Acadian Chronicles: When Ancestors Look Down

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Pandemic

Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal was founded by Jeanne Mance in 1642 and is still in use today, the oldest hospital in Canada. In New France, illnesses were part of daily life. Hospitals and doctors collaborated with religious congregations to provide health care, though that care was so different from care today, as were daily health practices then. On account of the high prevalence of infectious diseases, due to limited medical knowledge and poor hygiene practices, people fell sick often and died young. Smallpox, typhus, cholera, dysentery, tuberculosis, syphilis, influenza, scurvy, scabies, intestinal parasites, measles, and diverse types of fevers (scarlet, yellow, and typhoid) afflicted the settlers of New France. Respiratory illnesses were especially common in the freezing winter months. In addition, the stress and strain of pioneer life took its toll, resulting in musculoskeletal pain, rheumatism, and hernias. Not surprising, the life expectancy of the average settler of New France was only 40 years of age.

What was the source of all these diseases spreading into New France? The new settlers from Europe. Traveling by ship, while taking months to cross the Atlantic, with poor nutrition and no social distancing, newcomers spread diseases on board before reaching North America. These new arrivals endangered the residents of any port town. In addition, diseases accompanied each new wave of settlers, but not all epidemics were devastating, but when they were, the demographics suffered greatly. For example, the smallpox epidemic of 1702 killed 8% of the settlers in New France!

In comparison to life expectancy in France, however, survival was actually higher in New France. Settlers in New France outlived their European counterparts, where life expectancy in France for men was 24-28 years and for women 26-30. Why so low? At the time, France was the most populated country of Western Europe, and that density, with so many living in cities, assured a more rapid spread of diseases. In fact, the healthier environment of New France drew settlers there: “There is no climate in the world that is healthier; there are no diseases specific to the country; those that I have seen there were brought by French ships.” – Visitor to New France, (Greer, Allan, The People of New France, University of Toronto Press, 1997, p. 23).

Despite their respiratory illnesses during winter months, French settlers believed that the cleaner, cooler air of New France made it a healthier place to live. This was particularly convincing when comparing the open spaces of New France to the crowded and polluted cities of Europe or the tropical climate of the French Caribbean, where settlers had to deal not only with diseases brought by European ships, but also with all types of tropical diseases – like malaria.

While French and British ships brought waves of smallpox to New France and New England, Dutch traders spread the disease north and west on the American continent. British settlers had established from the start an antagonistic relationship with the indigenous peoples over land, but Dutch traders established close economic relationships with indigenous tribes that sent Dutch traders north and west towards the St. Lawrence and Great Lakes, but these Dutch traders unknowingly brought smallpox with them. During the 1630s nearly every tribe in the Great Lakes region was affected by smallpox, and by 1636 the population of the Huron north of Lake Ontario had been reduced by half.

Around the same time, smallpox arrived in the Boston Bay area, soon eliminating almost 90% of the local Algonquin nation. From the British perspective, this was divine providence, since it cleared the way for British settlement. Unlike the British and Dutch settlers, the French missionaries did their best to care for the stricken Amerindians. But they could do little as the disease spread like wildfire. By 1650 the Huron had ceased to exist as a nation in their territory, and survivors either joined the Iroquois or took refuge in Québec.

Did smallpox, once called “the speckled monster,” play a role in shaping the outcome of the colonial wars for control of North America? For example, in 1690, invading New England troops were planning a siege of Montréal and Québec via Lake Champlain when smallpox outbreaks infected the British forces near Québec. Smallpox also spread among a marching British force while it approached Montréal, leaving hundreds of soldiers dead. Smallpox similarly sabotaged an ambitious French plan in 1746 to recapture Louisbourg and Annapolis and to attack the English settlements along the east coast. This plan involved troops from New France and a massive armada arriving from France to join together in Nova Scotia. During the ninety-day voyage the French fleet lost 1,270 men to disease and shipwreck, and then it lost another 1,130 after landing. Local Mi’kmaq who were assembled at the port for supplies quickly became infected, resulting in an epidemic that left more than a third of the tribe dead.

But was smallpox ever used as a biological weapon against First Nations, especially during the 1750s and 1760s? Possibly. In 1757 a French force led by Louis-Joseph de Montcalm attacked Fort William Henry in what is now New York State. After taking the fort, Montcalm’s First Nations allies attacked the English soldiers who were fleeing the fort. In spite of Montcalm’s efforts to stop them, the Amerindian warriors then pillaged the fort, the site being rife with contagion. With contempt for the First Nations after what happened at Fort William Henry, the British leaders considered using smallpox as a weapon, as evidenced in a postscript between British military leader Jeffrey Amherst and one of his colonels, “Could it not be contrived to send the smallpox among those disaffected Indians?” wrote Amherst. In his reply to Amherst on July 1763, a Swiss mercenary who rose to prominence as a colonel in British service during the French and Indian War, a certain Henry Bouquet wrote back, “I will try to inoculate them with some blankets that may fall in their hands and take care not to get the disease myself.” While it is possible to spread “the speckled monster” with blankets contaminated with fresh scabs from smallpox victims, there is no conclusive evidence that this plan was carried out, but who knows? War is war.

Today, a new epidemic is spreading, but the inhabitants of Payen Hall are not yet aware of it. However, that’s not the case in the surrounding beach town. Lagona has a new normal. Banks now require customers to wear masks and gloves before entering the lobby. Some Lagonans say life is always worth living, no matter how bad the disaster – war, plague, flood. Others feel severe restrictions will be too hard to follow, making life not worth living. Some Lagonans even refuse to wear masks. They feel their personal freedoms are being too restricted, but as Montesquieu once insisted, we must accept the restrictions that go along with our social contract – “Freedom is the right to do whatever the laws permit.”

What’s most troubling about this current pandemic? Trying to find a vaccine. Scientists have been working on a SARS vaccine for 17 years with little success. Without a vaccine for the Coronavirus, it could take at least two years to develop “herd immunity,” and social distancing might be impossible to sustain as more and more people reject restrictions, like those in Lagona who rebel by reinstating social gatherings, be they in churches or schools, for entertainment, using public transportation, or trying to earn a living.

Lagonans who follow these restrictions shelter in place. Well, mostly. Some mornings the retired folk go downtown to complete their errands before “senior citizen hour” has ended. When they return home, of course, they remove their masks and wash their hands. Some strip down and take a shower before changing clothes. Sheltered in place, they turn on the television to an all-news station. Topic number 1 is Covid-19. The talking heads are quite skilled, droning on and on with depressing statistics: the cases and deaths worldwide arranged from hardest hit nation to the least infected territory. For the USA, the state-by-state list used to begin with New York, ending with Wyoming, but statistics change day to day, week to week, month to month.

These electronic oracles deliver data ad nauseum. Their insights, however, are few and superficial. The new normal is hard to swallow. As soon as senior citizens of Lagona have enough bad news, the more venturesome go outside for fresh air, and if lucky – fresh ideas. Along the sidewalk, these strollers remember to stay six feet away from passersby. Some strollers wave and say hello and keep moving, avoiding any conversation. Some passersby keep to themselves. Fresh air can make all the difference – for a little while at least.

Who in this idyllic village would ever expect a war raging inside Payen Hall? Nestled along the Pacific coast, 50 miles south of Los Angeles, this artist colony had been part of the Mexican land grant of 1837 called Rancho San Joaquin. Since then, Lagona developed slowly and reluctantly, a jewel of a hideaway. Its stunning landscape – cliffs, coves and canyons – attracted reclusive artists – some now famous, some still unknown. Mission San Juan Capistrano lies a few miles southeast. Artists living there today – along with pseudo-artists – have no hatred in their hearts, nor much ambition either, other than making a masterpiece to dazzle prosperity, so none of them owns a golf club, and few have bank accounts, wanting only to keep the colony quiet, secluded and private – just as it is – coves and beaches empty, rocks and cliffs unpeopled for uninterrupted sketching hours and hours a day.

Of course, some realtors also live in the village, lovers of another ilk, who want mostly to make the community grow and diversify, determined to lure people to the splendors of the location. These developers envision more paved roads winding deep into the hills, more dwellings built on more lots close to Payen Hall, to transform the sleepy village into a thriving, dynamic community. But this spring 2020, with the Coronavirus on the prowl, all Lagonans are self-isolating more than usual, and business is waning. How can there be a pandemic spreading in paradise? It doesn’t seem possible.

In the Meditation Tower that evening, Vicky is distracted, unusually tranquil, squinting through a slit-sized window. The Forest People are milling about nervously, no one certain what to do next, everyone waiting for Vicky to make a move. Instead, Vicky stands still, peering through the slit, with Aquim on her shoulder, she, drawing inspiration from the starry heavens, resolute like a captain at the helm:

“Aquim, look, you can see stars through the eucalyptus, their reflection glimmering across the emerald bay, with more stars in the sky beyond the canyon. I can identify the Zodiac, but I’d like to rename all the constellations. To do that, I first need to know what’s up there. I imagine life up there, happier worlds than our own. Is there such a thing as a happier world? I know so little about our own planet – other worlds here on earth. Aquim, how did Champlain feel crossing the Atlantic the first time – did he expect a happier mankind? Crossing in 1604 the first time must have felt like crossing the Milky Way. He must have loved those encounters! Champlain crossed the Milky Way 29 times!”

Clutching the astrolabe, Vicky understands only too well that she must navigate this ship of benevolent souls, for the sake of her family, for the safety of the Forest People – indeed, for her own self-preservation. Who knows whether Louise already killed Violette, Annie and the Saqamaw? For heaven sakes, let’s hope not! But hadn’t Louise told Vicky – she would be next… and didn’t Louise imply that the castle now belongs only to her alone? What does all this mean?

After Champlain crossed the Milky Way, he traded many times with People of the Dawn, mostly for furs, exchanging furs for European-made goods – copper pots, brass spoons, glass beads and tiny bells – what must have seemed like treasures to the People of the Dawn – rare, unfamiliar items that they had never seen before, but these European goods were really rather ordinary objects of lesser value than the furs – at least from a European perspective. How do two different planets engage in fair trade? It’s not easy. How will Max do trade on Mars? Who knows? And Vicky, can she negotiate with a psychopath?

As Vicky moves from the window, Aquim still perched on her shoulder, a charge like an electrical current surges through her body, head to feet. It feels as if her frame has lifted mid-air, not touching ground, all her senses sharpened – her hearing more acute than ever, with multiple nuances of sounds intensifying into deafening decibels. Vicky covers her ears with both hands, as Aquim flutters off. Nothing like this had ever happened to Vicky before. Whisperings – yes. Losing consciousness – yes, but not this kind of surge throughout her body. In addition, this time, there had been no whisperings. Still Vicky knows exactly what has to be done:

“Aquim, we must free the shadows – this instant!” Vicky addresses the Forest People, they, still invisible, and begins a prayer asking the protection of the Archangel Michael. It’s a Catholic prayer that she is able to recite without hesitation in the Algonquian language. At the end of each of her verses, as if rehearsed, but that certainly was not the case, the Forest People respond by interweaving another Mi’kmaw verse. Their combined prayer goes thus, beginning with Vicky:

“Defend us in battle…” The Forest People then interject:

“O, Spirit that gives us our breath, watch over us.” Then Vicky continues praying to Archangel Michael:

“Be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the devil;” To which the Forest People respond:

“O, Spirit that gives us our food, watch over us.” Then it’s Vicky’s turn:

“May God rebuke him, we humbly pray;” followed by the Forest People:

“O, Spirit that gives us our family, watch over us.” Then Vicky:

“O, Prince of the Heavenly Host, by the power of God, thrust into hell Satan and all evil spirits who wander through the world for the ruin of souls.”

Here Vicky ends her Catholic prayer and joins the Forest People, the congregation reciting in unison these final verses of the Mi’kmaw prayer:

“O, Spirit that gives us our happiness, watch over us. O, Spirit that makes us one with you, watch over us. O, Spirit, you are the only One. Watch over us.”

Finishing their prayer, the Forest People, who had been invisible while guarding Vicky, suddenly become visible – every single one of them. Without her glasses, now able to see clearly without lenses, Vicky appears even more resplendent than ever, and since she can communicate to them in Algonquian, they trust and adore her all the more, especially the suitor, who rushes towards her in a flash and grabs Vicky’s little finger. Were the shadows in the castle released by this prayer? Did it free their souls from the clutches of the Intruder? Is this why the Forest People became visible to Vicky? Does this mean the danger is over? Who’s protecting whom in the tower?

Vicky spots Aquim and smiles. His blood red eyes twinkle as Aquim flutters his wings to shake off what seems like years of suspense and tension. Then Vicky squats to speak face to face with her bodyguard:

“What’s your name, my friend?”

“Askuwheteau.”

“How fitting – ‘he keeps watch’! But may I call you instead – Huritt?”

The bodyguard blushes and looks down, not out of shame. On the contrary, he’s delighted to be called a “handsome” and “upright” man, both meanings rolled together into these two syllables. In reply, Huritt, his voice breaking, hands trembling, asks if he can call Vicky “Nuttah” – “my heart”? Yes, he dared to tell her this. Then it’s Vicky’s turn to blush, as Huritt tightens his grip on her pinky.

“Huritt, I’m only 9 years old!” Still holding Vicky’s finger, Huritt reassures Vicky:

“You misunderstand me. I’m a righteous man, as you’ve said, also a broken-hearted father still mourning his daughter. Nuttah was her name. You’re like her in every way. It’s like having a second chance knowing you in this crisis. If you trust me, Nuttah, I will protect you to the end. You can count on me through thick and thin. I’ll never let you down.”

“Our friendship is already a blessing, for you and me, for all of us in the castle, Huritt. Tell me, what do the Forest People call the Intruder?” Without an ounce of rancor in his veins, despite the crime committed against his daughter, Huritt explains:

“We call her ‘Chepi’ – ghostwoman, a creature more dead than living – so cruel and callous. Chepi killed my daughter for no reason.” And so, unexpectedly in the tower that night, happiness bloomed between these two friends – despite a pandemic knocking at the door, despite the impending battle.

But can the happiness of a group be measured, and the happiness of a whole planet – isn’t that impossible to fathom? Nonetheless, the United Nations has been publishing reports about happiness on Earth for eight years now. Every year, the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network publishes its World Happiness Report. In 2012, the United Nations General Assembly declared March 20 as World Happiness Day, recognizing “the relevance of happiness and well-being as universal goals and aspirations in the lives of human beings around the world and the importance of their recognition in public policy objectives.” U.N. researchers cull data from six areas: 1) GDP per capita; 2) life expectancy; 3) social support; 4) trust and corruption; 5) perceived freedom to make life decisions; 6) generosity. The rankings of the world’s happiest countries came from an analysis of data from surveys in 156 countries, including the Gallup World Poll.

The World Happiness Report 2020 was released recently, and the results are Eurocentric to say the least, with every Nordic country making the cut. For instance, Colombia in South America placed 37th in the 2018 World Happiness Index but 1st by daily emotional experience. In 2012, a Gallup survey on happiest countries had a completely different listing than the U.N., with Panama placing first, followed by Paraguay, El Salvador, and Venezuela. Similarly a Pew survey of 43 countries in 2014 (which excluded most of Europe) had Mexico, Israel and Venezuela finishing first, second and third.

So then, which are the 10 happiest “worlds” in 2020 during this pandemic according to the United Nations? The top ten, from first to tenth are: 1) Finland; 2) Denmark; 3) Switzerland; 4) Iceland; 5) Norway; 6) Netherlands; 7) Sweden; 8) New Zealand; 9) Austria; 10) Luxembourg. New Zealand appears as the only country in the top ten that isn’t a European nation. What stands out to qualify the top five, even during a pandemic?

1)Finland – also ranks among the top educational systems in the world. Much of that pedagogical success comes from a widespread reverence for teachers, who are required to have a state-funded master’s degree, and a system that focuses on experiential learning and equal opportunity.

2)Denmark – Copenhagen has its own Happiness Research Institute and explains Denmark’s happiness as a result of the following: 1) trust in the government; 2) economic security; 3) freedom; 4) civil participation; 5) work-life balance.

3)Switzerland – The Swiss are known to be insular, but there is a strong social fabric held together by a belief that every voice matters.

4)Iceland – respondents said they feel they have fellow citizens to count on when the going gets rough. This became important in the wake of the country’s post-2007

financial collapse and subsequent revitalization.

5)Norway – though dropping in the ranks since 2017 (when it held the top spot), in 2020 it comes in as the fifth-happiest country in the world. But no one’s complaining. The mix of a well-integrated government welfare system and a thriving economy built on responsible management of natural resources, along with social support, trust in government, and economic well-being contribute to overall happiness.

On the flip side, the 12 nations most dissatisfied with their democratic institutions included four – Mexico, Greece, Brazil and Spain – where eight-in-ten or more were dissatisfied, and another five where six-in-ten or more expressed dissatisfaction: Tunisia, Italy, South Africa, Argentina and Nigeria. The United States was close behind, with 58% expressing unhappiness with the way U.S. democracy is functioning. Others point out that the U.N. happiness rankings seem askew when one factors in the “rate of suicide…as a metric for measuring unhappiness; then some of the countries which are ranked among the top 20 happiest countries in the world will also feature among the top 20 with the highest suicide rates in the world.” That doesn’t make good sense at all.

Furthermore, isn’t happiness ultimately an individual matter? When a pandemic like the Coronavirus attacks the health and income of a country, the residents of those high-trust societies, like the top 5 nations, naturally find cooperative ways to work together, increasing happiness in the wake of what might otherwise seem a devastating catastrophe. In this way, the collectivity feels they can achieve gains working together, enough to compensate for the terrible losses. In other words, they don’t lose hope for tomorrow. That’s why Vicky doesn’t give up hope either, even though we can’t really talk about happy planets in the vast universe, only about happy or unhappy people.

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