Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 29, 2006. Ethnic Identity

Visiting the Maritimes raised a lot of questions about ethnic identity and the meaning of distinct cultures within a larger community. After enjoying Le Grand Cercle and having a good time chatting with Edna in the artisans’ coop, I asked a few other people about what l’Acadie means to people in this area. A man in the laundromat seemed to feel it was mixed in importance. He’s Acadian, but left as a youngster and has lived his life elsewhere. He speaks French, and returns for a month each summer, but doesn’t seem interested in moving back. The kids in the show, he said, were really into l’Acadie, but of course

they don’t live here any more They are in university in other parts of the province or the country, and come back to do this show. As for other kids in the area – well, there are no jobs in Chéticamp. They go out west to Alberta, that’s where the money and the jobs are in Canada. As for those in town, the fisherman work in the summer, and collect unemployment in the winter. They don’t plan for the future, he said – no savings or concern about how they’re going to live when they can’t fish any more.

At the gas station I ran into one of the women I’d chatted with at the show. Chéticamp is a small town – two days there, and I was running into people I knew, and who knew me. I asked her and her husband, the mechanic at the gas station, about l’Acadie. They said people are serious about it, it really matters to them. True, the young folks go away for jobs, but they come

back – for holidays, to retire. What about their kids, I asked, growing up in Alberta or Toronto or British Columbia, do they think of themselves as Acadian? The answer wasn’t clear. What they said wasn’t really different from what the man in the laundromat, said but the emphasis was; they looked at the same picture, but one saw Acadie fading out, while the others saw it as a powerful force in the lives of its children.

The next day I had breakfast in Pleasant Bay, a tiny enclave north of the Cape Breton Highlands National Park, on a dead end road thirty miles from Cheticamp. The waitress had grown up there, in that village cut off by the park even from the rest of Cape Breton. She’s of Scottish descent, and definitely Anglo. The Pleasant Bay children, she said, go to school in Maragaree, some forty or fifty miles to the south. The Chéticamp schools are French, and non-French children – as determined solely by last name – are not allowed to go to French schools. Her sister married an Acadian man, had children, and divorced him, but their children inherited the very common French name Aucoin. So they were permitted to go to the Chéticamp schools instead of having to do French immersion in Margaree if they wanted to grow up bilingual. The waitress sounded bitter about it – her children and their “French” cousins weren’t even allowed to play together in the playground in Chéticamp, so strong was the desire to maintain French identity.

I’m baffled by laws like that, especially identifying ethnicity by name, since that means the children of an Acadian man and an Anglo woman are French, but children of an Anglo man and an Acadian woman will be English. But what it does make clear is that French schooling is not really about language – it’s about inculcating ethnic identity in the next generation. It reminded me a bit of my friend who got religion and became kosher.

Watching his behavior, it seemed that keeping kosher wasn’t about the content of the diet, but about ensuring that religious Jews will only be friends with those who share their beliefs, since it’s awkward to be friends if you can’t share meals.

The waitress said that the kids can ignore those laws and be friends anyway. They were friends before, when the Chéticamp schools were bilingual, after all – it’s only recently that there’s been this resurgence of ethnic pride and the desire to segregate

the children to ensure continuation of the separate identity. But I wonder. Retaining a separate identity once it no longer serves its core functions – making a living within your own community, having to marry within your community – it’s a bit like recreating “Main Street” in the middle of suburbia, with a big parking lot behind the row of shops so people can park their SUVs and then pretend to be in a real small town. After which they drive out to the big box stores – Home Depot, or Wegman’s, or Bed Bath and Beyond – to buy the things they actually need.

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