Her name has been used to sell everything from chocolates to bread, from ladies’ lingerie to a railway line. But to most Acadians, the fictional heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic poem, Evangeline, has long been a symbol of pride and hope. The haunting poem, published 150 years ago, marked the first written account of the Acadian Deportation of 1755 to 1763—a shameful chapter in Canadian history that saw British soldiers burn Acadian villages to the ground, confiscate rich farmlands and force 10,000 French-speaking Maritimers into exile. Each year, nearly 100,000 people make the trek to Grand-Pré, N.S.—a thriving centre of Acadian life prior to the Deportation—to visit the park that commemorates the event and to gaze at a bronze statue of Evangeline that stands amidst a garden of blossoming flowers and weeping willow trees. It is a particularly moving experience for Acadians like Guy and Barbara Roy, who brought their six children to the park last week. “It helps teach the kids their identity,” observed Guy, a French teacher from St. David, Me. “I want them to be proud of their ancestors.” Most of those who travel to Grand-Pré—a farming community of about 300 people set in the pastoral Annapolis Valley, 100 km northwest of Halifax—are not Acadians. They come, in fact, from as far afield as New Zealand, Kenya and Japan. Some can recite parts of the Longfellow poem, which was set in Grand-Pré and later translated into 130 languages. Others are visibly shocked to learn of the hardships the Acadians endured because of their refusal to sign an oath of allegiance to the British at a time when Britain and France were vying for supremacy in the New World. “You think to yourself, ‘Why would they do this?’ ” said Lathon Wells, a 58-year-old engineer from Los Angeles, after a tour last week of the reconstructed church where the original deportation order was issued. “It’s hard to comprehend this kind of cruelty to one of your own species.” For Acadians, who are marking the 150th anniversary of Longfellow’s poem this summer through a series of plays, exhibitions and festivals in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, that kind of thoughtful reflection is one sign of how far they have come since the Deportation and the dark years of exile that followed. The British order sent most Acadians to the 13 American colonies in 1755, though others were later dispatched as far as France. An unknown number perished along the way from hunger and disease, or in shipwrecks. Those who did reach the colonies faced a hostile reception. Rampant anti-Catholicism and a distrust of the French meant that many Acadians would spend the next two generations searching in vain for a place they could call home. A significant number eventually came to settle in French-speaking Louisiana—which did not become part of the United States until
Acadians recall their deportation from Canada
1803—where they became known as Cajuns.
Following a peace treaty between Britain and France in 1763, some Acadians did return to the Maritime provinces. But they were not allowed to settle in areas where they had previously flourished. As a result, a place like Grand-Pré—the most populous Acadian community prior to the Deportation—today boasts only a few French-speaking families. Instead, Acadians settled in pockets of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, while many others moved into New Brunswick.
As with their brethren elsewhere, the returning Acadians lived for the most part on the margins of society. But with the publication of Evangeline, Acadian leaders suddenly had a rallying point for their dispersed community. The American poet—who had no Acadian roots and never visited Nova Scotia—wrote of a woman who is separated from her true love, Gabriel, when they are put on separate ships during the Deportation. They are finally reunited many years later—but only after Evangeline has become a nun and Gabriel is dying of smallpox.
The poem is widely credited with sparking a renaissance in Acadian culture that continues to blossom through music, dance and theatre. It also heralded a tourist boom in the Grand-Pré region, starting as early as 1869 when a railway line arrived with two engines named Evangeline and Gabriel.
Like most major tourist attractions, Grand Pré plays host to busloads of visitors: for many of them, it is doubtless just another diversion between lunch and dinner. But for others it is something far more special. “Grand-Pré has become almost a pilgrimage site,” explains park director Donna Doucet, herself an Acadian from northern New Brunswick. Doucet then gestures towards the statue of Evangeline, who is depicted casting a mournful backward glance at the land she must leave behind. “For us,” says Doucet quietly, “this is all very real.”
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