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French Canadians Resist, But Identity Slips Away

January 19, 1992

GARDNER, Mass. (AP) _ First, the children stopped answering in French. Then the church school dropped a half-day of classes in the language. Now, even the Acadian Social Club uses English at its meetings.

But when the cable company shut off its French-language channel from Quebec, many of the churchgoing, hockey-worshiping French Canadians in this city got mad.

They mounted a campaign to restore the French station, and with it a lost piece of themselves.

″It’s like someone takes a gun and shoots you when you have something like that,″ said Louis LeBlanc.

The stocky, bearded LeBlanc spoke while watching a card game at the Acadian Social Club. The club illustrates the plight and sorrow of this isolated people, whose cultural identity is melting away by generations.

An Acadian flag - France’s blue, white and red background with a yellow star - flaps in a cold, winter wind beside the American flag. Inside, men play cards and banter in French. Yet the bartender says apologetically he can’t speak the language.

Even reckoning the number of Gardner residents of French-Canadian heritage poses a cross-cultural dilemma. Federal census figures put it at 1,193, or 6.6 percent of the total population of 17,900.

Acadians dispute the figure, putting their numbers at 30 percent to 40 percent of this northern Massachusetts city. They point out entire pages of Cormiers, LeBlancs and other common Acadian names in the local phone book.

Their ancestors came to the region in the 1750s, when the British expelled thousands of French-speaking people from Acadia, the former French colony that now includes land in the Canadian provinces of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Some expelled Acadians trekked to Louisiana, where their descendants are known as Cajuns.

Another wave of New Brunswick residents journeyed 400 miles south to work in Gardner’s furniture mills around 1915.

″They’ve been known to be persecuted and pushed around and always held to their religion and ... culture and ... pride,″ said Henry Ares, a French teacher and city resident whose Quebecois heritage gives him a slightly distanced perspective on the Acadians.

Val Ouellet, a building contractor with a powerful frame, thin mustache and thick accent, said he can’t understand why the cable company turned off the French channel.

″It makes us wonder if they have something against us or what. You hope not,″ he said.

Ouellet said French has slowly faded from the local Roman Catholic school and even many homes as children were born in the new land.

″We’re French, and we love our French,″ he said of the men, mostly in their 50s or older, surrounding him at the Acadian club. ″Our kids 20 years from now, they won’t care about the French station.″

Val Cormier, an Acadian club officer, said members began to hold their official sessions in English a few years ago. Last year, they Anglicized the club name to make it easier to file tax documents and the like.

Acadian residents said they pleaded with the cable company to restore the channel, which was canceled Jan. 1, because many elderly shut-ins depend on it for weekly Catholic Masses in French. They said they also loved the channel’s broadcasts of National Hockey League games.

The Acadians, unaccustomed to political protest, went to a City Council meeting Dec. 30 to demand their station’s return. The meeting drew about 30 people, a record crowd in recent years.

Hank Ferris, who manages the area’s Cablevision system, said the channel programmed at CKSH-TV in Sherbrooke, Quebec, was pulled mainly because its weak signal often produced a poor picture.

But he said the company is rechecking the signal and surveying the audience to see if the popularity of the French channel warrants restoring it.

Cablevision, which has 5,500 subscribers in Gardner and thousands more in nearby communities, replaced the French station with Atlanta-based WTBS.

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