2016-12-29 / Front Page

Mayor to tap Franco tourism

By Anthony Aloisio
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD/QUÉBEC – Mayor Alan Casavant has been working on connecting Biddeford to a network of North American cities organized to facilitate tourism and cultural preservation among Franco populations. Le Réseau des villes francophones et francophiles d’Amérique – in English, the Francophone and Francophile Cities Network – was formed officially in 2015 by the mayors of Québec City, Québec; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Moncton, New Brunswick.

“Québec City has taken the lead for a North American organization to focus on tourism, historical stuff, cultural stuff,” Casavant said at a Dec. 6 city council meeting, “from New Orleans, to Moncton, to Québec City, and we can be part of that, and there’s a lot of advantages to that.”

The network has four main objectives, according to its website: to “promote the value, richness and vitality of francophone heritage,” to “value and showcase francophone and francophile cultural communities,” to “develop economic and strategic alliances,” and to “promote member cities’ tourist attractions on the international scene.”

“It’s a great opportunity for visibility to promote your city,” Québec City Deputy Mayor Michelle Morin-Doyle told the Courier.

According to Morin-Doyle, Québec City officials began to notice in recent years that there was a growing interest for people of Franco heritage to retrace their roots, and also that more people of other heritage were becoming passionate about French culture.

“There’s a huge potential market,” Morin-Doyle said. “There’s 33 million French-speaking people in North America and we can tap into that market.”

“And that’s without talking about the francophiles,” Morin-Doyle added.

“Francophile” is the term for persons of non-Franco heritage who are interested in French culture. It’s analogous to “anglophile,” which is the term for those interested in English culture.

Right now the network claims 123 member cities, including Biddeford, divided into eight geographical zones in North America. There is currently no membership fee.

“On the first step, every city has their webpage where people can go and consult,” Morin-Doyle said. “But we’re gonna be building tourist circuits.”

Morin-Doyle said the plan is to create circuits within the geographical zones. The current zones are Acadia, Eastern United States, Louisiana, Ontario, Québec, The Carribean, western United States and western Canada.

“Just as a starting point, we really want to focus on the tourism and economic development factor,” Morin-Doyle said. “As we move along, we’ll build on the rest.”

Funding for the effort so far has been completely by Québec City.

“At this juncture Québec City is underwriting everything because they see it as best interest,” Casavant told the Courier.

“The city of Québec is supporting the website,” Morin- Doyle said. “We were lucky enough to get some grants from the (provincial Québec) government because they thought this initiative was a really good idea, given that we’re sort of the birthplace of French civilization in Canada.”

Beyond the potential for economic development by tourism, Morin-Doyle emphasized the potential for historic preservation.

“There’s a lot of cities in the states, especially in Maine, that, their industry was founded by French-speaking workers,” Morin-Doyle said. “There’s a whole history that’s sort of been forgotten over the years.”

Casavant was in agreement with regard to Biddeford.

“The Francos, they came here starting with Israel Shevenell, who’s really pre-mill, but as the mills began to expand in the late 1800s early 1900s you had waves of French-Canadians that were coming here,” Casavant said. “The mills themselves could be an attraction for the people that want to know that history.”

Israel Shevenell is Biddeford’s first permanent French- Canadian immigrant, according to information compiled by Renee DesRoberts, reference librarian at McArthur Public Library. In 1845 Shevenell walked the 200 miles from Compton, Québec in search of work. That trek took two weeks.

“His family re-created that event about a year and a half ago,” Casavant said. “They walked here to re-create that whole story line.”

Shevenell later brought his parents to Biddeford from Canada, became a U.S. citizen, and was actively engaged in the community.

“At the same time I think it’s important for the younger francos who live here to understand that they’re Franco,” Casavant continued. “For example, when I was teaching, there were kids with Franco names that did not know they were Franco. And then when I pressed further talking about things like Christmastime, they ate pork pies not realizing that was part of the Franco tradition too. They called their grandparents ‘mémère’ and ‘pépère’ but didn’t know why.

“I think it’s important not just for francos but for all ethnic groups to know their roots and know where they come from because that makes their individual history richer. I’m hoping our connection with this organization can re-kindle that Franco pride, but at the same time put Biddeford on the map as an area that is interesting to discover or rediscover.”

Casavant shared that his own heritage went back to Québec, to the areas of Montréal and Québec City.

Another part of the network’s programs at the start is an effort to connect member cities to a genealogy web service, YourFolks.com. Morin-Doyle compared YourFolks.com to ancestry.com, another genealogy web service, but said that it’s smaller and more specific to Canada. YourFolks.com is accessible only by member subscription. The plan for member cities, Morin-Doyle said, is to connect a small number of public computers in the city to access the website, with no charge to the city or to the community member. She said that the network has a partnership with the web service that will allow that.

Casavant said Biddeford could have three such computers. He envisions that one computer would be at McArthur Public Library and two others would be at separate schools in the district.

Morin-Doyle said that developing Franco populations could also be supported by the network. It still happens today, she said, and mainly in Canada, that Franco populations will move to a new area where there is an economic boom.

“Then you have this whole community that are bilingual and they have their traditions and their culture,” Morin-Doyle said. “For a city, it’s important to value that as a cultural richness.”

Along with the envisioned primary benefits of cultural preservation and tourism, Morin-Doyle hopes the network could foster economic partnerships outside of the realm of Franco culture and history. She said that that kind of thing was already beginning to happen between member cities.

For more information about Le Réseau des villes francophones et francophiles d’Amérique, readers can visit its website at http://villesfrancoamerique.com/.

Contact Staff Writer Anthony Aloisio at news@inthecourier.com.

FMI

To learn more about Le Réseau des villes francophones et francophiles d’Amérique, readers can visit its website at http:// villesfrancoamerique.com/.

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