It’s always exciting to arrive in a new city. I like arriving at night, so the suspense of this new place stretches into the next morning. After a late arrival via Westjet at about 11:30 last night at the Halifax Airport, I picked up my rental car at the Thrifty Counter from a very friendly customer service representative on duty who inquired whether he was going to be mentioned in my Nova Scotia travel experiences – so here you go, this is a little shout-out to the friendly young man working the late shift at Thrifty’s who gave me my first welcome in Nova Scotia.
I then checked into the nearby Hilton Garden Inn for a brief, but hopefully effective night of rest. Early this morning I got into my rental car and on my way to my first destination: the Grand Pré National Historic Site which commemorates the lifestyle and expulsion of the Acadians, original French settlers that came to this area in the 1600s. I first drove south from the airport to locate Highway 101 and after several unsuccessful attempts to find the right exit I finally linked up with the big highway that connects Halifax with Nova Scotia’s western shore. The interior of the peninsula is made up of gently rolling forested hills and as you reach the northern shoreline, the land flattens out into tidal mudflats. Windsor, Hantsport and Wolfville are the major local settlements and the main body of water, the Minas Basin, features the highest tides on earth.
Less than an hour and a half after my departure I reached the Grand Pré, French for “large meadow” where I met Victor Tétrault, Executive Director of the Société Promotion Grand-Pré, who filled me in on the history of this site. The Grand Pré is an ancient settlement of the Acadians, descendants of the original French settlers in north-eastern North America. Acadians originally settled the areas around Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island in the 1600s and are culturally distinct from the French immigrants that settled in Quebec. The earliest Acadian settlement took place in Port Royal, less than two hours west of the Grand Pré, in 1604.
Acadians were astute farmers and through an ingenious system of dykes they managed to reclaim large tracts of land from the ocean. Victor explained that studies have shown that many farming communities of this era were really based on subsistence farming, where the average wealth base was “one unit of livestock” per person . The Acadians were rather wealthy since their average wealth per person was estimated at 8 to 9 units of livestock. They generated more agricultural products than they needed for their own consumption and started trading their surpluses with surrounding communities.
The Acadian settlers were also a peaceful group and got along well with the local Mi’kmaq Indians, even learning their time-honoured fishing and hunting techniques. The Mi’kmaq had developed a fishing technique that involved a network of criss-crossed stakes that would be set up in the tidal flats during low tide and when the water levels rose, this mesh of wooden sticks would simply trap fish and all that was necessary was just to go out there and pick up the fish.
Territories in north-eastern North America changed hands numerous times between the English and the French in the 1600 and 1700s and the Acadians decided to remain neutral, refusing to take either side. In the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713 France ceded Acadia as a British procession, at which point the area became known as Nova Scotia. During the following years, the British Governor Richard Phillips tried to coerce the Acadians to swear an oath of allegiance to the British Crown, but the Acadians steadfastly refused. Consequently, the decision was made that the “French Neutrals” needed to be removed and deported from their territories. Thus the Great Expulsion, the “Grand Dérangement”, a brutal act of ethnic cleansing, began.
Between 1755 and 1763 about 10,000 Acadians were rounded up and deported to locations in New England, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia, even as far awa as Martinique and St. Domingue. Some Acadians were deported back to France, while others tried to hide in the woods, often sheltered by their friends, the Mi’kmaq. Some Acadian settlers made their way to relative safety in Quebec. Many families were torn apart, their houses were burnt, their livestock killed and fields destroyed. A great many Acadian settlers ended up in the former French territory of Louisiana where the Acadians became known as the “Cajuns”. Some families were expelled five or more times from different locations they were deported to.
Although there were numerous deportations of different groups during these turbulent historic times, the deportation of the Acadians was unusual because so many were not sent back to France, their country of origin, or another French colony. Instead they were deported to British territories where Anti-Catholicism was rampant, and in the southern colonies it was feared that the Acadians would join slaves in a general uprising.
Once peace returned in 1763, some Acadians started to migrate back but they never settled in their original settlement areas again. Instead, many Nova Scotia Acadians moved into the area around Baie Ste-Marie or St. Mary’s Bay between Digby and Yarmouth where they took up fishing as a livelihood. Today hundreds of thousands of people across all of North America and beyond can trace their origins to the Acadian Diaspora.
After giving me a brief introduction to Acadian history Victor took me on a tour of the facilities. The Grand Pré National Historic Site is actually a large piece of land that was donated about 100 years ago by a local businessman by the name of John Frederick Herbin who was an Acadian descendant. He gave the land to the Dominion Atlantic Railway with the condition that it be made accessible to Acadians forever. The company later gave the site to Parks Canada which turned it into a National Historic Site.
The New Visitors and Interpretation Centre houses a multimedia theatre, an exhibit hall, a gift shop, a multipurpose room and administration area along with other visitors’ facilities such as restrooms, public phones, etc. The entire facility is run jointly by Parks Canada and the Société Promotion Grand Pré, which represents the Acadian community. The grounds around the Centre are made up of flat farmland, a winding river and railway tracks that still serve for freight transportation.
We walked outside the Centre and Victor pointed out to me a metal sculpture on the side of a long, low-lying hill that consists of 4 life-sized individuals, representing an Acadian family that is being torn apart by the deportation. This sculpture was unveiled just a few weeks ago, on September 3, 2006. Victor mentioned that the sculptor was looking for an appropriate place to position the sculpture once it had been transported to the Grand Pré site from Montreal. The sculptor was unable to find a proper location for his masterpiece, pacing for hours through the entire property. Finally he found a spot, right there on the hillside. He just knew that this was where the sculpture would have to go. Through archeological research it had been discovered earlier, unbeknownst to the sculptor, that an Acadian house had been located right next to the sculpture and the foundation of this house is now outlined by wooden stakes. Hearing about this psychic connection between Acadian history and a present day sculptor gave me the goose bumps, and this example just underscores the spiritual and historic significance of the Grand Pré National Historic Site.
Victor also enlightened me that the Grand Pré is a location of reconciliation. During the 2004 celebrations to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Acadians, tens of thousands of Acadian descendants congregated in the Grand Pré area for a reunion. The local Shaw family, a Planter family who was assigned to settle the area after the expulsion of the Acadians, invited the descendants of the Thibodeau family, who had come from all over North America, to stay on their property. Only two families had ever lived on this stretch of land: the Thibodeaus and the Shaws. The Shaws as a matter of fact, had coined a phrase “Be careful of the tippie-toes”, which really meant “Be careful of the Thibodeaus”. Both groups of families celebrated together and the Shaws stated that they were not the owners, but rather the keepers of this land, and that their home would always be open to the Thibodeaus.
The celebrations proceeded with exuberance until one man, a Thibodeau family member from Quebec stated in front of everyone “I only have one thing to say: we Thibodeaus are going to come back and take this land”. The entire crowd gasped at the thought of implied conflict until he continued “I am going to marry Sarah”. Sarah was a member of the Shaw family. The audience breathed a collective sigh of relief. This vignette is just one of many stories of reconciliation and forgiveness that have taken place here in the Grand Pré area.
Victor and I crossed the railway tracks and approached the Memorial Church, built in 1922. In front of the church is a statue of Evangeline, heroine of an 1847 poem by American author Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. “Evangeline” tells the story of a young Acadian woman who dedicates her entire life to searching for the man she loves from whom she was separated at the time of deportation. The tragic story concludes with Evangeline finding Gabriel, her true love, on his death bed in Philadelphia.
Beside the church Victor pointed out some archeological excavations to me. The Grand Pré site is a significant historic site and ongoing archeological research has turned up more clues about early Acadian life in the Grand Pré area. When Victor had to say goodbye to me as he was on duty at the Memorial Church, I went back inside the Visitors Centre and watched a brief yet extremely informative video about the history of the Acadians which effectively tied it all together for me.
After leaving the Visitor Centre I decided to drive a few kilometers east to the actual deportation site in the Minas Basin. The Deportation Cross was erected in 1924 to commemorate the deportation of 2000 Acadians who were deported from this very site.
As I started to make my way westwards towards Annapolis Royal, another originally Acadian settlement, I reflected on the significance of this site for one of the founding cultures of Nova Scotia. I was amazed at the perseverance and the power of the human spirit displayed by hundreds of thousands of Acadian descendants who have lived in diaspora all over the world and for centuries have managed to survive and hold on to their cultural heritage despite much adversity that they have experienced. Despite all this human tragedy and upheaval, the stories of reconciliation and forgiveness found here at the Grand Pré National Historic Site are a sign of hope for all us.
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