Boundary Laws and Bilingualism

UNION Fair, one of Maine's better agricultural exhibitions, had some wet weather for its 1991 program, and its attendance was off. The pyrotechnicalities were postponed to a more salubrious evening and load after load of gravel was trucked in to mitigate the midway mud.But all in all the fair was fine, and Jim Grinnell, in charge of the horse pulling, said he was glad to have the Canadian entries. The boundary laws have been changed, and this year horses from Canada were able to come into Maine and compete. Jim said the only drawback was that he couldn't talk with the French-speaking teamsters. Which is a twice-told tale. Back in the Roosevelt depression our Great Northern Paper Company tried to help out and offered good jobs in the Maine woods to men and boys from "away." You are holding newsprint in your hand that comes from the very paper mill now in context, and at that time Leo Thibedeau was the employment manager for the woodlands operations. It was his job to find competent workers who, in the aggregate, could keep sufficient pulpwood moving from the stump to the mill in Millinocket. The French-speaking Canadian has always been the mainstay of that labor force. There are several reasons, one of which is the indisposition of down-state Mainers to go far up in the wilderness to work. Northern Maine is closer to Canada, so to speak, than to the United States. Besides their proximity, the Kaybeckers could make good money not available to them in Canada, and in later years the fringes were important, too. And mostly, they were good woodsmen, with "coureurs-de-bois" traditions, not at all loath to being away from home. They dominated the north woods scene, and French was always the language of the Maine lumbercamp. So Great Northern signed up with whatever federal agency was drumming up jobs and began hiring men from other states as an experiment, as a patriotic gesture, and wholly with the reservation of "seeing how it works out." For one thing, the company wouldn't have to post a bond for each workman, as it had to do with Kaybeckers. Immigration required bonds, and Canadian workmen were thus called, simply, "bonds "I met a couple of bonds on the toteroad." Leo Thibedeau commenced interviewing prospects. Leo was bilingual, but he was not a Canadian. He was born in the St. John Valley, where the river serves for 75 miles as our international boundary, and he was properly a US citizen of Acadian descent. His forebears came to The Valley in the dispersal of the French in Nova Scotia; they didn't go to Louisiana. Leo's French was 300 years away from France, and as an Acadian he had no connection with the come-lately colons of Habitant Quebec. He was an affable man, always sympathetic with the workman's problems, and his sense of humor was also bilingual - he could laugh with a hearty Yankee guffaw, and counter with a sly Gallic drolerie. I knew Leo, and he was one of my favorite people. And one day a young man from Mobile, Ala., was shown into Leo's employment office, recruited by the federal boys. Leo shook hands, made the amenities, and began his little dissertation on what it was like to work in the deep woods. It would be a whole new kind of life, and Leo didn't want any of these newcomers to be a "camp inspector." That's a man who comes but doesn't stay. In due time Leo asked this young man if he had any particular work experience, or a desire for special tasks. Leo told me, "I never saw Paul Bunyan, but this lad would make one. Handsome fellow, an ax-handle in the shoulders, straight, tall, lithe, good smile, hearty handshake - I took a liking to him." The young man said, "Yes - I've worked with horses, I could be a teamster." Leo said, "Do you speak French?" "No." So Leo hired him to sort pulpwood at the gate on the Ripogenus Dam sluice, and when the boys in Washington wanted to know why Leo hadn't made him a teamster, Leo's explanation was short and conclusive:"There isn't a horse in the Maine woods north of Lily Bay that can speak English."

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