Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 28, 2006. L’Acadie

When I left Quebec, I thought I was leaving French Canada, but I wasn’t. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island are home to l’Acadie, the Acadian community that came to this country in the 18th century and is the origin of the name “Cajun” for the Louisiana French. I came across some Acadian music a few years ago, a group from PEI called Barachois, and my interest in their dancing led me to take a course in tap when I lived in New Jersey. But other than that, I didn’t know anything about them.

The Nova Scotia tourism offices were full of flyers about l’Acadie, but I hadn’t heard any French since I left Quebec. Then I arrived in Chéticamp, the last town before entering Cape Breton National Park, and found the flourishing of l’Acadie. Or at any rate, a lot of talk about it. When I pulled into town I stopped at the Coopératif de l’Artisanat Acadien, for which I’d seen lots of publicity. First, though, I parked my car at the Co-op supermarket, which proudly announced, in large bilingual signs, that this “this store has been community-owned since 1937,” and that its profits stay in the area instead of going elsewhere. Driving in, all the signs were in English, though at the garage where I stopped for propane folks were speaking a mix of both, jumping back and forth between the languages.

At the coopératif they were selling hooked rugs, which I don’t much like, at very high prices. I headed downstairs to their museum, thinking I’d be out of there in five minutes.

Instead, I got to talking to the woman demonstrating “le hookage,” as they call it – she is, as she said, “une hookeuse.” She’s working on what they call the visitors’ rug, one that’s set up to let the visitors try their hands at hooking. So I figured I’d try it. I was about to say “and I got hooked” – but I didn’t, really. It’s much more difficult than it looks, and strenuous. It hurts the eyes, it strains the back, and if you don’t consciously relax it gives you a good case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

But it was a lot of fun talking to Edna, as I read on her name tag. We went back and forth between English and French, talking about hooked rugs, l’Acadie, travels, language, whatever. Honestly, I don’t know what we talked about, but we did it for an hour or so, while I bungled my stitches in the rug we were both working on. An English fellow came along, and while I ran out to buy my groceries before the Co-op closed, Edna taught him how to hook the rug. When I returned he stepped aside, and I resumed work. Some French folks came along, and we brought them into the conversation, discussing differences between Acadian French, Quebecois French, and French French. Accents, but other things as well. In Canada, people use the informal all the time, where they certainly wouldn’t in France. So, like the folks I’d met in Quebec, Edna used the informal to me right away, but the visitors from France didn’t. And there were words I used that Edna didn’t know – marrant to mean amusing, frigo for the fridge. In Acadian French they really mix the languages – one woman said to me “j’ai un friend qui a fait telle et telle choses” – which, to someone who didn’t know any English, might sound like “I have a fitzipitzi who did such and such.” Fitzipitzi being the word in some unknown language for friend.

I arrived in Chéticamp in time for the Festival de l’Escaouette. No one could tell me what “escaouette” meant, but I figured I’d go the opening event, a music and dance revue called Le Grand Cercle, that billed itself as a celebration of the history of l’Acadie. It was a series of sketches in dialogue, music, and dance, with a loose theme tying them together – someone trying to write a speech, and thinking through the history of his people in order to do so. The Acadian sense of origin comes from their having refused to side with (and fight for) either the English or the French in the 18th century battle for control of the region. Because of the Acadian desire to stay uninvolved – or their commitment to peace, depending on how you spin it – the

English expelled them from the region after they defeated the French. This exile, and resulting creation of an Acadian diaspora, is clearly the defining event in their history, as Chinggis Khan’s uniting of the tribes and creation of an empire is the defining event in Mongolian history. Not quite as long ago as Chinggis Khan, but still it was a while back. The revue generally portrayed the Acadians as a put-upon people, treated badly by events at every turn of history. Not only were they expelled by the English, and offered a terrible deal later if they wished to return, but some of them were also expelled from their homes by the Canadian government when the Cape Breton National Park was created.

One of the most interesting sketches, to me, was a recent one, focused on a fight about the language used in the schools. The issue was whether they should be bilingual or French-only. It turned out it was Acadians who opposed French-only, fearing that they would be second-class citizens in Canada if they lost their English. Whereas people influenced by the Quebec separatist movement were fighting for French-only education in only to ensure that the minority language not be lost. I don’t know what the resolution was – I’ll have to ask someone what the language of education is in Chéticamp now – but the fight there was clearly internal, not the “poor put-upon Acadians” fighting evil outsiders.

The revue ended with what seemed to me a very sentimental “rah-rah acadie” spirit, in several different song and dance pieces. The words to one of them said that no one who was not Acadian could possibly understand its importance, while in another the singers said that “here they live, and here they will die.” But I wonder how real that is. French is

clearly an important language here, though everyone seems to be fully bilingual. But making a real commitment to l’Acadie means making a commitment to stay in a very small and relatively remote region of Canada, where options for employment are limited. Perhaps like deciding to stay on an Indian reservation in the United States. Maybe worse, but there probably are some parallels. Here the language thrives, whereas native languages in the United States certainly do not. On the other hand, the Acadian communities here are part of the province and the country in a way that Indian reservations, with their separate legal systems, government institutions, schools, public health systems, and so on are not. L’Acadie is a tourist attraction in a way that, while Indian crafts might be, Indian life is not. Yet reservation life as a community is much more distinct from mainstream America than Acadian life.

There is a movement afoot to rethink l’Acadie; a series of conferences was recently held to discuss its future, and people are consciously talking about what it should be in the future. Indeed, the revue seemed to pick up on that – the final sketches,

instead of highlighting fiddles and step dancing, had rock music and a young woman dancing on point. The impression is one of a community seeking to figure out what it means; not wanting to lose their identity, but also not wanting to objectify it, fix it in terms of what it meant fifty or one hundred or two hundred years ago. Trying to figure out how to continue to be Acadian, but still be part of the larger world as fully as they would like to.

I hope they succeed. The fact that their language is French, not Chitimacha or Gaelic, surely helps, but it’s still going to be a challenge.

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