I came across Acadians for the first time this summer, while planning a trip to Atlantic Canada. What’s this, I thought, a French thing I don’t know about? (for I consider myself to be Madame Je-sais-tout when it comes to France).
I needed to know more, so I started my trip around Nova Scotia with a visit to the Grand-Pré National Historic Site near Wolfville. There, I met up with Wayne, a bilingual guide, to find out more about Acadia. Today, this North American “country without borders” counts citizens in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, eastern Maine and much further south in Louisiana and New Orleans.
To understand these dispersed French descendants, we need to rewind to the early 1600s, explained Wayne, when King Louis VIII of France handed out parcels of land in what is now Nova Scotia to his loyal noblemen. They had little interest in Canada, but nonetheless sent peasants from Poitou-Charentes, Brittany and Normandy to populate and farm their newly acquired land.
The French settlers – who came to be called Acadians – were innovative farmers, building dams and sluices to keep out the high tides and exploit the rich reclaimed land. “They were prosperous and masters of their own land, trading with the British, the French, the Spanish and the Mi’kmaq indigenous people too,” explained Wayne.
But not for long. This success – and their Catholicism – made the Acadians targets. By 1750, the British wanted to force them out, prompting Le Grand Dérangement, or the “Great Upheaval”.
Wayne explained: “Around 14,000 people were sent to the east coast of America, to Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, places in New England, and all the way to Georgia, Florida and Louisiana. Many Acadians were sent to Virginia but the governor turned them away and they were imprisoned in England for three years before being taken to France. Others hid in the woods, aided by the Mi’kmaq, and many just kept moving.”
After a decade, the Acadians were finally allowed back to Nova Scotia, but instead of reclaiming their farmland, they were given land on the south shore where it was too rocky to farm. “They were also put between English communities,” he said, “in the hope they would assimilate and lose their language. It didn’t quite work out that way.”
The coastal municipality of Clare in western Nova Scotia now has the largest Acadian community in the province, numbering 2,215 (27.6 per cent of the whole population of Clare). I followed the picturesque Evangeline Trail from Wolfville to Clare, where almost all the houses have a sea view (when the fog lifts) and are decorated by Acadian flags – a tricolour with a yellow star – and there are bilingual road signs and French shop signs galore.
The French language is alive and well, as Marcel Saulnier, manager of the Rendez-vous de la Baie Visitor Centre in Clare, told me: “Our community is around 80 per cent bilingual and the leading language used in our homes is still French.”
Their dialect isn’t French-French and it’s not Québécois either. Down in West Pubnico on the south shore of Nova Scotia, I chatted with Roland D’Eon, executive director of Le Village Historique Acadien de la Nouvelle-Écosse, and some of the actors in his wonderful living history museum.
The school system teaches “Sunday French”, they said, which is very different to the French they talk at home. Acadians tend to Anglicise words and they hate to be corrected on it, especially by the “snobby Québécois”. “My French is my French!” they bristled proprietorially.
The costumed women in the nearby Musée des Acadiens des Pubnicos told me how proud they are of their distinctive accents and different vocabulary, adding that they have “septante” and “huitante” and “nonnante” for 70, 80 and 90, improving on the famously cumbersome French numbering system that gives the equivalent “soixante dix” (sixty-ten), “quatre-vingt” (four-twenty) and “quatre-vingt dix” (four-twenty-ten).
In Pubnico, villagers spoke about how isolation and remoteness has shaped their characters to make them resilient, determined and self-contained. You only have to wander down from the village to see the foggy inlets, tiny islands and motionless rowing boats to glimpse how that could be.
But there’s also joie-de-vivre, which comes alive through gastronomy and Acadian dishes like rappie pie, made of grated potatoes and meat, and hodge podge, a harvest soup made from fresh produce, butter and cream. Locals are evangelistic about their weekly get-togethers like Les Beaux Vendredis, a weekly seafood supper with live local music, and their Musique de la Baie kitchen parties.
The festivities reach a peak on National Acadian day on 15 August. Marcel explained: “The day is celebrated in different ways in different regions. In Clare, we do what we call a Tintamarre, or a noise parade. We have two starting points at each end of the village. We decorate our cars and make as much noise as physically possible as we meet up in the middle.
“Those who are not in cars join in too; the most common way to make noise is by hitting pots and pans together or with a wooden spoon, but some use cowbells and I know one person who shoots blanks out of a cannon. Needless to say, it gets pretty loud.”
How to get there
Halifax is served from Gatwick by Canadian Affair and Heathrow by Air Canada.
Where to stay
White Point Beach Resort, near Pubnico, has doubles from £124.
Driftwood By The Bay in Clare has camping domes from C$315 (£190).
Tourism Nova Scotia