Nova Scotia, Acadia’s native land

The French founded the first permanent colony on what is now Canadian territory in 1604, on the shores of the Bay of Fundy, in Nova Scotia. These pioneers came to be known as the “défricheurs d’eau.” Instead of encroaching on the forest to develop agriculture, they invented an ingenious system of dikes and aboiteaux that enabled them to drain and cultivate the vast marshes that were left exposed at low tide. These agricultural lands, which were very fertile, provided them with an enviable standard of living at that time.

In 1755, however, the British army dispossessed these 14,000 Acadians and deported most of them to the 13 American colonies and France. From 1764 on, the Acadians who had escaped or survived the Deportation were able to resettle in small groups in Nova Scotia and adjacent British territories, but not on the fertile lands they had cultivated, which had been redistributed to British immigrants.

Nova Scotia Acadians subsequently had to face many difficulties. Proud of their heritage, they tenaciously overcame many challenges. Today, this Francophone community of 32,000 people is the second largest in the Maritime provinces.

Acadia in the 17th century

The small group of some 80 French pioneers who founded Acadia in 1604 spent a first deadly winter on the Island of Sainte-Croix. The following year, the forty or so who had survived settled in Port-Royal, which their descendants occupied on a more or less permanent basis for a century and a half. In 1670, Acadia still had only 400 inhabitants. This slow development can be explained by the dissent among the colony’s leaders, by the lack of interest that France showed in this territory, and by harassment from the rival English who had settled nearby, especially those who lived in Boston.

The nascent colony of Acadia was also passed back and forth repeatedly between the French and British empires. These changes of allegiance did not make much difference in the daily lives of the Acadians but did motivate them to develop a very independent attitude. They became allied with and sometimes married the Mi’kmaq, an Indigenous people that had inhabited this territory for centuries. They still remained attached to France, but at the same time maintained regular commercial relations with the Bostonians. The founding core of the colony barely consisted of fifty or so families, most of whom were from the west-central region of France.

The aboiteaux system

 These ingenious farmers developed a practice unique in North America, the so-called aboiteaux system. This consisted in draining the marshes of French Bay (today the Bay of Fundy), protecting them from the highest tides in the world by means of dikes, which the Acadians built in groups, at low tide. The Acadian population thus enjoyed the benefits of exceptionally fertile lands and had abundant food in times of peace. Management of this rich soil was community-based, which enhanced interdependence and solidarity among these Acadians, who weaved a tight social fabric.

During the long period of peace from 1710 to 1744, the Acadian population multiplied and installed its aboiteaux system everywhere in the eastern part of French Bay.

Acadia or Nova Scotia?

In 1713, France definitively ceded Acadia to the British, who renamed the colony Nova Scotia. However, the British did not immediately develop or people their new possession. Soldiers stationed among the Acadian population did not firmly impose their authority. Consequently, this territory remained predominantly Francophone. Then, in 1744, the rivalry between the French and British empires resumed with even greater intensity, and the Acadians found themselves straddling the two.

To avoid taking up arms against their French cousins or the Mi’kmaq, the Acadians refused to swear an oath of unconditional allegiance to the British Crown. They wished to remain neutral in this conflict, which did not serve their interests. The British, however, saw these Catholic Francophones as unruly subjects, or even as an internal threat, not to mention that they also had the best lands. In 1749, the British prepared to launch a major offensive against the French possessions in present-day Canada by founding the City of Halifax. They also decided to transform Nova Scotia into a veritable British colony.

The Deportation of the Acadians

In 1755, the British army, supported by the American militia, emptied Nova Scotia of its inhabitants. Between 1755 and 1763, it deported more than 11,000 Acadians out of a total population of 14,000, and conquered all the French territories of what was to become Canada. A large number of Acadians died in the Deportation. Those who escaped this brutal expulsion took refuge in as yet uninhabited areas of what are now the Maritime provinces or in New France.

Transition to the English Regime

After 1764, the dispossessed Acadians who had survived were once again authorized to settle in Nova Scotia, but not on the fertile lands they had occupied, which were redistributed among the 12,000 British planters who swarmed into the colony. The Acadians were also prohibited from grouping together. They therefore spread out in small groups in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

These Acadians had to start over from scratch. Those who had mostly been farmers now turned primarily to fishing. The Acadians who remained in Nova Scotia settled in the regions that their descendants inhabit today: St. Mary’s Bay, Greater Yarmouth and Cape Breton Island. For many years, they were subjected to various forms of discrimination. They were not allowed to own land until 1768, nor to open a school until 1786. And they only obtained the right to vote in 1789.

Slow economic recovery

For a long time, the Acadians of Nova Scotia were reduced to practising subsistence farming and providing a captive labour force to Channel Island companies that virtually had a monopoly over cod fishing. From 1850 on, however, diversification of the fisheries was to benefit Acadians, who now caught herring, mackerel and especially lobster. More Acadians became owners of their own schooners or trawlers. Others began to build these watercraft. Shipbuilding thus became an important sector of the economy. Some Acadians successfully entered the field of maritime commerce over short distances—referred to as cabotage, or coastal shipping—or even over longer routes, in particular at Isle Madame and St. Mary’s Bay. The forest industry also provided work for a number of Acadians, and some of them even became sawmill owners. Slowly, an educated, or business, elite began to emerge, generating growth and dynamism in the communities.

Canadian Confederation and the Acadian Renaissance

In 1867, Nova Scotia became one of the four founding provinces of Canada. For the Acadians, however, a decisive advance came a few years later. In 1881, the first National Convention of the Acadians marked the commencement of the “Acadian Renaissance.” Prominent citizens from the three Maritime provinces gathered at this event, including elected representatives, priests, merchants, lawyers, teachers and physicians from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. They brought their own contribution to a broader movement of emancipation of Francophones from Quebec and the rest of Canada, and also from the United States, to which many had emigrated in search of work. At the time, Nova Scotia had an Acadian population of 41,000.

The objective of the Acadian conventions, held regularly over several decades, was to “Acadianize” society in which Acadians formed a large minority. Acadians called for their own bishops and senators, chose identity symbols such as a national festival and a flag, created institutions like the Société nationale l’Assomption, and sought to remedy deficiencies in French-language education. In the Province of Nova Scotia, there was a shortage of qualified teachers, and there were no textbooks in French. In 1890, the founding of a private college of higher education, Sainte-Anne, at Church Point, by Eudist priests who had come from France was a significant improvement. Much later, in 1930, the provincial authorities finally granted the Acadians the right to provide instruction in French up to Grade 6.

Resilience and perseverance

From 1880 to 1941, the Acadian population of Nova Scotia increased from 41,000 to 66,000. This growth, however, was curbed by emigration to the United States and assimilation into the Anglophone community, at an estimated rate of 30%. Even though certain regions did enjoy periods of prosperity, the majority of Acadians remained poor. Growth in the cooperative movement, strongly supported by the clergy, followed by the development of social programs and the application of regional development measures by the Canadian government in the mid-20th century, gradually raised Acadians’ standard of living.

Prospects for the future

In the 1960s, Anglophones started to view Acadians more favourably. This attitude was reflected in particular by the fact that knowledge of the French language was becoming more widespread in the Anglophone community. More Acadian politicians were also being elected, and some of them held positions as government ministers. From 1981 on, it was possible to offer courses in French wherever they were justified by the makeup of the population. The history of Acadia, which up to that time had been ignored, started to make an appearance in school curriculums. These gains were not, however, unanimously welcomed. The long-standing difficulties that the Acadians of Nova Scotia had experienced were so great that some Acadian parents were very cool to the idea of these new French-language programs, fearing that their children would be penalized by a unilingual French education.

Today, a comprehensive Francophone school system exists in Nova Scotia, from local elementary schools (where numbers justify them) to the university level. In 2004, the provincial government passed the French-language Services Act. The Acadians of Nova Scotia now have all the tools they need to ensure their development in a more favourable social context. Although they represent only a small percentage of the total population (3.4% in 2011), they are concentrated in a few regions where their presence carries more weight. Nonetheless, for Nova Scotia’s 32,000 Francophones, most of whom are of Acadian origin, extending the influence of the French language and culture continues to be a constant challenge.