Transmitting Migration Memory: Correspondence as a Framework for Kinship

Valérie Bouchard (Université de Saint-Boniface)

Through the study of correspondence, this postdoctoral research realized in 2021-2022 takes an ethnological, internal perspective on the kinship networks at the heart of North America’s Francophone communities. By exploring family archives over the long term and with an eye to the intimate and the everyday (Dassié, 2010), our research addresses the various periods and contexts covered by the biographical trajectories (Bonnot, 2002) reflected in the source material. The aim is to analyze these documents not only for insight into the “migration experience” (Mimeault, 2013), but also as a framework for maintaining family cohesion and for transmitting—or even reinterpreting—family memory of migration (Ricœur, 1985; 2000). Drawing on the results of our doctoral research, which focused on narratives associated with the objects in a private collection, we intended to approach family archives as “kinship objects” (Bouchard, 2021) that bolster a sense of group and genealogical belonging rooted in the migration experience.

This involves studying two collections of family papers held by the French Institute at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts—the Jobin Family Archive and the Sansoucy-Harpin Family Archive. The Jobin family, which departed Quebec City for Boston in 1890, has left behind some 500 letters whose contents remain largely unknown. The collection also includes the memoirs of Marie-Eugénie Jobin, which have been analyzed by Leslie Choquette from the perspective of integration into the host community (Choquette, 2011). For its part, the Sansoucy-Harpin family immigrated to Southbridge, Massachusetts, from the rural community of Saint-Ours in 1909. The papers of this comparably less affluent family provide glimpses of everyday experiences that contrast with those of the Jobins. The fact that both collections have been used by descendants to write family narratives (Choquette, 2019)   makes it possible to better explore the phenomenon of family memory among the descendants of French Canadians who left Quebec for New England at the turn of the twentieth century. Furthermore, the project led to the discovery of other relevant documents and collections capable of shedding further light on the evolution of family narratives involving migration.

Our research focused on studying the two families’ migration experiences through the documents contained in the two collections described above. Due to COVID 19 restrictions and unforeseen circumstances, it was not possible to travel to the French Institute to consult documents written by the archival donors, including translations of the letters in the Jobin Family Archive and the family history based on them, as well as the family history published by the donor of the Sansoucy-Harpin Family Archive. Although this was also part of the original plan, it was not possible to conduct interviews with descendants to identify various manifestations of family memory. based on the results of the documentary research.

The study will include the publication of an academic work that will be part critical edition, part ethnological analysis. Adopting a qualitative approach, we will showcase the intimate aspects of the migration experience, while making digitized source material available to a curious but non-academic readership and leading a foray deep into the world of ethnological research.