Today, August 15, is National Acadian Day – la fête nationale de l’acadie. Not only is today National Acadian Day, but our Maritime provinces are in the midst of hosting the 2-week long World Acadian Congress, aka le congrès mondial acadien, which takes place every five years. It’s a hugely significant event; something like 100,000 people are expected to take part in activities involving music, story-telling, feasts, and massive family reunions. 100,000 Acadians gathering from many parts of the world to celebrate their culture and heritage. To celebrate in style. To get to know each other. To connect and reconnect. If there’s a LeBlanc, an Arsenault, a Doucet, Landry, Haché, Thériault, Cormier, Caissie, Cyr, Duguay, Gallant, Doiron, Melanson, Richard, Roy, or a number of other family names in your family tree, then you undoubtedly have Acadian blood. It’s a heritage worth embracing.
It is my pleasure and privilege to live in New Brunswick, home to the largest Acadian population in Canada, and to have many Acadian friends and acquaintances. Their story is one of resilience over many centuries. I am not the best one to tell the story, not being Acadian myself, but I am an ardent Acadianphile, if there’s such a word, and I’m going to try to do it justice. It’s very important history and needs to be heard. Acadian history experts can feel free to jump in.
Many of us will have encountered the Acadian story in high school English class through the very famous epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, written by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1847. It’s a long (very long) poem that tells the tale of a young Acadian girl, Evangeline, who gets separated from her lover, Gabriel, during the Acadian expulsions, and of the long journey to find each other. Part of the prologue sets the scene:
This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlock …
This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers,—
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?
Waste are those pleasant farms, and the farmers forever departed!
Scattered like dust and leaves, when the mighty blasts of October
Seize them, and whirl them aloft, and sprinkle them far o’er the ocean.
Naught but tradition remains of the beautiful village of Grand-Pré.
Poignant, yes, but the real story is the one of the forced Expulsions, and poignant isn’t the first word that comes to mind. In order to understand, we need to start at the beginning. French settlers first arrived in what is now the Maritime provinces of Canada in 1604, with Samuel de Champlain among them as in-house cartographer. They spent their first winter on an island in the St. Croix River between what is now Maine and New Brunswick, near the shore of the Bay of Fundy. The following year they established a more permanent settlement on the other side of the Bay of Fundy, in Port Royal in present-day Nova Scotia. Eventually, a growing group of farmers and tradesmen developed into a thriving, self-sufficient society, largely centred around the Bay of Fundy. They interacted successfully with their indigenous neighbours, the Mi’kmaq, and were largely ignored by both the French government and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church across the ocean. Although undoubtedly not perfect in every interaction with the Mi’kmaq, the Acadians established a largely peaceful, egalitarian society that worked well for them. They lived this way for many, many decades with minimal outside interference.
As we know from current experience, outside interference has a habit of rearing its ugly head when least expected – or at least when we’ve convinced ourselves that it couldn’t possibly happen. The British and the French got tied up in skirmishes and wars far from cold, remote Acadia, and as a result, with the signing of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, France ended up handing Acadia over to the British while the French held rights to Île Royale, what is now Cape Breton, NS. So Acadians became, theoretically at least, British subjects. The French, meanwhile, built the imposing fort and settlement at Louisbourg in Île Royale. The tensions slowly mounted.
The Acadians were left alone by the British for a number of years, but slowly the incursions started, along with the demand that, as British subjects, they must sign a declaration of allegiance to the King. Some signed, but with the expectation that they could stay neutral in the event of fighting with the French. Again, for quite a while this wasn’t enforced, but, as we know from our world events these days, people at the top change and with them so change interpretations of the rules. It just took one change of governor to the dreaded Charles Lawrence for things to go very, very badly. Very badly indeed.
He turned up the heat on forcing the Acadians to sign a declaration of alliance to the King. Now the French had a presence nearby, in Louisbourg, and there was every likelihood that the British would take up arms against the French. The Acadians, although they had more or less been left to their own devices for a very long time, were not about to fight for the British against the French. They refused. And Gov. Charles Lawrence, unlike previous governors who had let things lie, called on them to be deported. Expelled from their lands. Expelled from their homes, their churches, from everything they had, knew, and loved.
This was in 1755. Keep in mind is that this was 20 years before the American Revolutionary War. The colonies south of Acadia were British; there was no such thing as an American. And many “New Englanders” coveted the land that the Acadians had carefully diked and tended for generations. They fully supported Gov. Lawrence and were ready to take over the land as soon as it was vacated.
The Expulsions were carried out in a particularly cruel fashion, which seems to be par for the course with these kinds of egregious actions throughout history. In Grand Pré (in what’s now Nova Scotia) the Acadians were surrounded while they were in church on a Sunday morning. Their barns and homes were set on fire and they were all put on ships that waited for them nearby. That was it. The words “expulsion” and “deportation” don’t seem to do it full justice.
As I say, that was it. There had been no planning by the British other than to get rid of these disloyal Acadians. There had been no planning as to how families could stay together as they were deported. Sound familiar? There had been no planning about where the ships would take the new refugees or whether the ports where the ships stopped would or could take them. As it turned out, many Acadians on the ships died by disease or drowning, not surprisingly; some ships were turned away at various ports and then just kept going until they could offload their “cargo” somewhere, anywhere. They were as welcome as refugees are in so many places these days.
There were something like 10,000 people involved in the initial expulsions from Grand Pré and Beausejour, in July 1755. More followed from other sites of Acadian populations, as can be seen from these maps. Many Acadians also escaped and fled to the woods of present-day northern New Brunswick, some to Quebec (which was quite a different French society with different customs), and some to Prince Edward Island, Cape Breton, and Les Îles de la Madeleine. Some were sent from the ports they ended up in on to France, Africa, and the Caribbean. And as we all know, some ended up in Louisiana, where their culture is locally known as Cajun.
Happily, the Acadian language and culture survived the horror of the Great Upheaval. Some returned when hostilities moved on to new targets. Those who fled to outlying areas of the Maritimes established new Acadian communities. These days a significant number of Acadians live in the three Maritime provinces, in Acadia. In my province of New Brunswick, fully one-third of our population is French-speaking Acadian, hence our designation as the only officially bilingual province in an officially bilingual country. (Quebec is officially unilingual French.)
Acadian identity, language, and culture are alive and thriving today. Our Acadian artists and musicians celebrate their heritage through their art, their writing, their songs … and their fiddle music! And for these two weeks, tens of thousands of people with Acadian roots have come together from far and wide to celebrate the remarkable resiliency of their heritage and their stories.