Where, one might ask, is ‘Acadie’ today? As a French colony it ceased to exist in 1713, but its spirit lives on and thrives in Nova Scotia’s Acadian French population.
Today’s Acadians are descended from the first European settlers in Nova Scotia. Second only to the Mi’kmaq they have the deepest roots of any founding culture in the province. French colonists first arrived in 1603, but early attempts at permanent settlement did not last. Beginning in 1632, however, and continuing for 75 years, a small but steady stream of immigrants arrived from France, coming mostly from the western provinces of Aunis, Saintonge and Poitou.
Other European colonists joined them over the years, namely small numbers of English, Irish, Portuguese and Flemish. Most came as soldiers, tradesmen, fishermen and farmers, seeking opportunity and a better life in America. The French brought skills in land reclamation, and instead of clearing the forests for agriculture, they built dikes and aboiteaux (sluices that controlled water flow) to create extensive fertile marshlands for livestock and crops.
From their base in Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal) the Acadians gradually scattered south along the coast in tiny fishing settlements and north in farming communities stretching from Grand-Pré on the Minas Basin, up to Chipoudie (Shepody River, New Brunswick) and Beaubassin (Amherst).
By the early 1700s they had developed a strong and distinct identity, marked by a special relationship with the Mi’kmaq. They were still French, but they were first-and-foremost ‘Acadians’. Over the years their colony was repeatedly handed back and forth between England and France, and as a result they prized peace and being left undisturbed.
This distinct identity was reinforced when mainland Acadia became British in 1713. The Acadians refused to pledge full allegiance to the King of England and chose instead to claim neutrality, both in peacetime and in any new war which might erupt.
This went unchallenged for the next thirty years, during which time the population prospered and grew, from approximately 2,700 in 1713 to an estimated 13,000 in 1744, when war broke out again. Over the next decade most Acadians remained neutral, but as war escalated, the British in Nova Scotia lost patience.
Heavily outnumbered by the Roman Catholic Acadians in their midst, they decided to round up and deport the entire French population. This event, known as the Expulsion of the Acadians began in 1755 and continued intermittently for several years.
More than 6,000 men, women and children were carried away in British vessels and dispersed among various American colonies — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia. Many eventually found their way south to the French colony of Louisiana, where their numerous descendants are known today as ‘Cajuns’.
Up to a quarter of the population escaped into French territory – Ile Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island), Ile Royale (Cape Breton) or across the border into present-day New Brunswick and on to Quebec. A few fled deep into the Nova Scotia woods and survived there until the war ended. Approximately 3,000 were rounded up in Ile Royale and Ile Saint-Jean and deported to France after the British captured Louisbourg in 1758.
After war ended in 1763, a trickle of Acadian families slowly returned from the American colonies and France to Nova Scotia, where they joined families that had escaped deportation and remained in the colony. By the early 1770s they numbered about 1,600. Their homes had been burnt and their farmlands given to the New England Planters, so they were forced to start over in more isolated, less hospitable areas of the province.
Today, Acadians live in every corner of Nova Scotia. Their presence is especially strong in Cheticamp and Isle Madame on Cape Breton Island, in Pomquet near Antigonish, and in southwestern Nova Scotia in Wedgeport, Pubnico and Clare, or the French Shore along Baie Sainte-Marie.
Family names such as d’Entremont, Amirault, Muise, LeBlanc, d’Eon, Theriault, Samson, and many others fill the telephone books and make for wonderful summertime family reunions. Acadians also celebrate their heritage in events such as the Festival Acadien in Clare, the Festival de la barge in Buttes-Amirault, and the Festival de l’Escaouette in Cheticamp.
In smaller communities where French has sometimes been lost as the mother tongue, there is still a strong attachment to ancestral roots. Local museums in places like Minudie and Chezzetcook, for example, celebrate the Acadian heritage and culture of long ago.
The Government of Nova Scotia supports and encourages survival and growth of the French language and Acadian culture. French schools, cultural organizations and radio stations are found in all the larger Acadian communities, and a weekly newspaper, Le Courrier, ensures that people from different Acadian regions can all share information in the language of their ancestors.
Most Acadian communities in Nova Scotia are located close to the ocean, and although the early Acadians were farmers on the marshlands of the Bay of Fundy, their descendants today live off the sea, with lobster-fishing being the main industry.
The next time you meet someone who argues that ‘Acadie’ no longer exists, just tell them that it’s alive and well in a vibrant culture and joie de vivre that have endured across four centuries. Tell them that a memorable experience awaits them on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, at the sound of the fiddle or an old French ballad, and in the taste of succulent lobster!