Acadian Driftwood

The renewal of a shared consciousness

On a road trip to Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula in the fall of 2021, my wife and I passed through the Matapedia Valley, in driving rain, to land late in the day in a town called Carleton-sur-Mer, on the shores of the Baie des Chaleurs. The next morning, the rain had given way to sunshine and a clearing breeze, and we decided to go for a walk along the shoreline across from our motel. There we happened upon an impressive memorial to one of Canada’s almost forgotten minorities, the Acadians. The monument, a large cross commemorating the grand dérangement (great upheaval), was installed on a base in the form of a star; along its pointed sides were a series of inscriptions relating the tragic event, and at the centre was an inlaid map indicating the subsequent forced migrations. Fifteen similar monuments are scattered throughout Quebec and the Maritimes.

Canada is a land of diaspora peoples: successive waves of newcomers, who were often dispossessed in one way or another, for one reason or another, in their countries of origin, brought with them painful memories of the unremitting harshness of historical necessity. The Acadians, however, were the first to experience a forced diaspora from the very place to which they had come as immigrants. In 1755, the British governor of Nova Scotia, Colonel Charles Lawrence, decreed that the Acadian people had to swear an oath of unconditional allegiance to the Crown or suffer expulsion from the lands they had occupied and farmed since the early 1600s. When they refused, about 6,000 Acadian men, women, and children were sent into exile, most along the eastern seaboard of what was to become the United States, from Massachusetts to Georgia, and others to Louisiana (the “Cajuns”) via the Caribbean and France. Many died en route, but roughly a third of them or their descendants eventually made it back, when the official British attitude softened. Those who did return found their properties occupied by others.

I had always vaguely associated the Acadians primarily with Nova Scotia, so I was initially surprised to stumble on that memorial in a small Gaspé town. A little further research revealed the far-flung nature of pre-expulsion Acadian settlement, not only in Nova Scotia but also in corners of what would become New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and eastern Maine. For its leading founders in 1605, Samuel de Champlain and the Sieur de Monts, Acadie encompassed those lands lying to the south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence that were beyond British control. More than a territory, it was to them an idea, suitably conveyed by the name, with its link to the Arcadia of ancient Greek mythology, a kind of earthly paradise of unspoiled, harmonious wilderness.

Champlain and de Monts were certainly not utopians, but they had been marked by the Renaissance humanism still flourishing in the France of Henri IV. Appalled by the religious wars between Protestants and Catholics, they founded their colony in what they regarded as a place of natural abundance, and in the hope that Europeans of either faith could at least coexist within it in peace. Another leading member of the colony, Marc Lescarbot, was a historian, poet, and playwright, who wrote and staged the first theatrical production in northern North America, Théâtre de Neptune. (As one of Champlain’s contemporaries remarked, “When the French founded a colony, the first thing they built was a theater; the English, a counting house; the Spanish, a convent.”) Rather than a celebration of French military conquest, the play culminated in a scene where Indigenous leaders “render homage” to the fleur-de-lys as the hopeful symbol of the flourishing of peace. The first settlers did indeed live in peace with those people already on the land, whose help they depended upon for the survival of their colony at Port-Royal. In this regard, it is worth noting that the name Acadie could also be related to the Algonquin language, where “cadie” functions as a suffix indicating a place (as in Tracadie or Shubenacadie).

As it turned out, the notion of an “Arcadian” Acadia was indeed to prove a dream when it encountered the harsh reality faced by all societies whose fate is to exist in a strategic location between rival empires. As the colony at Port-Royal and its offshoots on both sides of the Bay of Fundy slowly and painfully learned to survive and then prosper within the challenging natural environment of northeastern North America, it was increasingly forced to come to terms with the imperial ambitions of the British and their North American colonies on one side (to the south) and the French and their colony of New France on the other (to the north).

From its founding in 1605 until the forced dispersion in 1755, Acadia changed hands between the rival powers no fewer than five times, and Indigenous groups were also caught up in the struggle as allies or adversaries of one side or the other. Necessity taught the French-speaking Acadian settlers that neutrality was their best option, partly because they wanted to be left alone to develop as they saw fit, without interference from faraway metropolitan centres, and partly because the uncertainty of the final outcome made it impolitic to choose a side without fear of later reprisal. In short, they learned to get along with the British, with whom they always maintained trade relations along the Atlantic coast, even while a French colony. By long-standing tradition, the various oaths of allegiance they took to Britain included professions of complete loyalty, with two conditions: that their Catholic faith be respected and that they would not be required to bear arms against France. As the Maritime region increasingly became a battleground in the 1740s and ’50s, this conditional allegiance came to be deemed unacceptable by London, which instituted a formal oath of unqualified allegiance.

The Acadians’ spurning of the oath in its unconditional form was not motivated by any special love for France. Instead, it can be seen as a demonstration of their steadfast — some said obstinate, calling them les entêtés — love of their own way of life, a way of life that included neutrality in matters of war. Perhaps in some semi-conscious manner, this refusal to take sides reflected the classical humanist ideal of thinkers like Lescarbot.

In 1755, after a century and a half, the Acadians could no longer escape the reality expressed so concisely by the ancient historian Thucydides in his “Melian Dialogue.” As the more powerful Athenian forces observed to the inhabitants of the small island of Melos, who wished to cling to their neutrality during the Peloponnesian War, “It is a law of history that what is right is only in question between equal powers, while the stronger do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” The Acadians did not suffer summary execution and enslavement from their choice as did the Melians, but they did experience the trauma of dispossession and exile.

As much as history appears to be a vast machine for immolating victims, it frequently offers the spectacle of renewed national identities arising from the ashes. That memorial in Carleton-sur-Mer testifies not merely to a dead past but also to a living cultural present, of language and literature, religious traditions and political activity, to some extent associated with a particular territory and complete with an Acadian flag, an emblem, and a national anthem (the Catholic hymn “Ave maris stella”).

The modern renewal of Acadian consciousness has some especially striking features. One of these is the crucial role of literature. Foremost among the early seminal works inspiring that sense of identity was the epic poem Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie, written in 1847 by the American Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, about the quest of a young woman, Evangeline, to reunite with her lost love, Gabriel, amid the upheaval of dispersion at the hands of the “tyrants of England.”

Though written not by an Acadian nor in French, Evangeline touched a deep chord among the described people. As the historian Léon Thériault has put it, “A myth and a legend had been created in which the Acadians recognized themselves.” And while Longfellow’s poem is generally ponderous and, today, almost unreadable, its opening lines remain impressive:

This is the forest primeval; but where are the hearts that beneath it
Leaped like the roe, when he hears in the woodland the voice of the huntsman?
Where is the thatch-roofed village, the home of Acadian farmers, —
Men whose lives glided on like rivers that water the woodlands,
Darkened by shadows of earth, but reflecting an image of heaven?

The contemporary writer Antonine Maillet has also helped resurrect the basic features of the Acadian myth, through La sagouine, a play, and Pélagie-la-charrette, a historical novel. (The latter earned her the Prix Goncourt, France’s prestigious literary award, in 1979.) In her tributes to Evangeline and to the humanist thinking of Lescarbot, Maillet has accomplished for the Acadians what many Quebecers, and indeed Canadians, are still awaiting: an inspiring literary work that offers them a unifying collective image of who they are and who they ought to be.

Without literary myth, there is nothing to inspire. But without organizational mechanisms, there is no social expression of an inspiring vision. Developing one requires committees, associations, councils, manifestos, programs of action, and all the other instruments for mobilizing enough people to make a difference. And that brings us to a second striking feature of the Acadian renaissance. Much of the needed foundation for its practical expression was provided by the organization that had been at the centre of Acadian life from the beginning — the Roman Catholic Church — the retention of which had always been a condition of their loyalty to one empire or another. The decisive and perhaps surprising part the Church has played is the subject of Philippe Volpé’s À la frontière des mondes: Jeunesse étudiante, Action catholique et changement social en Acadie (1900–1970).

At first sight, Volpé’s book appears to belong to the admirable if unglamorous genre of local history, in this case local history with a particular perspective: the role of francophone Catholic youth and student organizations in the development of the Acadian cultural consciousness throughout much of the twentieth century. Very particular it is, and it requires some patience to wade through the details of all the associations and federations, along with their various metamorphoses, that figure in Volpé’s discussion of Acadian nationalism — some twenty-five of them by my count in the index. Also in the index, however, are names that appear to have nothing to do with the concerns of local Maritime history: Henri Bergson, Paul Claudel, Georges Bernanos, Karl Marx, Simone Weil, and Marcel Gauchet. It becomes evident that the author has one eye on a much larger question; indeed, À la frontière des mondes is an impressive demonstration of how the local can reveal the universal. In his quiet, workmanlike way, the author is using regional history to overturn some of the largest assumptions — one might call them dogmas — that are most dear to progressivist liberal historiography, whether Acadian or Québécois or, in fact, Western.

Foremost among such dogmas is the notion that the Catholic Church is the enemy of a progressive, secular type of national identity. In the case of Quebec, for instance, it has generally been held that the Church, while defending and preserving the Québécois nation against assimilation by anglophone North America, did so at the cost of a stultifying conservatism bent on keeping modernity at bay. According to this narrative, by the 1960s the Québécois came to recognize that their nationalism no longer needed the support of the Church — that, indeed, their emergence from the grande noirceur of clerico-conservatism required a rejection of it in favour of a more liberal, secular nationalism.

Volpé describes a nouvelle sensibilité among a new generation of Quebec historians, who increasingly question the “revolutionary” nature of the Quiet Revolution and are instead emphasizing the “continuities” rather than the “ruptures” of the ’60s. Prominent among these continuities is the presence of the Catholic Church as an agent of secular change rather than a source of resistance to secularization. This new reading of the religious dimension of the Quiet Revolution has its roots in the work of the French philosopher Marcel Gauchet, who argued in his groundbreaking 1999 book, The Disenchantment of the World: The Political History of Religion, that Christianity should be interpreted as “the religion of the exit from religion.” Applying Gauchet’s thesis to Quebec, these historians read the Quiet Revolution as the religious “exit from the religious organization of society.” As such, the supporting role of the Catholic Church was essential. The Quiet Revolution was mounted not against the Church but starting from it.

Volpé has set himself the task of examining the modern renaissance of Acadian nationalism in light of the new sensibilité inspired by Gauchet’s disenchantment thesis. Through a detailed examination of the major Catholic youth movements on the Acadian scene during the twentieth century — Jeunesse agricole catholique, Jeunesse ouvrière catholique, and especially Jeunesse étudiante catholique — and their relations with secular youth movements, particularly in the institutions of higher education, Volpé dispels the facile caricature of a monolithically conservative Church. It was by means of these Catholic activist associations, he suggests, that many young people were galvanized into making a major contribution to the “edification and definition of the small Acadian society,” most recently through the language battles that erupted in the early 1970s. And he argues that their legacy included even the more radical movements of that period, such as feminism, reformism, neo-nationalism, and Marxism-Leninism.

Although an isolated pocket of people within the Maritimes, the Acadians were linked to a much larger cultural world — including francophone Quebec, of course, and Catholic Europe — through their faith. Like that of the Québécois, the French, and the Italians, their Catholicism was influenced by new, more humanist directions being taken by the Vatican and leading theologians, especially the neo-Thomist and personalist movements associated with Jacques Maritain and Emmanuel Mounier.

It was not solely through the mediation of Quebec that the petite société acadienne became open to more universal cultural influences. Indeed, a third striking feature of the Acadian renaissance has been its ambiguous attitude toward francophone Quebec. Early Acadian Catholicism relied heavily on the support, both clerical and financial, of the Quebec Church, so much so that the Acadian areas of the Maritimes were a kind of mission field for Québécois Catholicism. But the Acadians were much less willing to be dependent on Quebec’s pretensions to the political-cultural leadership of Canadian francophonie. This independent spirit, fuelled by what Volpé calls the fear of seeing their petite patrie absorbed into the grande patrie of Quebec, was reflected in debates about relatively small matters: for instance, how to structure Catholic youth organizations. Should the Acadian youth be a regional part of the larger Quebec organization, or should they have their own distinct and autonomous organization? (The latter was the course chosen.) And then there were the larger questions. Can Acadian cultural flourishing best take place within or outside Canada, for example? Or to put it more bluntly: Which is more necessary for the future of Acadian society, a strong Canadian federation or a satisfied Quebec?

The consequences of choice here might not be so dire as in the days when Acadians were caught between the French and British armies, but, just as was the case back then, neutrality is not a viable long-term option. We know that the majority of Acadians, at least in New Brunswick, where there are reliable records, rejected Confederation outright. In the aftermath of the establishment of the new country of Canada in July 1867, the newspaper Le Moniteur acadien was less than enthusiastic about the prospect: “The issue of Confederation is now a thing of the past. We must cease discussing it. . . . Today we can only do one thing: resign ourselves to our fate and try to make the best of it.” Yet it would seem that the Acadians have since warmed considerably to Canada. During the heady radicalism of the late ’60s and early ’70s, for instance, Acadian nationalism, unlike its Québécois counterpart, did not become heavily separatist in sentiment.

On the subject of Acadia within Canada, Volpé quotes one of the leading organizers of the bicentennial commemoration of 1755, Adélard Savoie. “In light of the Thomist doctrine of the common good, we can say that the common good of Canada is composed of the particular goods of the different groups composing Canada. And the more the parts of the whole are rich, are pure, and perfect, the more the whole itself is excellent and perfect,” Savoie wrote in 1955. “And for us French Canadians, whether Québécois, Acadians, Franco-Ontarians or others, I believe our best way of making our maximum contribution to our country, Canada, is precisely in making ourselves the best Québécois, the best Acadians, the best Franco-Ontarians possible.”

This relating of the particular to the universal, through the concept of the “common good,” a mediation that, in Savoie’s view, Canada makes possible, evokes something more profound than the conventional rhetoric surrounding multiculturalism and diversity. It is echoed succinctly in the words of Antonine Maillet about the aim of her art: “I would like to see my literary work given significance as a poetic transposition of the natural and human reality of my country, Acadia, insofar as this is one aspect of a much greater reality — the universal human being.”

The star-shaped memorial I encountered on that morning walk pointed to other worlds: those from which the Acadians had come and those to which they were exiled. It seems fitting, then, that Volpé titles his book À la frontière des mondes. These worlds are not so much geographical as ideological: nationalism and universalism, tradition and modernity, Catholicism and secularism, Acadia and Canada. There is tension, certainly, at the edges where they meet, but Volpé impresses by refusing the usual zero-sum dichotomies, preferring instead to focus on continuities rather than ruptures, dialogue rather than apology or condemnation.