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Redressing the British Expulsion of Acadians from Canada
|Warren Perrin, a successful 48-year-old lawyer from Lafayette,
Louisiana, pulls up in his cherry red Cadillac. The "4 Ragin' Cajuns" license
plate indicates his allegiance to the football team of his alma mater,
the University of Southwestern Louisiana, and, more important, faithfulness
to his Cajun heritage. Today Perrin and his relatives are bound for a family
reunion; they're going to laissez les bons temps rouler, as the Cajuns
say, to "pass a good time." It's Thanksgiving Day dinner at Nonc (Uncle)
Edier's camp, which is perched on the edge of the wetlands bordering Vermilion
and Lafayette parishes. These are two of the twenty-two regions that make
up Acadiana, Louisiana's "Cajun Country."
To Perrin ("90 percent Broussard on maternal and paternal sides"), it is no marvel that more than one hundred Broussard family members will be gathered in one place. In Acadiana, home to some four hundred thousand descendants of the eighteenth-century French colonists who once settled Canada's Bay of Fundy region, large families and large family events are commonplace. Take the Richards, whose offspring include the popular Louisiana singer-songwriter Zachary Richard. That family formed a company--called the Association des Richard de Partout, Inc.--met monthly for two years, and from a mailing list of six thousand attracted more than a thousand Acadian cousins from twenty-four states, the Caribbean, and Canada for the second international Richard reunion.
One only need look to history to see that close-knit families meant- -and still mean--survival to later generations born of the original, displaced Acadians. These refugees were "scattered to the wind" when British colonial landlords expelled them from what is now the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. As many as six thousand Acadians were exiled in the first of a series of deportations beginning with the Grand Dérangement (Great Disruption) of 1755.
In New Acadia (Louisiana), where twenty-five hundred exiles from the Canadian colony found refuge, the Acadians huddled together, facing challenges of rigorous colonial life and, despite rural isolation, the ever-present threat of cultural assimilation. As their communities grew, spreading across the state's bayous and prairies, neighboring folk shortened Acadien to 'Cadien, then arrived at Cajun. Today, Cajuns inhabit a roughly triangular area that stretches from the outskirts of New Orleans to overlap, for a few miles, the Texas border.
Reclaiming the spirit that enabled his ancestors to survive the Great Disruption, Perrin has used his legal talents to start proceedings that move Acadian history onto the world stage and draw into legal nexus four cultures: Louisiana's Cajuns, Canada's Acadians, French nationals, and Britons. He is seeking an official end to the Grand Dérangement.
As Perrin drives the Cadillac with its cargo of family and a fragrant, spicy brisket swiftly through Lafayette, he passes what he calls the upwardly mobile "nouveau Cajun" south side. But soon they're in the Deep South countryside, with its gleaming fields of sugarcane and undulant rice paddies.
With a Gallic shrug, Perrin summarizes the reunion. "We eat and talk and eat and talk and never stop talking the whole time," he says, adding a sketch of one branch of the family's genealogy: Warren Perrin, husband to Mary Perrin (née Broussard), son of Ella Mae Broussard- -who is, in turn, sister of Effie and Perfay Broussard, the children of Clairville and Anatial (née Metrejean) Broussard. Clairville Broussard is a direct descendant of Joseph "Beausoleil" Broussard, the legendary resistance fighter who, in 1765, was one of the first Acadians to arrive in New Orleans. He was attracted to the area by the prospect of land grants overseen by the Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa.
At the site of the reunion, the one thousand acres of natural gas- -producing land that has yielded Edier Bares and the Broussard family a modern fortune, there is more than enough for the contemporary clan to eat, thanks in part to Louisiana's food-rich bayous and hunting grounds. There's also a steady hum of voices, a mixture of English and Cajun French.
By informal count, thirty-one dishes have been prepared and presented, among them, three varieties of a Creole-Cajun classic, dirty rice (one with shrimp). Two wild turkeys, shot by Edier's son-in-law and grandson, have been infused with wine and herbs, then roasted. There are hams, the brisket, and an array of desserts.
A ghost story is told, then a tale of a family rapscallion. Intricacies of crawfish preparation are explained by Tante (Aunt) Effie, eighty- two, whose now-discarded pink bathtub is ingeniously hooked up for their cleaning. One Cajun anecdote says the little red, highly seasoned crawfish is, in reality, a lobster that lost weight on the long trek from Canada to Louisiana.
All the while, children romp in an inflatable playhouse outside. Elders talking about the old days sit in quiet corners indoors, drawing clutches of respectful listeners.
Effie leads the solemn grace, then follows it with a rhyming one of her own: "Notre Pére, les pommes de terre dedans ma chaudière, c'est mon affair!" She provides the loose translation, too: "Our Father, the potatoes in my pot, that's my stuff!"
"Who here is related to Clairville Broussard?" calls out Perrin, when dinner is done. He has in front of him a selection of sepia-tone family photographs and a stack of photocopied genealogies he has prepared to distribute.
"I was forced into it!" calls out Alfred Thomas, an in-law.
Another story begins, this time narrated by Perrin. It is about the Acadian exodus, mythologized by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his romantic epic poem Evangeline. Perrin relates the history: how more than six thousand Acadians (originally French Huguenot settlers) were torn from verdant lands they called Acadie, which they had farmed peaceably for more than a century and a half. France and Britain vied for those fertile pastures, and Britain won sovereignty in 1713. Four decades later, at the beginning of the French and Indian War, security- conscious Britons decided to deport the "French neutral" tenants when they refused to take an ironclad oath of allegiance to the Crown.
That action, Perrin's family learns, resulted in their forebears' dispersal aboard overcrowded ships and under miserable conditions. The Acadians fled to British seaboard colonies (Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas, among others) and places much farther away: France, England, Haiti, and the Falkland Islands. Many never completed their journey. Some succumbed to malnutrition, typhus, smallpox. Others were turned away, as was the case with the Virginia-bound Acadians, or were forced to eke out what they could through scrounging or the dole. In 1785, sixteen hundred of these refugees left France to make the difficult passage to New Acadia, Louisiana.
But this is also the tale of Acadian rebel Beausoleil Broussard, the "bright sun" whom British Col. William Forster blamed for "spiriting up [the Acadians'] obstinacy," a man French officer Louis-Thomas Jacau de Fiedmont recognized as one of the bravest and most enterprising of Acadians. Perrin tells his folk how, in 1755, when the British laid siege to Fort Beauséjour, their distant relative engaged in skirmishes against the British, capturing an officer. He describes the flight of Beausoleil's family into nearby woods during the deportation of the Acadians, where they lived for a time with the Indians. Later, Beausoleil fitted out a small privateer and continued to harass the British.
After the fall of Louisbourg in 1761, Broussard and a number of other Acadians chartered a schooner and sailed to Haiti, where many were overcome by the climate. The rest--the flight to Louisiana by the survivors--is, the audience learns, their history.
"To me," says Perrin, looking into the upturned faces of his family, "this story is even more fascinating than the exile. Evangeline makes good reading, and it's a wonderful poem, and thank God Longfellow wrote it--otherwise, we would have been forgotten! But it shows a submissive people, almost sheeplike. I much prefer this story. This sombitch fought 'em. He said, 'Hey!' you know? He fought his way ... and he led his people.
"So, that's it. You come from good stock!" Perrin concludes with a loving flourish. And with that, the heir to Beausoleil's fighting spirit takes his chair.
Bridge to the future
Perrin smiles, remembering the time when, seated with his then-six- year-old son, Bruce, he first related the story of Joseph Beausoleil Broussard. "You mean, our ancestors were criminals?" asked Bruce brightly.
As Perrin explains, for generations, the whole history of Acadian exile has been repressed, something people just didn't talk about. "It's like, how you put a tragedy behind you is, you just ignore the damn thing. That's what Cajuns have done," declares Perrin.
Though Perrin's son "actually liked the idea of having a 'criminal' in the family," it is Perrin's goal to erase that stain on the Acadian/Cajun name.
Since January 1990, Perrin's most demanding case to date has required thousands of hours of preparation. His unwieldy adversary: the Crown of England. That is, collectively, Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Prime Minister John Major, the British high commissioner in Canada, and the Canadian commissioner in Great Britain.
It all began with the preparation of what Perrin has styled an "amending petition," initially hand-delivered to Queen Elizabeth and Thatcher and later faxed to the other parties. Perrin's petition augments a letter originally sent to King George III in 1763 by Acadians languishing in exile in the British colony of Pennsylvania and restates their poignant plea for clemency. The assiduously researched twenty-five- åpage document traces the history of the Acadians and their expulsion by the British from Nova Scotia, seeking, in essence, an official end to the Grand Dérangement.
Following the delivery of his document to the queen and Thatcher, Perrin began polite "quiet negotiations" with a Texas law firm, the Crown's choice to smooth over what it viewed as a public-relations matter. Although Perrin keeps contents of the talks hush-hush--partly because it is a lawyer's sworn oath, partly because it took six months to convince the other attorney that media self-promotion was not the goal--he himself is not typically soft-spoken.
In a spirited discussion with a group of law students at New Orleans' Loyola University, "Mr. Warren," as two young law clerks in the audience addressed him, whipped up interest in the suit. "I asked myself, ' Does Warren Perrin have standing, as representative of a class of three million Acadian descendants, to sue the hell out of the queen of England for stealing lands and exiling his ancestors?' I decided I did."
He may at times take an aggressive stance, but Perrin knows, technically speaking, that the queen of England is immune from suit. He also now knows Britain's official position: that, by protocol, the "successor government," in other words, Canadian authorities, must deal with his complaint.
Still, Perrin holds out hope that England--whom he continues to hold responsible as perpetrator--will take "an opportunity to 'right a wrong' and tangibly demonstrate its goodwill to the people of the world." Though some naysayers predict his litigation (to date symbolic, because it is as yet unfiled) is destined to be unfruitful, Perrin is undaunted. He's deeply moved and motivated by a human-rights violation that stunted the growth of his family tree.
With the deportation order of 1755 still in effect--it has never been lifted, says Perrin--all expatriate Acadians and their kin "are still technically adrift at sea." Furthermore, every time a Cajun crosses the U.S.-Canada border to visit his ancestral homeland, he does so illegally, in a manner of speaking. "I pointed this out to the tourist commissioner of northern New Brunswick," Perrin says to the law students, "and he flipped out. They're always trying to get Louisiana people to go visit New Brunswick and Nova Scotia!"
A clue to what propels this scrappy solicitor is stapled to one of the two hundred or more files he keeps on Acadian history and the proceedings of his case. There, he notes to himself a comment borrowed from a CBS This Morning documentary on the Ponca Indians of Nebraska. It is a hastily scribbled note, but for Perrin--and perhaps all future generations of Acadians--it holds a simple and significant truth: "The study of our ancestors and culture is not so much a celebration of the past as it is building a bridge to the future."
Ending the exile
Perrin's petition has, in actuality, been two decades in the making. He owes much of his inspiration to a term he served as clerk to retired Louisiana Appeals Court Judge J. Cleveland Frugé ("a fanatic on genealogy" ) and a meeting with the respected Acadian historian Bona Arsenault, but it was his increasing interest in Acadian history that spurred him on.
As he explained to a Canadian Bar Association reporter, "I, as many people, had incorrectly assumed that a state of war existed between England and France when the Acadians were exiled. But it didn't." The Grand Dérangement, in fact, took place more than eight months before the French and Indian (or Seven Years') War was declared.
"In determining a cause of action, I looked at it from the standpoint that, in times of peace, you go by established international law or local civil law in dealing with human lives," says Perrin. "Even if you assume all these men were involved in acts of military aggression and treason against the British--which they weren't--you still couldn' t, under then-existing civil law, banish them or confiscate private property in punishment of an alleged crime. Nor could you punish the wife and child for the alleged crimes of the father, which is exactly what took place."
The content of Perrin's petition turns on the activities of one Charles Lawrence, in particular. Lieutenant-Governor Lawrence, "a man of violent character," as the petition styles him, took over the duties of ailing Gov. Peregrine Hopson, who left Nova Scotia for England in 1754. Lawrence wrote London in August of that year: "As [the Acadians] possess the best and largest tracts of land in this Province, it cannot be settled with any effect while they remain in this situation. ... I cannot help being of the opinion that it would be much better ... that they were away."
Under the doctrine of respondeat superior, which says that the master is responsible for the illegal acts of his servants, Perrin holds the colonial British government responsible for what followed.
British authorities were alarmed by Lawrence's inflammatory remarks. The secretary of state responded: "It cannot therefore be too much recommended to you to use the greatest caution and prudence in your conduct toward these Neutrals ... that they may remain in the quiet possession of their settlements under proper regulations." But Lawrence took no heed.
On July 31, 1755, following the historic decision of Judge Jonathan Belcher that the French neutrals could no longer be tolerated in Nova Scotia, Lawrence gave instructions to Col. Robert Monckton at Fort Cumberland (former French Fort Beauséjour, at Beaubassin) to arrest the Acadians, burn their houses, and board them on vessels.
"The reason I'm going to win this petition," argues Perrin, "is because the exile was never ordered by the British government. It was never ordered by the king, or by the government of Nova Scotia, or by the Lords of Trade, who were in charge of the colony. We've got a soldier who is totally ignoring the laws of Great Britain, doing the expedient thing to serve a military end."
Last summer, Perrin outlined the petition's main points for his largest audience ever. He addressed the world's first reunion of Acadians, held in nine primarily Acadian municipalities of southeastern New Brunswick.
Retrouvailles 1994, a giant family reunion, gathered as many as two hundred thousand descendants of "the first families" scattered throughout the Acadian diaspora (LeBlancs, Doucets, Broussards, Richards, Landrys, Savoirs, Cyrs, to name but a few). For ten days, strangers greeted each other as kin as thirty-five host families welcomed Acadians from as far away as Belgium and France for a joyous round of events that included conferences, a gastronomic festival, activities for the Acadian National Holiday, and arts programming.
At this celebration for a long-lost extended family separated for two and a half centuries ("Retrouver," says Congrès Mondial Acadiens organizer Jean-Luc Chiasson, "something you lost and you find it back" ), Perrin presented his story to receptive distant relatives. Perhaps in so doing he realized his wish for all Acadians: "To become closer as a people," with an end to what Longfellow called the "exile without ... end; and without an example in history."
Evidence of support
Perrin's petition seeks no monetary reward, unlike other reparations proceedings. In substance, the document puts forward six requests: restoration of the status of the Acadians as French neutrals; inquiry into the tragedy by a fair panel; declaration that the tragedy did occur; acknowledgment that the action occurred contrary to existing international and/or British law and as a result of the precipitous actions of the British official Lawrence; and a symbolic gesture of goodwill by the erection of a small, simple monument with appropriate inscriptions to historically memorialize the end of the exile.
In the spring of 1993, Perrin presented his work on behalf of the Acadian people at the World Peace Memorial Human Rights conference in Caen, Normandy. He made the finals and presented his argument with eleven other contestants, who were all speaking on contemporary issues. After the presentation, which he delivered in Cajun French, Perrin received eager offers from European lawyers to sue the British in European courts.
But the biggest boost to his cause came in June 1993, when the Louisiana legislature drafted a joint Senate-House resolution backing each of the six petition points. That document was signed by Gov. Edwin Edwards and hand-delivered to British Prime Minister Major.
Although he continues to look for a positive British response, Perrin is also prepared to go before Canadian courts for the apology he seeks. Acadian lawyers in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have given him significant assistance on points of the law. Further, a 1990 parliamentary report written by former Halifax West MP Howard Crosby concluded as follows: "Many Nova Scotians of Acadian descent know the facts surrounding the historic events related to the expulúsion of the Acadian people. It may be that Mr. Perrin's request should be given serious consideration and this cloud over Nova Scotia removed."
That sunnier day may come sooner than expected with the appointment early this year of Romeo LeBlanc as Canada's governor-general, commander in chief of Canada, and official representative as deputy to Her Majesty, Elizabeth II, queen of Canada. He is the first Acadian to be bestowed that honor. A symbolic, deft touch was the timely nomination of LeBlanc as an honorary citizen of Louisiana, by unanimous resolution of the appropriate commission, the state of Louisiana, and Governor Edwards.
As far as detractors, Perrin says, "I've never had anybody say they were not in favor of it. There were a couple of editorials written in Canada that joked about it, said 'How ludicrous! That this Louisianan thinks he will accomplish anything!' "
To the contrary, Perrin's law office is usually kept busy by the mail from home and abroad. Admirers write to express their support and add their encouragement. "Dear Acadian Cousin," reads the salutation of a letter postmarked Halifax, Nova Scotia. Concludes Ray Mouton of Carencro, Louisiana, with a heartfelt postscript: "Thanks from me, my children, my ancestors, and all who follow. All Acadians are proud of you."
A coup de main
The Cadillac with the "4 Ragin' Cajuns" license plate awaits. Perrin, founder of the Acadian Heritage and Culture Foundation and this year governor-appointed president of CODOFIL--the Council for Development of French in Louisiana--takes a group of visitors, journalists, and friends through the Acadian Museum in Erath. It comes as no surprise, by now, that our host is also the museum's creator and curator.
The agenda this humid November evening: a tour of the museum's holdings, on to a good feed of freshly shucked Gulf oysters at Black's restaurant in Abbeville, then to a local bar, Chin's, to see a high-stakes game of bourré (a favorite Cajun pastime). The final stop: cockfights at the Red Rooster Game Club, where birds battle "till death do them part."
Ever sensitive to an outsider's perceptions and to show that despite, or perhaps in spite of, their struggles Louisiana's Cajuns still know how to have a good time, Perrin fine-tunes with this cultural caveat: "We're goin' to expose you to the idea of Cajuns still loving life. Now, you have serious Cajuns--and all these people you're goin' to see, most of them will be in church Sunday--and they're serious, hardworking people. I'm not trying to exploit the bar-drinking, card- playing, rooster-fighting mystique at all--and the eating and drinking. But that's a side to it. And that's what makes us famous in a sense."
That said, Perrin turns his attention to the maps, photographs, artifacts, books, and displays that fill the museum. He explains excitedly how he's having a photograph blown up to add to the collection showing his own family boucherie (cooperative, or community, butchery): "Mama is standing next to a hog, which looks to be as tall as this doorframe. Daddy's in World War II--it is 1943--and he's in the Philippines fighting the Japanese, and Mama is standing there, and she's goin' to be in charge of this boucherie! It's a wonderful picture: Mama, my grandmother, and my greatúgrandmother--standing next to this huge pig!
"There is an Acadian term called coup de main, which is a helping hand," says Perrin. "It was a way of keeping the community together, Cajuns needed nothing other than themselves to help each other."
When Perrin traveled to the home of his forebears in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia last summer, he went with the hope that, together, Cajuns and their Canadian Acadian cousins can heal old wounds of the past, by remembering and addressing an event that tore thousands of French-speaking British subjects forcibly from their homes. Perhaps in time for the next family reunion, which will be part of a six-month- long francophone exposition titled Expo Franco Louisianaise 1999, those relatives will join hands in collective celebration that Perrin' s petition has rectified a historic wrong as a coup de main for Acadians everywhere.
The World & I, Jul. 1, 1995
Copyright © 1995 News World Communications, Inc.