Ancestral Lands

Through seven generations, one French Canadian farming family has worked to keep
old traditions alive.

By Boyce Upholt | Photos By William Pugliano

When Pierre Chauvin left Detroit in the 1820s, what was once a small fort had grown into a frontier city, and there was no room left to farm. Pierre had to travel nearly 30 miles along the edge of Lake St. Clair before he found a suitable site of his own. There, he found a promising patch of forest, standing slightly higher than the surrounding ground. He came ashore and staked his claim.

“And this is why we’re here,” says Robert Chauvin, Pierre’s great-great-grandson. That property has changed, of course; the forest is long gone, replaced by billowing fields of soybeans and corn. Wind turbines churn on the horizon. But out along a nearby roadway stands a memorial to that moment. Pierre’s name is carved in stone, along with the next three generations of Chauvins.

“Clearers of our ancestral land,” reads an inscription below the names, “where your descendants still live today.” That is a translation, however; through their many generations, the Chauvins have proudly and determinedly spoken French. It’s just one of the many ways they work to keep their heritage alive.

The Chauvins can trace their local lineage back to a blacksmith, a part of the 1701 party that first founded Detroit. That makes the family a part of the Fort Detroit French, descendants of the earliest, permanent European settlers in these northern woods.

The Chauvins still call their community by its original French name, Pointe-aux-Roches. These days, though, that name appears on road signs only beneath the English translation: “Stoney Point.”

French culture has long been ebbing here. By the time of Pierre Chauvin’s migration, Ontario had
been a British possession for more than 60 years. Pointes-aux-Roches and many of the surrounding towns were established by Fort Detroit French families, but English speakers kept arriving. By the early 20th century, when Robert’s father, Philippe, was running the farm, it began to look like French culture might be swallowed
up entirely.

But Philippe had an insight: “If you want to preserve your language, you must have a reason to use it,” as Robert explains today. Philippe was determined to make French a language spoken not just at home, but for business, too.

Inspired by the cooperative tradition, Philippe developed a strategy. First, in 1944, he opened a French credit union. Then, four years later, he pooled money with his French-speaking neighbors to buy a grain elevator. This cost $9,000, Robert says, and Philippe handed over the cash in a brown paper bag. Thus, a co-op for local French farmers was launched.

Passing The Mantle

In 1904, the Ford Motor Company of Canada had opened a factory in nearby Windsor. The city soon became the de facto headquarters for Canadian automobile manufacturing. Many farm kids were drawn to new jobs in town.

“I think in my generation, I’m the only one [in Pointes-aux-Roches] who didn’t go to work outside the farm,” Robert says. Instead, he doubled down. He expanded his father’s small dairy farm into a sizable herd of 120 Holsteins. In 1978, as increasing corn prices made the dairy unprofitable, Robert sold the cattle and converted to a tomato operation, a crop he’d already been growing on the side. Over time, Robert gradually switched again to grain and oilseed production. The farm grew over the years, from 140 acres in Philippe’s day to 550 acres today.

Easy maintenance and increased uptime convinced father and son Robert and Maurice Chauvin that Massey Ferguson was the brand for their family farm.

Despite the family’s long history of farming, Robert ensured that his seven children got an education, so that they could choose the life they wanted. His son Maurice, born in 1971, didn’t stray far. He worked as an electrician, largely in Windsor, but lived just a few miles away. As a 26-year-old, Maurice decided to move back to the “family compound,” as he calls it.

“Even when I was working off the farm, I’ve always been, as much as I can, helping my dad,” Maurice says. “I was taking eight to 10 weeks off a year [to farm].”

It amounted, really, to working two full-time jobs—which was taking a toll on his health. “He was scaring me,” his wife, Cathy, says. Maurice and Cathy faced another stressor: Because their son Joe has cerebral palsy, he requires full-time care. The family had been receiving limited support through the provincial government, but this was scheduled to end in 2013 as Joe turned 18 and became an adult. Shifting to full-time farming would allow for more time at home. (Cathy, too, reorganized her work schedule; eventually the Chauvins were able to secure support through the Canadian Deafblind Association, too.) That same year, Robert retired. The mantle was passed for the fifth time. Maurice now serves on the boards of his grandfather’s credit union and of a provincial association of French-speaking farmers, among other local leadership roles. 

No Other Way

With all the changes, how fares the region’s French heritage? “Not as strong,” Robert says with a sigh. Yes, there are high schools and universities in Ottawa where classes are conducted in French, which was once forbidden. Philippe’s credit union still conducts business in the language, too. As Maurice’s cell phone buzzes, he is as liable to respond in French as in English. But across the region, fewer and fewer people are speaking French at home—less than 10% of the population in the surrounding towns.

The Chauvin family continues, of course. Along with Joe, the couple’s son Shawn and daughter Michelle still live on the farm. (Another daughter, Nathalie, lives in Ottawa.) Shawn, the eldest son, is repeating his father’s tradition; while he works as a truck driver, he lends his free time to farm. When Maurice one day retires, the plan is for Shawn to take over. By then, of course, the region will have no doubt changed again. 

But a French-speaking Chauvin at the helm of this property: That, at least, will be the same. Of this, Robert is far more hopeful—certain, really. “There is no other way,” he says.