« There is no question, an apology must be given».

"As they possess the best and largest tracts of land..."

by Rosella Melanson, Telegraph Journal, June 2001

This Friday, a ceremony will be held at St. Gluvias Church in Cornwall, England, "in memory of the Acadians", the 73 men, women and children who are buried in the churchyard in unmarked graves. They had been exiled from Acadia between 1756 and 1763. The ceremony, and a book with the names of these "French Neutrals", are the initiative of Dennis Beadell, a Plymouth man with an Acadian ancestor.

That much is true. The rest is a dream. The part where Queen Elizabeth attends the ceremony in Cornwall and says something like: "1755 in Acadie was an "annus horribilus", and then something about "crime against humanity... British subjects dispossessed by other British subjects... so sorry."

I have always reacted with weariness and irritation when someone - usually removed from the everyday struggles of modern Acadie - requests an apology for the deportation. (I'm usually thinking, what about an apology for what happened the other day? But I also feared that Acadie would be crippled by a sense of victimhood.)

Now that the issue is before the Parliament of Canada as the result of a motion by a Member whose ancestors were deported, there is no question that an apology must be given and that the deportation order - which is still on the books! - must be rescinded. This would be a culmination of the "coming out of the woods" of Acadians.

This would likely also be the coming out of the woodwork of deniers and excusers of the deportation, who will "attempt to justify that which all good men have agreed to condemn", as historian Thomas C. Haliburton wrote in 1829 about the deportation. They will refer to "times of war", and the "sad but inevitable consequences". No matter that the Acadians were not the enemy, but a peaceable group that had proven its neutrality over several generations. Or that England and France were not even at war in 1755. And that no English law of the time authorized the confiscation of the possessions and the banishment of a group - let alone of recognized British subjects, as the Acadians were.

The only response to the deniers and excusers must be that a war crime is never acceptable. Because it is a war crime to scatter a whole people, "to burn every house and destroy all crops so that Acadians who escaped deportation and were hiding... would either perish or be forced to give themselves up". To separate families and dispatch them to hostile colonies - not back to their homeland, or even to a French or Catholic colony - in order to prevent them from regrouping.

Some will ask what about all the other terrible passages of history? Slavery, genocide, other mass displacements? To which I say, "What about them? Shouldn't we be sorry they occurred too? Are the Pope and the governments of Germany, the United States, Canada, Japan and Australia any lesser for having made apologies for similar injustices in recent years?" Apologies are not a cynical act to those involved. They are reconciliation. Apologies serve to set history straight.

If - having such historical injustices between us - we are to live together, an apology from those who represent the institutions that perpetrated and profited from it - indeed, still profit - would be useful. If there are skeletons in the closet, it is wise to bring them out.

The weakest argument against an apology is that it is "ancient history". If it were, then Acadians would not still be having such difficulty obtaining equal status. The tenuous hold that Acadians have had on their rights of citizenship ever since the deportation is the principal reason for their current situation. If it were ancient history, maybe we would at least have a day to commemorate the destitution and deportation of thousands of Acadians, or an event as in Cornwall, or an apology.

The question of seeking an apology from the Crown has actually been around since the deportation. The "Petition of the Acadians Deported to Philadelphia to the King of England", sent in 1763, has never been answered. And, about 10 years ago, an Acadian lawyer from Louisiana launched a request for an apology from the British Crown after his children started asking questions he could not answer, such as why their ancestors were treated like criminals.

In 2005, we will be commemorating the 250th anniversary of the commencement of the deportation. Those who would refuse an apology cannot help but be seen as apologists for the deportation decision and for the likes of Charles Lawrence, who - shortly before he was appointed Governor of Nova Scotia, wrote to London about the Acadians: "As they possess the best and largest tracts of land in this Province, it cannot be settled with any effect while they remain in this situation ... It would be much better ... that they were away".

And in 1755 as Governor, he wrote to the British Secretary of State: "I will propose to them the Oath of Allegiance a last time, if they refuse we will have a pretext for their expulsion: If they accept I will refuse them the Oath ... In both cases I shall deposit them."

And some were evidently "deposited" near Lawrence's birthplace, Plymouth. And now a descendant of those Acadians, another Plymouth man, is honouring their memory. Wonder if he is also related to Charles Lawrence?

copyright: Rosella Melanson

First published in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal June 2001.


Rosella Melanson is a writer residing in Moncton. Her weekly column, Subject to Debate, appears in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal. She can be reached at rosellam@nbnet.nb.ca.