Acadians set to celebrate 400 years
By CHRIS MORRIS
FREDERICTON (CP) - 2004 is to be a year of celebration for Acadians and, for many, it will also be a time for stocktaking.
They will be marking the 400th anniversary of the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in the New World and the establishment of the first French settlement on a small, windswept island between what is now New Brunswick and Maine.
But they will also be reflecting upon their long struggle for survival as a people and whether the future will be kinder.
In the 400 years since Champlain and about 80 colonists settled on the island of St. Croix off southwestern New Brunswick, the Acadian people have endured mass expulsions and ongoing assimilation into the larger, anglophone population.
Yet they are still here and are now a vibrant, distinctive population especially in New Brunswick, where many settled following the expulsions and where their language and culture are protected.
"The 400th anniversary will be an occasion to say even though we're small, we're still here and not only are we still kicking, we're looking forward to the next 400 years," says Euclide Chiasson, president of the National Society of Acadians, which has members as far afield as Louisiana and France.
"If we can at least maintain where we are now in the Canadian landscape, demographically, well, I think we'll be doing great."
Chiasson says there are roughly 300,000 Acadians living in the Maritimes. The vast majority, about 250,000, are in New Brunswick.
He says that in New Brunswick, the Acadians have sufficient critical mass to protect themselves from the rapid assimilation that normally dooms small minorities.
He says there has been a sea change in the way the Acadian minority is regarded by the anglophone majority in the Maritimes.
Chiasson, 60, says when he grew up in northern New Brunswick, being an Acadian was not a positive experience.
But he says it is much better now and Acadian children can complete their entire education from kindergarten to university in French.
"I wouldn't say our culture is threatened, but I would say it has to be always defended or it would be swamped."
While the arrival of Champlain and the colonists in 1604 marked the beginning of the Acadian experience, the later expulsions of these first European pioneers surely defined their history.
The Acadian people who now live in the Maritimes filtered back to the region following the expulsions by the British in the mid-1700s, resettled, and began new lives all over again.
Anniversary organizers say it is the tenacity of Acadians, their spirit and their will to survive that will be the focus of the celebrations in 2004, celebrations that will take place in all four Atlantic provinces and will involve people from across North America and Europe.
"There will be thousands of activities in all of the Atlantic provinces through the year, but the big event will be the World Congress of Acadians in August in Nova Scotia," says Chantal Abord-Hugon, co-ordinator of Acadie's 400th Anniversary Committee.
"The congress will be a big reunion of Acadians coming from all over Canada and other countries and states, including Louisiana and France."
The celebrations, Chiasson says, have been given a boost by the fact that Ottawa recently endorsed a royal proclamation recognizing the expulsion.
The proclamation acknowledges the "historical facts and the trials and sufferings" of the thousands of Acadians who were forced by the British to leave the Maritimes almost 250 years ago.
While the document is deemed a declaration by the Canadian Crown, the Queen may also be prepared to read out the proclamation when she pays a royal visit to Canada in 2005.
"It is more than a gesture of respect to Acadians," Chiasson says. "It is a statement that the strength and the wealth of this country lies in the diversity of its culture."
2004 will be just an opening act in the 400th anniversary celebrations.
2005 is an even bigger year because it is both the 250th anniversary of the first expulsion in 1755 and the 400th anniversary of the establishment of Port Royal in what is now Nova Scotia, the permanent settlement set up after Champlain's one, disastrous winter on St. Croix.
While St. Croix, now an international historic site, was the first choice of Champlain and his fellow pioneers, it wasn't the best choice.
The tiny island near the mouth of the St. Croix River, now part of the Canada-U.S. boundary, seemed to Champlain and Pierre Dugua, the leader of the expedition, well-situated for trade and defence.
But it was vulnerable to cold winds and the colonists were unprepared for the winter, which came early and hard that year.
It was so bitterly cold, liquor froze and cider was served in frozen blocks.
The settlement was ravaged by scurvy and 36 of the 79 colonists died.
In the spring of 1605, the survivors dismantled the buildings and moved to Port Royal.
The provinces are spending up to $2 million each for the 2004 celebrations, while the federal government is spending $18.8 million on a variety of related projects in France with an additional $10 million available for projects in Atlantic Canada through Canadian Heritage and the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency.
Organizers expect the anniversary to draw approximately 400,000 people.