Articles

THEY’RE WINNING BACK ACADIA

Two hundred years ago an English tyrant drove the Acadians out of the Maritimes. But they returned, fighting oppression, poverty and illiteracy. Slowly but surely they're winning back their homeland with the “revenge of the cradles”

IAN SCLANDERS December 15 1950
Articles

THEY’RE WINNING BACK ACADIA

Two hundred years ago an English tyrant drove the Acadians out of the Maritimes. But they returned, fighting oppression, poverty and illiteracy. Slowly but surely they're winning back their homeland with the “revenge of the cradles”

IAN SCLANDERS December 15 1950

THEY’RE WINNING BACK ACADIA

IAN SCLANDERS

THEY filed slowly and sadly out of the old vinecovered church at Grand Pré, N.S., saying their beads and chanting psalms. As they

trudged down the road they looked like condemned men.

But this time there were no British troops to prod them aboard waiting transports. That had been back in 1755. This was 1950; these people, well dressed and prosperous, had come on a pilgrimage from Moncton, N.B., to Grand Pré.

And the old church wasn’t renlly a church any more. It had been reconstructed and turned into a museum. Yet, because they were Acudíaos, it stirred their emotions and evoked memories. They knew that hundreds of their ancestors had been imprisoned within its walls, then herded aboard ships that carried them to exile.

After 195 years that sorry chapter in history, dramatized in Longfellow's poem “Evangeline,” is so vivid to Acadian» that, they often step in imagination into the moccasins of the ancestors t hey regard as martyrs. They st ill curse 1 he name of Charles Lawrence, the tyrannical bantam who was Governor of Nova Scotia in 1755, and they say

Two hundred years ago an English tyrant drove the Acadians out of the Maritimes. But they returned, fighting oppression, poverty and illiteracy. Slowly but surely they're winning back their homeland with the “revenge of the cradles”

that he stole their heritage and their homeland.

Acadia—now New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island—was settled by the French in 1630. Most of the region was taken by the English in 1710. In spite of their French origin the Acadians, whose chief communities were around Minas Basin in Nova Scotia, then agreed to a qualified oath of allegiance to the British Crown. They were to have freedom of religion and exemption from military service.

When Lawrence became governor he demanded a new oath under which they would have to bear arms against the French in Quebec. When they rejected this he said they were guilty of treason. He ordered them banished and their property confiscated.

Seyen thousand Acadians pleaded in vain that they had been British subjects for nearly -15 years. They were rounded up like cattle by the red coats under Colonel John Winslow and packed on boats chartered by Lawrence.

The plan was to disperse them among English colonists so that in a generation they would lose their identity. Husbands were torn from wives,

children from parents. They had no choice of destination. They were scattered as far south as the West Indies.

As Longfellow described it:

Far asunder, on separate coasts, the Acadians landed:

Scattered were they, like flakes of snow

Friendless, homeless, hopeless.

Yet hardly had they touched shore than thousands headed north again, on foot or in vessels they built themselves. One company of 800, known as the "heroic caravan,” walked 600 terrible miles from Boston to the head of the Bay of Fundy.

For more than a century the Acadian dream of repossessing Acadia seemed utterly hopeless. Acadians were outcasts in the wilderness, ignorant and hungry. The orchards they planted with seedlings from Normandy, the rich salt marshes their dykes had reclaimed from the sea were in other hands. They lived in hovels in the deep woods or in bleak wind-beaten fishing hamlets.

Then 75 years ago a resurgence began. And

today the Acadians are marching out of the forests and into the cities and towns, out of illiteracy and into politics, business, the professions. They have a strong nationalistic spirit. They stand together as members of one family, a distinct and different breed which glories in its traditions and in having survived an ordeal. They are not French-Canadians, not Canadians, but Acadians.

New Brunswick is the first objective in their peaceful campaign to recapture the land of their fathers. In that province Acadians speak cheerfully of "la revanche des berceaux" (the revenge of the cradles).

‘"Our best weapon,” they say, “is our big families.”

They take it for granted that their high birth rate will win ultimate victory. Statistics indicate that their optimism is justified. In 1871, the year of the first federal census, 15.7' , of New Brunswick s population was Acadian. Now they make up about 38',’ ior 198,000 persons). The proportion of Acadians has gone up an average of 2.9'-f a decade since 1871. On this basis it would be

another 50 years

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Continued, from page 15

before they were in the majority.

They point out gleefully, however, that in 1941 (the last federal census) the Acadian birth rate in the province was 35.8 per 1,000 and the birth rate of others in New Brunswick, 20.3 per 1,000. There were 11,840 babies born in New Brunswick that year, 5,869 to Acadian parents. Such figures could mean that Acadians would constitute more than 50% of the population within 25 or 30 years.

Strategists of the revenge of the cradles have Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island in mind now that they feel sure of New Brunswick.

Acadians marry young. It’s not uncommon for an Acadian girl to be married at 15 and a mother at 16. It’s a rare Acadian village that doesn’t have a family with 17 or 18 children. No matter how poor the parents are, the kids look clean and adequately fed.

In 1871, when only 44,907 of New Brunswick’s 285,594 people were Acadians, residents of the town of Richibucto were English, Scottish or Irish. A giant blacksmith, John Garvey, had his shop beside a bridge over a creek at one end of the community. “No Frenchman,” he vowed, “will ever cross the crick,” and Garvey was a tough customer. But Garvey is dead and times have changed. Now 80% of Richibucto is Acadian. What happened there has happened at scores of places, particularly in northern and eastern New Brunswick.

Moncton is 40% Acadian now. Saint John didn’t have half a dozen Acadians in 1930. Today there must be 6,000.

College for S200 a Year

While they have been multiplying they have also been raising themselves culturally, socially and economically. This advancement dates from 1874 when the Rev. Camille Lefebvre, a Holy Cross priest, arrived from Quebec City to work among them. He was shocked to find that few could read or write and that he could count all the Acadian professional men on his fingers.

He had only $40 but he resolved to build a college. He spoke no English and the Irish Catholic bishop of Saint John spoke no French. Acadians chuckle when they describe the meeting at which Père Lefebvre with frenzied gestures persuaded the bishop to help. He collected money where he could, much of it in small change. He talked carpenters and masons into donating free labor. And St. Joseph’s University arose in the village of Memramcook, in southeastern New Brunswick, a miracle of salesmanship, faith and devotion.

Lefebvre guided the college until his death in 1896 and it sparked the Acadian renaissance. It has 500 students attending classes in a clump of gloomy buildings overlooking the tidescarred Memramcook River.

New Brunswick has three other Acadian colleges for men: Sacred Heart, at Bathurst; St. Louis, at Edmundston; Assumption at Moncton. Two girls’ colleges also give classical degrees: Notre Dame d’Acadie, Moncton; Maillet, at Ste. Basile.

The cost of education at these schools is fantastically low. At Sacred Heart board and tuition cost the student $200 a year. The professors, members of the French Eudist Order, are unpaid. Unpaid lay brothers with voluntary assistance from students operate a farm that produces most of the food. The lay brothers run a public laundry to help balance the budget.

“Even so,” the bursar says, “we have to watch every penny. I don’t know how we manage at all. But neither do I know how a poor woodcutter or a poor fisherman manages to send his son here. It involves sacrifice.”

But Acadian parents think no sacrifice is too extreme if it enables them to put a boy through university. Many Acadian mothers pray each day that one of their sons will be an educated man—a priest, a doctor or lawyer. An Acadian father will mortgage his last fence post to finance a son through university.

By 1941 half the Roman Catholic priests in New Brunswick were Acadians. So were 20% of New Brunswick’s doctors, 20% of the dentists, 17% of the lawyers.

While they complain their representation is inadequate, Acadians are advancing on the political front too. They hold 13 of 52 seats in the New Brunswick legislature, three of 10 portfolios in the government, and three of N. B.’s 10seats in the House of Commons. They are allotted three of New Brunswick’s 10 senatorships. In provincial elections they tend to vote

as a bloc. They have supported the Liberals since 1935—and the Liberals have been in office since then.

Only one Acadian, the late Peter J. Veniot, has been premier of New Brunswick. “Good Roads” Veniot, enormously popular as minister of public works, took the premiership when the late W. E. Foster resigned to enter the Federal Cabinet in 1923. Led by Veniot the Liberals were trounced by the Conservatives in 1925. Acadians attributed Veniot’s downfall to a solid English-speaking protest against Acadian leadership.

But their attitude toward the English-speaking in New Brunswick is neither hostile nor belligerent. There are firebrands but Acadians as a whole are steady and level-headed, sturdy and hard-working. They know what they want: to dominate New Brunswick first, then Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

“Our movement,” says one leading Acadian, “is not militant. There’s no sinister plot. We’ll simply attain numerical superiority because of our high birth rate and see to it that our children have the best possible educational advantages. We’ll then have recaptured Acadia. We’ll continue to be loyal Canadians.”

Ten Cents in the Pot

Some non-Acadians view the rise of Acadians with bitterness and alarm. They argue that French language schools should be outlawed and Acadians should be compelled to learn English. They cite the United States, with its estimated 700,000 Acadians, where English is the one legal language.

“Across the border,” * hey say, “Acadians have been assimilated.” But this is not quite true. In Louisiana, where there are a large number of Acadians (called “Cajuns”), they have clung stubbornly to their mother tongue. In centres throughout New England they have their own Acadian social clubs.

Other English-speaking Maritimere are more philosophical. “Well,” they shrug, “the Acadians were here first and they’re pretty decent folk.”

In New Brunswick towns where Acadians outnumber other residents there has been no friction. Under n gentleman’s agreement in Bathurst the mayoralty is rotated among Acadians, Irish Catholics and Protestants, the candidate of each group in turn being elected by acclamation. Most children in Bathurst and Edmundston are bilingual.

Acadians look on Moncton as their capital. A railway centre, a divisional headquarters of the CNR, it has a population of 30,000, 12,000 of them Acadians. It’s where the head office of the unique Société l’Assomption is located. This is a mutual life insurance company which has 55,000 policyholders insured for .$60 millions. But it’s far more than that.

They Go Their Own Way

It started years ago at Waltham, Mass., with no rules or regulations. The idea was that Acadians would help bury one another by chipping into a fund that would provide $100 for funeral expenses. The fund grew until the society had to be incorporated and the head office was moved to Moncton in 1912. Today half the policyholders are in Canada and half in the U. S.

When members pay their monthly premiums, they also drop 10 cents each into a pot to finance scholarships. They gave 37 scholarships this year. The society is organized so that it has a lodge wherever it does any volume of business. There are 400 lodges holding regular meetings at which Acadian problems are discussed.

The secretary-treasurer of La Société l’Assomption is Calixto Savoie, born at the fishing village of Buctouche, N.B., a strong-willed, tireless, likable and slightly dictatorial man. In the eyes of Acadians he is their foremost champion.

For some of their economic gains the Acadians are indebted to the cooperative movement which lias spread out from St. Francis Xavier University, at Antigonisb, N.S. The priests of “St. Avec's,” mostly Scottish and Irish, have boon showing Maritime woods-

men, fishermen and farmers for 20 years how to achieve independence and bargaining power bv saving their small change.

In the old days traders extended credit and accepted logs, fish and farm produce in payment at their own prices. This system boiled down to a mean form of slavery. The producer seldom saw a dollar bill. He was never permitted to get out of debt, nor did he receive what his products were worth. St. Avec’s taught Acadians that if they set up their own credit unions and put a little money aside when they had it they could free themselves from this bondage. Today every little Acadian village has its “caisse populaire” with $30,000 or $40,000 in assets. The investors, which means all the residents, borrow from these “people’s banks” at low interest. Dozens of centres not only have credit unions but co-operative stores, fish canneries, and marketing agencies.

Acadians hate to be called French Canadians or Canadiens. They prefer to travel by themselves. They set their course in 1880—when French-speaking Canadians held a convention at Quebec City. Twenty-four Acadians attended. They concluded that they should go their own way. The Canadiens selected the day of St. John the Baptist for their national feast. In 1881 the Acadians decided that their celebration should be the Feast of the Assumption and that they should have their own flag, the tri-color with a gold

Acadians are proud of being this country’s first colonists (some arrived with Champlain in 1604), proud that they stem from the minor nobility and from good peasant stock, proud that they endured the expulsion.

Now Arthur’s Got a Strad

Acadians are naturally musical and their idol is tall broad-shouldered handsome Arthur LeBlanc.

When he was six or seven his father fashioned a tiny fiddle for him, using the corner of the kitchen table for a workbench and a pocket knife as his main tool. The boy had genius. He had hardly raised the crude instrument to his chin but what he was coaxing music from it, as though by instinct. The neighbors gathered to listen.

The LeBlancs were poor but Arthur won scholarships and Acadian admirers begged to assist with his education. When he finally had his dehut in Carnegie Hall and was acclaimed by New York critics jubilation spread to the most remote Acadian hamlets. His triumphs in Europe caused equal excitement.

Arthur LeBlanc lives in Montreal nowand spends most of his time on concert tours but he returns to New Brunswick at least once a year and plays by the hour for fellow Acadians, often in the crowded parlor of a humble home. His present violin is a $50,000 Stradivarius. Acadians and Canadiens, thousands of them, joined together to buy it for him.

Arthur LeBlanc was in Moncton recently prowling around trying to find the little old fiddle his father fashioned for him years ago. It’s lost and he thinks it’s stored away in somebody’s attic. He wants to locate it, because his own son is ready to learn to play.

Several Acadian writers have told the story of the “heroic caravan,” describing how 800 determined people, who lacked supplies and firearms, fought their way through 600 miles of unbroken wilderness from Boston to the Bay of Fundy. They tell how the old and the weak died, how the grim procession was halted by death and

childbirth, and how, after months, it reached its destination.

The late Senator Pascal Poirier was the first Acadian writer and with others he claimed that Acadians spoke purer French than can be heard in France. Words and phrases which the French in France and Canadiens in Quebec have borrowed from the English language are sternly avoided.

They have their own newspaper L’Evangeline (circ. 8,000), founded in 1887 at Weymouth, N.S., by Valentin Landry, a shaggy-haired crusader with a ferocious corkscrew mustache. He

shifted headquarters in 1910 to Moncton where he played a big part in establishing the first Acadian church where Acadians worship in their own language. Acadians and Quebec sympathizers last year poured $100,000 into the weekly paper and now it appears as a daily under the editorship of 32-yearold Emery LeBlanc.

There are only 100 Acadian names, although there are one million Acadians in North America. One tenth of all Acadians are LeBlancs, descended from a single couple, Daniel and Frances LeBlanc, who came from

France in 1750 and settled near Port Royal, N.S. The 200th anniversary last September of the arrival of the first LeBlanc saw Moncton bulging with 10,000 descendants wearing badges and ribbons. They had come from as far as France to attend religious services of commemoration, to sit for a family portrait, to eat huge dinners and lunches, to hear Arthur LeBlanc play his fiddle.

“We didn’t have one drunk in all that crowd.” the Rev. Patrice LeBlanc, of Moncton, who organized the affair, announced afterward. it