Successful revolutions need transformative politicians, popular heroes and unpopular villains; and the Acadians of New Brunswick had all three
Canada experienced two “quiet revolutions” during the 1960s. Both were in French-speaking parts of the country. The more familiar of the two occurred in Quebec, where the Liberal government of Premier Jean Lesage was transforming the province with huge hydroelectric projects and secularizing social programs. Quebeckers overturned the domination of the Catholic Church and the Anglo elite to take control of their own society. Maîtres Chez Nous was this revolution’s motto, and the power dam was its symbol.
At the same time, the quieter of the two revolutions was taking place in New Brunswick. It involved the emergence of the Acadian people from generations of cultural and economic inferiority. It began in 1960 with the election of another Liberal premier, Louis Robichaud. (Transformative provincial premiers seemed to be the hallmark of the decade; one also thinks of W.A.C. “Wacky” Bennett in British Columbia.) Robichaud was a thirty- four-year-old French-speaking lawyer who surprised his own party, perhaps even himself, by winning the election. New Brunswick, where the vast majority of Acadians live, had never before chosen one to be premier.
In his memoir, I’m from Bouctouche, Me (McGill-Queen’s University Press), Donald Savoie recalls that the election of a favourite son sent a radical message to Acadians: they could now have a voice in their own government. More than that,
Of course, revolutions, whether they are quiet or not, need more than politicians to be successful. They also need popular heroes, and unpopular villains, and the Acadians of New Brunswick had both.
The hero was Yvon Durelle. On December 10, 1958, in the Montreal Forum, Durelle, a lobster fisherman from Baie-Sainte-Anne in Miramichi Bay, fought Archie Moore for the light heavyweight championship of the world. Much to everyone’s astonishment, the battling Acadian knocked the American champ down three times in the first round. It looked like Durelle was on his way to an improbable victory. But there was a controversial long count that allowed Moore to regain his feet and he went on to win by a knockout in the eleventh round. It was one of the great fights in Canadian boxing history and an Acadian was part of it. When Moore said later that he’d never been hit harder in his life, all Acadians glowed with pride.
Donald Savoie was eleven years old at the time of the title fight. A year earlier he had been in the crowd in Moncton to see Durelle knock out a fighter from Ontario to win the British Empire championship. Durelle was young Savoie’s idol. During the 1950s the boxer made a visit to Savoie’s hometown of Saint-Maurice in southeastern New Brunswick. The whole village was in a commotion. “I remember to this day Durelle driving by our home in his large black Buick,” writes Savoie. It was “as if a demigod had just landed for a brief visit.”
The villain in the Acadian melodrama was Leonard Jones. He was the mayor of Moncton from 1963 to 1974 and an out-and-out bigot. During his time in office Jones carried on a steadfast campaign to deny the French language any presence in the community. This put him squarely in opposition to Robichaud’s provincial government, which was passing legislation to make New Brunswick officially bilingual. As so often happens, it was Jones’s belligerent opposition to the Acadians that drove them to fight even harder for equal language rights. (In 1974, when Jones won the Progressive Conservative nomination to run for a seat in Parliament, party leader Bob Stanfield refused to sign his nomination papers because Jones rejected the party’s support for bilingualism. He ran as an independent and won, though he did not run for a second term. He later resigned from the Moncton Rotary Club in protest against the decision to allow women to join.)
In his book, Savoie identifies himself as part of “the Louis Robichaud generation,” meaning the generation of Acadians who grew up in “the downtrodden days” and emerged into an era “in which we stand tall, a people with strong pride in our roots and our history.” But what is an Acadian, exactly? It used to mean a French-speaking Roman Catholic who had grown up dirt poor and undereducated on the margins of Maritime society. As Savoie says, all that has changed. What hasn’t changed is the connection to one of Canada’s most shameful historical episodes, the Deportation of 1755–63: Le Grand Dérangement, when the British evicted French-speaking settlers from their lands on the Bay of Fundy and sent them into exile. According to Savoie, “one can only claim to be an Acadian if at least one line of ancestors was present” at this seminal event.
How the Deportation, and Acadian history generally, has been understood through the years is the subject of another new book, Remembering and Forgetting in Acadie, by the Montreal historian Ronald Rudin (University of Toronto Press). During 2004–2005, Rudin made a series of field trips to attend events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of the original French colony in North America on an island in the Saint Croix River and the 250th anniversary of the Deportation. In his book, subtitled A Historian’s Journey Through Public Memory, he uses these commemorative events to tell a wider story about how the Acadians recovered from the disaster of their dispersal and re-emerged during the nineteenth century as a distinct community with their own founding myth, their own national holiday (August 15), their own flag and even their own national anthem. (Related, of course, are the zydeco-loving Cajuns, the branch of the Acadian family that headed south at the Deportation and evolved their own particular French- speaking culture in Louisiana. But that is another story.)
An important part of this re-emergence has been the Acadians’ interpretation, and reinterpretation, of their own history. It used to be, for instance, that no one paid much attention to the Île Sainte-Croix settlement. After all, it only lasted a winter before the inhabitants moved across the Bay of Fundy to Port Royal to find a more hospitable location. But more recently, the brief habitation has gained recognition for what it was, the original French colony in America. Does that mean that 1604 has become Year One on the Acadian calendar? Or does the Deportation remain the defining moment for Acadians?
Rudin’s book raises many other nettlesome questions. What is Acadia’s relationship to Quebec? Where and when did French Canada originate, at Île Sainte-Croix in 1604 or Quebec City in 1608? What was the role of the First Nations? And what about the diaspora, all those people from Acadie who no longer live in New Brunswick? Do they get to call themselves Acadians?
In teasing out the conflicting answers to these questions, Ronald Rudin makes Acadia a much more complicated place than the one in the simple coming-of-age story contained in Savoie’s memoir. He also reveals the complicated relationship Acadians, like all people, have with their own past.