L'Acadie: The Descendants of Acadia
"Dans le monde entier, l'Acadie cherche ses enfants."
"Acadia seeks her children throughout the world."
- Aurore Bilodeau
Have you heard of "Le Grande Dérangement" of Acadia? Surprisingly, not many of us learned about the British expulsion of Acadian settlers during the mid 1700's. The Acadians, mostly of French background, settled in the northeastern section of Canada, east of Québec. While the British and French crowns wrestled for control of North America, the Acadians were happy to speak their French language, generally getting along with the Native Americans and building successful communities along the bays. When the British crown asked Acadians to pledge loyalty to Britain and take up arms against the French, most of them refused. They did not want to fight any wars with their friends and family from France, so they chose a stance of neutrality. Meanwhile, the British establishment kept their eyes open, hoping to gain control of the fertile land and to take advantage of the ingenious dyke systems built by the Acadians for preserving the farmland. There were other issues, of course, but this is just a summary.
One day, the British government lured unsuspecting Acadians to a community meeting, specifically asking only for the men to appear. It was there that the British announced they were putting the men on ships bound for the American colonies. They had virtually no time to prepare. Women and children were shocked to discover they were bound for separate ships, as well. Older relatives were seen being carried on wheelcarts, regardless of their health condition. There was much weeping, as to be expected. While some Acadians saw the writing on the wall and chose to leave years earlier, most were expelled to colonies that were not ready for their arrival. Some colonies even made the ships turn around, sending Acadians to either England or France as prisoners. Eventually, some of these exiled settlers went to Louisiana, leading to today's vibrant Cajun culture.
Most Acadians suffered greatly during Le Grand Dérangement, and some never saw their family members again. This spawned an effort to preserve Acadian culture, including folk songs such as Le Fleur du Souvenier. While many people are aware of their Acadian ancestry, there are many others who may have family from this diaspora without realizing it. I did not know I had Acadian ancestors until recently. Most of mine fled to Québec and were able to assimilate due to the common French language and cultural similarities, although there were some differences. However, the differences were much more stark for those who landed in other colonies, particularly ones with Protestant English speakers. Even France was not keen on keeping Acadians on its shores.
Eventually, many descendants lost all traces of their Acadian culture. Some chose to work toward a brighter future by forgetting the past. Others chose to cling tenaciously to their culture. They refused to take a stance of victimhood. Even though they were innocent, they fought against the impending regime as much as possible. One group of Acadians commandeered a ship bound for the southern colonies, and they attempted to return home. For the most part, it appears they tried not to needlessly burden the communities where the British so thoughtlessly sent them. It is not surprising that many chose to forget this devastating point in history. Yet, the story needs to be remembered by anyone who is concerned about power-hungry regimes taking over innocent lives. There are lessons to be learned here. Acadian culture, and any other culture, should not be forgotten due to the reckless acts of a greedy empire. Hence Aurore Bilodeau's quote at the top, roughly translated as "Acadia seeks her children throughout the world."
Before I proceed, I would like to mention that most of my ancestry hails from the British Isles, particularly Scotland and England. I do not blame the current government or people of those lovely countries. They did not commit these acts of the past. As a matter of fact, England formally acknowledged this event several years ago. While this moment in history should not be ignored, neither should we blame an entity or people existing today. Why? They didn't do it. Plain and simple.
Although this is a rather sad story for International Francophonie Week, it is also a story of triumph. Some of the Acadian descendants in Lousiana are vigorously holding onto their heritage by insisting on speaking French at home. They continue to play the music they learned from earlier generations. They adapted their cuisine around the crops and food of an entirely different geographic region. It is incredible to see how their ancestors coped with the major shift in weather patterns. Lousiana can get hot and humid, while Acadia had a much colder climate. However, they survived, and their descendants should be applauded for ensuring their stories are not forgotten. Long live Cajun culture!