The Exile of the Acadians:

A Story of Perseverance

By Daphne Minks Daly

Photo Courtesy of Graham-H

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia

In the mid-15th-century, the French attempted to organize their first permanent settlement in North America and quickly realized they were ill-prepared. So, they regrouped and tried again. This time, the experiment succeeded, and New France became a reality. 

 

Nouvelle-France consisted of five colonies stretching from Hudson Bay to the Gulf of Mexico. Encompassing a large portion of North America, this land was home to many indigenous peoples. It later became the new home to French traders. Settlers took advantage of the lush, prosperous land in Canada's maritime provinces and colonized it into an instrumental outpost. 

 

In the 1630s, immigrants from Poitou and Anjou, in the Centre-Ouest region of France joined with families of various other European countries to build flourishing farming hamlets around the Bay of Fundy. Religious intolerance, hardship, and violence shook Centre-Ouest, and many left France to escape. 

Considered one of North America's 7 wonders, the Bay of Fundy has the highest tides and some of the rarest whales globally. This corner of the world is not only fertile but breathtaking. Through the construction of a complex dyke system, the settlers harnessed the marshland's rich farmlands and semi-precious minerals. Their idyllic settlement was called Acadie, or l'Acadie.

When the Acadians moved in, one would expect the original residents of the area to prevent them from peacefully inhabiting the vast wetland. But that was not the case. The harmonious relationship that existed between the Mi'kmaq and the Acadians was quite unique in colonial-era North America. In fact, marriages took place between the Acadia residents and the Mi'kmaq peoples, with the children celebrated by both cultures. According to Acadian records, Grand Pré had one of the most significant percentages of multi-racial families in early records. 

 

The descendants of these unions have formed their own definitive culture, shared awareness, and nationhood. This combined appreciation has been pivotal in maintaining the bond between the two societies for generations. The term 'Métis' is broadly used to describe people with First Nation and European ancestry. Many Canadians have indigenous and non-indigenous lineage, but not all choose to identify as Métis or are accepted into the Community. 

The Métis Flag: A Métis citizen is distinct from First Nation, Inuit, & Non-Aboriginal.

For over 100 years, Acadie prospered. While the French and British royal governments competed for power over Nova Scotia and large portions of Northeastern North America, the homesteaders created their own commerce and supply channels. They contracted friendly trade with both indigenous societies and the citizens of New England alike. Author John Mack Faragher states, "Neutrality was the Acadians' defining characteristic and their greatest asset." Political neutrality, tolerance, and strong family bonds were at the core of their value system. 

Photo Courtesy of Canadian Encyclopedia

In 1710 the British gained control of l'Acadie, and colonial magistrates demanded the Acadians swear complete allegiance to the British Empire. The Acadians objected, citing sovereign agreements and their right to political neutrality. Refusing to sign provisional pledges, which would render them exempt from taking up arms, the British now considered them a threat.

 

Although they refused to swear absolute allegiance, the Acadians were willing to offer their conditional loyalty to the British Crown. The Acadians stated, "...we will take up arms neither against his Britannic Majesty, nor against France, nor against any of their subjects or allies." Essentially, the Acadians were saying they would not take sides against the Míkmaq or any other allies of the French. For nearly forty years, British authorities agreed to the terms, and the Acadians were known as the Neutral French.  

But in 1755, an unnamed writer in Nova Scotia published a scandalous piece in the British colonial press, suggested the Acadians had dubious motives. In part, it stated that the Acadians "have always been secret enemies and have encouraged savages to cut our throats. If we affect their Expulsion, it will be one of the greatest things that ever the English did in America..." 

 

This article, which was the first public slight against l'Acadie, marked the beginning of the Acadians' forcible exile from Canada's Maritime Provinces. This is known as the Grand Dérangement or the Great Upheaval. Without warning, Acadian records and registers were seized, destroyed forever. The Acadians were arrested and separated from their families. 

Over 10,000 people were captured and deported, their livelihoods either burned or given to British settlers. Many Acadians escaped into the woodlands and spent years as wandering refugees. In contrast, others took up arms in guerilla-style warfare. Some were exiled into the colonies along the easterly seaboard. 

Other Acadians were forced to endure excruciating voyages to England, France, and the Caribean, where thousands died from disease or starvation. The campaign against the Acadians lasted until the end of 1763. In the decades following, numerous Acadians eventually made their way back to Quebec and Atlantic Canada to form prosperous Acadian enclaves. These quaint havens are heavily focused on preserving Acadian history and culture. 

Photo Courtesy of tourismpei.com

In the United States, the Acadians' story is most widely recognized through Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's famous poem Evangeline. Longfellow wrote an epic poem about a fictional girl named Evangeline separated from her fiance, Gabriel. Spending years combing the sites of an Acadian exile, she always remained a few steps behind him. It's only after Gabriel is an elderly man do the two lovers meet again. The poem has been applauded as a lovely homage to the Acadian's plight.

 

Acadia National Park and the surrounding areas are home to many of Maine's proud Acadian descendants. Preserving the coastline and its natural beauty, the modern-day Acadians of Maine take great pride in their land and rich cultural heritage. Visitors to the park can relish over 70 miles of scenic roads and 158 miles of hiking paths of nearly unsurpassable natural beauty. 

Photo Courtesy of miamioh.edu

In Southern Louisiana and parts of Texas, the Acadian descendants are called Cajuns, a word traced to 19th century Acadie. French nobles referred to Acadians as "Les Acadiens," while some called them "le 'Cadiens," thereby dropping the letter A. Eventually, Americans unable to pronounce either word adulterated them into 'Cajun.' The word 'Cajun' was once considered an insult and has evolved to become a source of pride. 

 

Adopting their own unique culture in the swamps and bayous of South Louisiana, surnames such as Boudreaux, Breaux, Comeau, Doucet, Girouard, Theriot, and Thibodeaux are commonly found in the Acadiana region today serving as a testament to the resilience of Acadia's first families. The Cajun heartland is represented by 22 of Louisiana's 64 counties, or parishes, equating to nearly one-third of the state. 

Acadiana is a rarity in the quintessentially hectic and impersonal American way of life. Acadiana residents are skilled in the art of finding joy in the simple pleasures of life, such as family gatherings and festivities filled with the distinctive flavors and music of the Cajun culture.

In the early 20th century, governmental agencies in Louisiana began taking steps to suppress Cajun culture. Through a compulsory education law, French-speaking children were forced into southern Louisiana schools. The state legislature then passed another bill making English the only language allowed in the classroom. 

Students caught speaking French were met with harsh punishments, which continued until what became known as, The Cajun Renaissance. In the late 1960s, many racial and ethnic groups in the United States became embittered by ethnic cleansing. Many Cajuns took a hard stance on what was happening and vowed to protect their cultural legacy. 

In 1965, the former Dean of Agriculture at the University of Southwestern Louisiana created a special flag to commemorate the Acadian exile's 200th anniversary. This significant contribution is known as the Louisiana Acadian flag and helped solidify Thomas J. Arceneaux's legacy as an early leader of the Louisiana French renaissance movement. Arceneaux was pivotal in the revitalized interest and pride in Acadian heritage. Even today, the flag is proudly displayed by Acadians around the world. 

The Louisiana Acadian Flag

In 1968, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana was established. Acadians began to revel in a cultural renaissance, including creating Francophone, or French-speaking secondary schools and universities, such as Université de Moncton and Collège de l'Acadie. A few decades later, in 1990, an attorney in Louisiana name Warren Perrin filed a lawsuit, which is commonly referred to as "The Petition." 

 

The suit requested an apology from the Royal Crown as a symbolic gesture of good-will for the Expulsion. Britain maintained its silence until December 9th, 2003, when Queen Elizabeth II signed a document known as the Royal Proclamation. Although not an apology per se, the letter acknowledges the atrocities committed against the Acadian people in the Crown's name and established a "Day of Commemoration" on July 28th of each year. 

 

The Société Nationale de l'Acadie, which represents Acadian groups throughout Canada, welcomed the acknowledgment nonetheless. "We finally have a document that recognizes the events surrounding that unfortunate part of our history," said Euclide Chiasson, President of the Society. "Now," he stated, "it's not only Acadian history, but it's also Canadian history." 

Faced with multiple eras of possible cultural extinction, Cajuns and Acadians continue to unite in the famed Acadian spirit of cooperation. Many attribute this sense of community to the generations before who cooperatively created and maintained Acadie's intricate dyke systems. The culture has displayed its most impressive ethnic characteristic by surviving tests of courage and conviction, whereby always prospering in the face of adversity. 

 

With the rise in direct-to-consumer DNA tests, many Acadian descendants previously unaware of their heritage are renewing their ties to their extended families and vibrant culture. Today as the Acadians continue to rebuild, they stand together as a pillar of strength, defending and respecting a well-defined way of life. Patrie sans frontière or that is to say, Acadia is a nation without a border.

 

"To be Acadian is to have pardon in your heart, and to look forward with hope."

Zachary Richard, Louisiana-born Acadian singer-songwriter, and poet

Photo Courtesy of baiesaintemarie.com

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