I’ve always kinda wished I were Acadian. I may have even let Bruno think I had some Acadian in me when we first knew each other. He was just so excited to know that I came from the region of Canada where the descendants of the first French settlers had arrived that he immediately burst out in song:
Tous les acadiens, toutes les acadienne
Sont américains, elles sont américaines
La faute à qui donc? La faute à Napoléon.*
After that song, I obviously didn’t have the heart to tell him I didn’t share any Acadian lineage. But maybe I also wanted it to be true, just a little bit.
See, my family comes from one of the hearts of Acadia, south-eastern New Brunswick. As much as the scent off the airplane, seeing the Acadian flag and hearing their vernacular, chiac, signals to my brain and my heart that I was home.
It’s funny that I would associate such profound love and longing for a group of people I knew so little about. Despite being partly raised around Acadians, I knew embarrassingly little about their history and culture. All that changed this summer when Bruno and I visited the Village Historique Acadien near Caraquet.
Our visit began in a home built in 1770. A bearded man dressed in simple linen clothing was sat near the fire building a broom out of a tree branch. As he related to us the history of the home, he repeatedly mentioned 1755 and “le grand dérangement”. Everyone around me nodded with understanding, but, though I knew 1755 was a popular Acadian rock group, it took me a while to piece together this all-important moment in Acadian history.
The French had been in the New World for only a few decades before the English arrived and conflicts over resources and land broke out. Over the next sixty years, France and England took turns controlling Acadia, until finally, after the turn of the century, England took decisive control. The Acadians spent decades refusing to sign an oath of allegiance, and eventually English patience was spent. Between 1755 and 1764 they deported almost 12,000 Acadians to the various colonies. Over 6,000 homes were burnt, livestock was killed, families were separated.
Once the Acadians got wind of the deportation campaigns, many fled into the forests and hills, re-emerging once the campaigns ceased almost a decade later. Others were allowed to return if they signed oaths of allegiance to the British. By that point, their land had been redistributed to the English settlers, and the British dispersed the Acadians in poor, isolated communities often populated principally by English-speaking people.
This was the case with the owners of the first home at the Village Acadien. The owners had lived among English people in the Fredericton area, and had struggled, like so many, to maintain their language and religion in this Anglophone community.
I was impressed that this home wasn’t a replica, but an actual home. It turned out that each of the 40+ buildings at the Village Acadien had been lived in and used by Acadians, and each had been disassembled, transported, and reassembled here in Caraquet!
The village took on an even more lifelike nature in the next home, which dated back to the early 19th century. Two women, in modest dresses, head scarves, and aprons, were busy putting loaves of bread in the giant wood-fired outdoor oven. As Acadian women had always done, these two had awoken at 5am that morning to begin preparing the bread, which would be for sale to guests a few hours later. (it was unfortunately sold out when we tried to buy it – we had spent too many hours visiting the village!)
It would also be eaten by the staff that day at lunch. It turned out that in each building were interpreters dressed in period garb, and that every day, they lunched together in the old homes. The daily food was prepared by the women employees, who used only traditional ingredients to prepare traditional Acadian dishes.
That morning, as we walked from home to home, the smell of lunch cooking was intoxicating. The ingredients were mostly potatoes, dried herbs, and chicken or meat cooked in slightly different ways to create a small variety of soups and stews (the most famous being a fricot). This shouldn’t have been appealing to a health-food vegan, but boy, did I feel like trying a spoonful! Each home smelled delicious – perhaps because the cooking was being done in old cast iron pots over fires. Yummy! (For those that do want to sample traditional Acadian food, there is an old-fashioned restaurant on in the village.)
The simple Acadian food was just one indication of how difficult life was for these people. Because of the Great Deportation, Acadians constantly lived in survival mode. They practiced subsistence agriculture on their infertile land in the few months where weather allowed them to. They were small-time fishermen, lumberjacks and hunters. They had no access to imported goods, instead growing flax to make linen clothing, building their homes, boats, furniture, and even their clogs (shoes) from the plentiful wood, and weaving their fishing nets by hand.
One of the most fascinating parts of the Village Historique was getting to watch the interpreters practice various crafts. I watched a shoe-maker, barrel-maker, and woodworker; two interpreters ground grain into flour in a mill; a black-smith mould metal; and an editor make newspaper copies with an old-fashion printer.
My favourite craft to watch was the making of wool fabric. We’d just wandered around a little farm filled with animals – cows, chickens, goats, pigs, even a newborn miniature horse! – before stepping into another 19th century home. Inside, a woman was seated at a spinning wheel. After watching her awhile, I asked her to explain in more detail the work she was doing.
“You saw the sheep outside?” she asked. I replied that I had. “Well, that blanket over on the bed came from that sheep.”
Day in and day out, she laboured at the task. From the sheep, she collected the wool. Then she separated its clumps and brushed it smooth. She fed it through the spinning wheel in front of her to make spools of thread. That thread was hand-dyed the fabric using herbs and flowers available to her in her local environment and then weaved into household necessities. That simple blanket over on the bed had represented a couple of months of work!
At the Village Historique Acadien, not only were the interpreters cooking their own meals using ingredients grown in their gardens and herbs harvested in the woods, but they were weaving their own fabrics to sew their own clothes; building wood furniture from brute trees; and even fashioning iron nails for any repairs that needed to be done to the buildings in their village!
As we traveled further into the Village, the quality of life did somewhat improve for the Acadians. Families who didn’t require the help of their children in the home could send them to the local school, housed in a single-room church. The teacher, often herself educated only until middle-school, would teach the entire village’s children at once, no matter their age.
There was a simple general store where villagers could purchase pots, flour, candles, and luxuries such as rice. The general store looked extremely basic to me, but in fact was almost entirely patronized by those that actually had money. Those that didn’t – which was most – milled their own flour, and definitely didn’t eat rice.
Men who had made a bit of money from fishing or hunting were often compelled to visit the local bar rather than the general store. Women were not allowed here, and men drank nasty-tasting high-proof alcohol. I’m not sure, actually, whether they drank because they’d lifted themselves above survival mode, or because they hadn’t.
As we took the horse-drawn carriage across the covered bridge into the 20th century, life, once again, took a leap forward. There was a caisse populaire, a lovely hotel (where you can actually spend the night!), and even an Irving gas station! Life for the Acadians was slowly thrusting itself into the modern era.
Today, Acadians live much like the rest of Canadians. Yet, now that I know more about their history and culture, I see how it is still integrated into their modern identities. The Acadians I know tend to have simple, small-town values. They like to be outdoors, by the sea, around a campfire, having kitchen parties. They are family-oriented and religiously conservative. They’re the meat-and-potatoes sort.
Most importantly, they’ve held onto their French language with a fierce pride that I now understand. Sure, their French has integrated many English words and phrases, but the unique dialect that it has become makes them speak it with that much more pride.
So it is that every summer, on August 15th, Acadians all across the region emerge onto the streets and beat kitchen utensils and household objects together with as much noise as possible. The purpose of their tintamarre is to tell us Anglophones that, despite our best efforts, the Acadians are still around, alive and very, very well.
*This song, called “Les Acadiens” is written by Michel Fugain. The lyrics quoted above translate as “All the Acadians are Americans. Whose fault is it? It’s Napoleon’s fault!”