WOONSOCKET – Calvin Fox grew up in Pawtucket, but it sure felt a lot like Canada.
With roots in Quebec, his family spoke a good deal of French at home. His grandparents, Maurice and Rita Fournier, were living examples of the great French-Canadian migration that built cities like Woonsocket, Pawtucket and Central Falls into the economic powerhouses that drove the Industrial Revolution.
The death of his grandparents made him realize how important his heritage was to him, and he felt a sort of personal mission to keep it alive.
“From a very young age it was highlighted in my life,” says Fox. “When my grandparents passed away it was important to me to keep it going as much as I can.”
That's why Fox has launched a petition to persuade city officials here to mark June 24 as Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day as an occasion for celebration, much as it has been in Quebec since 1925. It's his way of making the most French-Canadian town in Rhode Island just a little more French-Canadian – and keeping it that way for future generations.
The petition on Change.org, a website dedicated to social activism, has garnered more than 350 signatures since it went live just a couple of weeks ago. When Fox has what he thinks is a persuasively hefty collection of signatures, his intention is to set up some kind of a formal presentation for Mayor Lisa Baldelli-Hunt and other city officials to make his pitch for embracing Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day with a formal observance.
As he builds his case, Fox, 20, a marketing major at Concordia University in Montreal, says, “I kind of think of it as I'm almost collecting evidence.”
Between 1840 and the early 1900s, roughly a million French-Canadians left their agricultural homelands for a new way of life in the burgeoning textile industries of New England, making cities in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island some of the most concentrated bastions of Franco-American culture in the nation. Among those, Woonsocket was perhaps the leading example, a place where it's still possible to find an old-timer with a story, much like Fox's, about growing up as an American in a predominantly French-speaking cultural milieu.
The broader story, of course, is memorialized at the Museum of Work & Culture in Market Square, where it's recalled as “La Survivance,” an homage to the preservation of French culture against the depersonalization and family disintegration of manufacturing's rising tide.
Fox recaps the era in the preamble to his petition.
“At one point in time, Woonsocket, Rhode Island was filled with French-Canadian immigrants moving down from Quebec to work in the textile factories,” he writes. “During that time the city was filled with mostly Francophones, over half of the population in fact spoke French, and for some family that is all they spoke.”
Cultural identity may have no more defining feature than language, so for such a high number of people living in one American enclave to speak nothing but French is rare, serving to illustrate just how unique the city was, says Fox.
Nowadays, fewer city residents speak French, but the roots are still intact. By some estimates, as many as 80 percent of the city's population could still trace their origins to Canada as recently as the 1980s.
But Fox says his mission of elevating the profile of Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in the city isn't merely about celebrating the past. History is all well and good, he says, but preserving cultural identity means keeping traditions alive for future generations.
Fox says it's all about making “future history.”
“It's really important to create future history,” he says. “My goal is to almost show people that we're trying to create future history and highlight how amazing the city is, the history behind the city along with the creating that future history.”
In Quebec, Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day is a paid national holiday that's known as la Saint-Jean or la Fete nationale du Quebec, or the National Holiday of Quebec. The culture absorbed the celebration from the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, a religious feast day that honors one of the most revered figures of Christian faith, the preacher who is believed to not only have prophesied the birth of Christ, but to have baptized him.
In Canada, the secularized version of the holiday is typically marked with parades, concerts and fireworks. It's such a big deal that the festivities get started on June 23 – the day before Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.
Relax, though – Fox isn't asking Woonsocket to go overboard in paying tribute to St. John.
“However anyone wants to celebrate it they could celebrate it. It could be food, family gatherings,” says Fox. “It could be almost like a St. Patrick's Day in a way.”
The mayor hasn't heard from Fox yet, but Baldelli-Hunt is intrigued by his idea and looks forward to touching base with him. She hopes he can also bring Anne Conway, the director of the Museum of Work & Culture, into the conversation.
“All ideas are welcome,” said Baldelli-Hunt. “I look forward to hearing more about what he'd like to do.”
Fox, who lives with his mother in Smithfield when he's not at school in Canada, says he has reached out to the Quebec consulate in Boston for ideas on how to network with other groups to pitch the idea for Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day.
He says he also connects with like-minded people on various Franco-American social media platforms, where he is getting a favorable reception. He says at least 30 percent of the people he meets up with in such digital venues either live in Woonsocket or claim it as their hometown.
Surprisingly, he says, some of the people who are most interested in preserving Franco-American culture are also the youngest.
“People younger than myself, there is a very big importance for them to keep their culture alive,” says Fox. “I'm starting to feel like there are a lot of younger people who are interested in knowing what it's like to be Franco-American.”
Establishing Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day in the city would not be an entirely new thing – but more like a resurrection, says Fox. There may be some older city residents around who still remember marking the day with their families many years ago, but it's a tradition that has largely faded over time.
“I know it was a long time ago,” says Fox. “For me, it would be very cool to see their reaction when it's restored.”
Follow Russ Olivo on Twitter @russolivo