In 1803, Benjamin Gervais left Rivière-du-Loup, headed west to the prairies, and eventually meandered his way down to southeastern Minnesota. Happening upon a grassy enclave garlanded by a chain of lakes, Ben built himself a log cabin and a gristmill. His Canadian friends and family joined him and, before long, the group had established a French-speaking community in the heart of the American Midwest. “They called it ‘petit Canada,’” explains local historian Kathy Hanson. “And the name stuck.”
Today, although the residents of Little Canada, Minnesota (population 9,771), enjoy a good hockey game and celebrate a festival called “Canadian Days” every August, the city bears little resemblance to its northern namesake. The sleepy bedroom community has, however, been receiving some bad press of late. When Maisonneuve contacted Little Canada Mayor Bill Blesener, he warned that reporters had been pulling “the old bait and switch game” on him. We nevertheless scored an interview and got the media-shy mayor talking about tattoos, geese and the war on Iraq.
MAISONNEUVE MAGAZINE So, why are you so reluctant to talk to the media?
BILL BLESENER A tattoo parlour wanted to move into a residential neighbourhood and the residents were objecting. So city council tried to find a location that was more suitable, but the owner said no. He said the rents were too high everywhere else. It got on the radio and they made a big deal of it.
Secondly, for a number of years, we’ve controlled [Ed. note: Um, euthanized] the goose population in the city because the geese are a hindrance and a health hazard. We control them and make an effort to prevent them from coming in. For example, we tell our residents not to mow around little ponds, so the geese don’t come to these places. But there are still some families that want to mow down to the water, and that’s inviting to the geese. The issue went national and was blown out of proportion—I’m getting emails from all over America.
MM I read an article about the geese online, and thought it was funny because they’re Canada geese. Is Little Canada overrun with any other typically Canadian animals, like beavers or moose or, I don’t know, salmon?
BB No. And Canadian geese were almost gone in the sixties, but they brought the population back, they protected them. Now, they’re a health hazard. And people are suggesting things that just don’t work.
MM So I understand that you celebrate “Canadian Days” in Little Canada. Do you also celebrate July 1, Canada Day?
BB No, we celebrate the Fourth of July, Independence Day.
Mm When there are tensions between Canada and the US—for example, when Canada didn’t join the US in the Iraq War—do you ever feel repercussions in Little Canada?
BB I cannot ever think of that having happened. We’ve never been affected.
MM Do you feel that Little Canada’s heritage really affects the city at all, or that Little Canada is in any way similar to Canada?
BB Probably not. We’re a suburb of St. Paul, and we’re probably influenced more by St. Paul and other suburbs. We’re pretty Americanized.
MM So, what’s the weather like in Little Canada today?
BB Oh, it’s bright with lots of sunshine. Right now we’re in the mid-seventies. We’ll probably get up to the low eighties.