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Timothy St. Pierre is a Franco-American from Brunswick and a recent graduate of Swarthmore College, where he majored in French and wrote his thesis on Franco-American history and class dynamics in Maine.
Paul LePage was Maine’s first Franco-American governor.
As a young Franco-American who cares deeply for his family’s heritage and language, I want this fact to make me happy. I want to feel proud that after decades of hardship, exploitation and discriminatory laws targeting French-Canadians in our state, we elected a Franco-American to Maine’s highest office. Instead, I feel an immense sense of disappointment.
It disappoints me that one of LePage’s first acts in office was to remove the mural in the Department of Labor building depicting, in part, predominantly French-Canadian millworkers striking for better pay and better working conditions. For many, this painting depicted proud moments in our history: Our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents standing up for themselves when faced with abuse and poverty. For LePage’s administration, this mural was “too one-sided,” even if the “other side” represented millowners who paid our grandparents starvation wages and kept them housed in disease-prone slums.
My grandparents’ generation worked the mills, and I grew up hearing family members discuss how exhausting the work was and how low the pay was. My pépé left school after only eighth grade to start in Brunswick’s Cabot Mill, working alongside his parents. He couldn’t attend high school because his family needed another paycheck to get by; the millowners paid their workers so little that two parents working full time didn’t earn enough to support a family. Things changed when unions got involved, and I am incredibly proud that my grandparents’ generation was brave enough, respected themselves enough, to demand better for themselves and their families.
Many Francos have their own version of this tale, and almost all have a connection to the mills and the unions that gave them a fighting chance. It baffles me that someone could proudly embrace their French-Canadian heritage with one hand and use their other to sign laws stripping workers of their right to collective bargaining, as LePage did to farmworkers and child care workers.
It disappoints me that despite the lingering gap in earnings and education between Franco-Americans and the rest of the state, LePage recklessly vetoed dozens of bills that would have helped Maine’s lower-income families. The University of Maine’s 2013 Contemporary Attitudes of Maine’s Franco-Americans found that 35 percent of Franco-American households earned less than $20,000 per year, roughly a third of Maine’s average household income today and 16 percent lacked health insurance, twice Maine’s current rate.
On seven separate occasions, LePage vetoed Medicaid expansion bills that would have helped these families. He vetoed the Legislature’s attempt to raise the minimum wage and spent much of his time in office attempting to lower it. He repeatedly attacked workers’ protections and repeatedly tried weakening public and private sector unions.
It disappoints me that despite the laws barring French in Maine’s public schools or limiting Francophones’ right to vote if they could not read and write in English, despite the long history of nativist aggression and exclusion leading Franco-Americans to abandon our heritage and language, LePage shamelessly promoted far-right politics. It disappoints me that a native Francophone would represent a party whose platform wants to enshrine English as Maine’s only official language.
It disappoints me that instead of using French-Canadians’ historical experience of discrimination to build empathy and solidarity with Black Mainers and people of color navigating much deeper struggles than our grandparents ever did, LePage opted to blame the state’s opioid epidemic on Black dealers from out of state and notoriously claimed that “Black people come up the highway and they kill Mainers.” I am ashamed that LePage’s words and actions have built a link between Franco-Americans and this pattern of belief.
I am disappointed that LePage was our first Franco governor. I hope that our next Franco governor will be better. I hope that our next Franco governor won’t simply be LePage again, back for a third term.
I am voting on Nov. 8. I hope that you will, too. On se souvient.