National Acadian Day represents culture, community, and a struggle for recognition

Aug. 15, National Acadian Day, is the time for Acadians in New Brunswick to bang their pots and pans together and celebrate their culture.

Descended from early French settlers in North America who colonized parts of eastern Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and Maine, Acadians have a culture distinct from the broader French-Canadian identity. According to the 2016 census, there are over 29,000 Acadians living in New Brunswick alone.

But for some Acadians, it’s hard living in major cities like Fredericton—not just because many are majority-Anglophone, but because many cities in New Brunswick lack a strong connection to Acadian culture.

While New Brunswick prides itself on being Canada’s only bilingual province, with both French- and English-language inhabitants, behind the province’s dual history lies a story of deportation and alienation.

French colonizers were some of the first to settle along the Saint John River in the 1600s, including Pointe Sainte-Anne, which is now modern-day Fredericton.

In the midst of the Seven Years’ War, which took place during the 1750s and 1760s, the British expelled about 11,000 Acadians from the Maritime provinces in a mass deportation referred to as the Great Upheaval, or Le Grand Dérangement. As the British and French fought for territory, French-speaking Acadians were seen as a threat to their English neighbours.

Tensions peaked in 1759 when the British, following fleeing Acadians, attacked Pointe Saint-Anne. Troops killed numerous settlers and burned 147 buildings to the ground as part of the St. John River Campaign, one of the most ruthless massacres of the Great Upheaval.

The Acadians refused to pledge allegiance to the British, who responded by forcing the Acadians out of the territory they had settled. Many communities, like those in modern-day Fredericton, were targeted for their historical French ties.

Nestled in downtown Fredericton is the Fredericton Region Museum. The stone structure of Officers Quarters, a relic of British settlement in the area, makes up the museum’s exterior. Inside is the Pointe Sainte-Anne exhibit, which, when you put on the virtual reality goggles the museum provides, brings images of the town’s history to life.

With the goggles on, the exhibit fades away as the small room becomes pixelated farmland, with a large river and log cabins in the foreground.

Then, the scenery switches to show those same cabins engulfed in flames.

Chantal Richard, a French professor at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, specializes in Acadian linguistics, history, and culture. As one of the curators of the Pointe Sainte-Anne exhibit, she gives tours to patrons and helps them to understand how the Acadian deportation took place.

“What we wanted to do was tell the story of the village and its destruction,” Richard explains in her tour.

Richard noted how the differences between the inhabitants of modern coastal Acadian towns like Caraquet and Dieppe stem from the impact of the Great Upheaval, from the thickness of their accents, to the French dialects they speak. She said this is because of the separation and lack of centralized education in the 1800s after the deportation movement.

“There are not even schools where Acadians have a common sort of curriculum. So, every little village [evolved] separately from the others,” Richard said.

In general, Richard said the deportation defines Acadians to this day. It is why family and community is held so dearly by Acadian society.

“This actually stems from the need for Acadians to re-establish those relationships that were broken during the expulsion,” said Richard.

While there were some Francophone schools and hospitals throughout New Brunswick in the 1900s, French wasn’t considered an official language in the province until the 1960s.

Louis J. Robichaud, New Brunswick’s second Acadian premier from 1960 to 1970, brought waves of social reform to the province. During his tenure, the push for language rights and equality gained traction, resulting in the opening of the Université de Moncton (UdeM), a French language university, in 1963.

But by 1968, protests erupted at UdeM due to a lack of funding. Protesters marched on city hall, occupied the university’s science building, and even sent a severed pig’s head to the mayor. One student, Michel-Vital Blanchard, was banned from campus for almost 40 years due, in part, to his involvement with a student-run paper that “irritated the university’s administration.” He was allowed back in 2009.

The students’ message was loud and clear. On April 18, 1969, the provincial government, led by Robichaud, enacted the Official Languages Act, setting the precedent for the government to provide services in both French and English.

Robichaud’s efforts are the reason there are now more French-language schools and hospitals in New Brunswick. However, some Acadians living in New Brunswick still feel the weight of history on their shoulders today.

Veronique Guitard has lived in Fredericton for over two years in a cramped apartment.

Despite the city’s Francophone school and National Acadian Day celebrations, Guitard and other Acadians struggle to make Fredericton feel like home. In a city of over 58,000 people, only seven per cent of its population speaks French as a first language.

Now, finally moving into a new house, she has a place to lay down roots.

“It felt like home the first day we moved in,” said Guitard.

Guitard grew up in Petit-Rocher, a village located three hours north of Fredericton. Her father was a historian, teaching her about Acadian history from a young age. Alongside her peers, Guitard learned about the deportation of her ancestors in school.

Whether they’re from a large town or a small village, Acadians like Guitard hold their cultures close.

“When people ask me, ‘What’s your identity?’ I would say Acadian before anything else,” she said.

Guitard moved to Fredericton over two years ago. As a litigation lawyer, she mostly speaks English in her work. Before moving to the city, Guitard spent her entire life speaking, working, and learning in French.

“When you come here, […] you’re a minority,” she said.

This early disadvantage forced Guitard to catch up to English-speaking colleagues when she moved. She spoke some English, but she had to learn more while on the job to keep up.

When meeting a fellow Acadian away from home, Guitard said there is an instant connection.

“It’s just like, ‘Oh, my God, hi, how are you? You want to come for supper?’” she said.

For most Canadians, Aug. 15 is another summer’s day—but for Acadians, it’s a time to show pride. This date was chosen to acknowledge Acadian’s distinct identity, and is part of Assumption Day, the Catholic celebration of the Virgin Mary. A large proportion of Acadians are Catholic themselves.

Allison Roy is from Beresford, a small community just outside Bathurst, N.B. There, she works as a reporter for L’Acadie Nouvelle, New Brunswick’s only daily French-language newspaper.

While studying at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Roy wasn’t discriminated against for being Francophone, but said being separated from her culture still affected her.

“I felt like I couldn’t be 100 per cent myself,” said Roy.

During her time in the city, she noticed the importance that family and togetherness had for local residents. Those qualities reminded her of the things she admired in her own family and heritage.

She never realized how connected she was to her culture until she met fellow Acadians hundreds of kilometres away from home. “You don’t really realize it when you’re surrounded by a bunch of Acadians. When you travel and you see [different] cultures, you get more of that sense of pride,” Roy said.  

Over two years ago in Caraquet, Roy brought her Anglophone friends to join the fun on Acadian Day. Soon after, they felt raindrops begin to fall.

In the middle of a downpour, with nowhere else to go, Roy stayed in the streets with her friends and about 300 others celebrating.  She hardly noticed as the rain soaked her from head to toe.

Matthew Daigle is a third-year Journalism and Communications Major at St. Thomas University.

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