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Resurgence of French in Maine gives francophones hope, but fears, challenges remain

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Resurgence of French in Maine gives francophones hope, but fears, challenges remain


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From the left: Dr. Fern Desjardins, Cathie Pelletier, Richard L’Heureux, Cecile Thornton, Denis Ledoux, and Doris Bonneau attend a Francophonie Day event at the Maine State House in Augusta, Maine on March 12.Juliana L’Heureux/The Canadian Press

For decades, Cecile Thornton had little motivation to speak French. Born into the minority francophone community in Lewiston, Maine, she says she and her family were often the target of ridicule.

“I was ashamed of my francophone roots,” she recalled in a recent phone interview in French. “There were a lot of people who laughed at and mocked us.” Thornton, whose maiden name is Desjardins, married an anglophone and didn’t teach her children French. It eventually disappeared from her daily life, and she says she lost her ability to converse in the language as a result.

That changed in 2016, when she began attending French-language meet-ups led by local immigrants from West Africa. Thornton says those conversations inspired her to reconnect with her mother tongue. “The African community helped me feel proud to be Franco,” she said.

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Now 68 years old, Thornton has become an advocate for French speakers in Maine, one of several members of the state’s francophone community striving to preserve their language and heritage. They hope a wave of recent African immigration and a growing recognition of the state’s Franco-American population will spark renewed interest in their cause. But the number of French speakers in Maine is dwindling, leading some to fear for their future.

Like Thornton, many francophone Mainers decided not to pass down their language in the 20th century. Children who did speak French faced further repression. A 1919 state law that banned education in French “had a long-term impact on how people perceived the value of their language,” said Patrick Lacroix, director of the Acadian Archives, housed in the University of Maine at Fort Kent. Maine only repealed the rule in 1969.

U.S. Census Bureau data underline the francophone community’s growing vulnerability. The agency estimated that about 30,000 of the more than 1.3 million people in the state spoke French at home in 2022, down from 33,000 in 2018 and from more than 40,000 four years before that.

Don Lévesque, a 76-year-old member of the centuries-old Acadian population in northern Maine, says his outlook on local efforts to promote French changes daily. “Sometimes I’m optimistic, sometimes I’m not,” he confessed in an interview.

Lévesque is the president of Le Club Français in the town of Madawaska on the border with New Brunswick, where he now lives. Founded in the 1990s by a group of residents concerned about the survival of their language, Le Club Français now offers French pre-kindergarten and elementary after-school programs, as well as conversational French courses for adults, he said.

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Next, the organization wants to create more opportunity for Maine Acadians to develop social lives in French, through such things as community suppers or movie nights. Le Club Français is also planning cultural excursions into New Brunswick, Lévesque said.

But engaging younger residents is a challenge, he admitted. “Sometimes I feel like a dinosaur,” he said. “The French speaking dinosaur in an English world.”

A second French-speaking population, in Southern Maine, descends from Canadian immigrants who worked in the area’s many mills in the 19th and 20th centuries. Jan Sullivan, a native francophone who leads a French conversation group at the Franco Center of performing arts in Lewiston, says African newcomers have “reawakened” the language in the community.

Though immigration has fuelled a welcome boost to French, it might not be enough to save the language, Sullivan warned. “I think it’ll survive for a few more years, several more years,” she lamented. “But eventually, I’m afraid it’s dying.”

Others are resisting the narrative of a culture in inevitable decline. Among them is Susan Pinette, a University of Maine professor and director of its Franco-American Center in the town of Orono, one of several institutions in the state working to publicize the community’s history. In an interview, she said the centre aims to counter portrayals of language and cultural loss by highlighting ongoing Franco-American activism.

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“The community is changing and that’s a good thing,” she said. “We don’t want (to be) a museum piece of something that’s stuck in the past.”

Lacroix agreed that what he called the “doom and gloom” narrative often ignores the grassroots efforts that have helped enhance the visibility of Maine’s Acadian community and organizations like his that foreground Franco-American heritage. “I think increasingly we are getting the attention of people in the state, which is really the first step even before we can start asking for greater support,” he said.

On Tuesday, the Maine legislature hosted a small ceremony to celebrate the state’s Francophonie Day. In its resolution proclaiming the holiday, the body cited a “resurgence in the use of the French language and a heightened appreciation of Franco-American heritage throughout the state.”

Despite the challenges facing French in Maine, Thornton said she remains hopeful for its future. She also encouraged Quebecers to cherish their connection to the language.

“If people in Quebec, they hold on to their French, they teach their children French, it’s going to be a very good thing for the language,” she said.

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Maine

Marijuana grow busted in Maine as feds investigate trend in 20 states

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Marijuana grow busted in Maine as feds investigate trend in 20 states


The high electricity consumption of a home, its cardboard-covered windows and odor of marijuana drew law enforcement’s attention to an illicit grow operation off the beaten path in rural Maine.

The bust of the home with a hidden grow operation and seizure of nearly 40 pounds (18 kilograms) of processed marijuana marked the latest example of what authorities describe as a yearslong trend of foreign nationals to exploit U.S. state laws that have legalized cannabis for recreational or medical use to produce marijuana for the illicit markets in the U.S.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating international criminal organizations that are operating illegal marijuana grows in about 20 states, including Maine, Attorney Garland Merrick Garland told the Senate Appropriations Committee this week, in response to a question raised by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

Federal law enforcement officials said there currently are about 100 illicit grow operations in Maine, like the one in Passadumkeag, about 60 miles (96.5 kilometers) north of Bangor, and about 40 search warrants have been issued since June.

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In Passadumkeag, Xisen Guo, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in China, has been accused of transforming the house into a high-tech, illicit grow operation, according to court documents unsealed this week.

He was ordered held without bail Friday on federal drug charges, making him the first person to be charged federally in such a case in Maine. A detention hearing is scheduled for Monday.

The Internal Revenue Service and Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI and DEA and local law enforcement, are working together to get to the bottom of the illicit grow operations in Maine, Garland said.

The state legalized adult consumption of marijuana, but growers must be licensed by the state. The Maine Office of Cannabis Policy said Guo was operating an unlicensed operation, according to court documents.

The illicit grow operations across the U.S. began cropping up several years ago. In 2018, U.S. authorities arrested a Seattle woman, conducted raids and seized thousands of marijuana plants during an investigation of an operation with Chinese ties. Oklahoma officials learned straw owners in China and Mexico were running illegal operations after marijuana was legalized by the state for medical purposes in 2018.

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The legality of marijuana consumption and cultivation in those states tends to provide cover for illegal grow operations, which may draw less attention, officials said. The marijuana is then trafficked in states where it’s illegal.

This photo shows the seizure of 40 pounds of processed marijuana from a hidden grow operation in Maine. (Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office via AP)

In Maine, U.S. Attorney Darcie McElwee said thwarting illegal growing operations with international connections is a priority for law enforcement, “and we will continue to marshal every tool at our disposal in this effort as appropriate.”

Law enforcement officials know the tell-tale signs.

Police zeroed in on the Passadumkeag operation in part because of the home’s utility bills reviewed by deputies. After the home was purchased for $125,000 cash, the electricity use went from about $300 a month to as high as nearly $9,000, according to court documents.

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That’s consistent with heat pumps, costly lighting and other gear needed to grow marijuana, investigators said. The home owner, a limited liability company, upgraded the electric capability to double what is found in a typical Maine home, according to documents.

Guo’s attorney didn’t immediately return a call from The Associated Press. Two others who were at the home at the time of the police raid in February were released and not charged.

McElwee said law enforcement — from local and county police to the FBI and DEA — are starting to make headway with “dozens of operations” shuttered over the last several months.

“The possible involvement of foreign nationals using Maine properties to profit from unlicensed marijuana operations and interstate distributions makes it clear that there is a need for a strong and sustained federal, state and local effort to shut down these operations,” she said.

Law enforcement officials also continue to investigate who is directing the operations and where the profits are going, she said.

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Feds bust another illegal grow house in Maine as authorities probe foreign-backed drug trade in other states

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Feds bust another illegal grow house in Maine as authorities probe foreign-backed drug trade in other states


The high electricity consumption of a home, its cardboard-covered windows and odor of marijuana drew law enforcement’s attention to an illicit grow operation off the beaten path in rural Maine.

The bust of the home with a hidden grow operation and seizure of nearly 40 pounds of processed marijuana marked the latest example of what authorities describe as a yearslong trend of foreign nationals to exploit U.S. state laws that have legalized cannabis for recreational or medical use to produce marijuana for the illicit markets in the U.S.

The Drug Enforcement Administration is investigating international criminal organizations that are operating illegal marijuana grows in about 20 states, including Maine, Attorney General Merrick Garland told the Senate Appropriations Committee last week, in response to a question raised by Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine.

A bipartisan group of 50 U.S. lawmakers, Collins among them, had written to Garland in February asking for him to answer questions about China’s role in illegal marijuana operations in the country.

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“We are deeply concerned with reports from across the country regarding Chinese nationals and organized crime cultivating marijuana on United States farmland,” they wrote. 

Federal law enforcement officials said there currently are about 100 illicit grow operations in Maine, like the one in Passadumkeag, about 60 miles north of Bangor, and about 40 search warrants have been issued since June.

In Passadumkeag, Xisen Guo, a naturalized U.S. citizen born in China, has been accused of transforming the house into a high-tech, illicit grow operation, according to court documents unsealed this week.

Illicit Marijuana Operations Maine
This photo provided by the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office shows the seizure of 40 pounds of processed marijuana from a hidden grow operation by a Chinese citizen in Maine.

Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office via AP

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He was ordered held without bail Friday on federal drug charges, making him the first person to be charged federally in such a case in Maine. A detention hearing is scheduled for Monday.

The Internal Revenue Service and Department of Homeland Security, along with the FBI and DEA and local law enforcement, are working together to get to the bottom of the illicit grow operations in Maine, Garland said.

The state legalized adult consumption of marijuana, but growers must be licensed by the state. The Maine Office of Cannabis Policy said Guo was operating an unlicensed operation, according to court documents.

The illicit grow operations across the U.S. began cropping up several years ago. In 2018, U.S. authorities arrested a Seattle woman, conducted raids and seized thousands of marijuana plants during an investigation of an operation with Chinese ties. Oklahoma officials learned straw owners in China and Mexico were running illegal operations after marijuana was legalized by the state for medical purposes in 2018.

The legality of marijuana consumption and cultivation in those states tends to provide cover for illegal grow operations, which may draw less attention, officials said. The marijuana is then trafficked in states where it’s illegal.

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In Maine, U.S. Attorney Darcie McElwee said thwarting illegal growing operations with international connections is a priority for law enforcement, “and we will continue to marshal every tool at our disposal in this effort as appropriate.”

Law enforcement officials know the tell-tale signs.

Police zeroed in on the Passadumkeag operation in part because of the home’s utility bills reviewed by deputies. After the home was purchased for $125,000 cash, the electricity use went from about $300 a month to as high as nearly $9,000, according to court documents.

That’s consistent with heat pumps, costly lighting and other gear needed to grow marijuana, investigators said. The home owner, a limited liability company, upgraded the electric capability to double what is found in a typical Maine home, according to documents.

Marijuana confiscated from a hidden grow operation in Maine
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Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office via AP


Raymond Donovan, the former chief of operations for the DEA, told CBS News earlier in April that unusually high electricity bills are one of the easiest ways to spot an illegal grow operation.

“These locations consume huge amounts of electricity,” he told CBS News. “In order to accommodate that amount of energy, you need to upgrade your electrical infrastructure — and significantly. We’re getting into specialty electrical equipment that is very scarce and hard to come by, especially in the state of Maine.”  

Another illegal growing operation — where authorities found 2,600 plants and 100 pounds of marijuana that had already been processed and packaged — was busted in Machias, Maine, in December of last year. It was spotted by authorities for the same reasons that the Passadumkeag house drew attention.

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Machias Police Chief Keith Mercier said that operation was using about four or five times as much power as a normal residence would.

“Once we subpoenaed the power records from the power company, [it] was pretty hard to explain why somebody anywhere would be using that amount of power,” he told CBS News. The Machias grow house also had shuttered windows and a strong odor.

Guo’s attorney didn’t immediately return a call from The Associated Press. Two others who were at the home at the time of the police raid in February were released and not charged.

McElwee said law enforcement — from local and county police to the FBI and DEA — are starting to make headway with “dozens of operations” shuttered over the last several months.

“The possible involvement of foreign nationals using Maine properties to profit from unlicensed marijuana operations and interstate distributions makes it clear that there is a need for a strong and sustained federal, state and local effort to shut down these operations,” she said.

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Law enforcement officials also continue to investigate who is directing the operations and where the profits are going, she said.



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Man Arrested for Armed Robberies in Church Parking Lots in Maine

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Man Arrested for Armed Robberies in Church Parking Lots in Maine


Police arrested a man after three armed robberies in church parking lots in Maine on Sunday.

Man In Custody after Three Armed Robberies

The Maine State Police did not release the name of the suspect who committed “three armed robberies in church parking lots in Parsonsfield, Cornish, and Baldwin.”

Man Told Victims he had a Revolver

“The subject brandished a dark colored revolver at one robbery and referenced it at the other two,” said police.

Description of Suspect

Troopers and local police had been searching for a white male between the age of 20 to 30-years-old. He was described as 5’8” with black hair and a dark blue coat.

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Vehicle Description

The suspect was believed to be driving a silver or gray Subaru with New Hampshire plates 4736715.

Police Said Do Not Approach Suspect

Police advised the public to not approach him and to call 911 with any information.

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