In the context of Canadian history, the Acadian French history is lesser known. However, Acadian history is just as war-torn, and has lasting effects in the 21st century.
Acadian French History Overview
While many people know that Québec was settled by French explorers and colonists, it is not as well known that the regions of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia were also settled by the French long before the arrival of the British. While Acadian history plays a lesser role in America than in Canada, it should also be noted that the region 'Acadie' (Acadia) included much of the U.S. State of Maine. The history of the Acadians began with their settlement of islands (firstly Île Saint-Croix) off the coast of Maritime Canada and Maine, as well as a mainland settlement (Port-Royal) in what is now Nova Scotia.
The early days of the Acadians were marked by hardship. The winters were bitter, and the growing season was short. Many colonists died during the first few winters, but those that survived learned quickly how to work the land, as well as where and how to hunt and fish. While some of their knowledge was acquired by trial and error, they were also widely accepted by Native Americans living in the region, who taught them valuable skills to tame the region and survive in it.
The colonial era of Acadia ended with what is called le grand dérangement (the Great Upheaval or Exile in English). This series of events took place during the second half of the 18th century, when France and Britain were fighting for control of the North American colonies. A vast majority of the Acadians living in the Maritime Provinces were sent off to Britain or France, or to several different American colonies.
This mass exile from a land that the Acadians had fought so hard to tame was a huge blow to the Acadians. At the end of the war, many returned to Acadia to reclaim their beloved region, but the mark of religious and cultural exile is still evident to this day in some regions of Canada and Maine.
The Great Upheaval
The main area of Acadia, Nova Scotia, was taken over by the British in 1710, and formally became a British Colony in 1713 with the Treaty of Utrecht. Following this event, the Acadians worked together with the French (who still controlled neighboring regions, such as modern-day Quebec, New Brunswick, and Cape Breton Island). The French enhanced their military presence on Cape Breton Island in order to oversee the region, and the Acadians were vital to the success of this stronghold; without the Acadians, no supply lines to these forts would have been possible.
The British were quick to recognize that the Acadians were not going to become loyal English subjects easily. The first attempt of the British to gain control was to impose an oath of allegiance to Britain. The vast majority of Acadians refused to sign this oath on religious grounds; a strong Roman-Catholic faith could not be easily abandoned. Since the Acadian citizens refused to become loyal subjects of Britain, and because the Acadians were sustaining the French forts on Cape Breton Island, the British decided to take a more drastic step: deporting the Acadians in a systematic manner.
The majority of the Acadian population was exiled and sent to American and Canadian colonies. Some citizens were even sent to Britain after arriving in North American locations where they were refused entrance; many of these were then sent on to France, unwanted in Britain. Not speaking the local language in many of their new locations, the Acadians were often treated badly and were forced into menial household labor because they had no property of their own where they arrived.
While a concentrated group of Acadians was able to form around New Orleans, most of the exiled were purposefully sent in small numbers to destinations far away from one another in order to force the Acadians to give up their language, religion, and customs. The hope was that this would ensure that the Acadians would become 'good' citizens of the places where they were sent. Although many did assimilate, many returned to Acadia at the end of the war (1763), although they were not allowed to settle their own, Acadian-majority, areas.
21st Century Traces of History
Like in Québec, where the motto je me souviens is a constant reminder of the hardships endured over the last few centuries, residents of Martitime Canada still experience some difficulty surrounding the Acadian French history. While political, religious, and language tensions still remain, the Acadian culture is also a source of enrichment for locals, as well as a tourist attraction for those visiting the region. When visiting Canada, you can learn a lot about the Acadian French history by visiting some of the following museums and festivals:
- Festival Acadien de Clare: In Nova Scotia, this annual summer festival is a treat for locals and tourists alike
- Festival Acadien de Caraquet: In New Brunswick, another annual summer festival for learning about and enjoying Acadian culture
- Musée Acadien: In Nova Scotia, this museum and research center specializes in Acadian history and culture
- Musée Acadien du Québec: In the province of Québec, featuring permanent and temporary collections
Learning more about Acadian culture and history can also be done at festivals held in the U.S., namely:
- Madawaska Acadian Festival: Annually in August, in northern Maine
- Acadian Festival: Held annually in Louisiana
The history of Acadia and Acadians is a long and interesting one. Learning more about it also means gaining a greater understanding of North America's colonial history, and how that history was different in Canada and the U.S., as well as how it was similar, and how both France and Britain played a role in each place. The Acadian history is half of the French Canadian culture, with the other half stemming from the Province of Québec.