AUGUSTA — For Auburn’s Doris Belisle-Bonneau all the accolades and honors she received from the governments of the state of Maine and France are not about her.

Belisle-Bonneau, who has been a longtime supporter of saving and restoring Lewiston-Auburn and Maine’s Franco-American culture and language, was inducted into the state’s Franco-American Hall of Fame on Wednesday at the State House.

The induction was part of the Legislature’s 14th Annual Franco-American Day at the Capitol, which celebrates the contributions Franco-Americans have made to the state’s history, culture and economy.

Gov. Paul LePage, Maine’s first French-speaking Franco-American governor, said Franco-Americans were once the subject of ridicule and hatred and were even the target of the Ku Klux Klan rally in Brownville in the 1920s, the largest ever held in the state.

“Today, Franco-Americans are homeowners, business owners, legislators, mayors, elected community officials – major contributors to the state of the Maine and to the future of the state of Maine,” LePage said. “I see some young men here that might be standing up here in a few years. So it’s very, very humbling to be addressing you as a Franco and I’m very, very proud to be a Franco.”

During a ceremony at the Franco Center in Lewiston on Wednesday night, Belisle-Bonneau was also honored by the French government and awarded the Chevalier des Palmes Academiques, a recognition that she sees as an even bigger deal, she said.

But both honors, she said humbly, could have been easily bestowed on many others in Maine who have worked to advance French language and culture. 

“I feel like I don’t deserve this and that a lot of people work as hard as I do,” Belisle-Bonneau said.  Later Wednesday during her acceptance speech for the Chevalier des Palmes Academiques, Belisle-Bonneau said in French and English that her late parents, Diane Castonguay and George Belisle, would have been so proud of her.

The French award, which dates back to Napolean, is given to those who have “rendered eminent service to French education and have contributed actively to the prestige of French culture. “

On hand Wednesday night to present the award to Belisle-Bonneau was the consulate general from the French Embassy in Boston.

Her parents, Belisle-Bonneau said, raised her to speak French and English and to be proud of her ability to do so.

“My ability to speak French set me free to explore different cultures, to appreciate the magic in what others considered parochial, and ultimately love my personality traits that sometimes are not always valued here,” Belisle-Bonneau said. 

On Wednesday, Lewiston-Auburn lawmakers made no qualms about expressing how much they do value the work Belisle-Bonneau has done in their communities to bring an appreciation of French language and culture to area youth.

State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, speaking on the floor of the House of Representatives, heralded Belisle-Bonneau who she said, “has devoted her life as an educator to passionate, enthusiastic and tireless advocacy for the preservation of Franco culture and language.”

Rotundo said, “Doris is richly deserving of the honors being bestowed upon her today.”

Other lawmakers also said Belisle-Bonneau has played a critical role in turning around the views toward Franco culture in Lewiston-Auburn and beyond. 

“Thank you, Mrs. Bonneau, for all of your efforts in preserving our French heritage,” state Rep. Mike Lajoie, D-Lewiston, said. “Thank you so very much.”

For her part, Belisle-Bonneau said she was accepting the awards, “on behalf of all of us who put our heart and souls in whatever we do as Franco-Americans. We think our traditions are really important and we are trying to keep them alive.”

She also said she would continue to push Maine’s lawmakers and other policymakers on the state and local level to support French culture not only with words but with action and funding. 

“Particularly important is the resurgence of French in Maine,” she said.

A recent Legislative task force set up to emphasize Franco-American culture in Maine was good at crafting policy, including a policy that Maine public school students are taught about the state’s Franco history, she said.

“But it’s been unfunded,” Belisle-Bonneau said. “I think they need to fund legislation that requires the history of the Francos to be included in the study of Maine. They need to create incentives for businesses that cater to French and community clients.”

She said they also should ensure that a coordinator of the Franco collection at the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston-Auburn College is staffed and funded. She also urged lawmakers to ensure the Franco Center at the University of Maine at Orono is integrated into the statewide university system in a meaningful way.

“Our state has wonderful resources, we’ve got our rivers, we’ve got our lakes, we’ve got our forests, we’ve got our mountains and our seacoast,” she said. “Hey, you know what else we have? One of our most valuable natural resources is the presence of our Franco-American culture and heritage in our state.”

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