©Bert Gildart: “[They leave] unwilling, the women in Great Distress Carrying off their Children in their Arms, others Carrying their Decrepit Parents in their Carts, and all their Goods Moving in Great Confusion… a Scene of Woe and Distress.”
So wrote Lt. Colonel John Winslow on October 8, 1755 about the group of French Canadians he was in part responsible for deporting from the farmlands these Acadians had cultivated for several generations.
He was deporting them from a beautiful land—the “forest primeval,” as Longfellow described their home in his famous poem, Evangeline, A tale of Acadia, because they had refused to declare an oath of allegiance to the British government when France ceded part of Nova Scotia to the royal crown.
These Acadians insisted that they would remain neutral in any subsequent altercations with France. But that wasn’t adequate, and so the British implemented a policy that has became known as the Great Deportation. The policy may have subsequently helped define the words empathy and compassion.
The deportation separated Longfellow’s heroine, Evangeline, from her lover, Gabriel, and though the tale was the work of fiction, the characters have become larger than life. A descendent of Longfellow etched out his vision of the famous couple and those two bronze plaques are now displayed in the church at the Grand Pré’s Historic Park.
Because the policy had such severe consequences to an entire group of people, it was something about which both Janie and I wanted to reflect, but in our leisure—when our pace slowed.
Perhaps there are some lessons to learn.
Whatever… but the time of prolonged reflection has come much sooner then I anticipated, for today the wind is howling at over 30 knots per hour. Because the storm has kicked up strong waves in Digby Neck, a part of Fundy Bay, the ferry we drove to early this morning in Digby, Nova Scotia, has been cancelled. Ferry attendants say weathermen predict wind abatement by 4:30 p.m., but they don’t really know. Until they do know, we’ll sit tight in the terminal’s expansive parking lot, stabilizing jacks down to prevent rocking in the wind; and to enable us to extend our port-sided slideout—without our good ship Airstream listing, in turn, to the port. Unlike the Acadians, we’re snug and warm, and a fresh aroma is rising now from coffee pot. Outside the rain comes in waves and streaks and it’s easy to forget how quickly exposure can render one critically ill.
The Acadians, of course, knew about wind and rough seas, for they lived by Fundy Bay, having arrived in the early 1700s from the more easterly areas of France, areas such as Poitou and Anjou. From homes in the “forest primeval,” they converted the adjacent marsh lands into useable farm land.
According to Victor Tétrault, park’s Director Général, the Acadians quickly adapted to this new land, implementing a unique way of reclaiming these soggy salt lands. They did so by using an aboiteau, a device detailed in the visitor center that enabled this new breed of farmers to block water from the extraordinary high tides of Fundy Bay, but allowed marsh waters to drain. Here, these farm families lived in harmony with their environment and the Indians, the Mi’kmaq. They also coexisted peacefully with the British, until the Great Deportation, which began in 1755. Then great hatred certainly must have crept in, but overwhelmed by the presence of British troops, there was nothing they could do.
Today, at a lonely spot along Fundy Bay, not far from the Grand Pré interpretive center, is an adjunct to the center. Appropriately, the Acadian Cross marks the spot where this group first landed and the point from which they were eventually expelled in what was certainly one of the cruelest of all acts, something Queen Elizabeth II recently—and officially—acknowledged.
“Whereas the deportation had tragic consequences… including the deaths of many thousands of Acadians from disease, in shipwrecks… and in prison camps in Nova Scotia and England as well as in the British Colonies in America… [I hereby] order July 28 of every year as a Day of Commemoration of the Great Upheaval commencing on July 28, 2005.
Though the sentiment is gracious, many believe it came too late, and doesn’t mean too much. Or, that it might have more meaning to the Louisiana Cajuns, who because of time and distance have not had the opportunity to search their roots, until recently. Said Susan Surette-Draper, another interpreter for Parks Canada at Grand Pré, “By living with the land of our ancestors we’ve had a chance to heal, whereas I’m not sure that’s been true for those from Louisiana.”
That’s a statement we’ll be able to digest a bit longer, a dock hand has just stopped by and wants to know if we’re in a good mood, for the winds are still blowing and he says the ferry has been delayed now until 6.
“Nothing to do,” we laugh, trying to exhibit resilience, and then, in our minds’ eyes, we return to our thoughts of the Acadians.
In the Visitor Center in the church are other pieces to the story of expulsion, for Parks Canada was able to obtain from the University of Massachusetts a list of the names of those who first settled Grand Pré. Today, those names are inscribed on a brass tableau that stands tall toward the rear of the church.
According to Roger Sevigny, the park’s chief historian, much can be gleaned by comparing the names here with the names in a ledger in an adjacent room. The brass tableau list all family names that came to Grand Pré, while the ledger contains the names of families those who reported as demanded in 1755 to the church at Grand Pré.
“The British were thorough,” said Roger, “and they tabulated much family information. I’m familiar with Pierre LeBlanc, so come on over here and let’s look up LeBlanc.”
Quickly we find the name, and by reading across, see that at the time of deportation, he had one daughter, two oxen, two cows, four calves, 19 sheep and nine hogs. Roger then turns to the end of the book and we see the list of all people deported has been tallied and that it totals 1,923—just from Grand Pré.
“Because the list of families on the first census was much higher, what this list shows is that some escaped deportation.”
But the two listings provide much satisfaction for those searching for their roots. “Each day when they come here, “said Susan Surette-Draper, “we can tell whether or not they found their family name by looking at the brass tableau. If there’s a finger smug over the name, they always seem to touch it, as though establishing a connection. And the discovery always seems to produce a satisfied look, not a look that suggests anger at the deportation—and what their families once endured.”
The period of deportation lasted eight years, until 1763, and those shipped out wound up in a variety of places. In the United States, many Acadians were shipped to areas around Louisiana, where they migrated to New Orleans, and became Cajuns.
When the deportation ended and the English ban against Acadians was lifted, many returned to find the land which they had tilled; the land where they dug graves and greeted the newborn. But now that same land was occupied by colonists from what are now our states in New England.
And so the Acadians sought out other lands, mostly along the seaboard north of Yarmouth, a southern tip of Nova Scotia. And it was here that we met Russ Gautreaux & Susan Dupuis Gautreaux, a Cajun couple from Louisiana.
They said they’d been here before because members from both sides of their family had been deported. They said the first time they were here for Susan’s grandfather who had planned a trip, but died just before he could make it. On that trip, they said they’d returned home with an Acadian flag and placed it on the old man’s grave.
But that was several years ago, and this time, they were here for themselves. They’d found their family names and as predicted had touched the names on the brass plaque, and they had been satisfied.
And now it is evening and, as predicted, the winds have abated, and soon our ferry to St. John, New Brunswick, will be departing. It’s a three hour trip and we won’t be disembarking until nine, but the dock worker says we should park in the huge ferry parking lot at St. John.
We leave with regret, but with new understanding of the words empathy and compassion.