The Genetic History of French Canada

With less than one week left in the on-line fundraising campaign to support the DVD production of my solo show, Piecework: When We Were French, I’m continuing my series of posts on topics related to Franco-American history and heritage.

Genetics has been on my mind a lot in the last few years. I was told by doctors that an illness some years ago was likely predetermined in my genes, although in a way that could not yet be identified. My husband and I received genetic counseling before our son was conceived, exploring the cocktail that our two gene pools would mix into. As family members have aged, common conditions have cropped up: arthritis, vision problems, dementia. Looking back through the family tree, with little specific information about how my ancestors lived, aged, or died, I’ve reflected on what exactly it means for something to “run in the family.” As genetic material is transmitted from one generation to the next, I am, after all, made out of the same literal stuff as those who came before me. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has put it this way:

The genes that we carry around inside us are a walking text-history of our ancestors, because the genes that we have as we walk around, the genes that we have inside us, have been shaped and carved and whittled by the natural selection of past ages. A whale will have within its genetic story…an account of life in the sea, obviously, but it will also have an account of life on land, and for all we know, ancestors of whales at some point went through a stage of living in deserts, in which case it would have just the opposite kind of story as well. So that idea, that every animal alive today carries within it a book where the chapters are parts of its own history— that seems to me to be a poetic idea, which is carrying a scientific truth…

As I’m not a scientist, my work often ends up exploring the “poetic idea” of genetic heritage, but I am also interested in the “scientific truth” to which Dawkins refers. What of our ancestors’ histories do we carry, literally, through the genetic material that we share with them?

It turns out that French-Canadians are often of special interest to geneticists for the same reason that French-Canadian ancestry makes genealogy a cinch: Quebec has incredibly rich archival records of births, marriages, and deaths dating back to the founding of New France. While these records aren’t perfect (they certainly exclude much of the aboriginal population and don’t account for those settlers who ventured deeper into the wilderness — I’m lookin’ at you, Francos of the Great Lakes!), they do allow scientists to link historical records with the current gene pool in a uniquely productive way. (This article provides a very scientific, if not altogether accessible, summary.)

Furthermore, the vast majority of North Americans with French-Canadian heritage descend from about 8,500 French settlers who arrived in New France between 1608 and 1759, leading to remarkable homogeneity in the population. Geneticists call this “the founder effect.” In part but not solely related to inbreeding, it is a genetic variation that appears when a very small number of individuals from a larger population set off and establish a new, discrete population of their own. With time, they become genetically distinct from the population of origin, so that today, there are genetic characteristics common among French Quebecois that are not common in France. There are higher rates in Quebec of some 30 diseases with a genetic basis, including cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, and certain types of muscular dystrophy, high cholesterol, and rickets.

Doctors do, in fact, recommend screening for some of these conditions for those with French-Canadian ancestry. A blood test for familial hypercholesterolemia could explain a family tendency toward extremely high cholesterol, which could lead to heart disease and other dangerous complications. Sometimes checking for a risk factor is as simple as checking your family tree: Are Zacharie Cloutier and Saincte Dupont on it? You might want to get checked for Oculopharyngeal Muscular Dystrophy, which this couple are credited with establishing in the Quebec population after their arrival in 1634. And there is significant regional variation in the appearance of certain diseases within the province, so even knowing the region where your forebears settled could be helpful.

Health is certainly not the only reason to take an interest in your genealogy, nor even the primary one. I think the stories are the important, the meaningful thing. But if you think the stories aren’t important, if you think that where or how your ancestors lived doesn’t have anything to do with you, I think your genes, sooner or later, might prove you wrong.

[Added 11/09/2021: For more interesting reading on the topic of genetic testing, which has changed a lot since this post was originally written, I recommend this article from Popular Science about the limits of genetic testing in establishing ancestry: DNA Tests Can’t Tell You Your Race, by Jack Herrera.]


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