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|In 1847, American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow published
Evangeline, the romantic idyll that immortalized the shameful, poignant
story of the Acadian eviction from Nova Scotia a century before. Its main
characters, Evangeline and Gabriel, became instant symbols of Nova Scotia's
Acadian tragedy: young lovers, separated on the eve of their wedding, exiled
to disparate colonies, are reunited only as Gabriel, an old man, lays dying.
Every summer, at the Universite Sainte-Anne in Nova Scotia's Municipality of Clare, the story of the Expulsion is re-enacted in a musical adaptation of Longfellow's poem, and performed in ancient Acadian French. It is a visual and oral reminder of not only Acadia's past, but the revival of a culture that barely survived to the present.
Acadia was the first white North American nation. In 1605, French settlers under Champlain occupied the shores of the Bay of Fundy, La Baie Francaise. For 150 years, they farmed, clearing the Annapolis Valley and diking the Minas Basin and Chignecto Bay to coax the salt marshes into production.
Champlain called the region Accadie. On some early maps it is Arcadia, after the fabled Greek province; on others it is La Cadie, a French adaptation, perhaps, of a Micmac word meaning "fertile place." But whatever the origin, the settlers called themselves Acadians and, by 1755, they were a nation in all but the political sense of the word, a culture older than Canada is today, and one with its own distinct language, costume, customs and economy.
Unfortunately, the Acadians were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Their lands lay at the juncture of New England and New France, a lynchpin in the European struggle for control of the New World. In its first century, Acadie changed hands nine times. In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht gave the region to the British, who set about driving the French from eastern North America. Although the Acadians had always been neutral, the English government in Nova Scotia deemed these Roman Catholic francophones a political risk: in 1755, 10,000 Acadians were rounded up and forcibly evicted from the region, men and women loaded onto separate ships and exiled to British colonies in the south. Before the boats left the harbour, the Acadians watched the British torch their houses and barns. That they returned at all, after what was done to them, is remarkable. That thousands made the pilgrimage on foot from as far away as Georgia is a miracle.
The English call it the Expulsion; the Acadians, le grand derangement, the Great Upheaval. Within a decade, the shores of the Bay of Fundy were emptied of one culture and replaced with another. The government in Nova Scotia gave Acadian farms to English-speaking Protestant colonists. But to the Acadians, Nova Scotia was still home, and after the Treaty of Paris of 1763 finally settled the French-English war, the Acadians came back, tolerated by the British provided they swore allegiance and settled in the colony's most distant parts.
The Municipality of Clare, the first settlement of the returned Acadian exiles, lies on the south shore of Baie Sainte-Marie, a deep inlet in the nether lobe of Nova Scotia, separated from the Bay of Fundy by a spit of land called Digby Neck. The English know it as the French Shore; to the Acadians, it has always been la ville francaise, a name that implies not only the closeness of the community but also its physical geography. Although more than a dozen villages dot Highway 1 between Riviere-aux-Saumons and Saint-Bernard, most of them are just one street wide, giving the impression of a single main street stretching along the 50-kilometre shoreline.
Clare was christened for its Irish surveyor, but despite the anglo name, it is the most resolutely Acadian region of Nova Scotia. There are larger concentrations of Acadians elsewhere - 250,000 Acadians live in Canada, mostly in the Maritimes - but the isolation of the French Shore and the homogeneity of its population have preserved in Clare a distinct Acadian character.
Yet cultural survival in this remote enclave has always been a near thing. From the beginning, Clare was a tiny francophone island in a vast anglophone sea: the pressures to assimilate were strong. Although children grew up speaking French at home, classrooms were strictly English. Many never learned to read or write their mother tongue. Anglo politicians renamed villages: what locals called Petit-Ruisseau appeared on maps as Little Brook. English was the language of commerce; like the Quebecois, the Acadians were accused of speaking "bad" French. With the onslaught of radio, television and tourism, anglicisms infiltrated the language.
The tide, however, has turned. Some three-quarters of Clare's 10,000 residents are Acadian: they have had an Acadian member of the legislature since 1836, and they are finally winning francophone rights. Nova Scotia may be the cradle of Acadia, and the first French settlement in Canada, but it is not officially bilingual. Village signs now show both French and English names. Since 1981, Acadians have been able to educate their children in French. Adults are attending night classes to learn their ancestral language. Universite Sainte-Anne has grown from a small religious college to become Nova Scotia's only francophone university and its affiliate, the Centre Acadien, is diligently preserving historical and contemporary Acadian culture. The Festival Acadien de Clare is the oldest Acadian celebration in the Maritimes, and throughout the summer Evangeline is performed in Acadian French. This linguistic revival has, in the last quarter-century, made Clare a bastion of the ancestral dialect. Although peppered with such franglais idioms as aller au rink, conversations overheard in Clare are just as likely to include the phrase asteur for a cette heure (now) and the pronunciation of pain (bread) as if it rhymed with son, linguistic idiosyncracies that can be traced to the French spoken 300 years ago in the Poitou region of western France from which the first Acadians set sail.
The family names on the mailboxes hearken, too, to the first Acadians and their exiled offspring who founded Clare: Belliveau, Comeau, Doucet, Dugas, LeBlanc, Robichaud, Saulnier. Before the Expulsion, Acadians were farmers, but when they resettled in Clare, where the soil was poor and the landscape heavily forested, they became lumberjacks and woodworkers, their skills still evident in the remains of shipyards and in village churches. Then they turned to fishing and now, as the fishery struggles to survive, they lean increasingly on tourism, finding economic as well as cultural sustenance in their Acadian roots.
Starting over is nothing new to the Acadians of Clare. Steadfastness and courage are archetypal aspects of their character. Romanticized in Evangeline, more pungently represented by Antonine Maillet's gutsy Pelagie-la-Charrette, who marches from Georgia to Acadia to reclaim her family's land.
Longfellow's poem, based on an account in Thomas Chandler Haliburton' s History of Nova Scotia, continues to bring the plight of Acadians to the attention of the world, but the locals of Baie Sainte-Marie tell another story among themselves, a tale about survival, more than suffering. Harry Thurston recounts it in Tidal Life, his book about the Fundy shores. After wandering in exile for a decade, Madeleine LeBlanc rowed ashore with the first Acadians to settle Clare. Seeing the rocky coastline and uncleared land of Pointe-de-L'Eglise, so unlike the fertile homelands the British stole from them, the men broke down and wept. Not Madeleine. She took up an axe and felled a tree, a symbolic first act in the rebuilding of Acadia, a pursuit that continues with fervour in Clare.
Merilyn Simonds is a writer based in Kingston, Ont. Photographer Brian Atkinson lives in Debec, N.B. With files from Don Cayo and Kathleen Shelton.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Canadian Geographic; Royal Canadian Geographical Society (Canada)