From the pen of Georges Arsenault....

                                              The Acadians of Prince Edward Island

At a first glance, a visitor to Prince Edward Island would never guess that a quarter of the Island's population is of Acadian or French ancestry. Islanders themselves, including Acadians, are seldom aware of this. Over the years, numerous marriages into the dominant population of British origin, the decline of the French language, and the anglicization of many family names have camouflaged an important part of Acadian heritage. For most people, it is not evident that familiar Island surnames such as Perry, Deagle, Myers, Burke, Peters and Wedge were once – in most cases – Poirier, Daigle, Maillet, Bourque, Pitre and Aucoin According to the 1991 census, only 4.8 per cent of Islanders (6,285) have French as their mother tongue.

The Acadians are the descendants of the French colonists who settled in Acadie in the 1600s. At that time, this French colony roughly covered the Maritime Provinces, the eastern coast of Maine and part of the Gaspé peninsula. However, the colonists, most of whom originated from the western part of central France, settled mainly around the Bay of Fundy, dyking and draining the marshlands for their soil. They farmed the land and raised livestock. The Acadians were able to reach a certain degree of prosperity, despite the fact that they were living in a politically unstable colony. Situated between New England and New France, and close to some of the world’s richest fishing grounds, Acadie constituted a strategic territory for both Britain and France. As a result of the continuing battles between the two superpowers, the Acadians lived alternately under French and British rule.

In 1713, according to the Treaty of Utrecht, France was forced to hand over to Great Britain its colonies of Acadie and Newfoundland. To offset its losses and to protect its important cod industry, the French government decided to develop Cape Breton Island - renamed Isle Royale - and Prince Edward Island, then called Isle Saint-Jean.

The task of bringing settlers to colonize Isle Saint-Jean was given to an entrepreneur from Normandy, the Comte de Saint-Pierre, who founded the Compagnie de l'Îsle Saint-Jean. In the spring of 1720, the Company sent to the Island from France some 200 French settlers and fishermen. On their arrival, fortifications were built at Port-La Joye, near present-day Charlottetown, which was chosen as the administrative capital of the colony. Most of the colonists were however brought to the north shore of the Island, closer to the cod-fishing grounds, where the settlement of Havre Saint-Pierre (St. Peter's Harbour) was founded in honour of the company's founder. Throughout the French period, Havre Saint-Pierre was the Island's most important settlement.

The first Acadian families came to the Island in 1720, the same year the French settlers arrived. French authorities in fact encouraged the Acadians, living under British rule in Nova Scotia since 1713, to removed to French territory.

One of the first Acadian families to settle on Isle Saint-Jean was that of Michel Haché (nicknamed Gallant) and Anne Cormier. They are the ancestors of all the Hachés and Gallants in North America. They settled at Port-La Joye where Michel was harbour master. In 1965, a monument to these Acadian pioneers was raised by their descendants, now located on the Port-La Joye/Fort Amherst National Historic Site where an interpretive centre tells the story of the French period on the Island. The surname Gallant is one of the most common family name on the Island today. Another very popular Island Acadian family name is Arsenault. The first members of that large family came to the Island in 1728 and settled on the shores of Malpeque Bay.

The colony of Isle Saint-Jean never really prospered. As a result of financial problems, the Compagnie de l'Isle Saint-Jean abandoned the Island in 1724 and many colonist left the Island. On the other hand, the Acadians were very hesitant to abandon their rich farmlands in Nova Scotia for a new beginning on the Island. In 1735, 15 years after its foundation, the Island's population was only made up of 432 persons, 162 of whom were Acadians. The French-born settlers, mainly oriented towards the fisheries, would soon be outnumbered by Acadian families who continued to cross over from the mainland in small numbers.

A drastic change occurred in 1749 when a sudden shift in British policy with regard to Nova Scotia triggered a wave of immigration to the Island. Protestant settlers loyal to the British crown were brought to Nova Scotia, new fortifications were raised including the Halifax citadel and the Acadians were pressed into taking an unconditional oath of allegiance to the English Monarch or else be expelled from their lands. Many Acadians living in Beaubassin, Pisiquid, Grand-Pré and Port-Royal became concerned about their safety and moved to the Island. Within five years the population of the colony jumped from 735 to 2,223. It is estimated that another 1,500 Acadians took refuge on the Island in 1755 -- the year the Deportation began on the mainland.

The years between 1749 and 1758 were very difficult ones on the Island for the Acadian refugees as well for the older settlers. Various disasters destroyed the crops, cattle was lost through sickness and lack of fodder, and seeds were difficult to obtain. The colony was most often on the brink of famine. A letter written in 1753 by the parish priest of Point Prime, abbé Jacques Girard, very well illustrates the conditions under which many people were living: "Our refugees do not lose courage and hope by working to be able to live; but the nakedness which is almost universal and extreme affects them sore; I assure you they cannot protect themselves from cold, either by day or night. Most ot the children are so naked that they cannot cover themselves. [...] All are not reduced to this extremity, but almost all are in great need."

The Acadian's hope of living peacefully on Isle Saint-Jean was soon shattered. In the summer of 1758, the fortress of Louisbourg on Isle Royale was attacked by British troops. The French capitulated thereby forfeiting Ile Saint-Jean as well. Soldiers were sent to the Island with orders to deport the inhabitants to France. Some 3000 Islanders were successfully rounded up and crowded on ships that set sail for Europe later in the fall. For the Acadians, it was disaster.1500 of them managed to escape deportation by fleeing to the Bay of Chaleurs region and to Quebec where many died of sickness and hunger. Of those deported to France, more that half drowned or died by disease and illness during the voyage and many others died in the months following their arrival in France.

Obviously some Acadian families came back to the Island. In fact, they started returning just a few years after the British eviction, many being recruted as fishermen by British entrepreneurs and others coming back to be with family members. They arrived from New Brunswick, the Magdalen Islands, the French islands of Saint-Pierre and Miquelon and a few from France. By 1798, 116 Acadian families were living on the Island in three clan-like communities: Malpeque in Prince County, Rustico in Queen's County and Fortune Bay in King's County.

In the 50 years that followed the Deportation, Acadians sought to rebuilt a homeland and reunite a society scattered throughout the world. Those who came back to establish themselves on what the British now called St. John’s Island still suffered innumerable hardships, this time caused by the land tenure system. In order to stay on the Island the Acadians, like other settlers, were forced to become tenants to British landlords. Relations were somewhat strained between the Acadians and their landlord since they were often unable to pay the rent and in some cases were victims of dishonest practices. Under such circumstances they were forced to resettle several times. The Acadian population was thus split into small groups scattered over the Island and the mainland. The moves from one area to another weakened the demographic and geographic concentration of the Acadian community which was gradually surrounded by, and even intermingled with, people of another culture and another language.

However, until the middle of the 19th century, the entire Acadian population on the Island succeeded quite well in closing itself off from outside cultural influences, despite the fact that it was broken up into small farming and fishing communities relatively isolated from one another. They remained deeply attached to the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church, to their language, to their traditional dress and to their festivals such as the Chandeleur, Mi-Carême, Mardi gras and other celebrations, some of which have been kept alive to our days.

Important changes began to take place in the Acadian community on the Island in the 1860s. It was a period of Acadian renewal which expressed itself throughout the Maritime Provinces. A number of institutions were founded to further the development of the Acadian community. In Rustico, Father Georges-Antoine Belcourt and his parishioners created the Farmers' Bank of Rustico, a precursor to the Credit Union and Caisse Populaire mouvement in North America. At the same time, convent schools were opened in a few Acadians parishes on the Island. During this period, young Francophone men began to enter politics, business and the professions.

But in order to integrate themselves into the Island's dominant anglophone culture and society, Acadians had to master the English language. In the 1860s and 1870s, the Island government even passed several amendments to the School Act forcing Acadian schools to anglicize the teaching program.

Evidently, the cultural isolation of the community was quickly eroded. Acadian leaders soon realized that this rapid integration in the mainstream society was being done at the risk of completely banishing the French language and the Acadian culture from the Island landscape, a peril which was also felt in the other Maritime Provinces. As a result, an Acadian nationalism movement was born. Important conventions were held to find ways in preserving and stimulating the Acadian identity. One such convention was held in Miscouche in 1884 where the Acadian flag and anthem were selected.

Among many Island initiatives was the publication in 1893 of the Island's first French-language newspaper, L'Impartial. That year, an Acadian Teachers' Association was organized to promote the teaching of French in the public school system. At its 1919 annual convention, the Société Saint-Thomas-d'Aquin was created to promote the development of the Acadian community, particularly by overseeing the formation of Acadian leaders through higher education. Today, many organizations on the Island have as mandate the promotion and development of the French language and the Acadian culture, however the Société Saint-Thomas-d'Aquin is recognized as the principal voice of the Island Acadian community. It has been instrumental in setting up many projects and institutions which have given dynamism and visibility to the Island Acadian community.

The weekly newspaper, La Voix acadienne, published in Summerside, the Carrefour de l’Isle Saint-Jean in Charlottetown, the Acadian Museum in Miscouche, the Festival acadien in the Evangeline Region, the Club Ti-Pa in Tignish, and the numerous musicians and singers, such as Barachois and Angèle Arsenault from Egmont Bay and Lennie Gallant from Rustico, are but a few examples of the vibrant Acadian presence in Prince Edward Island.

Although the preservation of the French language is a constant and challenging struggle, Island Acadians are proud of their accomplishments. The most recent is the establishment of a French-language community college in Wellington – a branch of Nova Scotia’s hi-tech Collège de l’Acadie – where, for the first time, Islanders are able to receive a post-secondary diploma in French without leaving the Island. This is indeed a much welcome innovation., for Acadians are much attached to their Island. After all, they have made it their home for almost three centuries!

Books and Articles by Georges Arsenault

The Island Acadians: 1720-1980. Translated by Sally Ross. Charlottetown, Ragweed Press, 1989.

This book deals with the general history of the Acadians of Prince Edward Island. It covers many themes including settlement, economy, politics, education, religion and the French language. Winner of the 1988 Prix France-Acadie and Prix Champlain and recipient of a 1989 Regional History Award of the Canadian Historical Association for the original French text.

Courir la Chandeleur, Moncton, Éditions d'Acadie, 1982.

This is a study of the Acadian Candlemas Day (2nd February) tradition of going from house to house to collect food, as it was practiced in the Island communties until the early 1940s. (Out of print.)

Par un dimanche au soir. Léah Maddix, chanteuse et conteuse acadienne. Moncton, Éditions d'Acadie, 1993.

Folktale teller, singer and songmaker, Léah Maddix (1899-1986) spent most of her life in the Evangeline Region. Keeper of a rich repertoire of folksongs and folktales, she was recognized locally for her ability to compose ballads and anecdotal songs. Through Leah's songs, stories and life history, this book offers a picturesque description of a small traditional Acadian community.

Historical Guidebook of the Evangeline Region. Charlottetown, 1998, 49 p.

This booklet invites you to discover the local history of the Evangeline Region. Why is this Acadian region in Prince Edward Island named after Evangeline? Who were the founding families and where were they living before they settled in this beautiful part of the Island? What traditions did they bring with them? What are the characteristics of the Acadian cuisine in the Evangeline region? These are some of the questions this historical guidebook answers for you. (This book is also available in French.)

Contes, légendes et chansons de l’Île-du-Prince-Édouard. Moncton, Éditions d’Acadie, 1998, 191 p.

This book serves as an introduction to the rich Acadian oral traditions of Prince Edward Island. It features some twenty story-tellers, folksingers and songmakers recorded in the 1970s and 1980s. Much attention is given to the men and women who kept those traditions alive and to the role that they played in the life of their family and of their community. It is also a study on the sources of these traditions and on the dynamics of their transmission from one generation to another.

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