New Brunswick, the heart of today’s Acadia

Today, the largest Acadian community lives in New Brunswick, in the only Canadian province that is officially bilingual. Some 233,000 people whose mother tongue is French—the great majority of whom are Acadians—represent one third of the province’s population. It is also in New Brunswick that we find the greatest number of Acadian institutions, organizations and cultural events.

New Brunswick is not the historic cradle of Acadia, which developed on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, in Nova Scotia, until the Deportation of 1755. In the second half of the 18th century, hundreds of refugees started to settle in the territory of what is now New Brunswick. These Acadians gradually became the principal Acadian community and established fairly well-developed educational and health services.

From 1960 to 1970, the Premier of New Brunswick, Louis J. Robichaud, himself an Acadian, led the Acadian community to take an important step forward. He embodied the drive that inspired this community, equipping the Acadians of this province with the status and the tools they needed to realize their full potential. Today, the Acadians of New Brunswick are spreading the influence of their unique culture with spirited creativity.

A governor at the mouth of the Saint John River

In 1631, one of the first governors of Acadia, Charles de Saint-Étienne de La Tour, built a fort at the mouth of the Saint John River. This fort is the oldest establishment of importance in New Brunswick. However, the ancestors of most Acadians who live in New Brunswick today settled there much later.

The original Acadia was located to a large extent in the province of Nova Scotia, and Acadians continued to live there until 1755, when the British army disrupted their community by deporting 6,000 of them from the colony. In the decade that preceded this radical measure, about 5,000 had already departed from the original territory of Acadia, which had become a British possession in 1713, to seek refuge in the territories still controlled by France, in particular in what would later become the province of New Brunswick.

Many refugees chose New Brunswick

The Acadians who attempted to avoid deportation sought refuge on the banks of the Saint John River and on the seashore between Cocagne, the Miramichi River and the Baie des Chaleurs. By the time the war ended, in 1763, the British had conquered all the French territories in what is now Canada. They also hunted down the Acadians throughout the Maritimes, and deported over 5,000 more people to France, in addition to the first group of deportees in 1755. When these atrocities ended, in 1764, the Acadians who had escaped the deportation and those who had returned from exile were authorized to settle where they wished—except on the excellent lands they had occupied around French Bay (Bay of Fundy).

Many Acadians chose to start their lives in New Brunswick. They appropriated lands and formed small communities near a navigable waterway or by the ocean. In southeastern New Brunswick, they were concentrated around Memramcook. In the northeast, they settled at the mouth of the Miramichi River, at Caraquet and Nipisiguit. In the south, those who had chosen the Saint John River were again chased off by Anglophones loyal to the King of England (Loyalists) who were fleeing the American Revolution. In 1785, these Acadians moved into the northwest, in the Madawaska region. It was from these pioneer settlements that the Acadian population moved out to occupy more territory, primarily along the coastline, in the colony of New Brunswick, which was officially founded in 1784.

Starting over

This Acadian community comprised 3,700 individuals in 1803. It had no official structure. Transplanted into a colony where the majority of the population was Anglophone, it tried to adapt to the British colonial authority and to the spiritual direction provided by a few Catholic missionaries sent from Lower Canada (now the Province of Quebec). A handful of notables constituted a kind of parallel government.

On the northern seashore of New Brunswick, cod fishing was the principal means of subsistence, supplemented by rather unproductive agriculture and a bit of shipbuilding. These Acadians most commonly inhabited wooded lands that provided them with firewood and timber for construction. In the southern part of the province, Acadians were primarily engaged in farming. At Memramcook and along the Petitcodiac River, they reproduced the system of aboiteaux (tide gates) they had introduced in Nova Scotia, on the opposite shore of French Bay (Bay of Fundy). In a few years, these fertile lands produced good harvests, and even some surpluses. Agriculture likewise prospered in the Madawaska region, where forestry also created work for many lumberjacks. Nevertheless, apart from a few business people and proprietors of small sawmills or fishing schooners, the Acadian population lived in poverty.

The impetus of the “Acadian Renaissance”

When New Brunswick entered Canadian Confederation as a founding province in 1867, the Anglophones of the province intensified their predominance over the Acadian communities of the Maritimes. Religious congregations gradually began to found colleges of higher education for boys and girls as well as hospitals, accelerating the formation of an elite and dispensing more and more services in French. Commencing in 1867, the first Acadian newspaper fostered the circulation of ideas. Acadian commerce in lumber, potatoes, fish, oysters and lobster developed. The tipping point for these developments occurred in 1881, at Memramcook, where the first Acadian National Convention was held, organized by dignitaries educated at the College of Memramcook. Six priority areas were identified: National Acadian Day, education, agriculture, colonization, emigration (to counteract the departures of Acadians for the United States), and print media. The Acadians got organized, recovered their pride and acquired the means to build their future.

A necessary perseverance

Despite this noteworthy impetus, the Acadian population took some time to climb out of poverty. A lack of financial resources prevented Acadians from going into business and becoming proprietors. They often held the less well paid and most precarious jobs.

The cooperative movement, which developed rapidly in the first half of the 20th century, did much to improve the circumstances of Acadians. The same cannot be said for the colonization movement to occupy new agricultural lands, which was powerfully supported by the Catholic clergy and Acadian notables around the turn of the 20th century. This movement did not fulfil its promises. Instead of permanently freeing fishers from their dependence on Anglophone fishing companies, which exploited them in many cases, colonization only shifted this dependency to the farmers who were exploited by Anglophone forestry companies, because it took time to clear new lands. Furthermore, since these lands were unproductive, the new colonists also had to become lumberjacks, doing hard and poorly paid work.

Nonetheless, the perseverance of the Acadians enabled them to make some inroads. They realized that the sheer weight of their numbers—there were 137,000 of them in 1931, representing a third of New Brunswick’s population —enabled them to exert some pressure, even though the outcomes were sometimes bitter. In 1929, for example, in reaction to Acadian demands, the premier of New Brunswick rescinded a regulation that favoured greater use of French in schools. In the 1930s, some radical Anglophones even started talking about “French Domination”, and letters from the Klu Klux Klan were circulated to get Acadians to shut up. In 1934, when the Société l’Assomption de Moncton launched a campaign to increase the economic power of Francophones and the use of French, the English Speaking League pushed back by initiating a campaign to boycott everything French. Many Acadian business people went bankrupt, and a number of Acadians in Moncton lost their jobs. But the Acadians were tough; they held their heads high, and they persisted.

Finally, some concrete gains

In the middle of the 20th century, Acadians made gains in education. A first Francophone Acadian archbishop was also appointed in the archdiocese of Moncton. Then the first Acadian Premier of New Brunswick was elected in 1960. This was Louis J. Robichaud, a progressive politician who proposed a set of reforms for all the inhabitants of New Brunswick, under the theme “Equal Opportunity for All”. Generally speaking, the transformations that Robichaud made to municipal structures, health services, education and the justice system reduced the socioeconomic differences between the inhabitants and the regions of the province, and between Francophones and Anglophones. He rehabilitated the place of Acadians in New Brunswick, and boosted their confidence in their own resources.

During the ten years that Robichaud served as premier of the province, he made New Brunswick Canada’s only officially bilingual province. This was a status that Richard Hatfield, Robichaud’s successor as premier, skillfully reformulated and had included in the Canadian Constitution in 1982, thus recognizing the equality of New Brunswick’s two official language communities. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, enshrined in this Constitution repatriated in 1982, was subsequently used as the foundation for the claims of all of Canada’s minority language communities—primarily Francophone communities—including the Francophone community of New Brunswick, which obtained more French-language services, especially in education.

A community comes into its own

The contemporary effervescence of New Brunswick’s Acadian community is remarkable, given the difficulties that it has had to overcome in various fields: the arts, business, politics, education, etc. This success stems from the advances made in the second half of the 20th century thanks to determination and perseverance. The creation of the University of Moncton in 1963 is one of the most significant milestones in the recent progress made by the Acadians, by making it possible to train many high-level professionals in French.

Today, the Acadians of New Brunswick are proud of their heritage, and they have the boldness required to transform that heritage and ensure its evolution, particularly in Greater Moncton, where they are acquiring a new, dynamic and prosperous urban identity. Despite the inevitable threats that any language minority community like theirs must confront, the Acadians of New Brunswick form a strong, outward-looking community that is well-equipped to meet today’s challenges, and those of tomorrow.