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In the 18th century, French-speaking settlers were forced to leave the Maritimes for refusing oaths to the British Crown. Now one of the deportation sites is a place of celebration and reflection on challenges ahead

An Acadian couple from New Brunswick visit the church at the national historic site in Grand Pré, N.S.Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

Some times, a place can be home, even if you’ve never been there before.

There may be few Acadians left in Grand Pré, N.S., a rural hamlet outside of Wolfville in the fruitful hills of the Annapolis Valley. But each year, they come back here by the thousands, as if compelled to stand in the place where their forefathers were once forced to leave.

“This just feels like home,” said Susan Surette-Draper, one of the few Acadians who actually live in the area. “For a lot of people, it’s kind of a religious experience coming here.”

For many Acadians, the descendants of French settlers who came to the Maritimes in the 17th and 18th centuries, Grand Pré is one of the most important sites in the story of their tragic upheaval. Each summer, large crowds gather here for Acadian Days, a weekend-long celebration of Acadian music, culture and history. It is, between all the plates of rappie pie and wailing fiddles, a reunion of long-lost cousins that defies history.

Around 10,000 Acadians were exiled by the British from Nova Scotia between 1755 and 1763, with Grand Pré serving as one of the most symbolic deportation sites. Hundreds of men and boys were confined to a church here, before they and their families were loaded onto warships and their homes torched – punishment for refusing to swear an unconditional oath to the British crown, which coveted their fertile lands.

A historical photo shows a pilgrimage to the Grand Pré church.

A century ago, Acadian families around the Maritimes sent their nickels and dimes to build a new church in Grand Pré that would serve as a monument to that painful past. This month, the donation register from that 1922 construction project – an invaluable resource for genealogists trying to trace family histories – will be on display after it was unearthed from the church’s basement.

Ms. Surette-Draper, who performs as a historic re-enactor for the Acadian celebrations, said the gatherings in Grand Pré often take on the feeling of a family reunion among strangers. Being Acadian forges a bond that extends for generations, regardless of where you live, she said. “For some people, it makes them angry, because they see what was lost,” she said. “But for me, it just has a special feeling being here. We have a shared story, a shared sense of pride. We lived through it. And we’re still here.”

Susan Surette-Draper in Acadian-period costume.

After their expulsion from the Annapolis Valley, the Acadians “scattered like dust and leaves,” in the words of American poet Henry Longfellow, whose famous 1847 poem Evangeline mythologized the Acadian story. They resettled in Louisiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Pennsylvania, the Caribbean, France, Britain and in pockets of the Maritimes where the farming was bad and they had to reinvent themselves as fishermen.

The fact many survived and persevered is a key feature of Acadian identity. As a nation without a homeland, seeing themselves as neither Québécois nor continental French, their story is one of defiance and perseverance as regional minority in the Maritimes.

“It’s a miracle I’m here,” said François Gaudet, a Nova Scotia-born Acadian and Parks Canada guide who has worked at the Grand Pré national historic site for more than 20 years. “I’m not supposed to be here. I was meant to be assimilated.”

François Gaudet is a veteran Parks Canada guide at the Grand Pré site. 'When people discover their roots are from here, it’s incredibly powerful,' he says.

Mr. Gaudet holds a copy of the donor register unearthed from the church basement.
Stained-glass windows at the church show scenes of the Acadian expulsion.

Acadian memorabilia is for sale at the historic site's gift shop, including Acadians' flag and images of the Acadian title in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem Evangeline.

In Nova Scotia, Acadians resettled in communities such as Chéticamp, Mavillette and Comeauville. The British scattered these outposts deliberately, and limited new settlements to just 10 families, to prevent a critical mass of Acadians in any one place. Few ever returned to Grand Pré, where the land was given to settlers from New England.

Mr. Gaudet grew up in Clare, N.S., a community of fishing villages where three-quarters of residents still have Acadian roots. As a boy, however, there was no French school system – English was the only language of education. “We had to fight to keep our language,” he said.

It’s a fight that continues still. The proportion of Acadians who speak French has been falling for 50 years, despite improved protections for their education, cultural institutions and a growing Acadian music industry. Only about 3.4 per cent of Nova Scotians now claim French as their mother tongue. In New Brunswick, where francophones have a legislated right to government services in their language, that number is 32 per cent.

Many rural Acadian communities are battling shrinking populations, losing young people to English-dominated urban areas. Newcomers, even those from francophone countries, sometimes struggle to understand the Acadian patois that mixes French words with English. “For a lot of Acadians, regardless of where you live, the language issue always comes back,” said Claude Boudreau, director of the Société Promotion Grand Pré. “The battles may be different, but language remains a challenge. The reality is we are surrounded by English.”

Some Acadians long ago changed their names and learned to speak English to overcome economic discrimination that shut them out of jobs. Leblanc became White, Benoit became Bennett, Fougère became Frazier. Generations later, their descendants still make a pilgrimage to Grand Pré, where their ancestors built a network of primitive dikes to hold back the sea and turned vast tracks of salt marshes into valuable farmland. A giant stone cross, built from the foundations of those early settlers’ homes, marks the site where several hundred Acadians are buried.

“When people discover their roots are from here, it’s incredibly powerful,” Mr. Gaudet said. “They come here, and I tell them, ‘This is where your ancestors are from.’ ”

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