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 A cultural jamboree: Acadians of the world celebrate their survival
Chef Cliff (Tee-Cliff) LeBlanc stood over the steaming cauldron of seafood gumbo on the fairground in Shediac, N.B., stirring a large spoon through the spicey Cajun stew. We got them bluish-green eyes that sparkle,'' he drawled, that's how I tell who my people are.' ' Shediac may be hundreds of miles from his home in Abbeville, La., but last week Little Cliff'' was definitely among family. About 4,000 of them gathered--from Louisiana, Massachusetts, France, Quebec and throughout the Maritime provinces--all bearing the surname LeBlanc and descended from a French ancestor who settled on the bank of a Nova Scotia river in the 17th century. The LeBlanc reunion was just one part of an Acadian World Conference, a celebration of their roots by some 300,000 people of Acadian descent from around the world. A clash of cultures? Certainly not, Tee-Cliff declares. We all come from the same place, we're all Acadians,'' he says with a shrug, which seems to indicate that he has uttered the final word on the subject.

In a way, it is. Throughout history, the odds have been against French-speaking Maritimers. From 1755, after they refused to swear allegiance to Britain, 10,000 Acadians were loaded on ships from what is now New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and deported to Britain, France, Louisiana and elsewhere. Thousands eventually made the long trek back to the Maritimes--a journey immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow' s romantic poem Evangeline. Others stayed, clinging, with varying degrees of success, to their culture.

For them, the 10-day-long Acadian World Conference, which began on Aug. 12, marked a return to their ancestral homeland. But for virtually all of the thousands of Acadians from around the world who descended on southeastern New Brunswick, it was also a celebration of common roots--and the centuries-old struggle to maintain their distinct French identity. The Acadians have survived,'' Antonine Maillet, the Acadian author who was born in Bouctouche, N.B., once wrote. We don't need to fight for survival any more, we did it.''

The conference provided an opportunity to bask in accomplishment. Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who represented the nearby riding of Beausejour from the end of 1990 to October, 1993, proclaimed the Acadians our inspiration'' and said their perseverance shows how both French- and English-speaking people can thrive in Canada. Like the men and women of Acadia, who have found concrete ways to live in harmony instead of remaining prisoners of old grudges, we form a country that is open to change,'' he told a crowd at the Universite deMoncton.

The jamboree attracted VIPs from abroad: Jacques Toubon, France' s minister of culture, praised the Acadians as the embodiment of a modern, entrepreneurial society that has managed to preserve its traditions against long odds. United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros- Ghali maintained that the peaceful co- existence of French and English in Canada is an example for the world to follow.

Not that the Acadians really needed anyone to affirm their achievement. The conference setting itself did that: Moncton, after all, once had a national reputation for anti-French intolerance, epitomized by the attitudes of Leonard Jones, the city's mayor during the 1970s. Last week, in Moncton and the surrounding municipalities, hundreds of Acadian flags--red, white and blue with a gold star--hung from buildings and lampposts while signs emblazoned with Fetons (Welcome) covered house fronts.

Declared Nicole LeBlanc, 25, a Moncton-born doctor now living in Quebec City: Acadians used to be shy about wearing our identity on our sleeves. Now, we're out of the closet.''

In a big way. Conference participants flocked to festivals of Acadian food, sport and film and stomped their feet in time to the sounds of Quebec sensation Roch Voisine, New Brunswick's Edith Butler and Louisiana music giant Zachary Richard. They sat through serious academic discussions, diligently toured their Acadian homelands and explored their family trees at a genealogical centre.

For many, the family reunions alone were worth the airfare. At the gathering of LeBlancs--the largest of the 37 Acadian families- - buoyant spirits, raucous French folksongs and the piquant smell of Louisiana cooking filled the air. Distant relatives hugged each other in greetings, while absolute strangers introduced themselves and tried to find where the roots of their huge family trees cross. It's very emotional,'' explained Claude LeBlanc, 60, a retired business executive who lives in Montreal. I'm a Canadian first. But coming here, I truly understand that I'm also an Acadian and part of this huge extended family.''

But being an Acadian also means never forgetting the lessons of history. And last week, even as hearts swelled with pride, there was unease about the future. Many celebrants say the struggle to maintain their identity and language continues--particularly in the United States, where Acadian descendants are slowly but surely being absorbed by the American melting pot. My children don't speak any French, '' laments Paul LeBlanc, 43, a photographer from Fitchburg, Mass., who is also the president of the town's Acadian Cultural Centre. As the older generation dies off down here, the Acadian language is going to go with it.''

In Canada, they face different problems, even though last week the federal government announced that it will substantially beef up promotion of French and English minority language groups across Canada. The pro-English Confederation of Regions party, after all, forms the official opposition in New Brunswick's legislature. And there is also concern that Quebec separation could force a political and economic union of the Atlantic provinces that would dilute the influence of the province's more than 200,000 Acadians. As Jean Paul LeBlanc, 63, a retired Canadian National Railways executive living in St. Margaret Station, Que., put it: We've got to keep fighting as we've always done.'' And last week, a resolute people served notice that their fighting spirit has never been stronger.

COPYRIGHT 1994 Maclean Hunter (Canada)