Lifestyles

Evangeline lives! And if she’s not exactly well she’s much, much better

WALTER STEWART December 12 1977
Lifestyles

Evangeline lives! And if she’s not exactly well she’s much, much better

WALTER STEWART December 12 1977

Evangeline lives! And if she’s not exactly well she’s much, much better

Lifestyles

Jimmie Domengeaux was polite, but firm. No, he would not allow his picture to be taken alongside the scroll for his French Legion of Honor. When Premier René Lévesque of Quebec got the legion, Canadians raised a terrible fuss, and that made the matter a delicate one. “People will say if Jimmy Domengeaux got the legion, it don’t mean much . . . Lévesque’s was no honor to Quebec.’ Well, Quebec has been our benefactor. Quebec rediscovered us. Quebec helped us first, and I don’t kick people in the butt who help me.”

If you stepped outside Domengeaux’ law office and heaved a long stone, chances are it would land in a sugarcane field or a bayou or some other reminder that this is Lafayette, Louisiana. Quebec-Ottawa politics are very real in Louisiana. This is Acadian country, and here the French colonists who were banished from Nova Scotia in 1755 settled and multiplied. Today, 1.5 million of their descendants—white, black and Creole—are scattered across the state, with the largest concentration around Lafayette, in the southwest.

But if the Acadians are flourishing, their culture is not. Until a few years ago, it was dying. Children were punished for speaking French in schoolyards, the language was banished from classrooms, parents spoke French only to keep secrets from their youngsters, and thousands of Acadians grew up, like Domengeaux, able to speak their mother tongue but not to read or write it.

Enter Domengeaux, CODOFIL and Quebec. Domengeaux, 71, a silver-smooth southern politician, goes back a long way.

He dared to oppose Huey Long (“an outright dictator”) when the Kingfish ruled Louisiana, he served 10 years in Congress, played poker with Harry Truman (“still have his ious”), came back home to make money in oil and law, and to run the local Democratic machine. In 1967, he took up the cause of Acadian French. “I believe the melting pot theory served America very well. We needed one language to knit this nation together. But now we need to communicate with others. Language is the key to the future. I believe that very strongly.”

What Domengeaux believes strongly he pushes; when he pushes, something gives.

In 1968, the Louisiana Legislature gave, with an act to establish the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana—codofil—with Domengeaux as its chairman and a modest budget (about $200,000 a year currently) for staff. Domengeaux took out ads and set up billboards to promote French. He traveled to meet French heads of state and to drum up support. He smooth-talked his way into the newspapers and onto the airwaves, and

he pried millions of dollars out of state and federal governments for French language

education.

Very early, he learned about Ottawa and Quebec. On October 17, 1968, the day CODOFIL was officially launched in St. Martinville, Lionel Chevrier, a roving ambassador for Canada, was invited to attend. Although he was 10 miles away, in Lafayette, Chevrier declined. However, the Province of Quebec did send a delegate, and soon after set up a permanent, four-man delegation in Lafayette. The re-

suit was an outpouring of Quebec books, films, tapes and other cultural aids.

France Le May, secretary to the Quebec delegation, remembers that when she first came, nine years ago, people were ashamed to speak French. In the post office, she would ask for stamps in French. No one would answer, but she would get her stamps. Later, the clerks started to whisper French back to her. Now, many of the street signs are bilingual, French is taught in the schools and an extensive exchange program brings in French teachers from Quebec, Belgium, France and Tunisia, and sends Louisiana youngsters north to live and learn in Quebec. Many local youngsters, who scorned their mother tongue as the language of the old and poor, were turned on by Quebec pop singers. Says Jules Poisson, leader of the provincial delegation: “People have been given back their pride.”

But the struggle is far from over. Though the Acadians, like the whooping crane, have made a comeback, they are a long way from security. At Evangeline Park in St. Martinville, an Acadian guide snorts, “It’s a lost cause. French is a dead language. Acadian French, anyway. This is America. We should speak American.” A few miles away, restaurant owner Max Greig retorts, “Americans are people who live up north and don’t like us. French is our heritage.” When French president Valéry Giscard d’Estaing came to visit in 1976, a local paper printed its front page in French but all in capitals: the printers had no French punctuation symbols, required for the lower case.

Still, the work goes on. Every week, a few more kids learn a few more French words (in one case a grandmother, unilingually French, spoke to her granddaughter, unilingually English, for the first time after a child came home from a French lesson). Every week, there is another article in French, a few more programs, a little more pride.

And where is Ottawa in all this? “I really wish we could get more help from your federal government,” says Domengeaux. “The last thing I remember is a grant of $15,000 about four years ago. That and a few books.” Domengeaux cannot be drawn into discussing Quebec separatism. “We won’t be selling any cane syrup to Quebec or buying any snowmobiles. Our only common interest is the French language. But if you want to know Louisiana’s reaction to the Parti Québécois victory, it was nil.”

It was nil because Acadians, despite their sympathy for Quebec’s language problems, simply don’t believe separation is possible. A state employee, an Acadian, says, “It’ll never happen. Those clowns in the CIA and FBI won’t let it.” A more positive view is taken by restaurant owner Greig: “People need each other. The only mistake Canada made was in refusing to become bilingual. Why not? It doesn’t hurt.”

WALTER STEWART