Heroism and Villainy

Revisiting the Great Expulsion — even as Acadians question its relevance

For the Acadians of New Brunswick, one third of the province’s population, the decade from 1994 to 2004 felt like one long celebration. Just two years after the enshrinement of their own French-language school system in the Canadian constitution, in 1994 they welcomed members of the Acadian diaspora to the first Congrès Mondial Acadien, a symbolic reversal of the infamous expulsion of their ancestors in 1755.

Five years later, in 1999, the Sommet de la Francophonie, a gathering of world leaders from countries with ties to France, was held in Moncton. And after decades of lobbying, the Queen, on the eve of the 400th anniversary of Champlain’s founding of Acadia, issued in 2003 a Royal Proclamation acknowledging “the trials and suffering experienced by the Acadian people”—not quite the apology some nationalists had sought, but a milestone nonetheless.

Some Acadians dissented from the continuing focus on the tragedy of 1755 by self-proclaimed Acadian leaders. Herménégilde Chiasson, who became New Brunswick’s lieutenant-governor in 2003, wrote that he envied the province’s francophone youth for their lack of preoccupation with what he called “this eternal defeat.” An Acadian rock band, Grand Dérangement—the French term for the expulsion—released an album called Tournons la page. They were echoed by the columnist Robert Pichette: “Let us get out of this swamp in which we have been forced to flounder,” he fumed, “as if we were simple spooks from the past.” And in his autobiographical first novel, Moncton Mantra, the poet Gérald Leblanc wrote: “As if we could undo modern life and return to living in the woods, as some suggest. As if every night, we’d have to bring out the fiddle and the spoons and have a sing-along. I get my back up when I hear some folklore freak say of the electric guitar, ‘That’s not Acadian.’ I can only answer, ‘I don’t give a goddam.’”

This is a thorny debate. As the scholar N.E.S. Griffiths has observed, the expulsion had defined what it meant to be Acadian: now its relevance to a modern, globally attuned, 21st-century Acadia was in question.

Paradoxically, at the same time this debate was unfolding, there was a newfound interest among anglophones in Acadians and particularly the expulsion. New Brunswick’s leading English–language newspaper, the Telegraph-Journal, launched an ambitious series of stories on the present-day Acadian diaspora in Louisiana and Massachusetts. Books on the deportation and its aftermath moved from the realm of dusty academe to a more general readership. Perhaps televised images of an analogous event—the long lines of displaced Kosovars trudging through the hills to escape ethnic cleansing—made the Acadian story more widely appreciated and deeply felt.

Dianne Marshall’s Heroes of the Acadian Resistance: The Story of Joseph Beausoleil Broussard and Pierre II Surette, 1702–1765 is the latest book to bring the Acadian story to a non-francophone audience. It bills itself as a “little-known story” that offers “a fascinating new perspective,” but this is only true for a general English readership; the story is widely known to Acadians and to scholars.

Broussard and Surette, both born in Port-Royal, became leaders of a small, stubborn resistance to the British, who took ownership of Acadia in 1713. But labelling them heroes is problematic for two reasons. They vanish from the book for long passages. And, as Marshall makes clear, the organizer of the resistance, the French Catholic missionary Abbé Jean-Louis Le Loutre, was as much a villain as the British: he meted out cruel reprisals if Acadians did not abandon their cherished neutrality and join in his attacks. He emerges here as a fascinating, villainous figure, and the driving force of the story—a better subject for a book, although perhaps not as appealing to the casual reader as two “heroes.”

Marshall’s well-assembled, clearly written account takes us through the early resistance, the first fall of Louisbourg, the disastrous French effort to retake it, the final British push to quash an Acadian insurgency and the expulsion itself. This straightforward narrative style comes at a cost: I, for one, wanted Marshall to pause and ruminate on the morality of the insurgents and pass judgement on the way they often forced hapless Acadians to support them.

The evidence suggests the Acadians wanted to be left alone—not just by England but also by France. Instead, Marshall notes, as tension mounted, they provided forced labour to build two French forts. “Their compensation for this work was limited to rations and woefully inadequate shelter for their families. Over the cold winter months, most were housed uncomfortably in barns and outbuildings in the village of Chipoudy—a far cry from their cosy homes at Beaubassin that LeLoutre and his rebels had destroyed. Pay was not even a consideration and complaint not an option.” She suggests many Acadians refused the oath of loyalty to England—the pretext for the deportation—because they feared reprisal from Le Loutre, who “liked to play favourites in the distribution of rations, for example, being most generous to those who had sufficiently stroked his ego, and leaving many others in the unenviable position of having to beg for enough to feed their children … LeLoutre did not hesitate to threaten the Acadians with bodily harm, and even death, to ensure their unqualified obedience.”

Although Marshall’s account of some events—the fall of Fort Beauséjour, Le Loutre’s cowardly flights to France—lacks the drama they warrant, her description of the deportation itself is bracing and affecting, a sobering reminder that this was not an orderly queuing up to board ships: although the goal was not extermination but dispersal—a spreading out of the population among other British colonies to ensure their assimilation—the execution was chaotic, harsh and often fatal.

Only at this point, relative to this cruelty, do Broussard and Surette emerge as unambiguously heroic, mounting quixotic final assaults against the British. But then, all too abruptly, the story simply stops: Broussard and his family end up in Louisiana, while Surette, released from British custody in 1763, settles with his family near present-day Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. Again, Marshall’s straight narrative comes at the expense of any discussion of the pair’s legacy today. We do not learn what place they occupy in the modern Acadian psyche. I was left wondering how Surette’s Nova Scotia descendants see him. Have they mounted a plaque in his honour? Is he revered, or regarded with utter indifference?

These are not small questions, given the debate over what place the deportation should occupy in present-day Acadian thinking. But Marshall draws no connection to the present, and to the fact that the British strategy of dispersal and assimilation was destined to fail.

When the Sommet de la Francophonie was held in Moncton in 1999, Lucien Bouchard, the premier of Quebec, noted that the city was named for Colonel Robert Monckton, one of the British officers who organized the deportation. The 1999 summit communiqué, he added, would be known as the Moncton Declaration. “So one of the architects of the attempted eradication of French in this region finds himself associated, despite himself, with the international effort to preserve the language. A powerful reversal of history.”

Yet there are fresh challenges for Acadian society: today, in northern New Brunswick, accelerating out-migration is hollowing out many communities. In vibrantly bilingual Moncton, a new category of Acadian—children of mixed English-French couples—is confounding the dual school system and raising questions about what it means to be Acadian.

The answers to these questions cannot be found in the lessons of the expulsion: they are part of a constantly evolving story that, with each passing year, is less and less about remembrance. English readers need to discover these other facets of this remarkable, resonant saga. Dianne Marshall has given us only one tragic chapter of it.