Acadian Chronicles: When Ancestors Look Down

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A Clearer Picture

“Violette, that envelope was empty when Max grabbed it in her apartment. Don’t make a big deal about it.”

“But it was sent to her here, postmarked in Moncton. She must know someone in Canada.”

“Maybe Mme Vidocq ordered a recipe; you know how crazy she is about Acadian desserts.”

“But that crumpled wad wasn’t a business envelope. It was a plain one with no return address.”

“Who knows, Violette. Maman didn’t act concerned. It’s getting late.” Vicky switched off the light. Remembering her promise, Vicky continued, “Can I add something?”

“About the envelope?”

“No,” twitching her feet in bed, shutting both eyelids real tight, Vicky confesses, “it’s about my secret. You need to know…” Violette interrupts her sister:

“Youpi! No closed doors! Don’t worry, I’ve known a long time. You act ‘goofy’ for good reason. Just like our Oncle Gabriel. I have my own gift, I know, but mine upsets people, so what? Who wants to please everyone? That’s phoney baloney. But if you tell everyone your secret, they’ll lock you up. We’ll have to keep it to ourselves, okay, Vicky?”

“Yes! You’re the best! I feel better. No matter how bad things get, no matter how mean people can be, we never, ever should call ourselves victims. Too many people get hurt and then give up, like paralyzed, and they never try again, or they seek revenge, and vengeance will only make things worse. The Protectors only want us to make things better…”

What a pity, not to follow Vicky’s advice, with so many missed opportunities all over the world! For example, despite being expelled, the number of Acadians has grown to 500,000, one of the oldest and most important French-speaking communities in Canada. Their expulsions did not make them disappear. Why not? Until the end of the 19th century, Acadians maintained their culture by self-isolation, having little contact with the rest of the world. They should have disappeared. The British Crown had stripped Acadians of their civil and political rights. Acadians could neither vote nor be members of legislature, marginalized and hated, becoming less than a second class citizen – nearly invisible. Likewise, from 1758 to 1763, Acadians could not own land, so whatever lands they had possessed earlier as French colonists were confiscated by British overlords -- at bargain prices! Gradually, conditions improved, one maritime colony at a time. For example, Acadians in Nova Scotia were the first to gain the right to vote in 1789, while Acadians in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island had to wait till 1810. By 1830, civil rights were granted universally, with the passage of the Roman Catholic Relief Act.

Acadians had always been self-reliant, among the earliest pioneers of Canada, and they remained steadfastly neutral during the colonial wars of North America. Beginning with their arrival in 1604, Acadians farmed and raised livestock on marshlands, drained by tide-adaptable barriers called aboiteaux, a dikelike system. Having formed early alliances with the Mi’kmaq allowed the Acadians to hunt, fish and trap alongside the Mi’kmaq. Due to their pragmatism, during the conflicts between Great Britain and France, Acadians showed their independent spirit by trading openly with English colonists, in defiance of French bans on such exchanges. The Acadians juggled neutrality deftly for more than a century and a half, never once engaging militarily for either the British or the French powers, even though their settlements were repeatedly transferred by numerous treaties, knocked back and forth between French and British sovereignty, like a ping-pong ball. Acadian neutrality served them well, allowing them steady growth, a high standard of living, autonomy and peace, that is, until their expulsion by Major Lawrence in 1754.

After waves of expulsion -- what the historians call the Great Upheaval, or the Great Expulsion, or the Great Deportation, French Acadia was quickly being erased, putting on an English mask. By 1763, planters from New England settled on former Acadian lands that would eventually break from Canada to become the state of Maine. All over former Acadia, French and Mi’kmaw place names, almost all of them, were replaced by English ones – Beaubassin becoming Amherst, Port-Royal becoming Annapolis Royal, Île Saint-Jean becoming Prince Edward Island, Plaisance becoming Placentia, Île Royale becoming Cape Breton Island, etc. By 1784, during the American Revolution, New Brunswick itself would morph into a distinctly ‘Loyalist’ community of Americans inside Canada, fleeing refugees opposed to American independence, staunchly loyal to the British Crown. These incoming Loyalists split New Brunswick from Nova Scotia. Until then, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick had been two parts of the same British colony – Nova Scotia.

What then is the appeal of Acadian lands? Even Major Lawrence made Nova Scotia his permanent home, where he spent the rest of his life – abandoning his native England. For one thing, New Brunswick boasts having a varied terrain with relatively mild seasons, a blend of climates typical of a coastal area and of an inland province, January being the coldest month and July the warmest. This maritime climate is regulated by its latitude and influxes of moist Atlantic air, producing mild periods in winter and cool weather in summer. Marguerite’s own childhood in New Brunswick included regular walks in the forests alongside rivers, summer days often spent fishing with her brothers, going on treasure hunts and picnics near the marshes.

Then there’s the interior of New Brunswick – a rolling plateau, densely forested, while the eastem region is flat, with southern coasts quite rugged. Called the Rhine of North America, the St. John River divides the province, north to south. For added beauty, New Brunswick’s northern terrain is mountainous, part of the Appalachian Range. Mt. Carleton, at 2,690 feet, is the highest. This mountain has only officially been called Mont Carleton / Mount Carleton since 1928. Prior to 1928, it bore a Mi’kmaw name -- Mont Tracadigash, meaning “place of many herons.”

In no time, Acadia dropped the mask and now shows a predominantly English face, but French Acadians managed to preserve their identity in the shadows, keeping alive their French language, regional music, dance, cuisine, ancestral celebrations and love of storytelling – some of these oral traditions still upheld by the master storyteller and historian, Marguerite, in Palm Springs. On the other hand, Marguerite also reminds her daughters of Acadian contributions to early North American literature. The first literary works in North America were those of Marc Lescarbot: The Muses of New France and Theatre of Neptune in 1606 and his History of New France in 1609.

When it comes to celebrating life with gusto, Marguerite’s daughters, Vicky and Violette, always look forward to Mi-Carême / Mid-Lent when the girls disguise themselves, the way American children do at Halloween. And just like Halloween, while disguised -- but singing and dancing à l’acadienne, Vicky and Violette will ask for holiday treats. In Acadie, children go door to door asking for treats, but Vicky and Violette know it’s not possible to do the same in Palm Springs – not during Lent.

Starting in 2004, the Fédération des Associations de Familles Acadiennnes of New Brunswick and the Société Saint-Thomas d’Aquin of Prince Edward Island mark 13 December as “Acadian Remembrance Day” to commemorate the 2,000 Acadians being deported in 1758 from Prince Edward Island, who died aboard the Duke William. They perished from hunger, disease and drowning when the Duke William sank in the North Atlantic. Participants commemorate this catastrophe by wearing a black star. This black star of mourning alludes to the golden star appearing on the flag of Acadia -- a starred tricolor, consisting of three vertical stripes of blue, white and red, just like the flag of France, but with the insertion on the blue stripe of the star of the Virgin Mary. In 1884, attendees at the second National Convention of the Acadians in Miscouche, Prince Edward Island, adopted this unofficial flag as one of their symbols of Acadian identity, commonly flown today in Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Québec, and Nova Scotia.

To celebrate their survival as a people, Acadians today more than make up for past sorrows when they celebrate the Tintamarre, reviving a boisterous, medieval French custom. In 1881, Acadians designated 15 August, the Assumption of Mary, as the Acadian national holiday. Everyone makes as much noise as possible, with whatever they can clang, rattle or blow, reminding themselves, no matter what happened in the past, what a joy to be alive! The Cajuns in Louisiana have their own regional proverb to face any adversity with joy, « Lâche pas la patate ! » / “Don’t drop the potato!” that is, “Hang in there, never give up, no matter what!”

The next morning, Vicky shuffled to breakfast, pausing to rub her eyes, yawning like an open trap. Violette, two steps behind, turned her head, spying two glittering boxes. Distracted with delight, Violette bumped into Vicky.

“Look at that, Vicky!”

“Hey, apologize, you bumped into me.”

“Sorry.” All eyes now fixed on the wrapped gifts, both girls rushed to their seats, not noticing Maman step from the kitchen, Max in her arms:

“I’m so proud of you, girls. You know what’s right and what’s wrong. Nothing’s more important. I expect you to argue now and then, when you don’t see eye to eye, but after you argue, listen to your inner voice. Never be too sure of yourselves, everyone is different, and no one is always right. Also, no one is always wrong. We take turns making mistakes and saying we’re sorry. It’s not easy – but yesterday, you were pros about it. You showed me you really care about each other and take turns. That’s amazing! I love it! Allez, les filles, ouvrez-les.” The wrappings flew off.

« C’est si joli! » Violette raised the pendant, admiring the engraved ‘Vs.’ “A necklace!”

“A special kind of necklace.” Marguerite took hold of Violette’s pendant, “It’s called un collier médaillon – but you already know the English word -- locket. It symbolizes my love, and the interlocking ’V’s connect the daughters I love. Not all lockets are heart-shaped, some are oval, some round; some even have miniature compasses mounted on them.”

Merci, Maman. How do I open mine?” asked Vicky.

“Did you hear the click? The cover opens and closes securely with a latch, right here. In fact, that’s why it’s called a locket, from the French loquet, meaning a latch, the way it moves on a hinge and catches to close.”

“So cool! said Violette. “Can I put pictures inside mine?”

“You didn’t see them? Open yours and take a good look inside.”

Marguerite explained to Violette and Vicky that she had inserted two tiny portraits inside each of the medallions. In the left hollow of both hearts, Marguerite had placed her own photo, so each locket contained Maman. Inside the concave right half of each heart, Marguerite had inserted a photo of one of the two girls, so each pendant showcased only one sister, but not the other, Violette’s portrait being showcased in Vicky’s pendant, Vicky’s photo in Violette’s.

“Vous voyez, les filles, whenever you wear your locket, the chain around your neck, the medallion over your heart, whether only one or both of you put it on, we’ll always be three hearts beating together.”

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