“The Unfortunate Acadians” or How to turn Genocide into Tragic Destiny – Part 1

by Chantal Richard

The following is part one of a two-part blog post. It is inspired from a paper I gave on 4 May 2018, at the Atlantic Canada Studies Conference in Wolfville, very close to historic Grand-Pré, the symbolic epicenter of the Expulsion of an estimated 11, 000 Acadians from 1755 to 1758. [1] This research was made possible by an Insight Grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.

In our age of cultural awareness and inclusivity, we know that words matter. They have always mattered, even – or perhaps especially – in an era when most educated people studied rhetoric as part of a liberal arts degree. The portrayal of a minority group by a social majority is not innocent, and can leave lasting stereotypes and prejudices in a society. In this brief summary of a more extensive ongoing analysis, I will examine how Acadians were portrayed in English-language newspapers in New Brunswick at the end of the 19th century.

The Vocabularies of Identity project

In 2013, I launched a project titled “Vocabularies of Identity / Vocabulaires identitaires” along with co-investigators Anne Brown, Nicole Boudreau, Denis Bourque, Margaret Conrad, Gwendolyn Davies, Cécilia Francis, Bonnie Huskins, and Gregory Marquis. The over-arching goal of this ongoing project was to examine the emergence and evolution of collective identity of Acadians and the descendants of New Brunswick Loyalists by analyzing newspaper articles published from 1880 to 1940. With the help of over a dozen research assistants, we have digitized over 1500 articles so far. The open-access database can be consulted here: https://voi.lib.unb.ca.


Vocabularies of Identity/Vocabulaires identitaires

The search for relevant content for the database was revealing in and of itself. We found that French-language newspapers, while being less numerous (only four compared to ten English-language papers for the same time period), provided a lot more content about the collective identities of these two social groups. In other words, within the French-language papers, there are far more articles about Acadians than there are articles about Loyalists in English-language papers. This may well be linked to the necessity for a minority group to continuously affirm its very existence, and it may be partly cultural, but what is certain is sthat Acadians dedicated considerable print space to talking about their own identity at the end of the 19th century. Furthermore, the word “Loyaliste” is nearly absent from French-language papers (though of course, there are many references to “les Anglais” or “les Britanniques”), but the variations of “Acadie”, “Acadian”, etc. are reasonably frequent in English-language newspapers, almost as frequent as occurrences of the variations of “Loyalist” within these same papers. The interest in Acadian identity was therefore not only prominent among Acadians, but spilled over to the Anglophone population. Analysis of this data is further complicated by the fact that educated Acadians were very often fluently bilingual, and so the authors of these English-language articles may have been Acadians (the articles are not always signed, and when they are, pen names are fairly common). Given the impossibility of determining authorship and intent, I turned to the impact of these articles on the readers of these newspapers. In other words, I asked the question: “If I were a reader of an English-language newspaper in New Brunswick in the late 19th century, how would these texts shape my perception of Acadians as a group?” Using concordances, and focusing on repeated segments and words most frequently found near the lemmas “Acadi*” (including “Acadian*/Acadien*”), I was able to extract certain dominant themes from these articles. These can essentially be categorized into temporal categories, resulting in a split image of Acadians “then” and Acadians “now”, that is, as they existed at the end of the 19th century.

For the purposes of this study, a total number of 176 articles taken from 6 English-language papers from 1880-1902 were examined. These papers are The Chignecto Post (33 articles), The Saint John New Freeman (27), The Saint John Daily Sun (16), The Moncton Transcript (45), The Moncton Daily Times (22), and The Daily Telegraph (23). The following newspapers were excluding for lack of sufficient content (less than seven articles each about Acadie or Acadians):  The York Gleaner, The Saint John Globe, The Daily Evening News, and The Saint John Star.

Arcadia, or the Acadian Tragedy

The fascination with the oft-quoted Longfellow’s Evangeline, which would be viewed as cultural appropriation today, set the stage for a romantic portrayal of Acadians as an exiled, but peaceful people. This image prevailed in articles about Acadians “then”. The following author provides an example of this kind of romantic writing infused with considerable poetic license:

For was not Acadia Arcadia, if Arcadia ever existed anywhere? Acadia, where “neither locks had they to their doors nor bars to their windows; but their dwellings were open as day and the hearts of their owners; there the richest was poor and the poorest lived in abundance!” The “Sunshine of Saint Eutalie” and Farmer Bellefontaine, and Basil, the blacksmith, and Gabriel Lajeunesse, and Pere Felician, and Rene Leblanc, patriarch of a hundred grandchildren, and all the sweet Acadian folk in their Norman caps and kirtles of blue, with their spinning-wheels and looms, their peaceful kine and harvest-laden steeds caparisoned in brilliant-painted, betasseled wooden saddles, their nut-brown, home-brewed ale, their wayside shrines, and the harmony of their life sung by the sounds of Angelus bells, of murmuring pines and hemlocks, and of the “deep-voiced neighboring ocean”- where was Arcadia, I ask, if it was not here? The shepherds and shepherdesses, dancing to the music of Pan-pipes in the Thracian valleys, are dim simulacra to our eyes with the vapor of Time rolling between them and us. But here, in commonplace, modern Canada-America, one can converse with the children’s children of the Acadians, and, listening to the same quaint Norman patois that Father Felician preached his homilies in, or marvelling at the graceful courtesy of gray-haired men and home-returning school-children, can feel that Acadie – or Arcady – once had an actual existence. (Thomas P. Gill, “A Corner of Acadia.” The Saint John Daily Sun, 29 November 1883, p. 1: https://voi.lib.unb.ca/en/node/1483)

Indeed, the charms of A(r)cadia abound in this hyperbolic description of an innocent people who are essentially extinct. On the other hand, Francis Parkman, known for his work titled The Acadian Tragedy, published originally in Harper’s Magazine in 1884 and reprinted in The Chignecto Post in four instalments in the same year, also painted a picture of a simple people, but with a harsher lens:

They were a simple and very ignorant peasantry, industrious and frugal, till evil days came to discourage them; living aloof from the world, with little of that spirit of adventure which marked their Canadian kindred; having few wants, and those of the rudest […] French officials describe their dwellings as wretched wooden boxes, without ornaments or conveniences, and scarcely supplied with the most necessary furniture. Two or more families often occupied the same house, and their way of life, though simple and virtuous, was by no means remarkable for cleanliness. […] Enfeebled by hereditary and mental subjection, and too long kept in leading-strings to walk alone, they needed [their priests], not for the next world only, but for this… (Francis Parkman, “The Acadian Tragedy”, The Chignecto Post, 30 October 1884, p. 1: https://voi.lib.unb.ca/en/node/621.)

In this series of four lengthy articles, Parkman focused on this “dismal tragedy”, concluding that “the Acadians would have remained safe and unmolested had they but consented to take the oath; and to the last, Lawrence and his Council labored, in manifest good faith, to persuade them to do so.” (Francis Parkman, “The Acadian Tragedy”, The Chignecto Post, 6 November 1884, p. 1: https://voi.lib.unb.ca/en/node/614) This is the “cruel necessity” argument, which has been rejected since by scholars such as Naomi Griffiths (Perfidy or cruel necessity? Copp Clark Pub. Co, 1969.), and John Mack Faragher (A Great and Noble Scheme (W. W. Norton & Company, 2005.).

Eventually, in the issue of 27 November 1884, The Chignecto Post published an acknowledgement that Parkman may not have presented a clear picture, calling it “misleading” and accusing Parkman of having withheld some of the relevant documentation. However, the damaging stereotypes had found receptive readers, as the following unsigned letter to the editor suggests: “So dangerous had [the Acadians] become and so determined not to take the oath of allegiance and submit to authority, that the English were driven to the terrible expediency of an entire eradication of the unfortunate people in 1755.” (X.X., Letter to the editor, The Chignecto Post, 4 August, 1887, p. 2: https://voi.lib.unb.ca/en/node/648) In this version, it is difficult to reconcile the peace-loving, mythical Acadians with their “dangerous” presence, and the English are not the oppressors, but rather, are “driven” against their will to eradicate this threat.

Chantal Richard is an Associate Professor in the French Department at the University of New Brunswick.


[1] This number is an estimate by genealogist Stephen A. White. “The True Number of Acadians.” Du Grand Dérangement à la Déportation: Nouvelles perspectives historiques. Ed. Ronnie-Gilles LeBlanc. Moncton: Chaire d’études acadiennes, 2005.


About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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4 Responses to “The Unfortunate Acadians” or How to turn Genocide into Tragic Destiny – Part 1

  1. Jane Fritz says:

    Cruel necessity indeed. Jaw-dropping. This is why I have come to be embarrassed by my own Loyalist roots, albeit poor ones. And we continue with similar revisionist history. The short video shown at UNB’s commencement ceremony for new students, glorifying the institution’s history, all thanks to the Loyalists who encouraged higher education, now includes something about the indigenous peoples who were here when the Loyalists arrived (it didn’t initially), but otherwise makes it appear as though they arrived to virgin forest with nothing but a few noble savages to be found. In fact, had not Acadians been at Ste. Anne’s Point, etc. before the Loyalists as well? And what about the pre-Loyalists? It’s all about words, all right. Words and power. Interesting read.

    • Chantal says:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment Jane! You may be happy to hear that I am presently curating an exhibit on the Acadians of Pointe-Sainte-Anne at the Fredericton Region Museum. The exhibit is scheduled to open in the fall of 2019 and will focus on the Acadian presence, along with their Wolastoqiyik allies, in what is now downtown Fredericton during the first half of the 18th century. It is a bloody, difficult story to tell, but we must not shy away from telling the difficult stories in my opinion.

  2. Pingback: This week’s crème de la crème — October 6, 2018 | Genealogy à la carte

  3. Pingback: A Guide to Online Resources for Teaching and Learning Acadian History in K-12 | Unwritten Histories

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