Translated by John Mark Hopkins
Given the pluralistic nature of Acadia and the fact that its territory is not politically recognized, defining its collective identity according to specific geographical borders is a daunting task.
How is it possible to reconcile the multiple political and genealogical definitions of Acadia? What are the possible connections or alliances between the different ideas of Acadia’s development or its various territorialities? Are the territorialist and diasporic understandings of Acadia mutually exclusive realities?
Defining an Acadian territory has always been problematic, approximate and nebulous; the geography of the places occupied by Acadians doesn’t usually correspond to political borders endowed with any real power or legal sovereignty. For historic reasons with which we’re unfortunately familiar, tragedy forced the Acadian people to become nomads. In the beginning however, their collective will sought to put down roots in the fertile diked lowlands of what is now Nova Scotia. As fate would have it, the Acadian people would be marred by exodus.
The Grand Dérangement (Great Upheaval) interrupted settlement and flung Acadians out into other places: Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador and beyond. The exodus even spilled over the borders of Atlantic Canada, sowing the seeds of an Acadian diaspora. Acadians in the 18th century were deported to Europe or to the United States. Some fled the British or migrated on their own to Québec.
Located as it is in the Atlantic Provinces, Acadia roughly hews to the borders of an approximate territory drawn long ago by royal geographers: La Cadie. In the 21st century, however, the social and political revitalization plan—led by the Société nationale de l’Acadie (National Society of Acadia), provincial associations and all of the other Acadians who believed in it—sought to refocus Acadia. They created a territorial definition of Acadia: it was wherever there was a concentration of Acadians living together. Today’s Acadia, as a collective living identity, has taken root and is developing in Atlantic Canada.
The Diaspora Past to Present
There is also a diasporic Acadia with a completely different history. As Acadians slowly returned to Canada, some chose to resettle in the greater Saint Lawrence River Valley area rather than returning to Atlantic Canada, joining those who were already there. This diaspora also experienced its own upheavals but was not really able to participate in the emerging Acadian nationalism of Monsignor Marcel-François Richard’s era at the end of the 19th century.
Because of this dispersal, the forging of identity was much slower and more scattered. Recreating the unity of the Acadian diaspora in Louisiana, New England or in Québec was more difficult. Nonetheless, these Acadians who were forced from their national home continued to live out their identity by cherishing their religion and culture. They maintained a sense of belonging or an individual identity that they transmitted to their children within the family structure.
Some Acadians were in a manner of speaking transplanted to Québec after the Deportation. In more recent times these people, Quebecers by birth or by culture, have discovered their Acadian origins as they dig further and further back in their genealogy. Although it was rather late in coming, there has been an Acadian renaissance in Québec beginning near the end of the 20th century. This identity has especially been one of genealogy but it has also been strengthened by contemporary migrations of Acadians from Atlantic Canada to Québec. Thus have arisen hubs of Acadian belonging that are not, strictly speaking, quite the same as the collective identity lived in Atlantic Canada.
Various historical societies have helped to shed light on what happened to Acadians who were deported or exiled to Québec after the Grand Dérangement. Various towns followed suit and acknowledged that their history was marked by the arrival of Acadians who built up their region. Flags, monuments, Acadian-tinged ceremonies all appeared on Québec soil. The World Acadian Congresses also aroused the awareness within the diaspora. The Acadian homeland in Atlantic Canada invited those Acadians in exile to return to the places where their ancestors had trod.
This diaspora in Québec even has an associative network which connects individuals, historical societies and municipalities, who in turn created the Coalition of Acadian Organizations in Québec. This new Acadian revival, which is outside of territorial Acadia, is a source of cultural richness but it also poses a dilemma.
The New Minoritization?
The resurgence of the diaspora, notably in Québec, poses the problem of folklorization of identity. If there are three million or more Quebecers who are of Acadian descent, without even counting Cajuns or Franco-Americans, what is left of political ambitions or of the affirmation of identity in territorial Acadia—which consists of small communities perhaps not even a tenth the size of the Acadian diaspora?
As Pierre Perrault put it, Acadia is a geography of the soul. It is first of all an idea, an undertaking or a narrative of identity that one carries within oneself. There is also an Acadia that is lived and territorial, framed by a complex network of associations, institutions and rights. This living Acadia asserts itself as best it can in spite of the minority context in Atlantic Canada. Territorial Acadia manages to create French-speaking living spaces in spite of the predominance of English in certain spheres.
Confronted with the rise of the diaspora in Québec, today’s Acadians fear that they will become an outnumbered minority or that their identity will be marginalized. If Acadian identity becomes increasingly defined by Acadians in Québec, territorial Acadia risks losing in the process or becoming dispossessed again.
Intellectuals or militants in New Brunswick—and elsewhere as well—are not about to forget history and the powerlessness of Acadians in the face of the dominant majority who cared little or not at all for the Acadian people. At the same time that today’s Acadia asserts itself politically or tries to retake its rights in order to establish its goal of identity, other political processes or powers risk damaging it or distorting its purpose.
Does the diaspora pose a real danger for territorial Acadia? Are the fears expressed by some really justified? Even though a healthy wariness may be in order, modern concepts of identity are such that territorial Acadia should not fear the Acadian diaspora.
Misrepresenting the Diaspora
This lack of openness with regard to the Acadian diaspora is downright troubling. Some of the more caustic critics carry within themselves seeds of intolerance or hints of ethnic nationalism which have no place in Canada. What’s more, there are political or strategic reasons to be more accepting of the diaspora.
Some critics of the diaspora misrepresent it or attribute to it non-existent intentions. The territorialists, or the critics of the diaspora, wrongly interpret that the genealogical, historical and folkloric identity of the diaspora is a collective identity. It is first and foremost an individual identity outside the territory of reference. Many individuals discover their roots but never form a collective identity, let alone a nation. There is almost no territorial base for the diaspora. The territoriality of Acadians of the diaspora is where they live, in Québec or in Maine. The homeland is elsewhere.
Other territorialists believe, also wrongly, that the aim of the diaspora is political. They dislike seeing Acadia reduced to a backward-looking or non-political image that neutralizes their own collective action. It is true that Quebecers and Cajuns, once they discover their Acadian roots, tend to cherish a forgotten and fictionalized history, albeit a tragic one. In choosing to emphasize the folkloric past over the current living identity, Acadians of the diaspora could inadvertently contribute to trivializing the challenges or aims of territorial Acadia.
But Acadian pride being expressed by some in Québec takes nothing away from the reality that is lived in territorial Acadia. All these ways of creating identity can coexist along with their respective goals. Many of these Acadians in Québec declare themselves to be sympathetic to the aims of territorial Acadia, want to get to know it better and would like to play a role in contributing to its development.
There is something troubling in the criticisms of the diaspora, especially those that categorically reject any genealogical or extra-territorial definition of Acadia. There is a process of exclusion at work. They will say, either with code words or even openly, “You are not one of ours. You are not true Acadians.”
This type of reasoning contains the seeds of intolerance or rejection of the other. Some might think or say that there are good Acadians who are politically aware and others who haven’t fought back and simply assimilated; there are Acadians who are committed because they live in territorial Acadia, and then there are the impostors who claim to be Acadian because of their genealogy. If you’re in exile you can’t possibly understand territorial Acadia or be in solidarity with its struggles, according to others.
Of course we are generalizing here but it’s especially hurtful and small minded when some Acadians refuse to allow others to define themselves as Acadian. Those who criticize the diaspora do so based on some vague criterion of identity which precludes one’s subjective choice to define oneself as one wishes.
There are research and theories that present objective (factual or measurable) and subjective (dependent on individual or collective will) ways of defining identity or national belonging. Some of the more common definitions can become objectifying when they assign an identity to someone and ignore that person’s individual freedom to choose or to define his or her identity. Such social processes can spiral out of control and lead to the exclusion or marginalization of individuals or groups.
We should remember that we have multiple cultural and sociological identities. A man living in Saint-Grégoire can consider himself a feminist, an ecologist, Québecois and Acadian at the same time. A woman might identify herself professionally as an engineer while at the same time be proud of being a mother, a vegetarian, bilingual, a native Manitoban—and of working in the Acadia of Nova Scotia. By what moral authority are we going to prevent people from defining themselves as Acadians just because they weren’t born in Atlantic Canada or perhaps don’t live there any longer? An Acadian of the diaspora can certainly be on the same side as territorial Acadia from Québec, Louisiana, New England or anywhere else.
What Is the Future of Territorialism?
Territorialism can be reductive. According to a rigidly territorialist logic, all Acadians leaving Atlantic Canada would henceforth become part of the diaspora in spite of having been born there—even if they still proudly proclaimed their Acadian identity. This raises a multitude of questions.
Would this mean, for example that master’s and doctoral theses from universities in Ontario or Québec which happen to be about Acadia are not beneficial to it? What about academics or researchers who have made their careers outside of territorial Acadia, such as J. Yvon Thériault or Marc L. Johnson—have they not contributed to knowledge about Acadia or development projects there? Did Mathieu Wade, Stéphanie Chouinard and Rémi Léger stop being Acadian when they left territorial Acadia?
What about Acadian federal officials in the nation’s capital who work towards the development of various programmes or who create an Acadian association? Would a strictly territorialist logic oblige one to deny the positive impact of the court cases that Michel Bastarache defended and his legal decisions because the Supreme Court of Canada is located outside of Acadia?
And at what generation is one no longer considered to be Acadian according to the territorialists? Are all of the exiles lost forever or is it just a temporary purgatory? Can my children, Marguerite and Olivier, educated in the Québec school system, identify with territorial Acadia? Are we necessarily part of the diaspora? Are we less Acadian because we don’t live in Atlantic Canada? And if a person strongly identifies with the goal of developing territorial Acadia, on what basis should that person be excluded?
There are flowers that we commonly see in our natural surroundings and often fail to appreciate how beautiful they are: daisies. The current debate is reminiscent of the children’s game “(s)he loves me, (s)he loves me not.”
The daisy represents all of Acadia in its diversity and beauty. In this image, territorial Acadia is the nucleus or the yellow centre of the flower, while the Acadian diaspora is represented by the white petals.
It would seem that the critics of the diaspora are defending a project which would have us pluck off the daisy’s petals and keep only the yellow centre. What remains of a daisy’s beauty when its petals are gone?
Would territorial Acadia really have a better future by severing its ties to the diaspora?
Published in Le Terriot, vol 41, no 1
Newsletter of l’Association des familles Thériault
Version française publiée dans Astheure