It matters where you are born in a family, and it matters where you are born in a century. My father's eldest brothers thought themselves too old to sign up for the Second World War. They never left the village. My father signed up at 18, saw a big chunk of the world before he was 22, qualified for the Veteran's Allowance and had several university degrees before he was 27.
Donald Savoie writes that "life was never demanding for me, though it was a different story for my siblings. They did all the heavy lifting, from helping with the cooking, cleaning, hauling in wood for the stove and furnace ..." Savoie was born at the right time in his family and in his century - just as Pierre Trudeau, Louis J. Robichaud and Roméo LeBlanc were changing Acadian society for the better.
- I'm From Bouctouche, Me, by Donald J. Savoie, McGill-Queen's Press, 254 pages, $29.95
Savoie, the boy from Bouctouche, N.B., has had an extraordinary academic career: He was invited to be a scholar at All Souls, Oxford, and many of his books, especially Governing from the Centre and Breaking the Bargain, are considered bibles for Privy Council Office operatives. But what gives this book its raison d'être is the Acadian journey in the 20th century, in which Savoie has played an important part.
At the beginning of the last century, Acadians were a marginalized people still suffering the hangover effects of the 1755-1763 deportations. British ships and New England militia had forced thousands of "French-Neutrals" from their villages and farms around the Bay of Fundy, separated the men from the women and scattered them to the four winds. Savoie was born early enough in the century to feel vestiges of that cataclysmic event.
Just as it was for my father's village of Grand Étang, on Cape Breton Island, the only reason for the existence of the hamlet of St. Maurice, buried deep in the woods near Bouctouche, was because of the deportation. These little villages were settled because they had one outstanding quality for a people on the run: No one else wanted to live there.
Then in the 1940s and 50s, and again in the 1960s and 70s, Acadian society convulsed under the impact of two giant, generational waves. Savoie's father was a part of the first, his sons of the second. The Savoie family moved from St. Maurice to Moncton, where Savoie's father transformed his little company, La Construction Acadienne, into one of New Brunswick's largest development firms. They never went back to St. Maurice.
The Acadians were the original "Yes we can" people, and Savoie's book is fired with this ebullient spirit. Savoie is tenacious and, in a quiet way, tough as old leather. So are Acadians. They have constantly sought to get along with others, but at the same time to maintain their own language and culture. Acadians built dikes, not walls, in the New World, and Savoie's own life is led in that community tradition of connecting and doing.
His connections are impressive, from John Kenneth Galbraith to Roméo LeBlanc to Louis J. Robichaud. He has friends in every party, in every part of the country. It's interesting that despite deep and abiding friendships with many Liberals (Robichaud asked him to organize his funeral), he has an equal number on the Conservative side. Nonetheless, he holds no party membership and states, "It is not possible for me ... to be loyal to a political party when they themselves have no loyalty to anything other than winning power."
Savoie has written or co-written, with many leading academics, more than 40 books. But there are times in this book when I wished we had seen less of the academic. One of these moments was when, during the student demonstrations against the unilingual policies of mayor Leonard Jones, his brother, Claude Savoie, was chosen to speak at City Hall.
It was a heartbreaking scene of immense poignancy. This skinny young man with long hair, standing very straight, very politely pleads with the Moncton City Council for the right to address them in his own language. He is refused. It is a scene many Acadians have engraved in their psyche. It summarized, in a few terrible moments, an entire people's struggle for respect and recognition.
This exchange is captured on the film L'Acadie, L'Acadie and Savoie invites you to see it and judge for yourself, but it is strange that in an autobiography the author refers the reader to consult a secondary source, instead of recounting his own feelings and memories.
Savoie's career has been driven by a belief in community, and for him public service is an essential aspect of the Canadian community. Many other Acadians shared that belief, and together they've helped make Canada a better place. But I suspect it will be a long time before we see another Acadian governor-general, another Antonine Maillet or another Donald Savoie. At the beginning of the 21st century, Canada is very different place than it was at the beginning of the 20th.
At the end of the book, it is obvious Savoie is not just an Acadian; he has become a citizen of the world. I have the feeling one of the challenges Canada itself will face in this new century is a larger version of a very Acadian problem: How do you stay yourself, yet engage in the global community? Some of the answers can be found in the journey of Donald Savoie.
Clive Doucet is a writer and an Ottawa city councillor. His last book was Urban Meltdown: Cities, Climate Change and Politics as Usual. He is also an Acadian. His last book on Acadie was Notes from Exile.