The Acadians of Prince Edward Island

Picturesque Prince Edward Island is the smallest but the most densely populated province in Canada. At the time of the 2016 census, it had 141,015 residents, 2,910 (2.1% of the population) of whom reported speaking French regularly at home. Yet the number of French speakers (Francophones and Francophiles) is growing, having reached 17,955 persons, or nearly 13% of the Island population. The organization, dynamism, and resilience of the Island’s Francophone community are therefore remarkable.

Acadians make up most of this French-speaking population. They started settling on the island in the 1720s. This island that the French called Saint-Jean would be renamed Prince Edward Island in 1799 by the British in honour of the English crown prince who bore this moniker.

Permanent French settlement in Mi’kmaq territory

The Mi’kmaq had been living on Prince Edward Island since time immemorial when the French founded Acadia in 1604. Although fishermen had been visiting the island since the 16th century, no Europeans settled there permanently until 1720. That year, a contingent of 300 French persons landed on the island. They had come to fish and cultivate the soil in order to supply the fortress town of Louisbourg, which was being built on the banks of Cape Breton Island, in an area ill suited for agriculture.

A few Acadian families joined them, although most Acadians preferred to live on the productive lands they had diked along the banks of Baie Française (Bay of Fundy), even though this area had became a British colony in 1713. A number of the French immigrants who had arrived in 1720 returned to France a few years later, which meant that more than one-third of the 432 inhabitants of Île Saint-Jean in 1735 were of Acadian origin.

Deportation of the Acadians

In the original Acadia, which became Nova Scotia, the founding of the city of Halifax in 1749 represented the will of the British to take control of their colony. Feeling threatened, a great many Acadians moved to Île Saint-Jean, which was still a French possession. Hundreds of others took refuge there when the Deportation started in Acadia in 1755. But the struggle between the English and the French continued, and, in 1758, the British took possession of Île Saint-Jean, which now had an Acadian and French population of about 4,250. They pursued  the inhabitants and deported two-thirds of them to France. Most of the others took refuge on the continent.

Reconstruction period

When peace returned, a number of families came back to settle on the island, joining a few other families that had stayed put in 1758. They numbered 36 in 1763 and 117 in 1798. However, their resettlement proved to be problematic. Since the land on the island had been granted to large British landowners, the Acadians were forced to become tenants. Sometimes mistreated by these landowners and their agents, many families were forced to leave their land and start clearing land elsewhere. They were eventually able to settle permanently in several parts of the island: the Rollo Bay area (Kings County), the Rustico area (Queens County), and several areas of Prince County – Tignish, Palmer Road, Bloomfield, Egmont Bay, Mont-Carmel, and Miscouche.

For more than a century after the Deportation, the Acadian community remained a distinct minority group on the island they shared with English, Scottish, and Irish colonists and, of course, with the small Mi’kmaq community. In 1881, with a population of 10,750, the Acadian community made up 10% of the province’s population.

The Acadians who returned to settle on the island in the years following the Deportation survived first by turning to fishing. However, they quickly went back to agriculture. From the 1760s to the 1860s, agriculture was the cornerstone of the economy of Acadian communities. This did not stop the Acadians from getting into other occupations, such as fishing, to make a living. This was especially the case when they were forced to subdivide farms to make way for new generations. The income from these small farm operations was not enough to fully support large families. Also, they had to find ways to pay the rent on their land.

Benefits of cooperation

Cooperation played an important role in the economic life of Acadians on the island. Because of their ethnic, linguistic, religious, and socioeconomic homogeneity, they developed remarkable community spirit. Starting in the 1860s, the Acadians established a number of cooperative associations, such as the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico, recognized as a precursor of the credit unions in North America, as well as many seed banks and other agricultural cooperative associations, such as cheese factories, buying clubs, and egg circles.

Unlike farmers, fishermen took a long time to get themselves organized. For the most part, they were mere employees, often indebted to their employers, the owners of the fishing enterprises. In 1909, fishermen from North Rustico became the first in the province to form an association to operate their own lobster cannery. Soon, Acadian fishermen in other parts of the island would follow suit.

The cooperative movement grew during the Great Depression of the 1930s. One of the most striking initiatives was the establishment of credit unions. This concept was well received in Acadian communities and greatly helped people develop a sense of thrift and financial management.

Cooperation is still a very important aspect of economic life in several Acadian regions of Prince Edward Island. It is constantly adapting to a changing economy and lifestyle. While, in the past, cooperatives mainly addressed the needs of farmers and fishermen, today, they are much more diverse and offer services to a wide variety of people. We now find cooperatives in housing, tourism, crafts, and health, to mention just a few.

Living in French

In communities where they form a majority, Island Acadians have managed quite well for a long time to avoid cultural and linguistic assimilation. Anglicization started mainly in the second half of the 19th century. Many factors were involved, including lack of instruction in French in the schools. In fact, in the 1860s and 1870s, the government of the Island passed several amendments to the School Act, forcing Acadian schools to anglicize their curriculums. Other factors included exogamous marriages, the lower status of the French language, urbanization, and the ambient Anglophone environment.

In order to counter this current of linguistic and cultural assimilation, many initiatives took shape over the years. These focused on French-language education and on promoting and developing Acadian identity and culture and the French language.

In the Maritimes, major conferences,called “Acadian National Conventions,” were held, starting in 1881, where delegates deliberated over how to preserve and stimulate the Acadian identity. It was at one of those conventions, held in Miscouche, in 1884, that the Acadian flag and national anthem were chosen.

The many initiatives of the island community include the publication, in 1893, of the Island’s first French-language newspaper – L’Impartial. The same year, the Association des instituteurs et institutrices acadiens was established to promote the teaching of French in the public school system. It held annual conventions until 1972. At its 1919 convention, the Société Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin was established to foster the development of the Acadian community, specifically by promoting higher education as a way of ensuring strong Acadian leadership.

Today, there are many organizations on the Island with a mandate to promote and develop the French language and Acadian culture, but the Société Saint-Thomas-d’Aquin is recognized as the main voice for the Island’s Acadian community. This organization has played a key role in the implementation of many projects and the founding of institutions that have promoted the dynamism and visibility of the Acadian community. These include the weekly newspaper La Voix acadienne,which has been published in Summerside since 1975, the French-language school-community centres, and the Collège de l’Île, a French-language post-secondary educational institution.

Although it has been difficult for Island Acadians to preserve their language and culture, they have won a certain number of significant battles in recent decades. In 1979, for example, there was just one French-language school on the Island, located in the heart of the Evangeline Region. Today, there are six French-language schools located in four of the traditional Acadian regions and in the two cities – Charlottetown and Summerside. They play a vital role in maintaining the French language in the island province, while at the same time enabling many Anglophone Acadians to reconnect with their ancestral language.

In 2020, Prince Edward Island will celebrate the tricentennial of the Acadian and French presence in the province. After 300 years of survival against wind and tide, these Acadians have every reason to be proud of their achievements and confident about their future.