Acadians Celebrate 250 Years of Survival

IT IS HUGE and quite beautiful, and it jumps right at you as you come out of a curve in the small road that winds along the shore of the Bay of Fundy, near Wolfville in northern Nova Scotia. There, on a steep hill, a vast flower arrangement depicts the Acadian flag - stripes of blue, white and red, with a yellow star in the upper left corner. It's guaranteed to startle a visitor, especially a French Canadian one raised in the absolute historical and political certainty that Nova Scotia - let's put it mildly here - has not always been friendly territory for the Frenchies. For good measure, more flowers have been arranged to form block letters almost 10 m high, spelling out the message "bienvenue, welcome."

Odd: the place this extravagant flowery mat welcomes you to does not exist anymore. It was razed to the ground by a posse of British soldiers 249 years ago. The Acadian village of Grand Pré, celebrated in the epic poem of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ÉVANGÉLINE, has survived only in the nostalgic folklore of Acadians - as the heart of their lost homeland.

Bienvenue? The last time that Acadians saw Grand Pré, they were looking at billows of black smoke - as they stood on the boats that would scatter them all over the Atlantic seaboard. Grand Pré was the scene "of one of the most tragic and dramatic pages of Canadian history," says New Brunswick Premier Bernard Lord. Ten thousand men, women and children were deported in 1755 for trying to stay neutral in the war between England and France for the northeast colonies. It was a planned military operation, part religious cleansing, part land grab. Acadians, in their typically understated way, now refer to it as le grand dérangement - the Big Inconvenience.

Obviously, Acadians were tougher than the horror visited upon them. They've survived. "Since when have you had such bilingual signage in these parts, in Nova Scotia?" an Acadian woman working at the federally sponsored historic site in Grand Pré is asked. "Since only very, very recently," she smiles back, in the typically tongue-in-cheek style of Acadians.

There is fascination, magic and a good measure of power in big round numbers, and Acadians have plenty of big round numbers going for them this summer - $180 million is one of those figures. That is the expected windfall, for Nova Scotia alone, from the two-week-long World Acadian Congress, starting July 31. Hence the flowery welcome mat, and the Acadian flags flying with unusual predominance in places like Amherst or Wolfville, and the bilingual billboards in the old port of Halifax, "Celebrating l'Acadie."

"Money talks!" says Jean Léger, a leader of the 40,000-strong community of French-speaking Nova Scotian Acadians who still cling to their language and heritage in villages scattered along the province's coast. "We used to be invisible pariahs, but now we have become full-fledged partners with the rest of the province." New highway signs indicate the presence of Acadian communities. The municipality of Clare, with the highest proportion of francophones, even bought new bilingual signs, like those seen all over New Brunswick.

There's more from the big, round numbers department (although Quebec nationalists, who are busy preparing to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Quebec City in 2008, don't like to be reminded they were not the first French speakers in North America): next summer marks the 400th anniversary of the first permanent European settlement in Canada, in Port Royal, now Annapolis Royal, N.S. That was the beginning of l'Acadie. The Acadians, the record shows, gave us the first play written and produced in America, Le Théâtre de Neptune, by Marc Lescarbot in 1606, and America's first social club as well, L'Ordre du Bon Temps - the Order of Good Times - founded by Samuel de Champlain in 1605 to help settlers drink and dance their winter blues away.

But the big round number that is really present in everybody's mind here is 250. As in: the deportation happened 250 years ago next year. So Acadians are coming back from exile in big numbers, and, in a symbolic gesture certain to make everybody weep, they will reclaim their patrie in Grand Pré proper, on Sunday, Aug. 15, Assumption Day in the Catholic calendar, the traditional holiday of Acadians. At around 11 in the morning, at an open-air high Mass, an expected 10,000 of them, from Quebec, Ontario, France, New England, Louisiana and the Maritimes, will join in singing Ave Maris Stella, the hymn that salutes the star of the sea, a symbol for the Virgin Mary, that is their unofficial national anthem - the star being the distinctive symbol on the flag of this nation that does not officially exist.

On that day, l'Acadie, the virtual nation that has a fictional character as national icon, a nation that was defined by deportation, exile and persecution, will have come full circle. "The emotion in Grand Pré will be just overwhelming. I don't know how I will cope with it - I don't even know if I will be able to attend," says Gérald Leblanc, a poet in Moncton who is also read in Montreal and Paris.

But these emotions, many Acadians say, will not have the bitter taste of revenge, nor the hard edge of anger, despite the difficult times they have suffered through. Quite the contrary. Acadians are seeking closure, Lord told Maclean's. "It is important to know our history, but it is equally important not to be prisoners of history," he says. "Acadians' ambition today is to claim their rightful place in Canada, and the world."

It's much the same take from Herménégilde Chiasson, 58, lieutenant-governor of New Brunswick, prolific author and a lifelong Acadian-rights advocate. Expressing anger would trigger guilt, he says, while gloating or seeking revenge would be met with hostility. "Nothing solid can be built on such sentiments - that could only lead to neurosis," he says. "What we need is an exorcism, to put an end to the trauma that has plagued us for so long. We need to forgive, once and for all, and get on with life. Forgiving would be much more powerful than anything else."

In fact, the theme of the Aug. 15 religious ceremony will be "Reconciliation." And the Mass will be followed by a concert in Halifax by the biggest Acadian stars, among them Zachary Richard, who hails from Louisiana, folklorist Edith Butler, opera singer Nathalie Paulin and Wilfred LeBouthillier, who won first place in Quebec's own version of Star Academy last year.

Throughout, the congress will be the mother of all parties, huge family reunions, some with up to 15,000 expected, 250 years in the making.

WHEN Zachary Richard burst upon the music scene from Lafayette in the mid-'70s with his romping, Southern-style songs, nobody in Montreal could understand his Cajun patois. Today, Richard speaks French with the finesse and precision of someone who has lived and studied in France. "I have visited almost all Acadian communities from Louisiana to Newfoundland, and they have at least two things in common," he says. "Acadians are really obsessed with their identity, their roots. And they all form musical communities. Everywhere there are Acadians, there is music and a party."

Music, parties, reconciliation, forgiveness. And no hard feelings? "Acadians are not like Quebecers, they don't know how to express anger," remarks Patrice Joubert, 48, a Montreal-born producer now living near Moncton. "They don't know angry words."

And that, says novelist Antonine Maillet, is "because Acadians have always been an oppressed minority." Maillet has brought Acadian culture, language and history out of oral tradition and into the literary world, with internationally acclaimed novels such as La Sagouine and Pélagie la Charette. "History has taught us to be more like a fox than a wolf," she notes. "There is no point in banging your fist on a brick wall, but Acadians have known how to play for time, and wait for the wall to become a curtain, and then swish through it. All the gains we have made through the years, we got them by being wily. And patient."

By gains, Maillet means surviving. After the deportation, many Acadians trickled back to the Maritimes and the Gaspé Peninsula, and resettled in isolated communities. It took them another century to come out, so to speak, at their first national convention, in 1881 in Memramcook, near Moncton. Five thousand of them heard the call through the grapevine and showed up. "That is when we discovered that we still existed!" says Maillet, who was born in the small New Brunswick town of Bouctouche, a 50-km drive north from Moncton. "Before that we didn't even know. It was an assembly of biblical proportions."

If the history of Acadians has been one of stubborn survival in the face of hardship, then Maillet's life story is a case in point. "I studied French grammar in Fraser and Square [a book used to teach French to young British students]," says the 75-year-old author, who in 1979 won the Prix Goncourt, the highest literary award in Paris. "We had very few French books in Bouctouche, the history books described our story in only a few lines, and we learned French because our teachers stayed after school to work on it with us." After the 1881 gathering in Memramcook, Maillet says, Acadians did create a French-language secondary boarding school there. She adds, "It took almost a full century before we could have a French-language university in Moncton." It opened in 1963, and soon became a hotbed of activism, with students fighting for bilingualism and equality rights for New Brunswick's francophones.

But life has improved, and perhaps that's one reason why so few Acadians express anger today. "The deportation - my father could never get over it," says Cécilia Cormier, as she eats lobster and drinks Alsatian wine while watching the pastel sunset over the Bay of Cocagne near Moncton. "That was his ball and chain. He lived as if it had happened to him personally, not two centuries before. They were all like him at the time. I am part of the first generation that was not made to feel like a second-class minority here in New Brunswick. The very first one, really."

Like many people her age, Cormier, 47, had to leave the province to find work. But she brought her translation business back home from Toronto six years ago. "Many of the kids I went to school with here in Cocagne died," she says. "It was tough here in the '70s. Souped-up cars, hard drugs, booze. Everything here was second-rate: bad present, no future." But many of those who survived succeeded. "Look at today," Cormier notes. "We've been chased from the more fertile farms inland and forced back to the coast, to become fishermen. But where do you find the most expensive real estate? Here on the coast, of course, and it's ours now."

Middle-agers who have known worse times may not make up a hotbed of political revolt, but what about the younger generation? Apparently, some are too busy being modern citizens of the world to focus very much on the past, or local politics. "We've decided to stay put here, because Moncton is a cool place, but we could as well be in Montreal or Vancouver, and it would not impact much on the music we play," says Jean Surette of the rock-jazz fusion band Les Païens. "Here there is no label, no agent, no producer, we have to build everything from the ground up, and that's interesting." His bandmate Marc Arsenault, adds: "But we don't feel the urge to say we're Acadians on our CDs and posters."

So - older people such as Maillet made it their business to bring Acadians out of oblivion. The following generation, those who got the first degrees churned out by the Université de Moncton, were helped by visionary Anglos such as former premiers Richard Hatfield and Frank McKenna in propelling New Brunswick - 30 per cent of French origin - into the modern world in good part by treating the province's bilingualism as an asset instead of a liability. And today's generation of younger adults takes for granted things such as survival, belonging, equal rights for francophones, freely speaking French - which were just a glimmer in the eyes of a handful of left-wing student activists in Moncton in the sixties.

One of those students - who was thrown into jail in 1971 for demonstrating against then Moncton mayor Leonard Jones' steadfast opposition to bilingualism - is Denis Losier. He now sits in his 18th-floor office in the tallest building in Moncton, as CEO of l'Assomption Vie, a mutual life insurance company with over $2.5 billion worth of assets under management. This summer's Acadian congress, he says, "will have a powerful political impact. It shows that nobody was able to destroy or assimilate us."

Or even, for that matter, ignore. In the late-sixties, René Lévesque and other Quebec nationalists, convinced that there was no future for francophones in Manitoba, Ontario or the Maritimes, decided to focus on the only territory where they were a majority. Lévesque eventually went so far as to say that French-speaking communities outside of Quebec were "dead ducks."

That declaration still reverberates in New Brunswick, three decades later. "Let's just say that the old Quebec nationalists who made such regrettable declarations are all long dead, and that we are not," says Leblanc. Maillet adds, "It was a tragic mistake of unfathomable proportion, because we need Quebec to take a strong leadership among the French-speakers of North America."

And, guess what? The Quebec government, now led by an avowed federalist, Jean Charest, has decided to do just that. Benoit Pelletier, the province's intergovernmental affairs minister, invited over 100 representatives of francophone communities from all over Canada to a forum in Quebec City last spring and told them, "Quebec is back - tell us how we can help."

"The schism of the sixties is now a thing of the past," Pelletier said in an interview. "We want to come back to a basic dimension of Canada - a country with a strong and united francophonie." It is, of course, too early to see what the consequences of this will be. But Pelletier says his department is working on a new policy document, and is revisiting agreements over French-language issues and services that already exist among Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick.

Canada, as it was founded in the 19th century, was an uneasy accommodation between French and English, who had been sharing the land, and fighting over it, for two centuries. The unity of that country was threatened in the 20th century by francophones unhappy with their lot. Now, the spectacular comeback of the Acadians in New Brunswick has raised the prospect of a united French Canada. Worth watching.

Zachary Richard is right when he says, "L'Acadie rocks. It has rocked from Day 1." These guys never gave up.

See also ACADIA.

Maclean's August 2, 2004