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Group Maintenance and Ethnic Commitment

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Channel Islanders/Yves Frenette

People from Guernsey, along with Jersey fishers brought over by the Janvrin company, formed small Protestant communities at the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula. Geographical isolation and the practice of marrying within the community allowed these villages to retain their ethnic identity, including their distinctive Norman French. This dialect was sufficiently different from the French of Quebec and Acadia that French Canadians and Acadians considered it a foreign language. Immigrants from the Channel Islands, on the other hand, were generally able to understand Acadian and Quebec French, having been exposed to metropolitan French in their islands of origin. They would resort to patois in the presence of francophones or anglophones to communicate personal or business information among themselves.

These small communities, however, were exceptions. Almost invariably, immigrants from the Channel Islands became acculturated. Thus, the Robins of Old Fort Island, while continuing to practise Anglicanism, became anglicized, as did most of their fellow Channel Islanders in Newfoundland. Those who ended up in the midst of Irish and Acadian populations became Roman Catholics, especially when they did not have the services of Protestant missionaries. In almost all cases, from the second generation on, Channel Island identity and Norman patois disappeared. In places where Protestantism and Catholicism coexisted, Channel Islanders married Protestant partners and as a result became anglicized, even when they made up a majority of the population. A socio-political and socio-economic environment in which English predominated also undoubtedly contributed to their choice.

By 1950 there were only a few dozen people born in the Channel Islands left in Atlantic Canada. Twenty-five years later, the decline of the Atlantic provinces, along with the phenomena of regionalization and ethnic revival that had galvanized the French Canadians and Acadians, had brought the group further down the road to extinction. Only a few salty expressions were left from their Norman patois. The collective memory, and to a certain extent regional historical literature, had retained mostly negative images of the “Robins,” as Channel Islanders are still called in Acadia and the Gaspé, and the remaining members of the group were on the defensive.

Although few in number, Channel Islanders played a determining role in the development of the maritime societies of Atlantic Canada, especially in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In Newfoundland and Labrador, on the North Shore of the St Lawrence, in the Gaspé and New Brunswick, their commercial activities often led to permanent settlement and contributed to the shaping of societies that long remained dependent on the cod fishery. To use a colourful Jersey expression, the Channel Islanders stamped these regions with the seal of their bailiwick.