas breaks.

This is where I spent my childhood, and on the road moving back and forth between Michigan and Ontario. We would know the difference because the leaves would change from Southern green broadleaf and often winter bare, to Northern dark green needles. This was not the only thing that changed. The hated bat sized mosquitoes gave way to the hated black flies. We went from being “Bloody Yanks” or “Anglois”[1], to being “Pepsis”, “peppers[2]”, and finally to those “Kannucks” back in the states. The language changed from Quebecois to English as well. This meant that French, which my father outlawed in our home in the states, would have to be relearned so we could talk to others every summer when we migrated back to the Abatibi. Unbelievably this syndrome was quite common and many today have lost one of their native languages as a result of non-usage. While young I never knew the difference, and thought everyone in Michigan lived this way.

Northern Ontario has always been a popular area of refuge for the unpopular. Faquier itself was said to have been settled by three men. One was from Montreal, one was Polish, and one was an Irishman or Scottish, no one really knew the difference. Even the surnames are French-ified versions of their original languages. So you have traditional ones: LaFeriere, Tromboli, and Thiebeult (pronounced Tee-bow up north); which are mixed with Grislaeu (Polish), and even Blaise. In the last case you can guess. It was a melting pot, which was only French speaking because of the amount of francophones in the 1960s settlement programs, and the means to reach common language by all.


Old Man: I have been here in Faquier for a long time, and this is the community we have scratched out of the bush given nothing. Abuses? You bet, the scoreboard continues in a great many ways throughout my lifetime. Our women are made out to be whores and loose, our culture made to be rustic, and we to be rubes. Claims are made that our genetics faulty because we are inbred. Our religion is persecuted, and even our language is not safe. They try to strip it from us every chance they get. Worst of all, now their solution is “multiculturalism”, which is British English for breed them out and assimilate them. If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen one of us discriminated against or degraded by that word “multicultural” being sung as the reason, I’d be a rich man. The Anglois, always coming out here and acting like they own the place.

When someone comes here it is usually to hunt, and they treat us like a tribe of natives in the jungle somewhere. They pronounce our town’s name in profanity[3]. The worst are the traitors. Those who left us come back, as if they belong. If you bring your children back here, you should at least have the decency to teach them their true language, and leave English back where it belongs. Now they say they want us to separate from Canada and join France. I do not know about all that, but I am up to becoming independent and ruling ourselves. At least we could speak our own language.


In the 70s, with the creation of the “Bloc Quebecois” the beginning of the referendum[4] movement began. This was the political argument for the separation of Quebec as an independent nation, and sometimes with the thought to join France. This referendum was largely received with an almost infinite degree of acceptability, in difference in its perceived outcome, and in its popularity on both sides. Some French felt that the “fights of the past” were from Grandpa’s time, and irrelevant now; however, many felt the need to strike back to the hegemony by setting their own rules. This was largely through the use of language. Language has always been embedded in exclusion, and the need was found by many both in the refusal to speak any thing but French, or to become instant Language snobs. Since French Canadians not only speak a different dialect of almost patois, and there are about 6 major regional dialects. For many this exclusion makes retaliation this a rather hurtful thing to live with.

The correlation should be immediately apparent by example, to Chicanos in Arizona, Texas, or New Mexico, but with one difference. These other southern border subcultures are not dying out. In Canada, the French Canadian culture is disappearing. This leads to a little more in the area of hard feelings.

When I was 10 we went up north for two weeks for Christmas. I had only been away for three months and had not yet lost French yet, but could not speak well. The teens and adults were all acting strange. One word kept popping up like bad gossip whispered on the wind, “Referendum”. For some reason my cousin refused to speak English; my aunt scolded her for being rude, and it made no sense to me. My cousin and I had come back in after playing Hockey all morning. We were instructed to walk up to the store to pick up some stuff for dinner that evening. So we started off the walk in the brisk air.

It had snowed the night before, so was roughly warm as it always is when it snows at about -5º. There was snow everywhere, right and about eight inches, bringing many out with shovels to clean it off. So we walked in the clean road, until we came to the odd old man’s house. He was clearing off his drive but his sidewalk was clean. Hoping up and over, my cousin was still playing with his hockey stick, we began to walk on his clean sidewalk. That is when the man looked up and asked me in French, “what time is it?” With my lazy mouth and broken French, I answered in French without a thought, “eight o’clock”.


Old Man: So I was outside shoveling the snow on my front sidewalk, my back creaking. I see Babe’s kid walking through with his hockey stick, and with him a kid I do not know. It’s not uncommon for him, to be heading down to the homemade ring to play. What is uncommon is that he does not even bother to acknowledge me standing here, so I know something is up. So I ask the one he’s with to give me the time. The kid answers in the worst French I have ever heard. What’s more it’s not even in our French, but out of a book, in the English’s French.

This really sets me off. I do the only thing an old man can do. I kick him off my sidewalk; he did not even have the intelligence to understand it. He watched me like an animal caught in a car’s headlights at night. The English think we are stupid?

He did the right thing though, apologizing to me for being with that kid who obviously did not belong here. He was embarrassed he had to walk through the town with him, I could tell. This shows that unlike the English we teach our kids respect. He then ushered the kid away. I thought the little English traitor boy would cry.


Marked and shamed I went back to the house leaving my cousin to complete his errand. I did not even then know why the old man had done this. The biggest part of this is that the small town where we lived was a place where almost everyone was family. The fire chief, the policeman, the mayor, even the priest were all my uncles or cousins. I was actually related to the old man. Very rarely did we as children hear of racism occurring except in Communist foreign countries, or in history before people learned better. This was to me at ten, as if the world was entirely breaking. After this I never belonged anywhere.

When we went back to Flint a man at work cracked a joke about his immigrant children. My father outlawed the use of French in our home. My family ceased migration after I graduated from high school and I believed I never really fit into either world. This was a very hard thing for a young child to come to grips with, and very hard when others group up into their racial groups. You tend to feel like the outsider. I know quite a bit about discrimination and a lot about exclusion. I especially have a hard time with race because, really, the only race that claims me is the human race. That is only by default.

[1]The Author never actually learned to read and write in French, nor ever learned it in school, approximated sounds will be used here.

[2] Derogatory term: in reference to French Canadians as physically correlated to a Pepsi bottle. “They are nothing from the neck down.”

[3] Said really fast in French, with an English accent, and lazy mouth. “Fauquier” is a rather bad word.

[4] The referendum actually did not pass, the final vote was actually by narrow margin, and held in the early 80s. Some claimed foul and that the election  was won by cheat.

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